Jewish Continuity

Every once in a while you come upon a place that moves you in inexplicable ways.  Its not its beauty, nor its history, or its people or the food… its the combination of it all that makes you pause and think  “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this place!”

Well, Pki’in is one of those places.  This village of about 4,500 inhabitants lies high above the Pki’in Valley, the geological divide between the Western and Central Upper Galilee in Northern Israel.

The mountainous Upper Galilee has always been somewhat remote, more so in the past, where those who wished to get away escaped to in their time of need.  Many found refuge in these gorgeous mountains and their out-of-the-way villages; Jews, Druze, Muslims and Christians.

The Rashbi’s cave – not much space for two people for 12 years + 12 months, but its a good story

The Talmud tells the story that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) hid here with his son Elazar as they escaped the wrath of the Romans after the Bar Kochba rebellion of 135 ce.  They lived in a local cave for 12 years, where the Rashbi composed his famous kabbalist work, the Zohar, and were fed by a secret spring and a carob tree.  Elijah the Prophet came to tell them of the death of the Roman emperor and to encourage them to emerge.  However, as they looked around and saw that the village people were going about their daily business, they complained and became very annoyed and in return for their arrogance, were punished by being commanded to return to the cave for an additional 12 months.

And yes, you too can pay a visit to this legendary cave! Follow the signs down the hillside stairs and with LOTS of imagination you can re-enact the whole story…

Archaeological evidence  shows the first permanent settlements here began during the Iron Age (circa 1000 bce) and the first recorded Jewish inhabitants begin to arrive towards the end of  Second Temple times (1st century ce).

As a matter of fact, what put Pki’in on the map, so to speak, was that very Jewish presence…  In the early 20th century, as Jews started returning to the land of Israel, trying to build their Zionist dream, a call went out to document continuous Jewish presence in the land for the last 1800 years, from the exile of the Jews till the 20th century.

A lovely, colorful, picturesque village

Yitzhak Ben Zvi, a historian who later became the 2nd President of the State of Israel,  leads a research project to find these pockets of Jewish continuity. He believes that the obvious choices would be Jerusalem, Safed, Jaffa, Nablus, towns with hundreds of years of Jewish presence. However, he soon realizes that none of the bigger cities qualify, since at one point or another, Jewish people were forbidden from living there.

Turns out that only two places had a continuous Jewish presence for 1800 years, the southern Judean hills, around Hebron and Arad and the small villages of the Eastern Upper Galilee, such as Pki’in.  Ben Zvi decides to concentrate on Pki’in because in the early 1920’s, it still had a small Jewish community.  (In 1931, the British census counted 52 Jews living in Pki’in among its 799 inhabitants).

In 1922, Ben Zvi publishes a research paper called “The Jewish Community of the Village of Pki’in” and in it he declares that Pki’in was indeed a symbol of Jewish continuity in the Land of Israel, a symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness.  Pki’in receives instant celebrity status, and becomes a pilgrimage destination for youth organizations, school field trips and curious travelers.

The village center square, where the ancient spring still flows

Whether Yitzhak Ben Zvi was correct in his assertion that Pki’in has had a continuous Jewish presence for over 1800 years is still controversial, and adds to the mystique of this place.  However, we do have the writings of Italian Rabbi Moses Basola, who traveled to Jerusalem from 1521-1523  and on his way documented his meetings with the Jewish people of Pki’in.

Pki’in’s first Druze inhabitants arrive around 900 years ago with the birth of their new religion and its dispersal around the the mountains of the Galilee and the Golan.  The village’s first Christians arrive in the 14th century.

Margalit Zeynati, Pki’in’s last Jewish resident

Life  in the Upper Galilee during the 19th century was harsh and many of its inhabitants, including the Jews, leave for better pastures. In 1900, only twenty Jewish families remain in Pki’in and after WWI the number dwindles to around twelve.  During the 1936-1939 Arab rebellion, the Jews are evacuated and only three families return.  As of 1949, the Zeynati family is the only Jewish family left in Pki’in, desperately clinging to  hundreds of years of Jewish continuity in the village.

Today, Pki’in is a mixture of cultures, 70% Druze, 28% Christians, a few Muslim families and one Jew… an elderly woman named Margalit Zeynati.

Margalit is the sole remnant the Zeynati family. She has been taking care of the ancient Jewish sites and the synagogue for years, and now she is tired. Very tired.

She has never married and has no children.

Now what?  Who will keep the doors of the synagogue open? Who will sweep the courtyard and welcome the tourists with large tubs of berries from the overgrown tree?

Will this really be the final chapter of  the ‘symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness’ of Jewish continuity?

Kinda breaks my heart… I am sure Yitzhak Ben Zvi is quite upset as well.

On being part of a UNESCO biosphere…

My friend and colleague Ihab is a funny guy, very smart, but most of all, he is a knowledgeable, proud member of the Druze faith and I find him absolutely fascinating.

The other day our Tour Guide class was exploring Mount Carmel, the mountain famous for hosting the city of Haifa on its ridge.  We toured the wonderful Hecht Museum at Haifa University, the Hai Bar animal preserve, the ancient oak groves and the historic Carmelite Nunnery. But Mount Carmel is much more!  It was actually designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996 in part because it “is rich in its biological, geological and geomorphologic diversity with contrasting landscapes, a mixture of agricultural areas and prehistoric and archaeological sites.” (see UNESCO site)

Mount Carmel was chosen as a UNESCO Biosphere because of the unique people that live there as well!  You see, Mount Carmel also houses two Druze villages, Daliat el Carmel and Usfiyye, my friend Ihab’s hometown.

The gorgeous view from Usfiyye

” I love being a part of the UNESCO Biosphere” he declared proudly as he led us  through his village, ” Makes me unique and special!” and so, ladies and gentlemen, he is correct. The Druze are a one-of-a-kind people.

The history of the Druze reaches back about one thousand years, to the days of the Fatimid Caliphate, and the founding of Cairo as their capital in 969 c.e.  The sixth Caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr al-Lah came to power in 996 as a young boy of 12 and was assigned several guardians to rule with him.  In the year 1000, he declared himself emancipated, relieved his guardians of their duties and began a series of controversial and unprecedented progressive reforms that would mark him as one of history’s most enigmatic figures.

Al Hakim ordered the streets of Cairo cleaned regularly, forbade the selling of goods at night in order to prevent cheating, and opened a new Office of Public Complaints.  He also created an advanced academic center, the Dar-al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) and invited astronomers, philosophers, theologians, historians,  mathematicians and other academicians from all over the Muslim world to join him in study.

However, he also persecuted Jews and Christians in his land, confiscated their property, forbade them to employ Muslim workers, forbade the growing of grapes for wine and forced Jews and Christians to wear identifying labels on their clothing.  So much for progress…

Getting back to our story, two of the wise men that accepted Al Hakim’s invitation to join him in  the House of Wisdom were Hamza bin Ali and Nashtakeen ad Darazi from Persia and the three delved deeply into discussions of philosophy and theology.

In 1017, Al Hakim  announced the creation of a new religion based on Islam and blending Islamic monotheism, and some Greek philosophy and Hinduism.  He appointed Hamza as the leader of the new movement, sent him and ad-Darazi out to spread the word, and the newly formed religion started accepting new believers.

The new ideas spread slowly, by word of mouth and personal relationships,  and was especially welcomed by two large tribes in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon who readily adopted the new religion.

A serious conflict soon arose between ad-Darazi and Hamza. Ad Darazi apparently wanted to take over leadership of the budding religion, was named a heretic and a traitor and was eventually put to death.

Al Hakim mysteriously disappeared in 1021, leaving no trace behind except his donkey and some bloodstained clothes. The Druze believe he will one day return…  Hamza went into retreat when Al Hikma disappeared but continued to lead the new religion from his hiding place.

In 1043 c.e., twenty four years after the new religion was announced, its gates were closed and no new converts have been accepted since.

Later historians mistakenly named this new religion Druze after ad-Darazi, even though for some adherents that is insulting since he  is considered a heretic and the first traitor to the faith. The people call themselves al-Muwahhidūn, the Monotheists.

Druze men in traditional dress

The Muwahhidun are unlike the other three monotheistic peoples of this region in some unique ways. I am certainly not an expert, but I find the following beliefs to be the most interesting:

  • All Muwahhidun souls reincarnate, men into baby boys and women in baby girls. No souls are lost, they come back into a Druze baby somewhere around the world. Everyone alive today is the reincarnation of someone who lived before therefore the population of Muwahiddun has remained constant since 1043.
  • Because the Druze believe in reincarnation,  they are buried in simple, name-less  graves and there are no grieving or remembrance rituals for the dead.
  • The Druze faith accepts no converts, no matter how much you want to join. The gates were open for one generation and are now sealed.
  • The Druze argue that individuals who believe that God will forgive them if they fast and pray, will commit transgressions in the expectation of being forgiven – and then repeat their sins. The Druze therefore eliminated all elements of ritual and ceremony from their daily life. There is no fixed daily prayer, no holy days, and no pilgrimage obligations. The Druze believe they live in the presence of God at all times, and need no special days of fasting or atonement.

Druze women in traditional dress

  • The Druze faith is secretive, not only to the outside world, but also to its own uninitiated. The children are not required to follow any rituals, ceremonies or do any learning until the age of 15. From the age of 15, a Druze MAY choose to join the uqqal (“knowers”) at any age, and to learn and follow the ancient tradition. Only around 15% of the Druze eventually make the commitment and join the uqqal.
  • Druze parents do not require their children to learn the religion. Period. (As a Jewish mother, all I have to say to that is… W0w!)
  • A Druze may choose to live a ‘secular’ life and be a part of the juhal (“ignorant ones”) as long as they want. No pressure.  (double Wow!!!)
  • The Druze faith discourages nationalism  but instructs the Muwahhidun to live under whichever government rules their land and as a result the Druze do not seek independence.  The Syrian Druze feel Syrian, the Lebanese Druze love Lebanon and the Israeli Druze identify themselves as Israelis.
  • Israeli Druze feel a very strong bond with Israeli Jews, a ‘Blood Bond’ as they call it,  as the Druze serve in the Israeli military and many have died alongside their Jewish army buddies.

The Druze flag with a Star of David, symbolizing the Blood Bond with the State of Israel

Today, the Muwahhidun live mostly in the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel, although there are Druze communities all over the world.
The lovely village of Usfiyye  is one of two (the other is Daliat al Carmel) that remain from about 22 Druze villages founded in the area starting in the 16th century, the two southern-most Muwahhidun villages in the Middle East.  They are both famous for their strong ties with the people of Israel and their legendary Druze hospitality.  As a matter of fact, Ihab’s grandparents graciously hosted all 45 of us in their home where we were fed a delicious breakfast.

The only remnant of the 5th century synagogue mosaic floor visible today, located in a local home’s front yard!

Usfiyye was built on the ruins of the Jewish village of Husseifa which dates back to the 5th century c.e.  Remnants of an ancient synagogue mosaic floor with the inscription “Peace upon Israel” were found in 1930 in the front yard of one of the local homes!

Not only that,  but a local farmer found a treasure stash of about 4500 ancient Jewish coins from Roman times buried underground, and knowing they were worth much money, sold them slowly, one by one to help his family. The coins  eventually ended up in a museum.
There is more I want to write about the Druze and some of their other villages. For now, this will suffice…
Ihab knows I am writing about him and it embarrasses him slightly. However, he wants me to be sure and invite all visitors to Israel to his beloved Usfiyye. He’ll arrange for a host family to take you in for a delicious meal and who knows, maybe you’ll end up at his grandparents’ home!
Trust me.
Its a treat.

House numbers in Usfiyye, displaying “Peace Upon Israel” image from the ancient synagogue floor

Banias (Hermon Spring) Nature Preserve

Pan's Cave and the flowing Banias Spring

Pan’s Cave and the flowing Banias Spring

As our Israel studies begin, we concentrate on geology and water, the source of life.  The Banias Spring at the foot of Mount Hermon is the perfect place to start our study of Israel’s water resources. It flows over 9 km from its source at Mount Hermon to meet the Dan River and together they become the largest and most important source of the Jordan River.

The Banias Spring forms a beautifully carved karstic cave (karst=openings and underground fissures created when mildly acidic water dissolves limestone), which was venerated and used as a sacrificial site in prehistoric times.

Pagan temples carved into limestone rock

Pagan temples carved into limestone rock

The Seleucids, (a Greek empire from the Turkey/Syria area, home of that nasty Antiochus – we defeated him and got Hannuka) carved a rock temple to the god Pan (half goat-half man, god of shepherds and nature) whom they believed helped them win a great battle here in 200 bce, against their nemesis, the Ptolomaic army.

The Temple of Pan gave  the spring its name – Paneas (Banias in Arabic). The origins of words and place names is fascinating and I see that the lack of the sound /p/ in Arabic and their replacing it with the sound /b/  has created some very interesting twists.  More later…

Several other pagan temples are carved into the limestone facade, including one built to sacrifice sacred goats 🙂

Herod the Great, another one of those nice guys in history 😦 built a temple here in honor of Caesar Augustus.  Not to be outdone, Herod’s son Phillip inherited this area and in 2 bce built his capital Caesarea Phillippi near the spring.  This polis (city) has yet to be fully excavated but the Cardo (main street, north/south axis) is visible.  This allows the imagination of a lover of history to wander… how far does the city extend under your feet? what IS under all that soil?

Caesarea Phillippi has become an important Christian pilgrimage destination as the site mentioned in the Christian Bible, where Jesus awarded Simon Bar Yonah (Peter) his role as leader of the disciples. Jesus is quoted as saying,  “You are Peter (Petrus=rock), and on this rock I will build my church…) (Matt 16:16-19)

Who else hung around the Banias Springs, you may ask?

The Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and of course, the Jews and the Druze, and they all added to the architectural richness of this area.

On a lovely leisurely walk from the temples to the beautiful Banias waterfall, visitors pass a Roman bridge, an ancient flour mill,  ruins of Phillip’s capital city,

Entrance to the palace of Agrippas II

Entrance to the palace of Agrippas II

the gorgeous underground walkways of the palace of Agrippas II, an ancient synagogue and a Byzantine church.

Flowing, gushing springs, abundant greenery, a beautiful waterfall,  remnants of temples and buildings ranging from the prehistoric to the Byzantine, what a wonderful place for a hike and a picnic.