It is not every day, if ever, that one gets to meet, talk and touch a 2000 years old history. My students and I had the privilege and great honor to experience it.
It happened last week during our school trip to the Upper Galilee, more precisely a town named Peki’in. The origins of the town’s name are uncertain and are subject to much debate. The common version identifies the place with the town of Tekoa mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud as the dwelling place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashb”y). It is the also mentioned later as Peka, the place where the Rashb”y, together with his son, Rabbi Elazar Ben Shimon were hiding in a cave for thirteen years. Most researchers refer to it as what later became the Arabic village of Al Bokia (replacing the Hebrew “P” with Arabic “B” is a common phenomenon when switching names from Hebrew to Arabic).
This picturesque town, located in an open valley endowed with springs and comfortable climate, was a sought after spot to where many flocked ever since the early days of human history as historical and archeological data suggest. It is also the place where Jew a handful of Jewish families escaped to following the destruction of the Second Temple in Yerushalayim.
Margalit Zinati is a descendant of one of those families. She still resides in Peki’in. In fact, in this Druze and Arabic village, she is the only Jew. This eighty-year-old woman with whom my students and I met and who is in possession of a great memory will tell you that her family never left for exile. Though one should not necessarily regard oral traditions as historical facts, there is no contradiction between the scarce historical information as provided by Avraham Moshe Luncz in his “Eretz Yisrael Annulas” (1899) and what these oral traditions tell. In it, Luncz provides a detailed census of the Jewish community of Peki’in and lists three Jewish families that resided there, Zinati, Toma, and Udah as “three ancient families (all of Priestly, Kohen, origins).”
Margalit, her family and their ancestors, unceasingly lived in Peki’in refusing to leave, except for a short time. It occurred, and for a brief time only, when they were forced to do so following the threat to their lives by the local Arab leader. They moved to “galut (exile) Hadera,” as she calls it. Ever since they returned, the family and later Margalit have staunchly protected the precious legacy that their ancestors erected. It did not come easily. Margalit paid dearly for it. She never got married and spent many years taking care of her aging parents who made her vow to keep the place in Jewish hands.
Next to Margalit’s house is situated the ancient synagogue of Peki’in. It is under her devoted care. The synagogue which is 150 years old is built in the same place where the study house of Rabbi Yehudah ben Chananya, the teacher of the renowned Jewish Sage, Rabbi Akiva. In it, one can see and touch two engraved stones which according to tradition were brought from the Second Temple in Yerushalayim. (See photo below).
The stones depict ancient Jewish symbols linked to the Temple worship. They include a Menorah, an ox, an Etrog and a Lulav (these last two are related to the Holiday of Sukkot), on one of them. The other has the gates of the Temple inscribed on it. Just imagine the emotional storm that surged in us in the presence of such images and upon touching parts of our most defining history as Jews and as members of Am Yisrael.
The remnants of the Jewish community in Peki’in who suffered immensely from the Arab uprising and pogroms received much support at the onset of the Twentieth century. Yitzchak Ben Tzvi, then a researcher in Jewish history and later the second president of Yisrael, visited the place and enlisted the help of Jewish organizations. With their help, funds were provided to help restore the old synagogue and turn the place into a tourist center. The front of the synagogue has been adorning the back of Yisrael’s one hundred shekels note, a note dedicated to the commemoration of the Zionist work of Yitzchak Ben Tzvi.
As my students and I were bidding our farewell to Margalit and wishing her a long life, many of us were standing there with welling eyes and asking the unavoidable question, what awaits Jewish Peki’in after Margalit?