A small Druze village nestled in the hills of Israel’s Galilee region hides an unbelievable Jewish story. I discovered this story by accident a few weeks ago, and it has affected me deeply, in ways that I am only now beginning to understand.
We were on the way to the grave of the famous sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the mountain of Meron. There we planned to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’omer, together with thousands of other visitors, and to mark the personal occasion of our 3-year-old grandson Dovi’s upsheirin — his first haircut.
To best avoid the inevitable traffic jams leading to Meron’s summit, we arranged for an overnight stay in the nearby village of Old Peki’in. It was a visit I will never forget.
At first I simply was captivated by the fact that we were spending the night in a Druze village. The Israeli Druze long have fascinated me as a people who couple a deep devotion to their own culture with a strong loyalty to the country in which they live. As we walked that evening through twisting streets and alleyways, evidence of this balance could be seen in the repeated appearance of the flag of Israel and the flag of the Druze, harmoniously flying side by side in the wind.
When, however, we reached the village’s ancient synagogue, where the fascinating Jewish story of Peki’in began to unfold for us, all else faded away.…
The plaques at the synagogue site explained that during of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, a number of priestly Jewish families refused to join in their nation’s forced exile from the Land of Israel. Fleeing northward, they reached the Galilee region; they built the village that would become known as Peki’in next to a natural spring they found there. They erected a synagogue — on the spot where we were now standing — and placed in it stones that they had carried with them in their flight from Jerusalem. Upon these stones were carved images of many Jewish symbols — a menorah, a lulav, an etrog, and more.
For 2,000 years, the descendants of these kohanim lived in peace with their neighbors. They experienced the consecutive invasions and conquests of Israel at the hands of Romans, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Christians, and the Muslims again. As time went on, the Jews of Peki’in began to resemble the neighboring Druze and Moslems in dress and demeanor — but they steadfastly maintained their identities and practices as Jews.
Entranced by what I had read, I researched further that evening, and I discovered that evidence of continued Jewish presence in Peki’in emerges from varied sources across the ages. The Talmud records that Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah lived and established a beit midrash (house of study) in the village, and the cave where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Elazar, hid from the Romans for more than 12 years was nearby. Records from the Crusader, Ottoman, and English periods clearly testify to the presence of Jewish families in the village. In the early 1900s, two ancient stone tablets engraved with Jewish symbols were uncovered and identified as possibly among the stones the earliest Jewish settlers brought to Peki’in from Jerusalem. The more recent find of an ancient column bearing an inscription that speaks of dedications to the synagogue further bolsters the narrative of uninterrupted Jewish presence in this village across the centuries. Both the engraved stones and the column can be found in the Peki’in Synagogue today.
In 1922, Yitzchak Ben Tzvi, a scholar of Jewish history who ultimately would rise to become Israel’s second president, discovered the Jewish community of Peki’in while on a foot trip through the Galilee with his wife. Ben Tzvi became entranced by the story of continuous Jewish settlement in the Galilee and conducted extensive research directed toward proving that phenomenon. He established a close relationship with the Jews of Peki’in and sponsored renovations of the synagogue site and the surrounding area. One of the editions of the Israeli hundred dollar bill contains the image of Ben Tzvi on one side and images of Peki’in on the other.
The Arab revolt against Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1939 caused the only official break in the centuries-long Jewish presence in Peki’in. While Muslim neighbors saved their lives from marauders, the Jews of Peki’in were forced to flee their beloved village in favor of nearby cities, including Hadera. Only a few families ultimately returned to Peki’in. Finally, in 2007, more riots forced the last full Jewish family in Peki’in to flee. Only one woman, Margalit Zenati, believed to be a descendent of the original settlers of Peki’in, insisted on remain behind.
Today, Zenati, more than 80 years old, remains the only Jewish inhabitant of Old Peki’in. She cares for the synagogue site and the surrounding area zealously. A museum honoring her story and that of the entire Peki’in Jewish community stands next to the synagogue; tourists visit it regularly. This year, Zenati was further honored by the State of Israel when she was chosen to light an Independence Eve torch marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State.
By any standard, the story of the Jews of Peki’in is astounding. It is the story of two thousand years of uninterrupted Jewish life in a small village in northern Israel. Year after year of patient allegiance, reaching back to the period of the Second Temple, powered forward by a deep belief in that Temple’s ultimate rebuilding.
A quote found in the 1931 diary of a Peki’in Hebrew student, however, further deepens and personalizes the message of the Peki’in story for each of us.
“I was once asked [the student relates], ‘Who are you?’
I replied, ‘I am a simple Jew, not Ashkenazi, nor Sephardic. My ancestors always lived here. I have never been in exile.’”
How amazing! A reality that perhaps we had never contemplated. Jews who never went into exile; who never experienced so much of what we fundamentally consider to be Jewish. No Yiddish, no Ladino, no chassidut, no hitnagdut; neither Litvaks, Galitzianers, nor Eidot Hamizrach. The story of Peki’in reminds us that there is no one Jewish experience. So much of what we each consider to be Jewish is an overlay from our own communities’ and families’ experiences and travels over the centuries.
Even more significantly, the story of Peki’in also throws the extraordinary times in which we live into stark relief. Thousands of years of separation, thousands of years of individual communal experience, all coming together in a miraculous return to our land. The rich human tapestry that has become our nation walks today in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Peki’in. We’ve entered a new phase, a phase for which the Jews of Peki’in steadfastly waited for more than 2,000 years.
It’s time to come home and join those who never left, to learn about and from each other, and to build our own Jewish experience together.