The Women of Peq''in and the Golden Thread by Andrew Krakauer
Volume 3 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1989 | Tishrei, 5750)
The road to enlightenment is called Route 89, in Israel's Northern Galilee. My family and I started our journey at Meron, where the tombs of Rabbis Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Eleazor, are pilgrim sites. From there it is only six miles to Peqi'in, where these two giants of the Talmud lived in a cave for thirteen years, seeking refuge from the Romans who sought to kill them for teaching Torah. Rabbi Shimon made a vow to God that His Torah would not be forgotten.
Deprived of sensory input and the often distracting demands of human society, these great men delved into the depths of spiritual wisdom and the nature of creation. The fruit of Rabbi Shimon's thoughts, The Zohar (usually rendered ?The Book of Radiance? in English), remains the basic work of Jewish mysticism two millennia later.
To reach Peqi'in from Meron, however, is a circuitous voyage. Route 89 pays homage to Mount Meron, curving around the great heights from which, the kabbalists tell us, the Messiah will descend on his way to Jerusalem. The mountain passage, with its hair‑pin turns and its pristine view, will leave all but the chronically depressed breathless.
Just before the Jewish village of Ma'alot, where schoolchildren were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists in 1974, we turned south into the Peqi'in Valley. Lying two kilometers north of Peqi'in, we first passed the small settlement of Peqi'in Hadasha (?New Peqi'in?). With its enclosing fences and huddled buildings obviously reflecting security concerns, it is a Jewish village. By contrast, the Arab and Druze villages in the North of Israel remain as they have always been, except that they are now more prosperous. They make a beautiful sight, stretched languorously over the mountains. For an Arab, it is quite possible to live just outside of town, unconcerned that a Jew will kill his children in their sleep.
However, there was no need to stop at New Peqi'in, because it was the Jews of Peqi'in itself that we wanted to see. Along with the Holy places connected to Shimon Bar Yochai, our other reason for coming here was to find out more about the Zinati family. For Peqi'in is the only place in all of Israel that has had an unbroken residence of Jewish people since the time of the Second Temple, and the Zinati family is the last of this community. Little did we know that this pillar of a community is now only represented by two women, neither of whom is young. Nor did we know that we would spend the day with them.
Peqi'in is a very attractive village. We drove through its winding, narrow streets until we found a place to park by a crude outdoor pool teaming with Arab and Druze boys. I did not know until later that day that the pool's water source came from the famous spring that Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Eleazor drank from when they lived in the cave.
No Other Jews in Sight
My wife, who had once come here as an Israeli schoolgirl, led me to the ancient synagogue. Although the one man we talked to along the way was helpful and friendly, I could not but be a little concerned that no other Jews were in sight while I walked with my wife and two babies, given the present climate of the intifada.
At the entrance to the synagogue sat a very old, blind woman with a walking cane. I passed by her, and entered this house of prayer from the Second Century, C.E. The stone walls reverberated with my afternoon prayers, sounding like ten Yemenites. Among the religious artifacts in the synagogue are parts of a Torah scroll that is 1,200 years old.
I exited in a very uplifted state, and found my wife talking to a woman who was simultaneously tending to a garden in the courtyard of the building. This was Margalite Zinati. My guess was that she was in her late fifties. The blind woman was her mother. Margalite related to us that her brother had died suddenly the previous year, and that her father had stopped eating as a result, and had died too. The brother's son is living in Jerusalem, but has promised to move back eventually, and perhaps head the yeshiva that has been planned for here since 1972. However, bureaucratic red‑tape has delayed permission to open. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Religion allots the Zinatis five‑hundred shekels ($250) a month to live on. Margalite uses most of this money to maintain the synagogue, and yet the Ministry is trying to reduce this allotment in half.
Politics and money (bribery) often rule in Israel. Perhaps to keep the Druze loyal and to placate the radical chief of the village, the Druze have recently received funds to build a second prayer house. Margalite does not begrudge them, and recognizes that the Arabs and Druze are the majority. But, why are the Jews blocked from receiving government funds in this little village so holy to them? Why is it so hard to get approval to build a yeshiva? Why must Margalite hire a lawyer to maintain her present meager allotment? One would think that this ?oppressive,? ?anti‑Arab? government would be a little more protective of its genuine heroines and religious sites.
As the day progressed, we all became friends. Margalite struck me as a very energetic soul. As she continued to tend to the garden and to the synagogue, she found the energy to bring us drinks and toys for my baby boy, and played catch with my two year‑old daughter. Her mother, Mazal, sat in the same place by the entrance to the synagogue, seemingly very content with the whole ?scene,? occasionally offering something to the conversation.
I asked Margalite if she was afraid to live here. ?No,? she answered calmly and without any airs. ?I am only afraid of God.?
The Zinatis, as well as the other remaining Jewish families actually had to flee Peqi'in in 1938, Margalite recalled. Arab terrorists made their daily life too perilous. It is not easy, I imagine, to be forced to move from your family's village of 2,000 years, but the Zinatis were moved to Hadera, nearer the coast. In 1940, they stubbornly returned to Peqi'in.
Margalite was somewhat reticent about my photographing her and her mother, and asked if I was from a newspaper. Apparently, an Arab woman once approached the synagogue with a bin of garbage and insisted that this be the new dumping sight. When Margalite responded that this was a holy place, the woman threw stones at her. Margalite retaliated with stones. Arabs then went to two Israeli newspapers, and despite having interviewed Margalite, these papers wrote that she had been institgating trouble with the Arabs. Whether their reports can be attributed to the offers of money, which Margalite believes the reporters received, or to the incredibly self‑destructive need of many secular Jewish intellectuals to see every other peoples' point of view before their own, I do not know.
What I do know is that I like Margalite's style. While she says that most of her neighbors are good people, she is aware of political realities and the bellicose, chauvinistic attitudes shown towards Jews. A highly religious woman, her spirit is gentle, unassuming, and open. but, when dealing with the preservation of Holiness, and her rights as a Jewess, she is a bulldog.
The Spring of Bar Yochai
Margalite walked us back to our car. We passed a few buildings that have been bought by Jews. Their windows were broken. No one lives there yet.
We passed the swimming pool and it was then that she explained the source of the water. At one point, the community insisted upon using the spring water (which had sustained Shimon Bar Yochai and his son) to drink from and wash with, despite the fact that the Israelis had brought running water into all of their homes. However, the water became very impure. Margalite attributes this to Bar Yochai. The entrance to the spring was then cemented over.
A number of boys were sitting on the blocked entrance to the spring. One had defecated there. Margalite expressed her displeasure to them. One boy cursed her. I held my children tight.
Once in our car, my thoughts turned in a particular direction. If, G‑d forbid, the Zinatis had been mortally harmed, would that have strengthened the argument of anti‑Zionists that the Jews stole the land? After all, their logic is that there was not a dominating Jewish presence in Palestine since ancient times. Furthermore, the Islamic Brotherhood, the more ?conservative? of the Islamic organizations operating in Gaza, has recently ruled that according to Islamic law, any land conquered by Islam must remain eternally in Islamic hands. Therefore, if the Zinatis no longer existed, or at least did not live in Israel, the last thread of Jewish permanence would seemingly be broken. In other words, the crueler the historical violence against the Jews ?-- seemingly making it impossible for them to live in the land -- the stronger the claim is that Zionism is an aggressive, foreign influence.
However, considering the wholesale slaughters and banishments of entire Jewish communities perpetrated in Eretz Israel by Romans, Christians and Muslims alike for two millennia, the never‑ceasing insistence of Jews to return despite these dangers is nothing short of a miracle. It testifies to a spiritual bond and commitment, and to a deep sense of belonging. The attempt to live peacefully with the Arabs, and to buy property rather than conquer it, testifies to the humanity of the Jewish people.
The Golden Thread
I thought of the golden thread, often frayed but never severed. Abraham and Sarah were childless until old age. Rebecca had trouble conceiving, as did Rachel. In Egypt, the Jews descended to the 49th out of 50 levels of impurity before escaping, and were therefore just short of annihilation. Similar things can be said of the age of the prophets, and then of the sages, including the Roman persecution and the life of Bar Yochai in Peqi'in. Even the Holy Temple was utterly destroyed and burned ‑ except for the Western Wall. And even this was used by Christians as the sight of Jerusalem's dump, its very existence unknown as it lay under refuse for more than a thousand years.
In the 19th Century, the historian Arnold Toynbee said that the very existence of a Jewish people was an historical anomaly that was sure to dry up and disappear in the near future. Jews once again live in Hevron and Shomron. Can anyone not sense the Hand of Heaven? For we say in our prayers, ?Guardian of the unique nation, guard the remnant of the unique people and let not the unique nation perish, who proclaim the Oneness of Your Name.?
Mazel and Margalite, you are our golden thread in Eretz Israel, due to your faith and courage. You are in my prayers.
NOTE: Money is needed to restore the old cemetary of Peqi'in.and to prevent it from further desecration by Arab villagers.
?Andrew Krakauer, Ph.D. lives in Brooklyn