The Human Spirit: Bucking authority
For Pilcer, this is personal. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben-Levi has been protecting his family, he says. Now he must protect the tzaddik.
Talmud [illustrative] Photo: Thinkstock/Imagebank
Mitch Pilcer is a hero among American immigrants – me included.
readers of The Jerusalem Post will remember back nearly two decades to his
poignant series about leaving Jerusalem for a homestead in the North, clearing
the land with his Colorado-born wife Suzy and young ’uns, clump by clump, rock
by rock turning a deserted farm into a dwelling place and a tourist site that
draws visitors to an overlooked spot of the Galilee. In 1997, long before
tzimmers (bed-and-breakfast cabins) mushroomed up all over the country, he built
bucolic A-frames at the edge of a not-particularly- picturesque village and drew
city folk seeking pastoral retreats. Neighbors opened their own tzimmers to
catch the overflow and prospered. An authentic Texan from Corpus Christi was
living nearby, herding sheep and goats. He provides the ripe, pungent cheeses
that go with Pilcer’s home-brewed Tzipori wine. Irresistible.
ran into the Authority. The Antiquities Authority. He was summoned to appear
recently in a Nazareth courtroom, charged by the Antiquities Authorities for
Tzipori. At first glance modern, it looks like many
rural communities in Israel today: an eclectic mix of run-down early-settlement
period homes, luxury villas and cottage industries.
You might notice that
not infrequently yards display remnants of ancient stonework that have emerged
from the soil during home and lawn renovations. After all, community life in
Tzipori (named for the Hebrew tzipor, “bird,” because of its birds-eye view of
the Beit Netofa Valley) goes back to the return of the Jews from the Persian
exile. Tzipori (Sepphoris) was already an important regional center in the first
century BCE. The most impressive finds from the Roman and Byzantium period are
displayed in the magnificent Tzipori National Park, where exciting excavations
are still going on. Tzipori also attracts Christian visitors. An Irish pilgrim
group recently walked from Nazareth to the village, which is reputedly the
hometown of Jesus’s maternal grandparents.
The modern village of Tzipori,
which was founded in 1949, sits on a chalk hill south of the national park.
Archeologist Leroy Waterman discovered a Roman theater in Tzipori in the 1930s.
More recently, Jerusalem friends of Pilcer’s discovered an ancient mosaic while
hiking in the hillside. Pilcer says the area where his house sits is analogous
to “the Mount of Olives to the Old City” – a convenient burial place. He values
Tzipori’s rich history enough to have built his latest tourism venture – a
five-bedroom, two-jacuzzi tzimmer he calls The Castle – as a scale model of the
Crusader fortress in the national park.
Because of the acknowledged
treasures lying beneath the abundant cacti, Israeli law requires that anyone
building must hire an archeologist before obtaining a building permit. When he
set out to build a 50-meter swimming pool for his guests, Pilcer forked out
thousands of shekels for an IAA archeologist and diggers who arrived with picks
and backhoes. In IAA Journal 122, archeologist Leea Porat reported the findings
of the digging in 2007 and 2008 in which two caves, a cistern, a columbarium and
a “square plastered installation” were explored.
Early Roman pottery was
retrieved. Some of the ancient infrastructure, she reported, had been damaged by
pre-Pilcer agricultural use of the area.
Pilcer received the go-ahead.
Artist, hotelier and reserve duty major in the IDF, he began cleaning away
rubble from an old demolished house when a stone fell away. As if magically, a
cave appeared. The rarest of finds – a legible Hebrew grave marker – identified
the grave’s occupant: Yehoshua Ben-Levi.
Pilcer recognized the name of
the third-century Talmudic sage who legends make a sidekick and protégé of
Elijah the Prophet. He was a prosperous, well-known rabbi who was famous for his
modesty. He might well have been buried in a substantial but unpretentious grave
like this one, not far from the resting place of Rabbi Judah the Prince,
compiler of the mishna and Rabbi Ben-Levi’s child’s fatherin- law.
were numerous legends about Yehoshua Ben-Levi’s grave. It had never been found.
“I was shocked,” says Pilcer. “I just stood there until I
could catch my breath.”
Mixed with his wonder was a mystical concern that
he shouldn’t have uncovered the concealed grave. He hastily veiled the
I checked with the leading mayoral candidate in Corpus Christi,
Texas. What happens if you find oil in your front yard? The so-called black gold
Not so in Israel. According to Uzi Dahari, the IAA’s
archeologist on the case, only the state can excavate your land.
the restrictions, Pilcer consulted his lawyer to make sure his property wouldn’t
be nationalized because of the treasure. More important, he had the nagging
concern that the prosperity and good health that had accompanied his family’s
move to Tzipori might be jeopardized by his disturbance of the
Through intermediaries from the Jezreel Local Council, inquiries
were made about “someone who had found a significant grave in their region.”
Pilcer received assurances that he was in no danger of getting into trouble with
the IAA, and revealed his find.
Then the posse pulled up in a
“Instead of slapping me on the back and shaking my hand, I was
confronted by hostile archeologists dispatched by the IAA,” says
Next, the head of the IAA arrived in a luxury vehicle from
Jerusalem. Impressed with the grave, he promised to conduct a thorough
archeological dig of this major site.
That was Pilcer’s nightmare. He
could picture the vigilante demonstrations with curses aimed at his family. He
filed a court petition to stop the dig and, in return, was ordered to halt
construction of his already-built guest house. A guard was posted to make sure
he didn’t install the windows.
A judge in Tiberias ruled that the IAA
could proceed. A team of diggers arrived and yanked the grave door from its
ancient stone hinges.
“We didn’t want the grave to be turned into a holy
place,” says the IAA’s Dahari. “It’s against Judaism and against
THAT WAS three years ago. Since then, the tomb door has been
lying in a storeroom in Beit Shemesh. That hasn’t stopped visitors who have
heard about the grave coming by to recite psalms there.
Pilcer has been
demanding the return of the door. Dahari says he’s allowed to hold on to the
stone for 10 years. “What’s the rush?” he asked.
“Anyone can visit it in
He says he’s been testing the color of the stone and
should have his report finished by January at the latest. Then the door will go
The IAA has brought criminal charges against Pilcer for illegal
excavation, damaging an ancient site and possession of antiquities. A conviction
on any count would brand him an outlaw, making the return of the important grave
door to his property unlikely.
All of this must be sorted out by Deputy
Court President Judge Lili Jung-Goffer, whose highprofile cases have included
rape and terrorism.
The district court, a grand stone building perched on
a hill between Upper and Lower Nazareth, is a lively place, with Jewish and Arab
plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers and judges seeking justice.
looking less of a frontiersman in a blue blazer, his wife and their four
children are sitting in the back of the courtroom while earlier cases are heard.
They are accompanied by a gray-bearded man in a purple tunic and headdress,
acting the part of Rabbi Ben-Levi.
Judge Jung-Goffer listens to opening
statements, then makes it clear that she will not spend the time of the court on
already established facts. The sides must clarify the issues in dispute before
seeing her again this summer when the trial will continue. TV cameras are
waiting outside the courtroom. The case has drawn the attention of religious
groups and archeologists who are debating whether this is the grave of the Rabbi
Yehoshua Ben-Levi or just another Rabbi Yehoshua Ben-Levi of the same period. No
one questions the authenticity or age of the grave.
For Pilcer, this is
personal. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben-Levi has been protecting his family, he says. Now
he must protect the tzaddik.
Find this an odd struggle? Remember that in
our modern State of Israel, 200,000 Israelis gathered in Meron last week to
visit the grave of another tzaddik.
Here’s hoping Judge Jung-Goffer will
swiftly order the IAA to hightail it back to Tzipori to close the door on this
It is told that when Rabbi Joshua entered the Garden of
Eden, Elijah the Prophet ran ahead of him, calling out: “Make room for the son
of Levi.” In the freshwater pool near the grave, shrill frogs serenade swimmers
after dark, making it too noisy to hear voices.
The author is a Jerusalem
writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the
Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist
Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.