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.

May 17, 2012 17:04
Talmud [illustrative]

Talmud [illustrative]_370. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Mitch Pilcer is a hero among American immigrants – me included.

Veteran 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.

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Then Pilcer ran into the Authority. The Antiquities Authority. He was summoned to appear recently in a Nazareth courtroom, charged by the Antiquities Authorities for illegal excavations.

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.

There were numerous legends about Yehoshua Ben-Levi’s grave. It had never been found. Until then.

“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 opening.

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 is yours.

Not so in Israel. According to Uzi Dahari, the IAA’s archeologist on the case, only the state can excavate your land.

Aware of 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 grave.

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 jeep.

“Instead of slapping me on the back and shaking my hand, I was confronted by hostile archeologists dispatched by the IAA,” says Pilcer.

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 logic.”

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 Beit Shemesh.”

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 home.

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.

Pilcer, 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 controversy.

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.

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