'I try to live by the wisdom of the ancients," says Avraham Herzlich, a Jewish goatherd living in Kfar Tapuah. Sitting in the shade of a tree in a bushy field near Nablus, he looks satisfied as he watches his flock of goats and shares his beliefs on lifestyle, politics, nature and health.
"People today are brainwashed into living in a way that is terribly unhealthy for their bodies, their brains, their souls," Herzlich says. "The Western world has essentially denied people their free choice, indoctrinating them with the habits of an easy, air-conditioned life. They go to the store and buy beautifully packaged items that are terrible for them. They can spend their lives as a bank clerk behind a desk inside a building, without seeing sunlight all day.
"Out here, I am living in harmony with God's world, eating fresh, healthy food and breathing clean air, in tune with the land and the changes in the seasons. This allows me to really experience God's perfection in the world, and live in accordance with the wisdom of our Jewish ancestors."
At 66 years old, Herzlich could be called the granddaddy of Jewish goatherds. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he began herding goats in the Galilee area when he made aliya more than 35 years ago, and estimates he has personally trained many of the "between 50 and 100" Jewish goatherds in the country today. He is eager to train students in the ancient profession, but even more excited to pass along his beliefs to others.
"There is a lot I want to tell you for the article, but the most important message I want you to pass along is that there are real Jews living like this, that it is a viable lifestyle. It's not just for Arabs, or some old tales from the Bible," professes Herzlich.
The life of a goatherd, Herzlich explains, is very much dependent on the ebb and flow of the seasons and natural rhythms.
"You become dependent on the land and the seasons for survival. You learn how to live according to nature."
During the summer, Herzlich's day begins as early as sunrise.
"During the hot months, I take the goats out as early as possible, and then I bring them back in at about 10:00, when the sun starts to get hot. Then I come back home to rest and give them water. We go back out to the field at about 4:00 in the afternoon, and stay until just before sunset. The goats could stay out all day, but I need a break midday to get out of the heat. I also have to make sure the young ones have water at the right time."
During the winter, the job becomes substantially tougher.
"Then, there are a lot of difficulties. First of all, the weather is less stable, but winter is also the time when goats give birth, and then there is a lot of work tending to their needs," Herzlich notes, adding that a film maker once visited him during the winter and depicted how difficult it was being a goatherd. "If he would have seen me during the summer, he would have gotten a very different picture."
ON A HOT DAY in May, Herzlich is wearing army boots, old pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a large kippa. His skin is leathered, but he wears no sunglasses or hat. "I tried wearing them once, but I didn't feel comfortable. Sometimes I put a shawl over my head to protect against the sun. I rub olive oil on my body, as the ancients did. That is the best possible protection against overexposure. I laugh at all of the expensive lotions people buy in stores nowadays."
Herzlich leaves the house with his trusted 35-year old donkey, whose name is Adina, and several sheepdogs.
"The dogs are a very important part of the job, to protect me and the flock, and make sure that no goats get lost," he notes. He also packs some food, water, books and a small radio.
Out in the field, he reads the Torah, chants tehillim and listens to the news. For someone so disconnected from Western life, he is surprisingly aware of current events.
"I never get bored or lonely out here," Herzlich insists. "Shepherding is really a deep type of hitbodedut (meditation) that cleanses the mind and allows me to think properly. When I listen to the news, I can think about things with a greater clarity than most people. If, on some days, I feel like my mind is lacking happiness, I'll open up the Torah and read until I feel a clearer sense of understanding."
It is not surprising, given Herzlich's temperament, that he is wary of new technology. He is uninterested in the Internet and uses his son's computer if the need for e-mail access comes up. He carries a cell phone for security reasons but hasn't figured out how to check his voice mail, and he doesn't really seem to care.
Ahead of our meeting, Herzlich had asked me to bring a tape recorder to record our interview, and he seems a bit surprised when I pull out my tiny mp3 device. He'd never heard of the technology before, but he seems impressed.
"This is a nice product," he nods approvingly.
When Herzlich got started on his own some 35 years ago, he first bought a small herd of sheep, but quickly realized that goats were a better option for him.
"Goats are more of a challenge," Herzlich says. "Sheep are more docile, and need flat, grassy fields for grazing. Goats climb mountains and eat almost everything. They can find food in nature during any season, while sheep need to be given nutritional supplements during the winter."
In addition, he notes that goats are more lucrative, producing meat as well as milk, which has a growing market.
"Goat's milk is an amazing thing," Herzlich points out repeatedly. He quotes scientific studies extolling the virtues of this milk, and insists that incorporating it into a healthy diet could help prevent cancer and many other ailments later in life. "Scientists have found that milk starts losing its nutrients almost immediately after it leaves the animal. We get fresh milk right after it was milked, not days later, and the difference with the cow's milk you buy in the store is immeasurable."
"Here," he says when we get back to the goat's pen. "Try some."
He quickly rinses out a cup and grabs one of the goats by the foot, shoeing away other goats as they approach. He takes her udders, gives a few squirts, and hands me the cup. A bit nervous, I drink. The milk is warmer than I am used to, but much creamier and sweeter than what I buy in the store.
"You've never had milk that sweet, have you?" he grins.
Herzlich notes that he also eats goat's meat, which he says is much healthier and leaner then chicken and beef and more suited for the Mediterranean climate. His diet is supplemented with vegetables from a garden maintained by his wife, who also makes yogurt and cheese from the goat milk. The couple buys some natural food in stores, but they prefer to grow whatever they can.
HOW DOES a goatherd make a living?
"Goat milk is gaining in popularity, and my son usually sells about 30 quarts of milk a day." After some pressing, he starts doing some math. "That comes out to... about NIS 6,000 a month. To be honest, that's the first time I've ever calculated that."
A goatherd also brings in money from selling his goats, and Herzlich says a big one can fetch NIS 1,000 to NIS 1,500 at a time, with demand picking up around the holidays. He also notes that the initial investment in buying a flock can increase rapidly over time, due to new births.
"In a flock of 100, I'd say there are 70 to 100 babies each winter."
This all indicates that Herzlich earns slightly more than the national average wage, but he prefers to live modestly. He mentions that his 11 children were always well fed, and that he owns a farm in the Galilee that he left with a son when he moved to Kfar Tapuah eight years ago.
Is it hard for Herzlich to sell for slaughter goats that he's personally raised? "Of course it is difficult. But you have to recognize that this is part of life. The goat has been raised for its meat, and it is a natural part of life that it will be slaughtered.
"I don't personally do the slaughtering, because it would be too difficult for me, but I am generally there when it is slaughtered. I usually make sure to hold the goat's head as it is killed. After having raised the animal from birth, it would be hypocritical not to be there."
He describes the process of slaughtering with a sense of reverence.
"The way it is done in the field is much different than how it is done in those huge slaughterhouses. Those places are terrible. I think if people watched a slaughter done out here in the field, they would eat their meat with a greater sense of respect."
For Herzlich, the ideology of goatherding extends beyond just personal fulfillment.
"The presence of Jews on the land in day-to-day work is the only way to maintain real control of the land," he says. "What these Arabs respect is a constant and real physical presence, seeing you out on the land with your flock day after day for months and years, not just coming out on an occasional tiyul. We're losing the land because we're not using the land. If there were more Jewish goatherds out there, controlling the land, it would significantly change the way the Arabs see us, and the way we see ourselves."
That attitude makes Herzlich a good target for Palestinians in the surrounding villages. In early May, three or four Palestinian youth stole 150 goats, nearly all of Herzlich's flock. Herzlich estimates the value of those goats at between NIS 80,000 and NIS 120,000, but insists that the real damage to his livelihood is more than an issue of money.
"They took a part of my life. I raised these animals and spend my days with them. I know when each was born, which are weak, what each one needs."
Ever hopeful, Herzlich still believes his flock will be returned.
"People from our village are still on the lookout for the thieves. There were at least 50 little ones who were not ready to be slaughtered. Most likely, they were brought to graze with another flock in another part of the country. I think we could still find them. And I want the message put out for the people who stole them - their lives are in danger."
Following the theft, Herzlich has just 20 goats, which he still takes out with the same regularity. While similar thefts have been perpetrated several times, Herzlich insists that he generally has not had any problems with Palestinian violence.
He carries with him a huge machete knife in the field for self-defense.
"The Arabs respect a guy with a knife much more than a person holding a gun. When I take out my gun, they don't know if it is loaded, or if I know how to use it. When you have a knife like this, they know you mean business."
People interested in visiting Avraham can call him at 057-658-9660.