Some places are defined by a story, the chronicle of an event that characterizes the way people see themselves. Peki'in, a picturesque village nestled in the heart of Galilee, is one such place.
The roots of the story go back to the 1930s, as Hitler's rampage against the Jews of Europe touched off corresponding anti-Semitism in Palestine. Alleging that British immigration policies were allowing too many European Jews to enter, Arab mobs launched a revolt, killing hundreds of Jews and wounding thousands. All across the country, homes were demolished, farms burned and property destroyed.
All things considered, Peki'in should have been spared the violence. At least twice before, this bucolic valley had served as a place of refuge for beleaguered Jews seeking safety. The first Jews came in 70 CE, escaping Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. As Jerusalem burned, an extended family of kohanim, priests, refused to go into exile. Instead, they fled to Peki'in, where they settled into a quiet, simple life as farmers.
Following the Bar Kochba revolt of 132 CE, Peki'in again gave sanctuary to an escaping Jew. Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai, the great student of Rabbi Akiva, was being pursued. He and his son fled to Peki'in, hiding in a cave for a dozen years, surviving on nothing more than water from a natural spring and the fruit of a carob tree that miraculously appeared. During those years, Rabbi Shimon is said to have composed the Zohar.
From 70 CE to the 1930s, the descendents of the original priestly families remained in Peki'in, living quietly and working the land. Farming is ideal in Peki'in. With the highest rainfall in the country, crops thrive in the broad, flat, fertile valley, while water bubbles from natural springs in the hillside. The Jews built their homes up the side of the hill, to maximize the flat land for planting.
The remote location contributed to safety, too. Peki'in is in the far north, some eight kilometers east of Ma'alot. Generation after generation of Jews planted and harvested, lived and died, in Peki'in.
Then came 1938. The rising Arab fury threatened everyone. Although Peki'in had been primarily Jewish, Muslims had moved in, as had both Christians and Druse. Although all four religions had lived in harmony for decades, Arab outsiders - not Peki'in's own Arabs - were making trouble.
"All the other Jewish families had fled," says Margalit Zinati, the last remaining descendent of one of the original families to live in Peki'in. "I was only seven years old, but I remember how my father, Yosef, refused to leave. He wouldn't even hide. Then one night Muslims came and dragged him out of bed, carrying him into the center of town. They were going to kill him, but started to argue about whether it was worth wasting a bullet on a Jew.
"Someone ran to tell my mother what was happening, and she ran next door, to tell our neighbors, who were also Arabs. Our neighbor tried to stop the rioters, saying, 'No, don't kill him, he's one of us,' but the other Arabs wouldn't listen. Then he brought them a sheep. 'Here!' he said. 'Kill the sheep, and make a big feast!' And that's what happened. The Arabs had a big feast and forgot about my father."
The incident convinced the Zinati family they could not stay. For several months during 1938-39 - a time Zinati refers to as the Hadera exile - they left Peki'in, living in extreme poverty in Hadera, Haifa and surrounding areas. The family had no home and no income, and the two children - Shaul and Margalit - recall being cold and hungry. Finally, in 1939, they decided to return, but only after they caught grandfather Shaul Zinati trying to walk to Peki'in from Hadera. "I'm going home," he said. "If I die there, I die."
Today, Zinati - who never married - is the cornerstone of Jewish Peki'in. Although at 75 she appears frail, standing no more than 150 centimeters tall, virtually nothing happens in the village without her knowledge. To everyone she is simply "Margalit," their acknowledged leader, a woman they all - Jews, Druse, Christians and Muslims - revere. For one thing, she holds the only key to the ancient synagogue - no one enters it, for any reason, unless she personally unlocks the door. She's also the local kashrut supervisor. A sign of status on any of the Druse- or Muslim-owned eating establishments is the one which reads "Kashrut supervision by Margalit Zinati."
If Zinati is the heart of the community, the historic synagogue represents its soul. One of Zinati's prime worries is the condition of the building, which dates from 1873, originally erected on the site of a study hall built by Joshua Ben-Hanania, circa 200 CE. In the 1950s the reconstruction of the synagogue was overseen by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (1884-1963), Israel's second president and Peki'in's biggest benefactor and civic promoter.
"The shul didn't look like this when Ben-Zvi was alive," Zinati says, pointing to a discolored spot on the ceiling. "He would have seen to the repairs right away. I just haven't had time."
Almost every Israeli carries around a picture of both the Peki'in shul and of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi - both are depicted on the NIS 100 bill, Ben-Zvi on one side, with the picturesque doors to the synagogue on the other. Two relics of the Temple are also shown. The relics - depictions of a menora and a columned gateway - were apparently rescued from the Temple and carted to Peki'in. Today the shul is popular as a tourist site, sought after as a place for weddings and other celebrations.
WHILE THE Jewish population of Peki'in is growing slowly, the village is predominantly Druse - perhaps as much as 95 percent. Among the 5,000 residents are a few Orthodox Christians, but only two Muslim families remain, plus eight or nine Jewish families. Increasing the Jewish presence in Peki'in is the goal of Merav Gross, 20, who is doing her year of National Service both promoting tourism and working with Peki'in's Jewish children.
For Gross, working in Peki'in wasn't an assignment so much as a personal passion. "When I was in 11th grade, a group from my school came here to volunteer for a week," she says, noting that she grew up in the Negev town of Metar. "We all just fell in love with the place. 'This is where we need to live,' someone said, and we all agreed: Next year, we'd come back and work to build a tourist center.
"We didn't forget - we went back to school, and six of us girls worked the entire next year to organize a delegation of volunteers from Bnei Akiva. Finally we had all the permits - but then two parents decided their daughters couldn't go, so we were stuck. Bnei Akiva wouldn't let us go with fewer than five, so we had to wait. The next year, I set as my personal goal the ability to do a year of National Service here - exactly as we'd planned. So for me, being here is a dream come true. I love everything about Peki'in - the people, the history, what it means to the Jewish people."
Giving tours to visitors - Jews, Christians, people from overseas - occupies much of Gross' time. She works closely with Naphtali Friedman, proprietor of Heritage Tours, who has his own take on Peki'in. "I tell everyone who comes to Peki'in to take off their wrist watches," he says. "Time stops in Peki'in. It's just not relevant. We focus on two things: first, Peki'in's incredible 2,000 years of Jewish history, and then, by taking a look at life in Peki'in today. The air, the atmosphere, the peace - it's unique in the entire world."
A visitor's first view of Peki'in comes from the hilltop roadway that winds above the village. Looking down, it's all a sea of green. On the flatland, between the hills, orchards and crops flourish, while up the side of the hill are the homes. Even the homes are unique.
"Almost all the houses have flat roofs," Gross says. "It's an extra level of living space, and it's also a place for a roof garden. Trees and vines are planted in the ground and trained upward until they reach the roof, where they blossom and produce fruit. Lots of people use their roofs for grapes, but citrus and pomegranates are popular, too. One home even has enormous squash growing on a vine, dangling directly over the stairs."
The preference for agriculture extends to what people drive. Peki'in homes stack all the way up a very steep hill. There's no public transportation, no buses, no local taxis, although one can be summoned from Ma'alot. Some people have cars, but the most popular form of transportation seems to be the tractor. Residents commute, so to speak, via tractor to their fields in the valley. As the extremely narrow stone-lined streets weave in and out, the only way to detect a speeding tractor coming around the corner is to listen.
Demographically, Peki'in is evenly balanced among young and old. "In the Druse tradition, when a son marries, he brings his wife home and they live with his parents," Gross says. "So there are people of all ages here. That tradition even dictates the architecture. Sometimes extra space is needed, so extra floors are simply piled on top. It's also why you'll see outside stairways that don't go anywhere."
In the town center, a pool of fresh water still bubbles as it has for centuries, channeled from the natural springs in the hills. An enormous tree shades the plaza. "Today, people come here to rest, listen to the water and relax," Gross says. "Step down to the pool, taste the water, or enjoy any of the surrounding Druse cafes. They're famous for their fresh fruit juice."
Stooping down to enter low-arched doors is common, including that of an exquisite Druse restaurant specializing in lamb and rice dishes. With uneven stone steps and broad arches everywhere, the cool and quiet is inviting. "My family has been in Peki'in for 300 years," the proprietor says. "We bought this building from a Jew who raised eight children in this room."
THERE'S ONLY one industry in Peki'in, but it's famous the world over: Savta Gamila Soaps. Many visitors come to make a pilgrimage to Shimon Bar-Yohai's cave, and almost as many come to visit Savta Gamila's headquarters. Glass-walled and modern, the headquarters of the all-natural soap industry contrasts with the ancient stones that characterize other buildings. As for Grandmother Gamila herself, at 68 she's a traditional Druse grandmother who was honored as a torch-lighter at the country's 58th anniversary.
"Our factory produces 8,000-10,000 individual soaps a day," says Amira Hiar, Gamila's daughter-in-law, who works in the shop every day. "We export all over the world, so our visitors come from all over - Japan, Korea, all over Europe. We are Druse, but Gamila insists that all four religions must work here, so our whole staff and factory workers come from all four traditions, Jews, Christians, Druse and Muslim.
"Last summer's war was difficult for us here. We Druse all serve in the IDF, so many of us had sons and daughters in danger, plus we're very close to Lebanon, so there were rockets. But in Peki'in, we all took care of each other. Housing in Peki'in is completely mixed. Our neighbors across the street are Jews, and next to them, Muslim, with a Christian family around the corner. There's no separation here."
Raya's Restaurant, 60 years old, is next to Savta Gamila's. With a huge sign depicting both a Druse star and a menora, the Muslim-owned cafÃ© is famous for its Druse pitot, the huge, very thin breads that are filled with humous or cheese and folded. The sign also says, "Kashrut supervision by Margalit Zinati" - which, in this case, has historic significance.
"During the riots in 1938, it was Raya's grandfather who saved Yosef Zinati," says Ooda Dareesh, the current owner. Because of the sign, many people mistakenly call her "Raya," but she doesn't mind. "Raya was my mother-in-law," she says. "I lived more of my life with her than I did with my own mother. Everything I know I learned from her. She worked every day of her life here, up to the day before she passed away just over three years ago. I miss her every day. So if people call me 'Raya,' I'm pleased. It reminds me of her."
Raya's thrives on Jewish tourists, Dareesh says. "We're Muslim, but now there are only two Muslim families left in Peki'in. So we cater to Jews who come to visit. Margalit Zinati oversees the sifting of all the flour, and there's a pile of wood right there, so Jews can kindle their own fire to cook the pitot."
"Our families have been close friends for generations," Dareesh says of her family and the Zinatis, offering a photocopy of a notarized, handwritten letter dated 1948. Signed by Shaul Zinati, Margalit's brother, the letter is a plea addressed to Jewish soldiers. "In the beginning of the war, two Muslim families saved us from the evil," it reads. "Please take care of them. We were able to leave Peki'in safely. When we left, my father Yosef asked these families to save our belongings, and they did. So I ask you, the army of Israel, please don't harm these two families. They saved us and all our belongings."
Dareesh has been married to Raya's son for 17 years. They have five children, four girls and a boy. "My father had eight girls and three boys. He worked hard all his life, but we barely had enough to eat. In Peki'in when I grew up, there were more Muslims, and we went to school with both Druse and Christians. Most of my time is spent working and taking care of my own children, but I don't like to travel. I've never been to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv - I went to Haifa once, but I didn't like it. Everything I want is here."
Finding a job in Peki'in would be a challenge. Most are small businesses dependent on Jewish tourism, although a few workers commute to factory work in an outlying industrial area. A hotel, a youth hostel and a small bed-and-breakfast are always full, and provide employment for a few. There's little entertainment - no theaters, no malls. There aren't even any parks or playgrounds in this compact, densely-populated village. There is a library, but for the most part, people work, then spend time with their families.
Want to move in? Finding a place to rent or buy might be an issue. Because of Druse housing traditions, most houses are passed down from generation to generation. With so few transactions, property values are difficult to gauge. Whatever real estate transactions do take place appear to have resulted from word of mouth. "You'd just have to ask around," was the consistent advice.
One cost of living is high - heating. Because winter here is the coldest and wettest in the country, keeping warm is expensive. Most homes are heated by wood-burning stoves. Hazai Hiar, 40, works part time at a National Insurance Institute facility, but in the fall spends days hauling load after load of cut wood up the steep incline to his home, one wheelbarrowful at a time.
"I buy the wood from a farm," he says. "I'll probably need two tractor loads for my family for the winter. Each tractor load costs NIS 2,500. It's expensive, but we have to have it."
ONE OF THE Jews who've moved back to Peki'in is Ilan Tuma-Schecter, although his roots here go all the way back. "My mother was born in Peki'in," he says, nothing that the Tuma family was one of the priestly families who came in 70 CE. "But my family left in 1938, too, and we were still in galut [in the Haifa area] when I was born in 1958. Galut? Exile? Yes - after we left Peki'in, we celebrated two Seders. That's the way we thought about it."
Tuma-Schecter moved back 15 years ago as a part of a pledge to his grandfather. "My grandfather was head of the Jewish community here, as was his father, and his father, all the way back to Temple times. As a child, I went to my grandfather. 'When I grow up, I will go back to Peki'in,' I told him, and he gave me his blessing. My family worked the land here - the kibbutzniks weren't the first Jewish farmers."
One issue raised by Tuma-Schecter troubles the entire Jewish community. In the early 1980s, a donor contributed a substantial sum to the Jewish Agency specifically for the purpose of buying homes in Peki'in, to ensure a Jewish presence. According to community records, the agency purchased 15 homes, but, they say, those homes are still vacant. "How can that be?" asks Tuma-Schecter. "It's been 27 years since those houses were bought. Why haven't they let any Jewish families move in? The demand here is high - Jews want to come. But we can't get an answer."
When asked, the Jewish Agency responded, "The Jewish Agency, via the JNF, aquired a number of buidings in Peki'in in the '80s. Most of them are not inhabitable... And as of now a defined plan for the buildings hasn't been set. The Jewish Agency, along with the JNF, are in close contact with the Peki'in municipality about this matter and sees great importance in tourism and development of the area and will continue to invest many resources towards this goal."
It might have something to do with balance or group sensitivity. Every resident of Peki'in swears that all four religions live in perfect harmony. But that kind of communal serenity doesn't come without a cost. In fact, each ethnic group is super-vigilant, watching itself to make sure that no one in its group offends anyone in any other group. The price of peace may be forbearance, which means that any major change in the Peki'in ethnic balance will be very long time in coming. No one wants to rock the boat.
Merav Gross insists there's one thing that should be changed right away. "When any head of state visits Israel, the first place he's taken is to Yad Vashem," she notes. "Maybe the idea is to show them how we suffered. What we should be doing is bringing visitors to Peki'in instead. Jews don't deserve a state because we suffered. We can't demand a state because we need a safe place - for any of that, we could have gone to Uganda.
"The message of Peki'in is that this land is ours - and that it has been, since the beginning. We have lived here continuously for thousands of years. Israel is ours by right, not by sufferance. So it's not right to say that Jews are 'coming back' to Peki'in, or to Israel. Peki'in proves we never left - that's the story of Peki'in." n