Though born and bred a city boy, I always fancied myself living the country life. Since making aliyah from Canada, I was thrust by a series of circumstances first to the holy city of Jerusalem and later to the not so holy city of Tel Aviv. Military service was followed by a return stint in “Toronto the Good,” as it’s known locally, where I was able to practice law and refill my sorely depleted coffers.
Back in Tel Aviv, I decided it was now or never to realize the dream not only of living in Israel but living in the land of Israel. You see, for me, much as I love my people, it has always been the sheer majesty of this ancient land that has drawn me in, pulled me back, and held me closer ever since. In particular, I have always been attracted to the rugged beauty of the North; to tall green cypress trees which aptly substitute for the mighty spruce and evergreen trees of my youth, to the iridescent, fresh water of Lake Kinneret – otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee – which dutifully holds its own with any of the multitude of pristine, glacier-carved lakes that flowed through the summers of my childhood. Moreover, as my Israeli wife was a serial animal lover who hailed from the northern city of Haifa, I encountered no domestic opposition for opting out of urban concrete sprawl in favor of more spacious country living.
After spending several weekends across the Jordan River where the Galilee converges on the ascending Golan, we took a liking to a quaint, pastoral town inhabited by only a couple of hundred two legged-creatures and with plenty of four-legged horses, cats, dogs and other wildlife running free. The town was called Har Nes, which means “miracle mountain” in Hebrew. The omen was fortuitous. Stumbling upon a home with a spectacular view of the Kinneret, we were instantly hooked.
On the map, the town is located at the gateway to the Golan Heights, earning us the pejorative title of “settlers.” But in reality, it is like any other middle-class Israeli bedroom community. Half the town’s residents earn their living by renting out vacation cottages known as zimmers to predominantly European tourists, while the other half commute to day jobs in nearby industrial parks or in the northern cities of Tiberias, Haifa and Kiryat Shmona.
After completing renovations, which typically took several months longer than expected, we were ready to make the move. I must admit that leaving behind the intensely urban, cultured and highly energized city of Tel Aviv did give some pause for nervousness and self-doubt. I wondered what we would do up there in the Israeli hinterland without entertainment, theaters, cinemas, trendy restaurants and coffee shops. And what if a prescription needed to be filled at night, where not a single pharmacy was open? Even a 24-hour convenience store for sudden urban urges would have to be reconfigured and redesigned in the countryside to a few shelves in a remote gas station with reduced hours and slim pickings.
My latent insecurities were mounting. Had we made a terrible mistake? Was it too late to turn back?
After parking our car on our own driveway – a notable luxury that was rarely found in the overcrowded city – we opened our doors to the sight and scent of mango, orange, lemon and pomegranate trees in full bloom. A tiny hummingbird flapped its wings and remained stationary overhead. On the hilltop across from us, the silhouette of six horses gathered round a solitary tree was glowing by the light of the enormous setting sun. In one sustained instant, all insecurities were put on hold and then evaporated along with the haze, pollution and noise of the city which we had left behind.
Surveying the rolling hills and serene lake from our bedroom balcony made me wonder whether I might have found my ancestral roots. It often intrigued me to speculate as to which of the twelve tribes of Israel I had sprung from. The only thing I knew for certain was that I was not a member of the priestly Kohanim, whose origins emanated from Aaron, the first high priest, who was the brother of Moses, of the tribe of Levi.
Ever since the destruction of the First and Second Temples, in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively, all twelve tribes were dispersed, and no one knows for certain what became of ten of them (hence “the lost tribes” of Israel). According to most historians, the majority of Jews today derive their origins from the tribe of Judah, with a moderate sprinkling of Levites and Kohanim distributed among them.
The Levites remained true to their noble roots and tended to be prominent as rabbis and teachers throughout the long exile. The rest of us seemed to have lost their specific tribal connection, though there are those who claim they can trace generations of their families all the way back to the Davidic Kingdom. In some cases, such as with the Jews of Ethiopia, there is a tradition that connects them to the tribe of Dan. Similarly, the tribe of Manasheh has been associated with a particular group in the northeastern regions of India who call themselves the Bnei Manashe (“Children of Menashe”), many of whom have made aliyah in recent years.
As I looked out at the lay of the land with its abundant fruit trees hugging the shores of the Kinneret, I wondered whether I may have been descended from the tribe of Menasheh, Reuben or Gad, as these three had been granted specific permission from Moses to inhabit the lands on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Unfolding the architect’s survey with its accompanying zoning by-laws seemed to confirm that our new house was indeed situated in these tribal lands. In any case, there was a definite homecoming feeling, unlike anything I had ever felt, or rather not felt, before.
A bonus to be found in the mostly secular town was that it contained a functional beit knesset (synagogue). Most of the yishuvim, or small towns, in the North had been established by secular Jewish pioneers who had little use for an active house of prayer. Har Nes, on the other hand, boasted a small but proud minority of ethnically Moroccan Jews who were zealous about keeping their traditions alive and had infused the local beit knesset with their spirited customs and piyutim (liturgical poems or prayers).
My new Moroccan friends greeted me warmly. The fact that my wife was also of Moroccan heritage likely contributed to my credentials being accepted by the inner circle. But a rarity I was not, for they were quick to point out that another “American” had already staked out the territory before me and was a dedicated member of the congregation.
“You will be happy to meet Ariel,” said Eliyahu, one of my new friends, a wiry middle-aged man with a knitted kippah and a salt and pepper beard, who served as the hazan (cantor) of the synagogue. “But he will be even more pleased to meet you,” he quickly added, “for Ariel Ben Canaan does not speak any Hebrew, and none of us are very proficient in English, as I’m sure you have realized by now.”
“Ariel Ben Canaan”? I repeated the name aloud. “Ariel” I knew to be a popular Hebrew given name, though I assumed that in this case it was likely an adopted name. It may have been chosen, I thought, in deference to the former prime minister and military hero Ariel Sharon.
As for “Ben Canaan,” it occurred to me that perhaps Ariel was influenced by the Leon Uris bestseller Exodus, where the character of Ari Ben Canaan figured as the romantic blue-eyed hero played by Paul Newman in the epic Hollywood film.
“Yes,” said Eliyahu, “that is his name. He’s away for a few weeks on a fishing trip in…. Where did you say you were from in America?”
“Actually, I’m not. I’m from Canada,” I corrected him, “but it is quite close to the border with the United States.”
“Yes, Canada,” said Eliyahu, jabbing his index finger on my chest to make a point. “He went fishing somewhere in Canada.”
A week went by before I met Ariel Ben Canaan at the local synagogue. He was short and stocky, wore horn-rimmed glasses and had a weathered, wrinkled face that was clean shaven. A colorful checkered shirt tucked into a pair of Bermuda shorts with an oversize belt made him look like a typical American retiree about to tee off at the golf course.
Being a Monday morning meant that the Torah would be taken out from the Ark, three Jews would be called up, and each given an honor to make a blessing over it. According to Jewish tradition, the first to be called up would be a Kohen, acknowledging the hierarchy of the priestly class. The second to be honored in similar fashion would be a member of the distinguished Levite tribe. And the third would be, like me and most other Jews, a “commoner” drawn from any of the remaining members of the congregation.
When the call came for the Levite representative to come forward and bless the Torah, Ariel Ben Canaan rose from his seat and ambled over to where the Torah was being read in the center of the synagogue. Producing a laminated card from his pocket with a phonetic blessing in English letters printed on it, he proceeded to recite the blessing aloud. This struck me as somewhat unusual, for one would assume that as a Levi he would have long ago committed this short blessing to memory, given the frequency that a Levi is called up to the Torah in Jewish ritual. On the other hand, it occurred to me that Ben Canaan might not have had a religious upbringing, as he clearly had difficulty in pronouncing the Hebrew words even when written out phonetically with English letters.
After the service, we continued talking outside the synagogue.
“So how did the fish bite in Canada?” I asked him.
“Fabulous,” he answered. “I have a friend originally from California, who is a minister of a church in Winnipeg, and he invites me every year to fish and to talk to his congregation about what it means to be a modern-day Jew living in the land of the Bible.”
“Winnipeg? You don’t say,” I said, more than a little surprised. “You know, I’m originally from Winnipeg myself. Now what are the chances that an American like you and a Canadian like me should happen to meet up here in a small town in the Golan Heights, and you just happened to be fishing last week right outside my old hometown?”
Ben Canaan was a charming and loquacious conversationalist who went on to tell me, to my surprise, that he had served as a rabbi at a temple in California. I assumed it must have been a Reform congregation, given that the rabbi was still reading a blessing from an index card. Then, without my asking, he began to expound upon his family background – how his parents divorced when he was a child and how he was inspired to return to his Jewish roots by his paternal grandmother, who revealed to him only late in her life that she was Jewish.
Now anyone who knows the basic tenets of the Jewish religion is aware that in order to be born a Jew, one’s mother must have been Jewish. And in order to be recognized as a Levite, his father must have been a Jew and a Levite, like his father before him; for unlike the threshold religious status which is matrilineal, the tribal identification (limited today to whether or not one may belong to either of the priestly classes of Kohen or Levi) is patrilineal. Something did not add up. If Ben Canaan had a Jewish grandmother on his father’s side, by Orthodox definition he would not be considered Jewish, and neither could that account for his claim of being a Levite; for without a Jewish, Levite father directly preceding him in the generational chain, no such tribal connection could be established.
The more I questioned him about his family background, the vaguer were the explanations. He could not be certain as to his biological father’s lineage because the man had abandoned the family when Ben Canaan was a child, and he was raised by an adoptive father.
As for the grandmother, it was increasingly unclear whether it was the biological father’s mother or the adoptive father’s mother who had confided in him her heritage. Perhaps sensing that my antennae were up regarding his lineage. he proffered some additional “proof.” He claimed to have undergone a DNA test at the University of Arizona and that the results found genetic markers that indicated he was of Levite heritage.
I did not challenge Ben Canaan’s contention but knew that such a dubious claim was speculative at best and would be readily discounted by any rabbinical authority without corroborative evidence of relatives or data that might be independently verified from synagogue or cemetery records.
Childhood memories of missionaries knocking on our front door on a Sunday morning and handing out pamphlets aimed at converting us stirred in my consciousness. Curiosity gave way to suspicion. Upon returning home from the synagogue, I went straight to the computer and Googled that dashingly romantic-sounding name “Ariel Ben Canaan.”
Immediately a photograph of Ben Canaan popped up on the cover of a book being advertised for sale on line. The book’s title: Why a Christian Minister Became a Messianic Rabbi by Rabbi Ariel Ben Canaan.
Messianic rabbi? I was familiar with that term. It referred to someone, ostensibly Jewish, holding himself out to be a rabbi but all the while proselytizing the gospels. Ariel Ben Canaan was apparently nothing more than a charlatan on a mission, holding himself out to be a Jew in order to shamelessly undermine and ultimately convert other Jews into accepting Jesus Christ as their savior.
Such behavior is abhorrent to most Jews whether they belong to the Orthodox, Conservative or Reform stream of Judaism. The Messianic movement, also known in some parts as the Hebrew Christian movement or Jews for Jesus, often preyed upon the most ignorant and frail members of the Jewish community: Secular Russian Jews, for example, who were raised under communism to be atheists. Or elderly, lonely Jews without close family nearby to watch over them and intercede when necessary. Even unattached Jewish youth, many from broken homes, who in their vulnerability could be “love-bombed” by duplicitous Messianic rabbis into accepting a Christianized makeover of the Judaism of which they knew precious little. All of the above were prime targets for conversion. Posing as rabbis was an effective subterfuge to win over the confidence of naive and unsuspecting Jews.
The Google chain led me to a treasure chest of articles which revealed that Ariel Ben Canaan was also known as Dr. Christopher Stevens, a former Christian minister who reinvented himself as a Messianic rabbi of a Messianic temple in California.
Stevens, it seems, was also wanted on a variety of tax evasion charges for having sold a church property under misleading circumstances in order to avoid taxes for which his real estate lawyer had been prosecuted and sent to jail. According to a local newspaper article, the American authorities were looking for Stevens, who was rumored to have “fled to Israel.”
The marvels of modern technology led me further to a site of an Evangelical church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which had recently hosted “Rabbi Ariel Ben Canaan” as a guest lecturer for a weekend retreat. When I browsed the site, the lecture was still available to be heard online.
I listened and immediately recognized Ben Canaan’s voice.
He spoke of his community in Har Nes, so named, according to Ben Canaan, for it was the location where Jesus had performed one of his miracles. He went on to say that when his fellow parishioners pray, Jesus figures prominently in their thoughts.
How could I tell my hot-blooded Sephardi brothers what I had just heard? One of the members of the congregation, a true Kohen named Yakov, was halfway through a year-long mourning period for his deceased father. It is a mitzvah (commandment) from the Torah for a Jew to say the memorial Kaddish prayer for his deceased parent three times daily in a minyan (quorum) of at least 10 Jews. If Yakov, an intensely devout Kohen, were to find out that many of his prayers were in vain, who knows how his fiery temperament might manifest itself?
Just then, the phone rang. It was Ben Canaan. Undoubtedly sensing from the morning’s conversation that I was on to him, he said that he would like to talk with me further and perhaps we could meet for coffee the next day. Not wanting to confront him over the phone with what I had just listened to him preach online, I agreed.
He was waiting for me on his driveway when I arrived early the next morning. At Ben Canaan’s suggestion, we drove to a nearby resort hotel overlooking the Kinneret. There, we were greeted by Avi, an amiable neighbor from Har Nes who was employed as a chef at the resort. Ben Canaan warmly embraced Avi in a gentle bear hug and, much to Avi’s embarrassment, began to praise him and his family to me as dear friends and stalwart members of the community.
We were seated. After a few niceties and pleasantries, Ben Canaan moved his head closer to mine from across the table and began to speak in earnest: “You know, Gabriel,“ he said, “while I served as the rabbi of Temple Baruch Hashem (Blessed be God), I had occasion to eulogize some elderly Jews and even Holocaust survivors.”
My heart sank, and my stomach began to churn as I contemplated what might have been his eulogy. I imagined the freshly dug plot of a Jew who survived Hitler’s death camps, only to be buried by a Christian minister masquerading as a Jewish rabbi while praying for the salvation of the poor Jew’s soul.
Ben Canaan was very clever in controlling the conversation, deflecting my questions and skillfully manipulating his responses so as not to address my concerns. Finally, I had enough.
I pushed my third cup of coffee aside and put my palm down on the table: “Christopher,” I said, addressing him by his original name, “let me be frank. Either you believe in Jesus as your savior or you don’t. Which is it?”
Skirting the question, Ben Canaan-Stevens resumed talking about the altruistic work he had done for his elderly Jewish parishioners; service for which he claimed to have received letters of commendation from community leaders and others.
“That’s all very praiseworthy, but can you just answer the question?” I asked.
He stared at me in silence. I was not about to let him off the hook.
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah? A simple yes or no will do,” I said.
Ben Canaan kept stirring his coffee cup. “I would not like to answer that question, as it leads to theological misunderstandings,” he said with an air of finality.
“I have papers to prove my Jewish status,” he added.
The niceties and pleasantries that had made up our small talk up to this point instantly vanished. He was now glaring at me with cold, piercing eyes, though he was doing his best to suppress his emotions. He probably regarded me as some kind of an anti-Christ, I figured.
“No hard feelings,” I said. “At least we can mostly agree politically,” I added, which was true, as he was nothing if not very pro-Israel American Republican and highly critical of the diminished support for Israel that was becoming increasingly apparent then among Obama Democrats.
I drove Ben Canaan back to his home. We each avoided the previous hot topic, preferring to stick to innocuous small talk. Stopping in front of his tall, three-story villa, he asked if I would like to come in for tea, offering to show me a breathtaking sight of the Sea of Galilee from his rooftop balcony. “Tour buses often stop here, you know,” he said proudly. “Maybe some other time,” I said.
He got out of the car and reached back in with his hand to shake mine. “Well, Gabriel,” he said, “it’s been a pleasure, hasn’t it?” I tried to withdraw my hand, but he hung on.
“You know, I always thought the angel Gabriel was a good guy,” he mused.
“Oh, he is a good guy, Christopher,” I replied, “but he’s primarily a messenger. And messengers, well, they just go wherever they are sent.”
“I see,” he finally said. “So then I will see you tomorrow at the synagogue,” he added matter-of- factly and let go of my hand.
The next day was the fast of Tisha Be’Av, known to be the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. It marks the date that both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed, some 600 years apart. It also marks the same date that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, as well as many other catastrophes that befell the Jewish people throughout history.
That night, I lay in bed but couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing with a myriad of loosely connected thoughts that were lighting up at random in rapid sequence like tiny fuses on a cramped circuit board. I got out of bed and replayed the audio file of Ben Canaan delivering his sermon at the Winnipeg church, describing Jesus walking on the water of the Kinneret, which he could see from his porch. Suddenly, I thought I heard noises outside. In a flash of late night paranoia, I imagined that I was about to become the victim of a Southern style cross burning on my Israeli front lawn.
The next day, I went to synagogue earlier than usual in order to discuss my findings with some of the veteran members of the community. The men were assembling for the prayers just as I spotted Eliyahu and Yossi, another senior member of the community, approaching. Ben Canaan was already seated at his regular seat facing a window with a view overlooking the Kinneret. Without causing a stir, I asked Eliyahu and Yossi if they could join me outside briefly, for I had something to tell them.
“What is it?” asked Yossi, his voice impatient due to the pending fast. “Can it not wait until after Tisha Be’Av? We already have a minyan of 10 Jews that are waiting for us to begin.”
“Well, actually, we don’t,” I said.
“There are exactly 10 Jews inside the synagogue,” Eliyahu confirmed, counting the seated congregants.
“There are only nine if you don’t count Ben Canaan, whose real name is Christopher Stevens, by the way, and not Ben Canaan,” I said while they looked at me in astonishment. “Not only is Ariel Ben Canaan not a Levite,” I continued, “but he is no more Jewish than the pope.”
They looked at each other, and I don’t know whether they were more surprised by what I had told them or by the fact that it was coming from me, and who was I, a newcomer, to tell them anything, and why should I be believed?
“But how do you know?” asked Yossi, his eyes open wide.
I quickly apprised them of my research over the past couple of days and of my encounter with Ben Canaan the day before. Their faces paled just as a father and son passed by and entered the synagogue. We sighed a collective sigh of relief, knowing we now had obtained a legitimate minyan without having to include Ben Canaan-Stevens in the count.
“At least we don’t have to deal with this now,“ said Eliyahu, to which we were all agreed as we reentered the synagogue.
“And you cannot call him up to the Torah anymore,“ I cautioned.
“And what if he comes forward on his own?” Yossi anxiously whispered. “After all, he knows there’s no other Levi here.”
Fortunately, we were spared those dilemmas. As the prayer service was about to commence, Ben Canaan suddenly rose from his seat and, without offering any explanation, walked briskly out of the synagogue.
After the service, we continued our discussion outside. Yossi lamented that Ben Canaan had previously invited tour groups from America to the synagogue for some of the Shabbat services, and Yossi had bestowed honors on some members of the group, believing that they were from a visiting American synagogue, whereas they were actually from a visiting Evangelical church.
Eliyahu recalled that several months ago, scores of missionary pamphlets had been deposited in the mailboxes of all the town’s residents. He suspected that Ben Canaan might have been the source but had no conclusive proof. He brought up the sad fact that recently, several children had tragically drowned in the swimming pools of some of the local guest houses. “Who knows,” said Eliyahu, “what punishments are being brought down upon us from above for having let this impostor infiltrate and sabotage our prayers.”
Yossi recalled the fact that Yakov the Kohen had been saying the memorial Kaddish prayer for his father three times a day in a minyan that included Ben Canaan.
“If Yakov finds out that a Christian missionary was being counted as part of his Orthodox Jewish minyan, God help him because Yakov will rip him apart with his bare hands,” Yossi said, shaking his head in dismay.
Ariel Ben Canaan never did return to the beit knesset. His religious status was referred to the Safed Rabbinical Court for review. An order was subsequently issued determining that his previous status had not been properly obtained, and that the decision regarding his Jewish identity would be held in abeyance unless and until further clarification and review could establish otherwise.
I seldom ran into Ben Canaan-Stevens after that fateful Tisha Be’Av, preferring to avoid him and any abject curses which he may have been inclined to hurl my way. As far as I know, he is still feasting his eyes upon the Sea of Galilee from his balcony, though no Evangelical Christian tour groups have been bused into town of late.
“Why do these things always happen to me?” I pondered aloud while washing dishes in our kitchen.
“Some people just attract fire,” my wife responded nonchalantly, while chewing on a wad of bubble gum.
“I thought I was extinguishing a fire,” I countered in self-defense.
Still, I could not discount her supposition. After all, even the angel Gabriel, who was my namesake, was reputed to be the angel put in charge of fire. According to the Sages, it was on account of this that Gabriel was dispatched to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
I looked over at my wife, who had blown a large gum bubble, which she proceeded to collapse by sucking back all the air. “Bah-sah (bummer),” she sighed, removing the sticky film of gum from her lips and proceeding to blow another, even bigger bubble.
“Do you think that could be the reason why we came here, to Har Nes?” I asked. “I mean, in order to expose some fake Levite missionary?”
“Uh-huh,” she seemed to concur, causing a slightly audible sound to escape the bubble’s membrane. I wasn’t so sure. But then, just like everything else in my life that didn’t make sense at the time and only in retrospect seemed to, maybe this, too, was just another one of those seemingly chance encounters that was actually predestined to occur. I mean, doesn’t everyone have that feeling at one time or another? ■
To protect the privacy of individuals, some names, characters, events, identifiable characteristics and place names have been changed.