During the summer of 1972, I had the great good fortune to rent an old stone house in Ein Kerem, a charming Jerusalem suburb. Cool drinking water bubbled from the spring that gave the village its name. The Hebrew means “Spring of the Vineyard.” The village’s Jewish roots are over 2,000 years deep. Layers of basements and buried rooms go way back.
Stonewalls of my home were thick, whitewashed inside and out. Ceilings curved under domed roofs. Doorways opened beneath arched portals. Village walkways meandered, trails of dirt and stones. Raw boulders protruded in yards where cultivated plant life mixed with wild. Gardens grew figs and grapes. Sabra cacti and fragrant flowers flourished. Abutting homes grew out of each other. Stone terraces laced along and stepped down rounded hillsides of Judea, sprinkled with pine and olive trees. Across the valley above forested slopes was Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust, a reminder but not often consciously in mind.
The locale had drawbacks: several miles to Jerusalem’s center with a steep uphill climb at the start, mediocre plumbing, and during winter rains dampness seeped into everything. My possessions were few: books, typewriter, basic household items, sparse clothing, three pieces of art – a colorful woodcut of Mount Gilboa, a Charles Russell print reminding of America, and a pencil drawing of an aged Yemenite Jew’s strong face.
The village’s recent history was rough-edged: retaken in 1948 by Jewish fighters opening an access road to besieged Jerusalem. Homes were tucked into land nooks along contours of the massive hill slope. The first Jews returning to Ein Kerem in modern times were expelled from Arab states, and poor Yemenites who earlier made voluntary aliyah, immigrating to Israel.
The Bible twice mentions a town usually taken as Ein Kerem. Jeremiah 6,1 reads: “Come together, O sons of Benjamin, out of the midst of Jerusalem; sound the shofar in Tekoa and hoist a flag over Beit Hakerem.” That name translates to Home of the Vineyard. Nehemiah 3,14 relates that its people helped rebuild Jerusalem.
Several Christian churches and a monastery reflect Ein Kerem’s tradition as birthplace of John the Baptist (Luke 1,39). They were built over earlier ruins when European powers competed for political position in Eretz Israel catalyzed by the new Suez Canal (1869) and weakening Ottoman Empire (its core replaced by Turkey in 1922).
The people of Ein Kerem were a wonderful mix of Sabras and immigrants – taxi drivers, architects, policemen, writers, civil servants, artists, craftsmen, mechanics, factory workers, shop keepers. Everyone had a story; engage in conversation, show interest, out it came. A Dutchman fought in the Resistance against the Nazis, converted to Judaism, took the new name Yochanan Eldad, made aliyah: his son served in Matkal, the IDF’s Special Forces; his daughter married a kibbutznik. The Yemenite in the flower-decked house by the spring escaped Arab pogroms fleeing to Israel in 1949 on his first airplane ride. The Iraqi Jew fought in the Irgun for Jewish independence against the British. The Sabra mother of four was a Haganah officer during the Arab war on Israel 1948-49. The Canadian immigrant became a foreign service officer. The gracious Moroccan Jewess with a Sorbonne PhD commuted to teach at Tel Aviv University. The American reform rabbi turned tour guide and writer. The Polish-born radio journalist lived in Paris before Israel. A kibbutz-born artisan of furniture imported fine-grained woods from all the world. These neighbors became my friends.
I first came to Israel as a 1967 volunteer upon the June war, returned in ’69, worked half a year at Kibbutz Hamadiya facing Jordan across the river, and then at two good jobs on the coast – as a research associate at Tel Aviv University on the dynamics of war termination and a business consultant at Israel Institute of Productivity. A job arose at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design to create and teach a course on product innovation. I first commuted, then moved to the capital when a faculty member offered to sublet his house when off to MIT for a masters.
The spirit of Israel reached me deeply in Ein Kerem with its raw beauty and human mosaic. A distinctive bond of community grew. I was fortunate to live in this Spring of the Vineyard.
My first meeting with a neighbor occurred the day after moving in. My modest belongings unpacked, I relaxed in the cool living room taking in a glowing hillside through swung-open window. Knocking at the door roused me. I opened it to a tall, lanky man with fiery eyes. Fortyish, crew-cut gray hair, suntanned, he wore pullover shirt with sleeves folded up, khaki pants, leather sandals.
“Hello! Shalom! I am Pick, your neighbor. I live there!” he said, pointing. “I’m Mike, Mih-cha-el,” I replied.
“Welcome to the neighborhood! Invite me for coffee!” he said in a rush, shook my hand, brushed past me. I was taken aback by this force of nature that interrupted my reverie. “I know your house,” he said. “Your predecessors were my friends.”
When I look back, I recognize it took but a few minutes to anticipate we would become friends. I prepared thick coffee with cardamom and sugar. We sat in the kitchen sketching our stories. My guest began, “My full name is Aaron Pick. I go by my family name, call me Pick! I was born in Czechoslovakia, endured Auschwitz as a teen.” He arose, looked out the window across the valley. “My mother and sister perished; my father (a doctor) and I survived,” he said quietly. “We came to Israel in ‘47 on a ship running the British blockade. We weren’t Zionists then, needed somewhere to go out of Europe that accepted Jews.” His English was excellent. He paused, smiled, and said, “Became Zionists later.” “I earned a teaching certificate, later a degree in Biblical Studies and General Science at Hebrew U. Then taught high school science,” Pick explained. “I found my calling when became a tour guide. Then things came together. Later I appreciated that the Hebrew for ‘tour guide’ signifies a high calling. ‘Moreh derech’ translates to teacher of the way.
I poured coffee and we sat, legs stretched out, mugs in hand, drinking the pungent brew. “1967 was a turning point in Israel’s history,” Pick said, “and in my life.” His face brightened. He looked me in the eyes.
“Same with me,” I said. “First came to Israel upon the Six Day War.” “Really!” Pick exclaimed, “You were a mit-nah-dev, a volunteer!”
“Yes. Got here on one of first planes out of London that’d carry us with American passports. Was studying and working in England then. Within a week was in Sinai with the army.” I smiled. “Put in charge of a volunteer group (mechanics, drivers) from around the world. We cleared captured armor and artillery from the coastal road region Gaza to Kantara,” I said. (Kantara is on the Suez Canal’s east bank.) “Over 10,000 volunteers came, mostly Jews. The majority worked in orchards at kibbutzim, moshavim.” “I salute you,” Pick said. He stood up at military attention and slowly saluted me, American military style. I shrugged, then realized he was serious. So, I arose and formally returned his salute. He shook my hand ceremonially.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Have more coffee. Some cognac in it?”
“Normally, no,” he said. “Today, yes!”
I took a bottle from the stone window ledge, poured into each mug, added hot coffee. “You must have been a soldier before, to get such an assignment,” he said.
“Yes, I was an officer in the US Army,” I said. “Served as a platoon leader and then company commander in Korea. Promoted to captain.” I mused a second, and said, “Guess God had a purpose giving me that background.”
“Good observation!” he said. We held up our coffee cups in another toast. “Korea would be interesting,” Pick said. “It was,” I replied, “I describe Koreans as an oriental cross, mix, of Irish and Jews.” “Ouu-wah! How is that?” he said. “Much of their history they were dominated, persecuted by Japan and China, like the Irish often were oppressed by the Brits,” I replied. “They drink a lot, keep their own culture and language. Smart, hardworking, with a sense of humor. And Koreans are big on judo. I figure with a sport named that, they’ve a Jewish connection. Jew-do,” I smiled spelling out that word. “Ha! I hear you,” Pick laughed.
“So, what happened when you became a tour guide?” I asked. “Immediately after the ’67 war I appreciated the moment,” he said. “Decided intuitively to concentrate on just-liberated Judea-Samaria, unified Jerusalem. I know the rest of Israel well, but these are center of our land, our history.” He swept his right arm in a half circle, “It is all around us. I set out to learn our heartland intimately.” Pick emphasized the word “our” and arose, walked about. “I am founder of the field study school at Moshav Argaman, a new Jordan Valley community between Jericho and Beit Shean.” He spoke quickly. “It is hot there – climate and terror attacks. Argaman is an acronym named for three Israeli officers killed nearby pursuing terrorists. We use it as a base to explore Samaria. You are invited, must come!” “Interested! Be glad to,” I replied. He then said, “Now tell me about you.” So, I sketched out my life: Midwest background, college, work, army service, London experience, volunteering to Israel in ’67, back to U.K. to finish studies, work. Returning to Israel, jobs to date. Soon commuting from Tel Aviv to teach in Jerusalem. Opportunity to live in Ein Kerem.
“Come to dinner tonight!” he invited. “You will meet my wife Ruth. We are a mixed marriage: she Sephardi, I Ashkenazi. She is a social worker. We have three children – Elil, Navo, Rotem.” (Later they had another.) He smiled. “They will like you. Bring wine or bread or something. Ah, if you have a girlfriend, bring her.” Thus began my friendship with the Pick family.
Pick’s wife Ruth had luminous hazel eyes, long curling blondish-brown hair. Rubenesque, she wore colorful dresses, was graciously bohemian in manner, worldly in understanding. Her family came from Iraq. A brother worked on the cutting edge of computers. One sister, an army officer, married a businessman, and were working abroad. Another lived nearby married to one of Israel’s fine artists, American-born Ivan Schwebel. I later met, was impressed by them all.
Warm, practical and earthy, Ruth’s skill as a school social worker showed – she listened well. The Pick children related comfortably with adults. They had few toys, played creatively, purposefully built useful things for the house. They talked, shared ideas, played musical instruments, studied. Often one or more hiked with their father as he guided groups. I taught Navo and Rotem how to spiral-pass an American football, in Israel an exotic skill they enjoyed immensely.
Their home was simple in style, like mine. Pick had crafted most of the furniture. In the kitchen garlic bunches hung on wall pegs. Platters of fruit and vegetables graced a varnished pine table surrounded by ten stools. A backless couch tossed with colorful pillows abutted a wall. The refrigerator was small; a four-burner stove without an oven. In the living room/main bedroom was a TV. Several of Schwebel’s paintings graced walls. In an outdoor shed were modern toilet, sink, shower. Grapevines grew over the porch. Flowers and figs flourished in garden patches, along with prickly Sabra cacti with succulent pale green fruit.
I spent many Friday evenings at Pick’s home, usually with other guests. Candles, kiddish, wine, bread. Around the table guests read selections from the Torah portion. Pick facilitated discussion, posed questions he had prepared. The kids interjected opinions, were rewarded with praise. “Good point, Rotem! What does that mean for us today?” The family kept kosher, rarely attended synagogue. Food was mostly vegetables, couscous or rice, sometimes chicken, occasionally fish. Often, I contributed my specialty: Mike’s clean-out-the-kitchen stew of beef or chicken, seasoned heavily, loaded with vegs, chopped garlic, simmered in vino.
One evening together we watched on TV a French film based on Sartre’s book, No Exit. Depressing. The next morning, I had an appointment at the Western Wall plaza to interview a visiting dignitary for an American newspaper. Afterwards Pick met me and we explored the dimly lit sunken rooms just north of the plaza. Pick beckoned and pointed to a tall, uniformed Israeli soldier (Galil rifle slung from his shoulder), draped in tallit (prayer shawl), praying while nearly touching the hewn stones of the holy Temple Mount’s ancient retaining wall. A fine composition. Then I noticed what made the scene most notable: just behind the soldier’s head was a small sign with letters in Hebrew and English “Yeh-tzi-ah – Exit” with an arrow pointed to the doorway leading to the prayer plaza. The timing of this! Our just having seen Sartre’s dismal film.
“Why should any Jew be alienated after what our people endured this century, and how we renew?” Pick said. “Jewish vitality and enjoyment of life, no less than morality, may become central to Israel’s role as a light to the nations.”
I photographed the praying soldier with the so-symbolic sign just behind his head. Soon afterwards an Israeli magazine purchased one-time rights and used the shot as a dramatic cover illustration. (A print of the image is framed in my living room.)
While we dealt with serious subjects – Israel defense, politics, history, culture – life was fun, and we playful at it. At a house party celebrating son Navo’s twelfth birthday, Pick set out stuffed animals arranged by size. Starting with the smallest, he proceeded to speak both sides of a conversation with each animal, telling funny stories about Navo’s life to date. Cracked up the guests – kids and adults.
Pick drove a motor scooter. I asked why he had not bought a car. He obviously had thought about it and answered: “Then I’d need a regular job to support it and couldn’t do what for me was important – guiding and teaching Israeli youth and soldiers love of Eretz Yisrael. Some Jews forget that the foundations of Judaism include this land, not only Hashem, the People and the Torah. Those in galut [abroad] may not know better, but many here simply desire a quiet life.” I commented, “We may as well enjoy the excitement of turbulent times. Got them, like it or not.” We felt active on the cutting edge of momentous times. Eretz Yisrael was the Jewish inheritance from God, but it was for Jews to encounter and grasp. Ours is another period like Joshua’s. In fact, with that in mind, a group of friends (lecturers, guides, writers) formed a cooperative to market our products and called it The Joshua Group. Included were Mordechai, an academician at Hebrew University, Ron, a professor now at Cambridge in England, journalist Martin at The Jerusalem Post, tour guide Pick, and me.
During those exciting times, Pick was my friend and mentor, inspiring me in hasbara (Israel information) activities – lecturing, writing, guiding.
A master storyteller, he excelled at integrating historical threads of otherwise divergent subjects. We felt joined in the conversation of mankind in ideas and action; the process of exploring concepts and the land, working and learning with him was profound.
Pick perceived that all one need to rectify a weak Jewish education was to engage. “Ours is a concrete religion, based on and mainly in this particular land, with the ancient history well told in the Book and the Writings. You came, Mi-cha-el, and embraced it,” Pick said. “Now you have grasped your heritage. For a Jew to be alienated with this renaissance occurring is absurd. But here it is, an adventure before our eyes, in the news every day. More ought to get involved.” At the end of one summer, I recall an American college student finishing an encounter-the-country program who had become excited by Israel and modern Jewish history via Pick’s guiding, stories, and example. Pick invited him, several of his group, and some local friends including me to supper. The impressively bright young man asked emotionally, “What can I do to most help Israel?” Pick thought a moment, then looked at him with fierce eyes, and said, “Move here to live, work, take part!”
American author Michael Zimmerman lectures and writes about Israel, Jewish history and strategic studies. He was a business executive several decades, after living in Israel in the late 1960s and ‘70s, mostly doing journalism and photography and teaching at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design