Inheritance, teacher of the way

Part Two: Exploring the land

Aaron Pick and his wife, Ruth (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aaron Pick and his wife, Ruth
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 

Almost every Friday, Aaron Pick and I went on a tiyul, a countryside trip to encounter the Land of Israel – in Judea and Samaria. I drove my weathered sky-blue station wagon near our destination, usually mentioned in the Bible. Then we hiked, sweat, got dirty – holy dirt, to be sure, given the locales! We waded watercourses, climbed ridges and hills, roped down wadis, crawled through caves, investigated archaeology digs, explored battle sites. I carried topographic maps and a Bible. Upon gaining vantage spots with good views we rested and read aloud relevant passages. It was stunning outdoor adventure into history.
At first, Judea and Samaria were exotic; then they became home. I grew to know the regions well. We went far off-the-tourist track. Some folks considered the areas dangerous. But during my many (almost weekly) explorations in the 1970s I never encountered trouble. We did carry weapons: Pick an Uzi submachine gun, and I a Browning 9-mm pistol (the police had issued me a weapons permit). An extra magazine of ammo went in my camera bag holding my 35mm camera, lenses, filters, notebook, and items mentioned before.
Why so often to Judea-Samaria? Simple. It is where most stories in the Hebrew Bible took place. And aside from fascination in exploring ancient sites, the countryside is beautiful and challenging to hike. Nearer areas are the very hinterland of Jerusalem. Although some Israelis made a point of doing so, it seemed unnatural to avoid the territories. (A year or so after meeting Pick, I was accepted into and began the government year-long tour guide course, to be interrupted by the ‘73 war.) We trekked wild canyons opening into the Dead Sea 1,200 feet below sea level. Descended Nachal Darga, meaning Wadi of Steps (cliff-like), and Nachal Og with terrain so tough we called it “Nachal Ugh!” Nachal Qidron carried Jerusalem wastes that somehow seemed holy s--t. Exploring Nachal Qumron, we disturbed thousands of bats in caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. Nachal Kelt provided a wet hike through stream and pools, scrambling over rocks, exploring caves used by generations of solitude seekers.
Visiting possible sites of Alon Moreh near ancient Shechem where Abraham first sojourned in the land promised by God, and other historic locales, we met folks at nearby renewed Jewish communities. Pick knew many settlers; I became acquainted. We explored the archeological dig at Shiloh, where the Ark of Covenant was kept two centuries long ago (Jews again live nearby). Viewed towering rocks near Beit El where Jacob dreamed the ladder. These places brought the Bible alive, and immediate.
We ruminated on Second Temple history in magnificent ruins of Herod’s buildings at isolated Hureqanya, scene of political intrigue, Salome dancing. Explored Herodion with its colonnades, water reservoirs, mikvah (for ritual baths). Walked through Jericho’s ancient hippodrome. Visited monasteries at Mar Saba and Mount of Temptation. Explored Scapegoat Mountain, where a goat was sent on Yom Kippur when the Jewish Temple stood. Repeatedly climbed over blood-soaked Bethar where Roman legions defeated the last savage Jewish revolt (the Second Century). Becoming a journalist about two years after moving to Jerusalem, free-lancing and soon a correspondent for North American publications, I wrote stories about places encountered.
My stick-shift Ford Cortina took a beating on back-country trips often in first gear. Jerusalem is as hilly as the areas around. At one stage, while short of cash, the car’s starter broke. For some months I still used the vehicle by always parking facing downhill and then gravity-rolling to start!
Pick’s schedule was irregular; mine somewhat flexible as instructor on innovation at Bezalel (Israel’s art college), and increasingly writing for periodicals and lecturing on political affairs to groups visiting Israel. With a London MSc, an MIT first degree, experience at several political research jobs and presenting on politics and history, after a few years in Jerusalem I was invited onto the speakers’ bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office during Yitzhak Rabin’s tenure and continuing into Menahem Begin’s. I also became active with photography, worked the libraries, availed of seminars about Israel’s history, politics, archaeology, culture. Always made time to explore with Pick – a superb opportunity being his good friend. He knew folks around the heartland, Judea-Samaria. They invited us for coffee, pastries. We learned local news, insights, perspectives, nuances of The Land, people, history. (I often taught and wrote about lessons from our explorations.) One time, Pick’s face brightened as he said, “You know, we refer to so-called ‘new settlements’ incorrectly. They are not new. But renewed!” I dug through history books and found that a dozen or so Jewish communities destroyed in the areas during the 1948-49 war were now re-established, including those of the Gush Etzion bloc south of Bethlehem, several near Jericho and the Dead Sea, and northward near Ramallah. Of course, in ancient times the whole area was densely populated with Jews. “New” settlements  were often “renewed” communities.
While Israel’s archeology is fascinating, often newsworthy (and I became a correspondent for Biblical Archaeology Review), etymology is a related subject. Pick showed me a Hebrew University thesis explaining that current Arabic place names in the area often derive from earlier Hebrew nomenclature: Tuqu/Tekoa (birthplace of prophet Amos), Battir/Bethar (battle site in the second century Bar Kokhba war, Jifna/Gophna (base during the earlier Maccabean war), etc.
In the field, we drank coffee with Bedouin by their tents, inquiring of family and tribal stories, migrations. Ate hummus and chatted with owners and waiters at small Arab restaurants in Jericho, Bethlehem, and villages in Samaria. Virtually all were citizens of Jordan (the state on eastern Palestine) but referred to their nationality as Arab or Bedouin, Jordanian or Syrian, almost never as Palestinian. Some did not know when their families arrived or thought they were indigenous and waved a hand indicating “way back.” Others explained their families came from Syria, Egypt, or Sudan in the 1920s-30s. (Pick spoke Arabic reasonably, excellent Hebrew and English, plus several Central Europe languages learned as a youth.) After the 1973 war, Pick was instrumental in establishing a field study school at Tekoa in the Judean Hills. One evening when the Picks came for dinner, an old friend from my high school days was staying with us. (I was married by now to an adventurous American-born gal who also moved to Israel as an adult.) Bob had served in Vietnam as a US Air Force pilot flying F-100 Super Sabres. Later living in America’s west, his soul needed adventure. He was a veteran of several consulting jobs in Israel.
“Have you been to Tekoa?” Pick asked. Bob replied no. “The scenery is breathtaking,” Pick said. “A few clicks southeast of Bethlehem, Tekoa was birthplace of  our prophet Amos. The renewed community represents a revolution for Israel.” Bob asked, “How’s that?” Pick replied, “A mixed population!” Bob: “What do you mean, Jews and Gentiles, Arabs and Jews?” Pick: “No, not what you expect. Not Ashkenazim-Sephardim, nor blacks and whites. Way out of the ordinary. Revolutionary!” I knew the story but could see Bob had no idea of Pick’s point. “Secular and Orthodox!” Pick exclaimed. “Jews more observant and less so, in a small village, voluntarily. Sabras, American, Russian, French, Moroccan Jews! The sociologists will study it one day, when their eyes open to the wonder, the implications.” One summer day, Pick and I drove north from Jericho through the baking Jordan Valley towards Moshav Argaman’s field study school. Everything was burnt dry – yellow, white, brown (parched earth, the few plants). It was scorching mid-day when we might have been in some cool shelter. Suddenly appeared a wide splash of vivid green colors over the terrain – like a mirage, the Israeli village’s irrigated fields of tropical fruits and vegetables.
Pick abruptly announced, “I feel sorry for the Arabs!” (This was soon after the 1973 War, when Arab oil states manipulated virtually the whole world to their profit.) “Why? Not many folks do,” I said. Pick nodded his head at the community’s cultivated fields, and said, “Oil doesn’t build character. This does!”
For several summer seasons, Pick and I worked with a tour manager for visiting groups of American college students to integrate some days in Judea and/or Samaria into their schedules. Pick was primary guide, I lecturer and backup guide. The trips included busing to and exploring historic places like Bet El, Bethar, Herodion, Hebron, Shiloh, Susya, often with lunch at Tekoa, where we organized for small groups to eat desserts with settlers.
The élan of Jewish pioneers was noticeable. Virtually all were educated and patriotic, like kibbutz founders of earlier decades. One difference between previous settlers and those working present frontiers: the former mostly lived in exclusively secular communities (there were some strictly orthodox kibbutzim), while current villages were sometimes mixed as to level of religious observance. Etiquette had those who wished to watch television or listen to radio on Shabbat, do so with volume low, so not to be heard by neighbors.
For groups able to handle physical exertion, Pick led hikes over dramatic terrain. Participants got sweaty, dirty, thirsty. We took rest breaks on scenic ground, drank water, snacked on fruit, relaxed among the rocks. Pick explained the area’s nature, history. Sometimes he spread out a large plastic-covered topographic map, used a stick as pointer, and explained strategic terrain features in view out there, and on the map. His descriptions of past battles (like from Joshua’s campaigns, or the Maccabees’) took on relevance and excitement even for those at first unfamiliar with the history.
A popular subject for tourists was the history of Zionism. The common approach concentrated on the past century. Pick thought this narrow, and while emphasizing modern times always mentioned Roman wars, the earlier Maccabees fighting Hellenists and Greeks, and jumped further back to biblical periods beginning with Abraham, sketching out the Covenant and Jewish connection with Israel over 3,500 years. He could do this in a few minutes. Pick provided audiences historical context, suggesting: “It doesn’t matter an iota if one is religious or not, the Covenant and long biblical history are central to Jewish, Christian, Moslem civilizations and therefore part of the realpolitik story of our efforts and today’s conflict over this land.” My friend could present a five-minute overview of modern Jewish history, expressing wonderment at what Jews experienced, using the word “biblical” to describe the past century’s scope of events. And conclude: “Here are our generations living it, participating in big or little ways, consciously or unconsciously.
Why should Jews and friends not be aware of the drama in the broader deep way? Why not join the story existentially, pro-actively?” As pleased to lecture to a leftist kibbutz gathering as an audience of yeshiva students, American youth, foreign journalists, Christian fundamentalists, nationalist Israelis, interested tourists, Pick liked people of varied stripes, so long as they either cared positively about Israel or were open-minded to hear his perspective.
By now, as an older reservist in the army’s Education Corps (rather than a combat unit), Pick’s present role was to teach Jewish history and guide military groups on long hikes in regions regained in 1967. These were not training marches or patrols, but rather intended as educational, morale-building, connect-with-the-land encounters.
He had an integrative view of Jews, that major factions of Israel contributed mightily to the Zionist enterprise at various periods and lapsed at others. The religious, the socialist leftists, nationalist rightists, liberal and conservative businessmen, simpler folks, etc. – he acknowledged, appreciated, faulted all. While mainstream Jewish culture in- and outside Israel, as expressed in literature and films, often emphasized the somberness, tragedy, and confusion of much in our history, most Jews themselves exude joy of life and a sense of humor. Pick himself had suffered and lost family, but he knew how to and did enjoy life with unabashed gusto.
The day after Yom Kippur 1973, Pick was scheduled to guide a well-publicized hike led by famed general Ariel Sharon, just retired from active duty as commander Southern Front. The route from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem was chosen to demonstrate solidarity with resettlement efforts in Judea. The war’s outbreak cancelled the hike. Too old for a combat assignment, Pick hitchhiked to central Sinai, joined the command group of Sharon’s reserve division, and participated in the main counterstroke against Egypt, crossing the Suez Canal into Africa. Another kind of hike!  Meanwhile, with Ed Fisher (an English buddy, like me in country a while but not in the army), I drove my car to near the combat front and we worked as civilians through the war with the IDF in northwest Sinai. From Baluza army base (near the east-west Mediterranean coastal road’s intersection with the north-side artillery road a few miles from the Canal), I frequently drove a supply truck to forward positions, including the one Bar Lev Line position that held throughout the war – Outpost Budapest near the Med.
After the war, Pick described the calm bravery of combat engineers at the canal crossing, who erected and maintained the tactical bridges under intense artillery fire. Suddenly he added laughing, “I was sort-of lightly wounded there.” “How’s that? What’s ‘sort-of’?” I asked. Continuing to smile, Pick replied, “Well, it was not for the record. The concussion of one near-miss artillery explosion knocked out my false teeth! They got lost in the dark. I couldn’t eat hard food the rest of the war.” A young Canadian immigrant, befriended by the Pick family, had volunteered for tzan-ha-nim, the parachute corps, when entering military service. Meir Weiss, an exceptional fellow, was intelligent, strong, insightful. He had studied at a Hesder Yeshiva, guided at Moshav Argaman. Widely read, he loved Shakespeare. During the savage 1973 battle in Sinai at Chinese Farm, Meir’s unit deployed to defend the road supplying the counterattack crossing the Suez Canal. He was killed in action along with many comrades. A few months later, Pick and I visited the remnants of his unit now based in Samaria off the Nablus road to the Jordan River. Meir and others were later reburied at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. Leaders of the country attended, and of course family members and friends of the fallen. During the eulogies Pick did not bow his head. Later I asked him about this. “Meir knew the price we pay,” Pick said without blinking. “His was a good way to die in these times. We’ll remember him.” In Ein Kerem, poignant echoes from the past rubbed against our anticipations of the future. I felt the vibrations constantly from the earth and atmosphere, my work, conversations, books, the news. I grew to think of Pick as a Jewish Zorba, as life affirming as the Greek, but with a deeper sense of history. Both exhibited toughness bred of survival, defiance, humor, and love. He had a particularly focused side, a clear objective – growing the health and strength of Jewish people and their connection with the Land of Israel. Aaron Pick was a sophisticated political animal, a family man and good friend, and, of course, a survivor, one whose horrible experience in WW2 had tempered and strengthened him, rather than the opposite.
Some years after Pick and I became friends, my wife and I were leaving Israel for an extended time, and the Pick family threw a farewell dinner. Pick and I would especially miss each other. His wife Ruth, with her keen insight, saw a silver lining. She had observed a loneliness for my birth family, although I had an enriching life in Israel. That evening she observed: “Mi-cha-el, not many in Israel have opportunity to return to the land of their birth – to deal with unfinished business.” Occasionally in those old days, Pick’s friend Yoel, a professor of botany, joined us for a day trip. Yoel and Pick first met in Auschwitz when teenagers. As survivors they had an exceptional bond. Yoel had lost his entire family there. When he spoke of his mother, tears came to his eyes, Yoel never reconciled to this loss. A tall shy man with constant quiet smile, Yoel was at rest in Pick’s company.
We drove north into Samaria, parked at a Jewish village, climbed for an hour-plus exploring Mount Sartaba. Atop this and other high points between Jerusalem and Babylonia in ancient times, Jews lit bonfires to signal the end of Shabbat. We sat on rocks under an olive tree on the wind-swept mountain summit from where we could see for miles, up and down the valley and across the Jordan River to higher mountains of Moab. The breeze was cool to our skin, sweaty from the climb. It was peaceful. We rested, passed a water canteen.
“You are invited to Shabbat dinner,” Pick said. “We will have chicken with much garlic, plus salad, bread, other good things. Especially lively conversation – if you come.” Yoel nodded acceptance. I said, “Thanks, Pick, you’re on. I’ll bring vino.” Pick commented, “Excellent – good company, good wine!” We sat in silence, a wide expanse of land in view. Rugged, much of it barren – a land of rebels and prophets.
Suddenly Yoel said seriously, “Pick, I envy how you believe in (pausing) “Ha-Shem.” The term translates to The Name and means God. Pick thought a moment, and replied slowly, “I do believe.” Yoel choked out, “I’m angry at Him. I cannot... I won’t.” A long pause. Yoel whispered, “And I miss believing.” We were quiet. “I understand,” Pick said in hushed voice, “and yet I believe, my friend.” He put his hand on Yoel’s shoulder. Yoel had a yearning look. Under his breath he whispered, “I wish I could too.” I sat spellbound. Recalled discussions in college about theism, atheism, agnosticism, very intellectual and dispassionate. This was a profound divergence between two good men scorched in hell. One had found peace; the other struggled for it. And there we rested, sweaty and dirty, stretched out among stones and thistles on the earth of Israel, the inheritance of the Jews given by God.
The last visit Pick and I had occurred during a mid-1990s trip to Israel with my elder daughter from our home in the USA. At the time Pick was still guiding actively and broadcast on the independent radio station Arutz Sheva, a quarter-hour weekly commentary supporting the Jewish resettlement effort. He was compiling a book of his stories, essays, and poems. Aaron Pick died in 1998 in his sleep at home in Ein Kerem.
For me, forever, Pick will be the embodiment of William Faulkner’s line composed for his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Man will not merely endure, he will prevail.”
The writer lectures and writes about Israel and strategic studies; he became a business executive after living in Israel from the late 1960s through the 1970s working as a journalist, presenting about Israel, and teaching innovation at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.