Hitting pay dirt

Jay Regosin, an American retiree, is digging up the country and couldn’t be happier.

Jay Regosin (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Jay Regosin
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
‘When I was a child, my mother told me not to play in the dirt,” Jay Regosin says with a smile. “Now, 50 years later, I’m playing in the dirt and I’m getting paid for it, and I love it.”
Regosin, his fringes of white hair and wide smile showing under the brim of his white construction helmet, leaps from stone to stone like an aged mountain goat in the archeological dig across the street from the City of David, in the capital’s Silwan neighborhood.
The dig, which has uncovered an enormous Roman-era villa, is located in the Givati parking lot and is what Regosin terms a “rescue dig” prior to construction of a new building on the site.
Eventually, he says, this site will house an archeological museum underneath the new building, which will be constructed on pylons to preserve the relics he is helping to uncover.
The amateur archeologist is the oldest of all of the workers at the site. Most of those sifting dirt, digging up and sorting artifacts, or shoring up walls to prevent collapse as the dig goes deeper, are in their 20s and 30s. Regosin is in his early 70s, although his youthful acrobatics belie his status as a retiree.
“Well, I tell everybody at the dig that I’m 52. I’m a little older than that. I’m a little over 70. But if you say 52, it would be better,” he laughs.
“At first, when I was on the bucket brigade [hauling away dirt], the young volunteers would tell me to take a rest after five minutes,” he adds. “Now they are telling me to go here and there.”
It has taken some time, apparently, for his younger colleagues to get used to the fact that he may have as much energy at his age as they do just out of college.
Regosin is in semi-retirement, pursuing his lifelong dream. Growing up as a Conservative Jew in Brooklyn in the mid-20th century, he never anticipated making aliya. And although he attended Zionist camps, learning Hebrew and saluting the Israeli flag, it was not until a trip here later in life that he truly fell in love with the country and its history.
“I was always interested in yiddishkeit [Jewishness] and Hebrew [but] I never thought of making aliya.
In the 1970s I took a trip to Israel, and it was very interesting. I said that I don’t know when am going to go back, so I may as well enjoy myself and really see what I’ve been hearing about all my years,” he says.
He later chanced upon a copy of the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, and he was hooked. “I devoured it,” he says, “and I still do.”
Volunteering with a dig on his next trip to Israel, he decided that he wanted to continue working on uncovering the country’s Jewish past.
“While I was working in the United States, this was my summer vacation, to work on a dig. I basically got up at 4 a.m. and dug in the middle of the summer. I decided, why don’t I go on a dig as a volunteer, and I ended up going for, like, 10 summers,” he recalls.
“People said I was crazy,” he continues. “You go on a vacation and get up at four o’ clock in the morning and work in the hot sun and all that stuff, but I really like it, and I learned.”
He worked on numerous digs, “all the way from the Golan Heights, the Kinneret area, all the way down to Revadim, which is near Kiryat Malachi, and a lot of places in between, Caesarea and and Ekron – all interesting places. I used to come every summer for 17 days.”
His Anglo friends in the country finally persuaded him to make aliya, and he ended up coming to live in Israel permanently almost 17 years ago. However, he was unable to make a start in business here. After several freelance consulting gigs for companies as diverse as Intel and Hadassah University Medical Center, he decided to retire and dedicate himself to volunteering at digs.
“This is my retirement,” he explains.
Now working with the City of David, he started out as an unpaid sifter. However, as an archeology aficionado, he was unwilling to remain just a strong pair of hands, and devoured any and all information he could pry from the archeologists directing the digs.
“I was working for them, and I decided, hey, man, I really want to work on a dig,” he recalls. “So I spoke to personnel here, and Doron Ben-Ami, the archeologist in charge here, decided that he would try me.”
He was soon hired as a paid employee and promoted to digger.
“I was on probation for a couple of months, and then he took me full-time two and a half years ago. [Now] I’m working full-time as a digger.”
He also serves as a point of stability in a project where most of the physical labor comes from a transient pool of short-term, young laborers.
Explaining the process of the work, he says that “the dig is divided into squares, and you are assigned a square, an area. You are assigned a pick and a shovel, and you collect your pails, and you save pottery, bones, glass – anything that is unique.”
As workmen shore up an ancient wall behind him, and other diggers sort through piles of pottery and scraps on a nearby berm, he gestures to the moss-covered ruins of what was once a grand villa, nearly as a large as a city block. A beautiful mosaic is visible in the ruins of one room, and just beyond the site of the dig, the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City rear up in all their splendor.
Asked how his constant exposure to the detritus of Jewish history has affected him, Regosin, who now considers himself Orthodox, says it has not changed his religious views, but that it has altered his historical perspective.
“All of the political noise in the world today is just noise,” he says, when you can dig down and see Jewish history come alive in front of you.