The Road Not Traveled: A Day In Ancient Galilee

Where did your family come from?

If you pose this question to American Jews, the response will likely be, “Russia,” “Poland,” “Germany,” “Lithuania,” “Hungary,” or another country that was part of the Ashkenazi Jewish world. Ask that question in Israel and you will hear all of the above, plus “Yemen,” “Iraq,” “Iran,” “Morocco,” “Ethiopia,” and more—a true ingathering of the exiles from every corner of the world.

But what if the response to your question is simply, “Here. Israel.” That is, the person’s family has always lived in Israel. Never in the Diaspora. A family that never left.

Recently, while in Israel, I had the privilege of meeting Margalit Zinati, a descendant of a priestly family, Kohanim who served in the ancient Temple. Yes, that ancient Temple, 2000 years ago.

Margalit Zinati: "My family was never in the Diaspora." Photo: Sally Abrams

Margalit Zinati: “My family was never in the Diaspora.”
Photo: Sally Abrams

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. the Zinati family and a few other priestly families fled to the Galilee. Except for a short period living in Hadera during the Arab uprising in the 1930s, The Zinati family has lived in the village of Peki’in ever since. Their long presence in this farming village is well documented. Following Jewish settlement in the Talmudic period, Byzantine Christians settled here too, eventually joined by Muslims and Druze. Today Peki’in is home to about 5200, the majority Druze, with a small populations of Christians and Muslims. Over the years the Jewish community of Peki’in has nearly vanished. Margalit Zinati is the last of her storied family that remains in this picturesque village.

Margalit spends her days tending to the synagogue, built in 1873 (earlier synagogues were destroyed by earthquakes). On the walls are stones that date to the Second Temple Period. Margalit claims that these stones were brought from the ruins of the Second Temple itself.

This stone is reputed to have come from the ruins of Second Temple.

This stone is reputed to have come from the ruins of Second Temple.

At age eighty-two, Margalit is animated and energetic, guiding me and a friend through the small synagogue, then leading us to the adjoining museum that documents the history of Peki’in’s Jewish community. Margalit never married. She hopes that one or more of her nephews, living elsewhere in Israel, will move to Peki’in to carry on her work and maintain the Zinati connection.

A few minutes walk from the synagogue brings you to the cave where Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai and his son took refuge after fleeing Jerusalem during the Bar Kochba revolt of 132 CE. There, in hiding, it is believed that they wrote the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism upon which Kabbalah is based. Had they stepped out of the cave, they might have bumped into Margalit’s ancestors.

In Minnesota, if your family arrived here before 1900, you are considered an “old-timer”. Thinking about the Zinati family’s roots extending back 2000 years in Peki’in–and untold years before that serving the Temple in Jerusalem– fills me with amazement and wonder. No doubt there are other families like this. I just haven’t met them…yet.

The same day that I met Margalit I had another fascinating encounter with ancient Jewish roots in the land of Israel. I assume that you have heard of Masada, the desert mountaintop where a besieged community of Jews, surrounded by advancing Roman legions, committed suicide rather than be taken as captives. Well, the same thing happened a few years earlier at Yodfat, located high on a remote Galilee hilltop. Josephus Flavius, who documented what happened at Masada, was on the scene here too. In fact it was at Yodfat that Josephus, a Jew, defected to the Roman side.

Yodfat is not nearly as well known or well traveled as Masada. Some excavation has been done here, but undoubtedly many archaeological treasures still lie underground, along with the remains of the Jews who perished here. It’s not so hard to imagine the Jews who once lived here. Pottery shards litter the ground. I nearly tripped over the the steps leading down to the mikveh.

Pottery shards litter the ground at Yodfat, also known as "Masada of the Galilee". Photo: Sally Abrams

Pottery shards litter the ground at Yodfat, also known as “Masada of the Galilee”.
Photo: Sally Abrams

Encountering these two examples of deep Jewish roots in the land—all in one day—left a very deep impression on me. We are accustomed to touching Jewish history in Jerusalem, Masada, and other well known places. But it was in traveling off the beaten path that I was reminded yet again that ancient Jewish roots have been sunk all over this land, the very roots and history which are vehemently denied by many in the Arab world. Denial of Jewish history in this land is a staple of Palestinian propaganda.

The last impression of the day was a disquieting one. Driving back toward my friends home, we passed through a neighboring Arab village. The village is located in the lower Galilee, in Israel proper, 1948 Israel. It is not in the West Bank or in any area that could be considered contested territory.

What did we see? At the center of the village, flying high….the Palestinian flag. I jumped out of the car to snap a picture, and a man shouted to me in Arabic-accented Hebrew, “Don’t take a picture!” I took the photo, two in fact, and we drove on. My friend and I discussed the meaning of the flag and the man’s reaction to having it photographed. She told me that strong pro-Palestinian factions are at work in some Arab villages and that people are afraid to oppose them.

The Palestinian flag flies over this Arab-Israeli village in the Galilee. Photo: Sally Abrams

The Palestinian flag flies over this Arab-Israeli village in the Galilee.
Photo: Sally Abrams

What could the flag mean? An expression of solidarity with Palestinians? Or a political statement- that this village is also “Palestine”? And why did the man object to the photo? Was he embarrassed by the flag? Or was he afraid that the photo would provoke an angry reaction and bring trouble to his town? Or perhaps it was something else. I will never know.

For the rest of the drive home, I silently replayed the images of all that I had seen that day. Peki’in. Margalit Zinati. Yodfat. And a Palestinian flag flying over an Israeli-Arab town.