June 21, 2018

A Golden Thread

The beauty of living in Israel is that there is always more to uncover and discover. 

The country has a varied geography, stunning topography and is a cultural mosaic. Israel has a rich history that we can trace back millennia and some of this history can be experienced before our very eyes.

There are Jews here who can trace their ancestry a few generations back. Many others have family trees that take them to Eastern Europe or North Africa. And in Tzfat, there are families who can trace their roots as far back as the Spanish Inquisition.

Margalit Zinati. Photo from Times of Israel
Yesterday, I encountered a golden thread in the chain of the Jewish people. I met a special woman whose family originates here, right where the Jewish people began. It was from Israel that the Jews were expelled and began their long story of wandering. Yet her family remained.

Margalit Zinati’s family left the smouldering Second Temple that was destroyed by the Roman legions under Titus. It was the year 70 when several Cohanim, priests of the temple, fled Jerusalem and headed north away from persecution. Many Jews remained in the debris of the fallen city, others were slaughtered or captured and enslaved.

Margalit’s family brought two stones from the mighty Temple, a massive and impressive building constructed by Herod the Great. They wandered from Jerusalem into the mountains of the Upper Galilee. When they reached a stream on a mountaintop near a secluded valley, they stopped. Here they settled, founding the agricultural village that we know today as Peki’in.

The village was Jewish. The priests built a synagogue, placing the two stones they brought from the Temple inside and learned how to farm the rocky land.

They lived this way for centuries. Arab villages dotted the hills around them. Druze, who were persecuted in Egypt, eventually settled in the area and over time, Arabs who converted to Christianity also became neighbours. Thus, four religions lived in peaceful coexistence tucked away in the Galilee mountains. 

Peaceful coexistence. Photo by Haaretz

The story takes a sharp, dark turn between 1936 and 1939 during the Arab revolt. Arabs across the country rebelled against Jewish immigration to Israel and British plans to partition Palestine to make way for a Jewish national home. They attacked Jews, killed many and forced the families of Peki’in to flee.

In 1940, after the riots were quelled, the only family to return home to Peki’in was the Zinati family. And as the Jewish population dwindled, the Druze presence grew.

Margalit distinctly remembers her father repeating how important it was to preserve one’s home. And so she kept her father’s promise and stayed on. Since she did not want to leave her village, she never married.  

Today, Margalit is the only Jew left. She is 85 years old and she is a legend.

She speaks Arabic and Hebrew and dresses like an Arab woman. She is possibly the only Mustarab alive in Israel. (Mustarabim are Jews who live with Arabs.) They used to live in Tsfat, Jerusalem and in villages in the Galilee. Today, there are none.

Her house has become a museum called Beit Zinati. Her fame has reached far and wide and people come here to meet her, pilgrims searching for a connection. Although there is no minyan in the shul she looks after, families often do bar mitzvahs there, praying in a synagogue that was founded by our ancient Cohanim.

And so we visited this wonderful woman. She is tiny and is a powerhouse. She recited Psalms (Tehillim) and gave us a blessing for health, for a long life and for peace. She has seen war, hatred and strife and is now living in peace with accepting neighbours who respect her traditions. 

Main square in Peki'in

People move to Israel from all over the world bringing their varied customs and languages with them.  When we had the privilege of sitting with Margalit, we were surprised to see her speaking Arabic. 

She told us her father would wear tzitzit together with his keffiyeh (Arab headdress). As modern olim, we do not associate this with Jewish clothing. Yet here, sitting in front of us, was a descendant of the very first Jews in Israel and yes, this is how they dressed.

Margalit gave up a lot in order to preserve a Jewish presence and now she continues to give by blessing her visitors. Instead, we should be blessing her.

These lines of Tehillim evoke her dedication and her light:

“Then I will preserve your Torah constantly, forever and ever. And I will walk along a broad path, for Your precepts I have sought. And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and will not be ashamed. And I will delight myself with your commandments that I have loved. Tehillim, Chapter 119, 44-46.

Here you can watch a video of Margalit.