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And Then There Was One

Margalit Zenati, also known as “the Jewish gatekeeper of Peki’in,” is almost 85 years old

And Then There Was One

High above the breathtaking Beit Kerem Valley, surrounded by soaring hills studded with pomegranate and olive trees, nestles the ancient village of Peki’in, most famous for the cave in which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar hid from the Romans ages ago. But that is not Peki’in’s only claim to fame. For almost 2,000 years, Peki’in has been home to the descendants of a Jewish family named Zenati.Three families of kohanim managed to escape the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash in 70 CE and made their way north, carrying with them stones from the holy ruins as well as two stone tablets. One of the first things these families did was to build a beis midrash that was later used by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah in the second century. Two hundred years later, their descendants used the stones from the Beis Hamikdash and the tablets they had brought with them from Jerusalem to build a shul, which was subsequently destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt numerous times over the course of the centuries. The newest shul in Peki’in, built in 1873, is located on the site of the ancient shul and still contains the original stone tablets and stones. Throughout the repeated exiles of the Jewish people, the Zenatis refused to abandon their village and remained there generation after generation.

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Today, the lone scion of the Zenati clan safeguards Peki’in’s holy places and preserves the Jewish traditions of the surrounding area. Margalit Zenati is the last living member of her family. (Her only remaining sibling, a brother, died a few years ago.) In this interview with Ami Magazine she shares her fascinating life story, encompassing 2,000 years of Jewish history. In all these years there were only two occasions when the Zenatis had to pack their bags and grab their walking sticks—and even then it was for only as brief a period as possible. The first time was in 1937, when Arab riots forced the Jews of Peki’in to flee their homes for safer locations. The Zenatis found temporary shelter in Hadera until the storm passed two years later. But only a few Jews returned, among them Yosef Zenati and his family. “The second time was during the War of Independence,” explains Margalit. “My father, my mother and I were exiled from the village for three years after the Upper Galilee was slated by the United Nations Partition Plan to become part of the Arab state. It was only after Operation Hiram in October 1948 that the area was returned to Jewish hands. The mukhtar (chief of the village) sent us a message through the Israeli Army that the ancient shul of Peki’in was intact, having been protected from harm by the village’s Druze inhabitants.”

Today, Margalit Zenati is the last link in a chain that goes back to the times of the Tanach. Her personal story is intertwined with the glorious history of ancient Peki’in, from the times of the Rashbi until this very day. In truth, the Zenati family and Peki’in are synonymous, their roots going back two millennia to the churban. Margalit, still spritely despite her years, has undertaken the care of the Jewish holy sites, including its famed ancient shul. Margalit was charged with a difficult task: To remain in Peki’in to look after her father and mother, the shul and the family’s fields; she did her job and never left. But she also never started a family of her own, because a wedding would have meant leaving the village. She courageously remained in the hostile village even after the Druze rioting in 2007, fulfilling her father’s last will and testament that she guard the shul and other holy places until her final breath. “As long as I am alive,” Margalit emphatically declares, “I will continue to protect the legacy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai with every ounce of my strength.” Margalit, a religiously-observant woman, also supervises the kashrus in several local Druze- or Muslim-owned eating establishments, as their signs attest: “Kashrut supervision by Margalit Zenati.” Margalit lives in a small house in which she stores, among other things, Torah covers, curtains for an aron kodesh, numerous sefarim and other Judaica.

She supports herself by giving tours of the old shul and the surrounding areas. Several close relatives make sure she always has ample food, which they bring her from nearby towns. On a wall of the house hangs a picture of her parents. Her father, Yosef Zenati, died at age 83; her mother, Mazal Saada, died 18 years ago at 105. “It was hard to be separated from them,” she admits. Although Peki’in is mostly Druze, for hundreds of years it was known as a place where Arabs and Jews lived together peacefully. In recent years, ten idealistic Jewish families moved to Old Peki’in in the hope that more would follow. But their dream of a Jewish renewal in Peki’in never materialized. After suffering repeated abuse from Arab gangs, including theft and destruction of their property, things came to a head seven years ago in 2007. For 24 terrifying hours on October 28-29, dozens of masked Druze men armed with homemade weapons and petrol bombs stormed the few Jewish homes in the village. The alleged reason for the riots was opposition to the installation of a cell phone tower in the area, but the tiny Jewish community insisted it was only an excuse for violence. Frenzied rioters screamed “Al Yahud! Get the Jews!” testifying to the deep hatred festering in their hearts. The intensity of the hostilities left security forces and border guards reeling. For an entire harrowing night and day, bloodthirsty mobs ran amok, wielding clubs, guns and other weapons of destruction.

Targeting Jewish homes, they fired into the air and tossed Molotov cocktails and hand grenades while the police stood helplessly by. After a string of violent incidents, a police officer was kidnapped and 29 security personnel who had tried to restore order were seriously wounded. Jewish houses were burned to the ground and their cars were torched. It was only by the grace of G-d that the last Jews of Peki’in were safely escorted out by the Israeli police. Margalit Zenati relives the horrors of that night and sighs as she wrings her hands in anguish. “The rioters achieved their goal completely. The Jews of Peki’in retreated in panic and scattered in all directions, while I remained alone to live among the enemy,” she says sadly, recounting her bitter fate. Is Margalit at all afraid of being the only Jew surrounded by a sea of Muslims, Christians and Druze? “A Jew is not afraid,” she counters. “They say to my face, ‘Why do you live here? Why don’t you sell your property?’ I answer, ‘If you are selling, then I am buying. I am not leaving.’ I should leave? You will never see that day. I’m a perpetual bone in their throat. If I were to leave, the Jews would no longer come. I will remain here as long as I am alive.”

ANCIENT PEKI’IN

Every year before Lag Ba’omer, many Jews on their way to Meron will stop off at this ancient village to visit its famous cave and to quench their thirst with the clear, cool waters of the nearby spring One visitor from days gone by used these words to describe his visit: “Peki’in, the crowning glory of the Galil! With its rolling landscapes and panoramic vistas, one feels as if he’s stepped into a mythical storybook painting.

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Peki’in, a place where sacred tombs and caves are shrouded in mystery, where wizened Druze women stoop at the trough in the village square, pumping water from an ancient well just as their ancestors have been doing for centuries...” Even today, Peki’in remains untainted, its glorious past undimmed and undiminished. Following the steep stone steps from the ancient shul one comes to a narrow crevice in a huge rock. Inside its dark interior is the cave that, according to tradition, the holy Tanna, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, hid in for 13 years. Old carob trees with their thick gnarled trunks abound, concealing the mouth of the cave from view. From this spot, one can look out and observe the entire picturesque village. The Talmud relates: “One day, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Yehuda ben Gerim were sitting together when a discussion began regarding how the Land of Israel had benefited from the Roman initiative. “Rabbi Yehuda was the first to opine. ‘How pleasant are the deeds of this nation!’ he exclaimed. ‘Look, they’ve erected marketplaces, built bridges and established bathhouses.’ “Rabbi Yossi remained silent but the Rashbi said, ‘Everything they did, they built for their own benefit…’” The Gemara (Shabbos 33b) tells us that Yehuda ben Gerim reported this conversation to the authorities. When Rabbi Shimon learned that the Roman government had sentenced him to death he was forced to flee for his life. At first the Rashbi and his son hid in various places throughout the Galil, including the beis midrash of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah, which according to tradition is the site of the old beis knesses.

After a while it became necessary for them to change their hiding place, and thus they arrived at the cave in Peki’in. For 13 years the Rashbi and his son hid in this cave, sustained by the fruit of a carob tree and water from a spring, both miraculously created solely for their benefit. They remained there until they were informed that the Roman king had died and that all his decrees had been nullified. They then emerged from their hiding place and lit up the entire world with their Torah. The cave and well adjacent to it also attract many non-Jewish visitors—Druze, Christian and Muslim—who flock to the holy site, fervently believing in the power of Rabbi Shimon and the mystical potency of the spring’s waters. Childless women, the sick and infirm all come with their families to light candles and pray that Rabbi Shimon intercede on their behalf. Nowadays it is only possible to go into the cave’s entrance, the interior having been blocked by past earthquakes and landslides in the area. Not far from there to the north is the gravestone of the Tanna, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah. Also nearby is the gravesite of Rabbi Yossi of Peki’in, a direct ancestor of the Zenati family.

KEEPING THE SPARK ALIVE

The remnants of Peki’in’s Jews struggled to keep the spark of Jewish heritage alive. Great efforts were expended to strengthen the community or at least to save it from extinction. One of those who held Peki’in close to his heart was the late President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. In the years before the establishment of the state,Ben-Zvi visited Peki’in in his official capacity as member of the National Council, the Jewish shadow government of Mandatory Palestine, to see what could be done to prevent the demise of its Jewish presence.

In the report he submitted in 1922 he noted that there were 14 Jewish families residing in the village at the time, a total of 48 persons. “Although the Jews living in Peki’in boast illustrious ancestors and may bask in their glorious past,” he wrote, “their life at present is indeed sorrowful. Their material situation is difficult primarily due to their lack of adequate land for agricultural purposes.” He also mentioned the local cemetery. “The land on which the old cemetery lies is slowly diminishing as locals steal the earth for building purposes. And there are those who even have their eye on the ancient carob tree attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.” When Ben-Zvi achieved prominence and was elected president, he did not forget his love for Peki’in. At his initiative, the age-old shul was renovated and artifacts from an earlier era—an aron kodesh relief, menorah and other Jewish symbols—were set into its stone walls. Ben-Zvi and the National Council were not the first to attempt to save the small Jewish community from fading into oblivion. A century before, Sir Moses Montefiore expressed a desire not only to preserve the existing infrastructure but also to improve and expand upon it. He was enthralled by the fact that the Jews living there were farmers who earned their livelihood from the soil, and he wanted to help solve their problem, which was the dearth of land.

But despite Montefiore’s good intentions he was unsuccessful in his efforts, and the Jewish community continued to dwindle until its lone remaining member was Margalit Zenati.

THE DEDICATION OF A SINGLE MAN

Margalit’s father, Yosef Zenati, z”l, passed away 33 years ago in 1981. In an essay written about the village around that time, a journalist described Zenati as Peki’in’s “last Jew”: “Beyond a narrow, dingy alley, in a small, dilapidated, time-worn house, sits a watchman, forever on guard. A direct descendant of the kohanim who served in the Beis Hamikdash, his lineage can be traced to family members who settled in Peki’in at the time of the destruction of the Second Holy Temple. A sheep among the wolves, a lone Jew among Ishmaelites, he is a man whose ancestors neither abandoned the Galilee nor tasted the flavor of exile. “Like a character out of a book, Yosef Zenati strides towards you, a diminutive figure, bent and rheumy-eyed, as he guides you along the narrow, twisted trails of a primordial world. Under an azure sky, he stops near one of the village caves…overgrown with green vegetation, and there begins to tell the miraculous, timehonored story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. His authentic Hebrew dialect rolls smoothly off his tongue, a dialect as ancient as the carob branches hanging at the cave’s entrance…” “In the autumn of 1948,” recalls his daughter Margalit, “during the War of Independence, marauding gangs of Arabs were creating havoc in the villages of the Galilee. An Arab band approached the commander of the Syrian army and said, ‘There is one Jew, Yosef Zenati, who lives among us, and he stubbornly refuses to evacuate like all the others.’ “The commander replied, ‘You should learn from Zenati the meaning of love of the land! Do not touch him, not even a hair on his head!’ And so it was, until one of our Arab neighbors informed on us and said that we were standing on the roof, signaling to Israeli aircraft. After that we also had to flee. “We stayed in Nahariya for the duration of the conflict.

Only after the liberation of northern Israel were we able to return to Peki’in, this time forever.” Margalit’s father was frequently asked why he didn’t just relocate to the nearby town of modern Peki’in, which was built after the establishment of the state. Repressing his anger he would reply, “Never! Peki’in was never abandoned by the Jews, generation after generation, and it is here that we await the arrival of Mashiach. Now that the medinah has been established, we should get up and leave?”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER

Margalit Zenati has stood proudly at her post for over 70 years, fiercely guarding the flickering embers of the Jewish flame. On many occasions this has included locking horns with her Druze and Arab neighbors, who never ceased harassing her. Yet while she managed to preserve the legacy of her family and Jewish Peki’in, she also wept in despair as she witnessed Jewish families picking up and leaving time and time again. “They moved to Teverya, Tzefat, Yerushalayim and even Hadera,” she says sorrowfully. “It was the ongoing harassment of the local Druze that forced them to leave their ancestral home. There was only one family—one person, to be exact—who prevailed, and that was Yosef Zenati, my father, who refused to leave. He was persecuted, humiliated and subjected to hunger, yet he remained rooted to his spot in Peki’in until the day he died.” Margalit can recount countless incidents that occurred between her family and unfriendly locals from as far back as 1948. But these incidents only served to strengthen her family’s resolve and fortify their connection to the land.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

A major dispute erupted decades ago when the local municipal council approved a plan to provide water to the population from the spring attributed to the Rashbi.

The Zenatis strongly opposed the idea, since it would have entailed the destruction of the spring. “Why is it that the entire country can get water from other sources and here, in a Jewish state run by Jews, they want to deliberately destroy the spring of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?” Yosef Zenati asked indignantly. “It took us by complete surprise!” Margalit recalls. “The situation called for an aggressive campaign and vigorous protest. Every other country in the world treats its holy places with respect. And even the Druze, Christians and Muslims believe in the power of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. So we went to the media. “In the end, under pressure from my father, the plan was scrapped and an alternative plan was adopted. The villagers now use the waters of the spring as a special remedy.” However, the struggle to preserve the sanctity of the ancient Jewish cemetery continues into the present. Extending over an enormous area east of Peki’in, its tombstones are worn and the inscriptions are barely legible; the steep slope is often strewn with broken headstones, leaving many graves unmarked. “Most of the graves are ultimately unable to withstand the ravages of the wind and torrential rain so typical of this area,” she explains ruefully. “The cemetery has also unfortunately been desecrated by several buildings that were erected, as there are no clear markings delineating its boundaries. It’s a truly vast and ancient cemetery.

Everyone who sees it is amazed. “One time, several members of the local council requested a permit to build a road directly through the cemetery. My father lay down under the wheels of the tractor as it began to plow the graves. The Arabs were forced to stop the work.” In this instance Yosef Zenati had the upper hand, but the Druze clansmen never forgave him for dealing a blow to their pride. Around the same time, Margalit (known as “Juhara” to the Arabs) was tarring the road next to the old shul when rioters suddenly appeared and began beating her with their fists. Generous to a fault, she had no qualms about responding in kind, giving back twice as much as she received. Nowadays Margalit can be seen walking with her head held high, visiting various Jewish sites and sacred landmarks, with even radical Arabs maintaining a respectful distance.

AN ETERNAL LEGACY

As the years passed, Margalit became a mystical figure held in awe by the locals. Even those who don’t exactly love Jews, to put it mildly, can’t help but admire this unusual woman, as demonstrated by the fact that even after the 2007 riots she continued to operate a tourist information center. To this day the keys to the ancient shul jangle in her pocket, and despite her advanced age she remains active, working in the fields and giving guided tours.

Zenati concludes our interview by describing her father’s final days. “Father was aging; he despaired to see how so many relatives had already left. Some family members had even abandoned the Holy Land for England and the United States. Only my mother and I remained faithfully at his side. The Ministry of Religious Affairs was paying him starvation wages—200 pounds a month!—in return for maintaining the holy sites. But Father wasn’t thinking about his sorry personal state of affairs; his only objective was to bring Jews back to Peki’in. His goal was twofold: to rehabilitate the Jewish community and to renovate its holy sites. He was afraid that when he passed on there would no longer be any Jews in Peki’in, and this caused him great anguish. “‘It is unconscionable,’ he would say amidst his tears, ‘that with my passing, the Jewish settlement of Peki’in will come to an end.’ “But as a righteous Jew with complete emunah, he would immediately comfort himself with the words of the Navi in Eichah (5:21), ‘Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha v’nashuvah—Bring us back to You, Hashem, and we will return; chadeish yameinu k’kedem—renew our days as of old.’ My father firmly believed that this prophecy would come true in his lifetime and Jews would return to Peki’in. “If there is one thing that encapsulates my dear father’s inheritance,” Margalit Zenati concludes, “it is his eternal pride in the Jews of Peki’in. This is what he wanted to pass on to future generations.” Margalit Zenati’s eyes moisten as she reiterates the words that carried her father through until the end of his life. “With a gleam in his eye he would wave his hands back and forth and proudly sing these words to a special tune: ‘Lo azavnu et haaretz v’lo galinu mei’al admateinu—We did not abandon the country and we were never exiled from our land...”