Our plan was simple. We were going to stop in the Druze village of Peki’in mostly because it is connected to Kabbalistic mythology and because Jana had arranged for our group to experience Druze hospitality at a dinner that evening. Peki’in is connected to Kabbalah because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the first century CE, hid there from the Romans in a cave with his son for 13 years. As the myth goes, during this 13 year forced meditation retreat, Bar Yochai wrote the Book of the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah.
Before walking down the steep slope in Peki’in to find the cave, our group stopped for a little chumus at Rayah’s, a local hole-in-the-wall little eatery. You can see that we have our priorities straight. Once restored a few of us began our descent. Beyond the cave itself our guide, Marla, mentioned that this Druze village also harbored and ancient synagogue—renovated many times over the centuries—that was still in use. We decided to pay it a visit.
When we finally got there, the door was locked. Undeterred, Marla walked into a little house next door to ask if the people there knew the person who could open the synagogue to us. Two Druze women sitting around an office desk by their computer told her that the woman caretaker of the synagogue had the key, but wasn’t there at this time. As we regrouped to decide our next move a little old lady, four feet tall, wearing rags from the last world-war, looking like she was a thousand years old and carrying a couple of full plastic bags, walked right by us, muttering to herself. Jana asked out loud if, by any chance, she knew the synagogue’s caretaker. And the women, in an angry and short tone, mumbled back to her very fast: “Yes, of course! It’s me, but I’m not ready for you!!” In shock, and thinking this old woman no longer had all her mental capacities, we followed her to this office space Marla had just emerged back from.
This little office space was no place to bring tourists into. It was old and decrepit, with the paint peeling off the walls. Waiting for the old woman to open the synagogue, a few of us ventured into the two adjacent rooms only to discover a series of ancient objects which, at best, belonged to a flea market. The old lady ignored us altogether for a good 15 minutes casually drinking a glass of Sprite with her two Druze buddies. Eventually, after I pressed her again to please open the synagogue for us, she yelled at me saying that we should first see all the artifacts in the other rooms and only after that would she open the synagogue.
As she walked us through the other two rooms she uncovered for us the most incredible treasure-trove. These artifacts we originally dismissed as the refuse of a hoarding old lady, who was no longer coherent, were actually historical articles she had saved and organized in a way, as her version of a little museum. Her name was Margalit. She was 81 years old. On the walls were pictures of her father and grandfather from early 20th century, although her family had been in Peki’in for over 2000 years and the time of the Second Temple, way before there even was a Druze people. There, on the wall, her grandfather pausing with Yitzchak Ben Zvi, one of the founders of the Jewish state many years before the declaration of independence. Next to it, a photo of the Jewish kids of the 1936-37 school year, with their teacher and their little school behind them. On the side another photo of the attendance record with the name of each kid in the picture written in Hebrew. Walk a little further into the room and in front of you, the old Torah reading table of the old synagogue she had saved, the decorated curtain that covered the old Ark and a few other ritual objects of the very ancient synagogue she was able to salvage from the last few remodelings. I kept asking questions about all these objects, she kept yelling at me each time she answered, as if I should have already known and all my questions were truly idiotic. I was totally in love with her. As we were almost done, she pointed to a book that was open behind a glass case. On the first page a few words were hand written, dedicated to her grandfather: “To the oldest family in our native land; thank you for…” I couldn’t read the rest. Signed: David Ben Gurion. Amazing!! Next to the display case, a large picture of her receiving state honors from Shimon Perez, Israel’s president. Unbelievable!! We clearly had stumbled upon Israel’s grandmother.
After a good half hour of touring her two-room museum, I reminded Margalit that we really wanted to see the synagogue. “Wait!” she angrily muttered, “You have to eat something before and have a little drink!” Of course! We wouldn’t dare crossing the street to visit the synagogue on an empty stomach. I told her we had just eaten a little chumus at the shop on top of the hill. She yelled at me, again, hoping we had eaten at Rayah’s place and not anywhere else. As a matter of fact, I said, that’s exactly where we had eaten and asked why that mattered so much to her? She proceeded to tell us that Rayah’s father saved her father from a handful of terrorists that were about to burn him alive during an attack in the years before the creation of the State of Israel. Sometimes the Universe sends you to eat your chumus in the right hole-in-the-wall place.
It had now been a good 45 minutes Margalit had managed to spend with us and we hadn’t gotten anywhere near the synagogue yet. Finally, now that we had all eaten and drunk a little Sprite, we qualified for a synagogue tour. It took her a few minutes to open the gate of the courtyard and another few minutes to find the key to the synagogue’s front door. I asked her how many Jewish families still lived in Peki’in and used the synagogue? She barked back at me saying she was the only one left in the village. Everyone else was either dead or had moved away. But because Peki’in is a holy place for many Jews (mostly because of Shimon Bar Yochai’s cave), Bar Mitzvahs often still take place at the synagogue. Just before we could enter she grabbed a few twigs put together in the shape of a broom to clear the entry way from all the leaves that had fallen from the magnificent mulberry tree that shaded the courtyard. I graciously told her that she certainly didn’t have to clean on our behalf; that we would be happy to just walk into the synagogue without the front door being leaf-free. What did I just say?!? Here she went again, yelling at me that she wasn’t clearing the front door for us! Was I kidding?!? She was clearing the dead leaves away so that we wouldn’t bring them into the synagogue as we stepped in!! I knew then that she had a thing for me. Why else would she keep on responding so indignantly at everything I asked? She gave us the most incredible tour of this little synagogue, always muttering and mumbling, always angrily responding to all our questions. We all totally fell in love with her. When the tour was over and we reluctantly started to walk toward our next destination, Margalit ordered us back into the courtyard. And as we all sheepishly complied and gathered in front of her, she began to bless us with words from the Torah, words that rabbis pray for healing and success; she blessed us with health and wealth, she blessed our families and our children’s children. Our hearts melted. Then and only then, were we allowed to leave, to get back to our lives. But there is no way for us to do that Margalit. You have changed us forever. Life will never be the same now that we have spent this couple of hours with you. We have truly been blessed by your presence. You are the last Jew of Peki’in and the most incredible person I have ever met. You are a being of light and you will shine in our hearts for the rest of our days. Thank you for teaching us patience, thank you for teaching us to stay open to life’s surprises. Had we not, we would have missed you; and that would have been unbearably sad.
PS: Learn more about Margalit in this article published in HaAretz, Israel’s major newspaper.