[Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son were sentenced to death by the Romans, for publicly criticizing Roman culture] They went and hid in a cave. Miraculously, a carob tree and a spring appeared. They used to take off their clothes and sit up to their necks in sand, and occupy themselves with Torah study all day. When it was time for prayer they dressed, wrapped themselves in their talitot, and prayed; afterwards they undressed again, in order to preserve their clothes.
They lived in the cave for 12 years. Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave, and said: Who will tell bar Yochai that the Caesar has died and the persecution ended? -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b-34a
According to folk tradition, Rabbi Shimons years of meditation resulted in his writing of the Zohar, the central text of kabbalah. And that same tradition places his cave in the picturesque upper Galilee village of Pekiin, today populated by Druze, Moslems, Christians, and Jews. There is a small cave in the village, surrounded by old carob trees, and a few hundred yards away is the village spring. Yitzchak ben Zvi (second president of Israel) and his wife Rachel were fascinated by Pekiin and the tradition of the Zeinati family living there, that this is the one location in Eretz Yisrael that the Jews had never abandoned, since the Second Temple. They researched and publicized these traditions. Today, on the Israeli 100 shekel note, which bears ben Zvis portrait, the background engraving is an illustration of the Pekiin village square.
During the revolt of 1936-39 the Zeinatis left Pekiin temporarily, and assigned a Moslem family to take care of their assets. Today, the last Zeinati in Pekiin is Margalit, a woman in her seventies, who never married, and lives alone across the alley from the ancient synagogue, of which she is the guardian and caretaker. The synagogue, built in 1873, contains carved stones found on the site that attest to a previous synagogue from the rabbinic period.
And a few blocks away is Rayas Place, another tourist landmark a restaurant operated by the children and grandchildren of Raya the matriarch of the Moslem family mentioned above. Their marketing technique for Jewish tour groups is to show off the letter of thanks they received from the Zeinatis. Across the street is a similar restaurant whose Druze proprietors marketing strategy is to point out that he and his sons have served in combat units in the Israeli army.
Last Shabbat I spent with a group of 18-year-olds at the Pekiin youth hostel. At dinner on Friday we decided it would be nice to try to hold our Shabbat morning service in the ancient synagogue. However, what if Margalit were out? Besides, she is known to be a bit fussy, and not always eager to be disturbed by tourists. What to do? The Druze dining room manager, once he had finished explaining the halacha of boiling water on Shabbat (or lack thereof) to some unhappy secular Jewish guests, suggested a solution: the dishwasher on duty happened to be Rayas granddaughter. She could intercede with Margalit on her way home from work.
And so it happened that we held our Shabbat service in a stuffy, cluttered, ancient stone synagogue in the heart of an Arab village, where the bells of the neighboring church could be heard loud and clear. Aside from fluorescent lights, the one modern addition was a new mechitza, dividing the small room into mens and womens sections. Was it a spiritual experience? Not sure; but there was something moving about the continuity of the place, about realizing that people had been praying these same prayers here ever since those prayers had been written.
Later that day, strolling through town, we met Margalit relaxing at Rayas Place, enjoying a fresh-baked Druze-style flat pita, under a large hand-lettered sign: Kosher, under the supervision of Margalit Zeinati.