In the Footsteps of Israel's Founding Fathers

Guides in the Galilee's Beit Zaid, Beit Shearim and Kfar Yehoshua bring history to life when they share the dramatic stories of the area's past.

Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad

Tali Zaid has a small amplifier she wears hooked to her waist. As we walk in the morning up the hill to Moshav Beit Zaid, Esther Ofarim sings out from the device, at high volume, Israeli poet Alexander Penn's words:

"I betrothed you with blood/ that went red and went still/ on the hills of Sheikh Abrek and Hartiya."

For a moment I worry about the peace and quiet of those in nearby houses, surrounded by greenery. At Beit Zaid there are only six landholdings, where 10 families and about 40 people live. Nearly all of them are Tali Zaid's relatives; hence the confidence that no one will be too put out by the singing.

Beit Zaid

These are the hills of Sheikh Abrek and Hartiya, which are adjacent to the southern edge of Kiryat Tivon, some 15 kilometers southeast of Haifa. Tali, the granddaughter of Alexander Zaid, the first inhabitant of the area, is a pleasant woman who has the knowledge and the ability to tell the story of her family simply yet dramatically.

Alexander Zaid was a veteran of the Jewish defense organization Bar Giora, which later became Hashomer. In 1926 he came to the Sheikh Abrek hills with his wife Zipporah and their four children, and served as a guard on behalf of the Jewish National Fund. Twelve years later, he was murdered close to his home; that murder shocked the entire country.

Tali's tour begins in her own yard. She recounts the family history as she shows me some black and white pictures of Alexander and Zipporah in the lower Galilee, both looking like sturdy farmers. The children in the photos hold thick sticks. Soon, we wander into other yards. We stop at a white rope at the property of one of Tali's cousins - there to keep people from entering. Tali explains that on the property are the remains of the 2,000 year-old ancient synagogue of the ancient Jewish town of Beit Shearim - now an archaeological site.

Tali admits that not everyone in her family is so enthusiastic about the tours she conducts among their yards, but she shrugs and turns up the volume a bit on the device she totes around.

We go past another cousin's goat pen and continue up the hill to the grave of Sheikh Abrek, an ancient Arab structure with two white domes. According to tradition, a Muslim saint is entombed there. At one time it was claimed that this is the grave of Barak Ben Avinoam, who commanded the army for Deborah the Prophetess.

Suddenly, Tali Zaid wrings her hands and goes pale. "This is not good," she says to me worriedly. We head up the hill toward the large and familiar bronze statue of Alexander Zaid on horseback, and the source of her distress becomes clear. The previous night a prankster had fitted a bright orange woolen hat over the horse's ears. I try to hide a smile but Tali is not amused.

She immediately phones her cousin Avishai to tell him what happened. The mockery of the statue erected by sculptor David Polus in 1940 appalls her, but she is also concerned that I am photographing the horse in the orange hat. She is reminded of 2007, when the horse was knocked down; it took great effort to restore it to its previous glory.

After a few minutes Tali is still visibly upset, so I carefully climb up the monument and remove the hat from the horse's head. Tali calls me her hero and the two of us walk over to a tree near the sheikh's tomb and sit in its shade to rest.

At this point, Tali's tale reaches its dramatic climax. The story involves the murder investigation conducted in the early 1940s to find out who killed her grandfather, a local Bedouin, and that Bedouin's execution by a cell of the Palmach - the pre-state underground Jewish militia. It is fascinating to hear this chapter in the history of the Jewish settlement here from a family member. Tali's personal involvement, her family saga and her close acquaintance with those involved all afford the tour in Zaid's footsteps, and the story she tells, amplitude and significance. And by the time she finishes, the view of the Jezreel Valley and the yellow fields where the haze of the dust storm has been hovering since the morning all look a bit different.

A few minutes later, as we stand next to the grave of writer Eliezer Shmueli, author of "People of Genesis," which was published in 1933 (five years before Zaid was murdered ), the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. The book is about a family remarkably similar to the Zaids and inter alia, tells of a murder that threatens to destroy the family and its life's work in the valley. Shmueli is buried in the Agudat Hashomrim cemetery, a short walk form the Zaid home.

Decades ago his book, which I read when I was 12 years old, had already become a heroic myth of the settling of the land. Zaid's family lives this myth every day. They remain the tough and adventurous children of nature Shmueli depicted 80 years ago. About 20 meters from Shmueli's grave, Alexander and Zipporah Zaid are buried. Not far from them lay their sons and their daughter. Tali Zaid points out the local stone from which the tombstones are hewn and the wonderful view of the valley. Then she goes silent.

As we walk back, the voice coming from Tali's waist belongs to Yaffa Yarkoni, who belts out the words of Natan Alterman's "Rina": "No, no, I am not a man/ Like a vacuous Don Juan/ My love is tougher than the plague/ It's my habit from back then, from Sheikh Abrek."

Beit Shearim

A debate has been raging in recent years about who gets the credit for the discovery of the Beit Shearim burial caves, which date back to Talmudic times. Was it Alexander Zaid, who - legend has it - boldly entered one of them to reveal the amazing find? As the story goes, Zaid was looking for a stray goat when he stumbled upon the caves. He immediately wrote to historian Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (who would eventually become president ) and to archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, who became the first to excavate at the site, in 1936. Or was it Nahum Meron, one of the founders of nearby Kibbutz Alonim who said he was on a hike when he found the caves. Or maybe it was the shepherd Efraim El-Yash, who lived on the Sheikh Abrek hill alongside the Zaid family? The descendents of all three are prepared to fight it out to ensure that their particular ancestor will get the credit he deserves.

None of the people to whom I spoke will admit this, but it is easy to see that there is no love lost between the Zaid family and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which manages the Beit Shearim National Park. Some of the Zaid family's grazing lands and plantations are located within the park. The statue of Alexander is also in the park, even though it is outside the fence and one can visit it without paying a fee.

Revital Weiss, who has been the manager of the park for the past 15 years, is an energetic woman imbued with a sense of mission. During the tour she conducts for me in the park she gushes with stories about the glorious history of the place, which especially flourished during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Around the site are dozens of spacious caves where stone sarcophagi lie; the chambers and the sarcophagi are embellished with reliefs, inscriptions and wall paintings. In all of the caves there are Jewish symbols: the seven-branched candelabra, the Holy Ark and the ram's horn.

It is impossible to overstate the importance and the beauty of the well-tended park at Beit Shearim. Yet, even Weiss admits it is not very prominent as a tourist destination. The number of visitors there does not testify to its importance, she says. Only about 70,000 visitors come to the park each year and most are Israeli.

It's a pity tourists are not more aware of this place, because there are not many spots in Israel where it is possible to become so well-acquainted with the fascinating period after the destruction of the Temple, about 1,800 years ago. It was then that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna and the head of the Sanhedrin - the ancient judicial council - went up to the Galilee, first to Beit Shearim and then to Tzippori. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi is buried in one of the caves in the park, which brought to the area many more rabbis, who wanted to be buried near him.

Weiss takes the greatest pride in the development of the newest part of the park, which was inaugurated in 2009. Here, it is possible to visit a large complex called the Menora Caves. I too was excited by what I found. In each cave, there are several large reliefs of a seven-branched candelabra and other decorations. I relished the moment as I stood there, in the pleasantly cool caves on a hot summer afternoon.

Kfar Yehoshua

Haemek train station in Kfar Yehoshua, a few minutes' drive from Beit Shearim, had some glory days during Alexander Zaid's lifetime. The train operated for about 50 years, from the beginning of the 20th century to 1948. Twice a day it stopped in Kfar Yehoshua, which at that time was called Tel Shamam, as it took passengers from Haifa to Dera'a in Syria and from there, to the Hijazi Train, the great vision of Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Seven beautiful stone buildings have remained there as testimony to the great days of the train.

The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites has in recent years turned the place into an interesting site for families. It features a miniature electric train that allows visitors to get to know the story of each of the seven main stations on the line, as well as an amusing film about the history of the train.

Shimon Zafrir, manager of the site, proudly shows me old railroad tracks, reddish with rust and completely warped out of shape, and explains that these were brought here only yesterday when a contractor who was doing work along the path of the tracks found them.

"These are original tracks of the Haemek train," explains Zafrir, "and for us they are a treasure."

The trucks rumbling along the adjacent road are engaged in building the line for the new Haemek Train, the one that perhaps, as early as 2015, will go from Haifa to Beit She'an. There is a disturbing thought that comes to mind when one sees them. Is it possible that we are making an effort to achieve something the Turks had already achieved 100 years ago?

The Alexander Zaid memorial. Credit: Moshe Gilad