Mount Meron makes the headlines every year on Lag Ba’omer – a festival between Passover and Shavuot when bonfires are lit – because of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who converge on this peak in the Upper Galilee. They come to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century C.E. sage whose tomb is located on the mount. But it’s just as interesting to wander in the surrounding woods, which have become the makeshift home of a surprising number of people. They live in caves, shacks and tents, and are aided by the abundant amenities offered at the tomb site, which provides charity meals, water, toilet facilities and electricity.
A head count of Meron’s dwellers is tricky because they come and go, but there are dozens of them across the year. Characterizing them is no easier: They’re religious on various levels and on the hippie spectrum. Many are older, but the forests also attract young ultra-Orthodox Jews, Haredim, who have dropped out of the system. Some are homeless or genuine nomads; others could live at home but choose to dwell close to the holiness and stunning views. Some live there all year, others come for a month or two before resuming their wandering.
Yedidya Kimchi, 58, is one of the regulars. I met him near the tomb and he took me to see the two caves that have been his home for five years. “I live with Rabbi Shimon, among the righteous,” he says.
Kimchi was born in north Tel Aviv to a middle-class family that was in charge of pruning trees for various municipalities. “We’re a family of hewers of trees. I was a hewer of trees along the whole of Dizengoff,” he says, referring to the famous street in Tel Aviv. “After I touched a tree there was no need to touch it again for years.”
He also claims to have been an Israeli champion in Greco-Roman wrestling. I’m skeptical, but at home I find an article from 1976 in the newspaper Davar; it says Yedidya Kimchi won the championship in the category of up to 56 kilos (123 pounds).
“I’m here by choice,” he says. “My family is relatively rich. I could now be living in Nes Tziona, but I prefer it here, laid back.”
Kimchi is pretty elegant for a caveman. He doesn’t have a cellphone, but he’s wearing impressive purple pants from which the fringes of an Orthodox Jew’s undergarment protrude. When I compliment him, he tells me that a tourist left a few pairs of trousers in one of the caves and he borrowed them. He offers me a pair.
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In general, he decides which cave to live in based on his mood. Like a real estate agent he shows me his two properties. On one of them someone has sprayed “Na Nach Nachman Me’uman” – a slogan of Bratslav Hasidim, referring to the founder of their sect. But despite all his fondness for Rabbi Nachman, Kimchi would prefer that the rock face remain clean. “I like the original, the natural,” he says. “But never mind. I’ll want to paint it white one day.”
Do you consider yourself a caveman?
“Obviously. Like the patriarch Abraham. Where did he live? He bought the Tomb of the Patriarchs” – which in Hebrew means literally “cave of the double caves.”
But Kimchi also discusses the less attractive sides of cave dwelling. “Sometimes we’re treated badly,” he says. “In the past people tried to evict me. They’d come, shame me and turn the place upside down so I’d leave. What do they care? Am I hurting anyone? I was evicted from the Dead Sea, too, so I just cut loose and went on from there. When they left, I went back.”
He discovered the world of caves during his military service. As a soldier in a unit in the Golani infantry brigade, he fell in love with the caves of the Golan Heights. He was married three times (“To terrific women; one of them is Dutch”) and has one daughter with whom he’s not in touch. “She’s 24, maybe more, I’ve stopped counting.” I ask if his family, whom he talks about fondly, come to visit. “They’re busy,” he says diplomatically.
Do you work?
“I’m done with jobs. I live on a National Insurance disability allowance, and I live a pampered life. I can eat mustard from nature. I also had a woman who came here.”
You brought a woman to the cave?
“Why not? They get turned on; they like weirdos.”
Though the Mount Meron caves are the center of his life, Kimchi likes to travel around the country. On subsequent visits I didn’t find him in the cave. “I wander around, sometimes I’m at Metzoke Dragot by the Dead Sea,” he says, referring to the famous cliffs. “Always with a backpack. I have money and I’m a sociable guy, I tell everyone ahlan wa sahlan” – Arabic for “hello and welcome.”
It’s worth noting that the best-known Meron caver, the legendary Nachman Farkash, aka “the great escaper,” lived not far from Kimchi’s caves. In 2014, near the end of his life, Farkash, a thief who escaped from prison five times, lived in a Mount Meron cave and at age 78 was still battling the inspectors. His body was found, with signs of violence, at the Mount Meron cemetery. Most of the people I spoke to are convinced he was murdered.
The caves are pleasantly cool in the summer, but in the winter they fill up with water or are just plain moldy and nasty. Since Farkash’s death, only one person besides Kimchi has been living in the Meron caves all year round. G. lives deep in the forest on the hill opposite the mount. Kimchi points to the place where he thinks G. makes his home. I ask him to take me to find him, but he says it’s a waste of time: G. guards his privacy and won’t talk to me.
But I got lucky and met G. outside the synagogue near the tomb. “I don’t mess with people from other caves,” says G., who has lived in his cave for 11 years, but keeps its location a secret for fear of thieves. “Cave people took my tools and the authorities stole my computer files.”
He apologizes politely, explains that he doesn’t give interviews and that he doesn’t want the world to know he exists. He then disappears.
People seeking alternative forms of homes have two compounds to choose from here. The first is in the area below the sage’s tomb, the second in the area where the antiquities are. Many caves can be found beneath the ruins. Among them are burial caves where there are mattresses, water bottles, bikes and plenty of tents, among other things. Some of the occupants show up a few times a week or just sleep there; others come occasionally for a weekend and pitch a tent.
Maybe they hope that Rabbi Shimon – himself an anarchistic alternative-lifestyle tenant who hid for years in a cave – will prevent the theft of the tent with his miraculous powers.
Yohanan, 35, a high-techie who abandoned the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, has lived for two months in a zula, a type of lean-to, in the antiquities area. He has built an impressive compound, with a bedroom covered with plastic sheeting against the sun during the day and the cold at night. He also has a living room, a kitchen with a portable stove, a meditation spot, a hammock, a prayer kit with a painting of Garfield, and a library. At the moment he’s reading a book on archaeology.
He immigrated to Israel from Toronto when he was 13. An autodidact, he learned the high-tech business by himself and has since worked on a host of startups, some of them family projects. His last project was in Canada, where he developed a business for mining bitcoin, but before it even began to operate it was sold for a large profit at the height of the bitcoin rush.
“We got out in time; it was insane,” says Yohanan, who is now working from his shed with a laptop. He’s organizing a meeting between a startup and one of the five largest corporations in South Korea. “Life led me here,” he adds.
After discovering religion, Yohanan attended a yeshiva near Meron. A few American immigrants showed him the lean-to, which wasn’t being used, and he left the yeshiva to live in nature. “God showed me the place,” he says.
In reply to my question about whether there’s communal life among the tenants, Yohanan says he’s not actually in touch with his neighbors. But while we’re talking, a neighbor from a nearby hut comes over to say hello. He gets scared and runs off when he realizes a journalist is about.
Why not live in a cave?
Yohanan: “Living in a cave is very hard. It smells, it’s wet, there’s no air.”
Do you miss home sometimes?
“Why do I need four walls? I didn’t feel at home in Ra’anana. I paid money for nothing, just to suffer – period. At Rabbi Shimon’s it’s bombs away, it’s love. I take a laptop and I have an office with a great view.”
And a shower?
“There’s a natural spring up above, and you can shower there for 2 shekels [56 cents]. The most important thing for me from civilization is wet wipes – the West’s most important invention. Nowadays I’m looking for ways to give. To contribute. I think about what the motivation for living is. I always thought the answer was intelligence. But today intelligence is in silicon, and silicon is actually just sand. Is sand better than us? What’s left? Heart. Today I don’t care how much my car is worth. There’s no one like Rabbi Shimon.”
Perhaps reflecting the fact that Rabbi Shimon was an outsider, the atmosphere around his tomb isn’t as pious as one might have thought. It’s a dizzying experience. Alongside graffiti and campaign posters, signs recount the horrific punishments that heaven metes out on anyone who votes in an election. There are warnings against the internet alongside Haredim talking on smartphones. There are posters against army service next to the Likud campaign poster that reads “Netanyahu. Right wing. Strong.” Arab cleaners argue with their Jewish contractor just a few meters from “Death to the Arabs” graffiti.
On the way down to the valley I met a person who said we should call him Pitriya, because like pitriyot – mushrooms – he chooses to sleep under a tree. I’ll just call him P. He’s 50 and a cross between a homeless person and a nomad, by choice.
In the past few decades he has spent two months every year living in the woods of Meron. He once built a makeshift structure nearby, but the inspectors took it apart. Today he simply sits on a thin mattress under a tree cracking sunflower seeds.
“I’m a nature person and I move about from place to place around the country, a kind of Crocodile Dundee,” he says, adding that he’s outraged by the authorities’ evictions on Meron, calling them “twisted phenomena.”
“The authorities evict and uproot people. Instead of asking how they can help, they run roughshod over people. I’ve been coming here for many years. There used to be a water tap for hikers. They sealed that, too,” P. continues. “Instead of messing with us, they should take care of the services here, provide tables and leave us alone. They’re only about money. They don’t think about the people who live like Rabbi Shimon. They’ll say we’re weirdos, fantasizers who don’t live in reality. Actually, we’re the reality.”
One way to check the morality of people and countries in our era is to assess their ecological footprint. By this criterion, the nomads are the best among us. Except for one person, everyone I spoke to gets along without a car. P. uses buses, but more often hitchhikes. Sometimes he just walks; recently, when he wanted to get to Lake Kinneret, he walked for eight hours.
“The authorities hassle anyone who sits quietly on a hill, who simply wants not to take up space and not to attract attention. They think he has no right to exist,” says P. “I clean up the whole forest, put a bag in the garbage can. But they’ll always whip out some imaginary statute against us. They’d like people like me to evaporate. We’ve passed Russia in terms of abuse of citizens. But God sends us help.”
P., a lone wolf today, says he was a good boy who attended schools affiliated with the Orthodox Mizrachi organization and the religious-Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva. He worked for a publisher of books on kabbalah. Finally he got tired of it. These days he does odd jobs like collecting garbage and clearing out apartments. His parents support him all the way.
“They’re delighted. It’s a bit of a hard way, but they say mabruk – well done. It’s better to be here quietly doing Vipassana than for me to get into trouble,” he says, referring to the meditation method. “The quiet here is a healthy quiet, a constructive quiet. I don’t need anything more. I don’t have to go to Switzerland or to the Himalayas.”
It’s mostly ecological issues that disturb P. He gets angry about all the trees that have been uprooted, like someone whose friend has been taken from him. “A whole forest they cut down. I was shocked. Explain to me how something like this happens.”
During the interview P. and I were joined by a silent, very odd religiously observant man who lives in a nearby lean-to and spends most of the day polishing the glass covering the photographs of three rabbis, next to his mattress. He sat for an hour without saying a word, and with an extremely serious look on his face poured us a sweet, bubbly drink from a bottle that for some reason was covered by a large plastic bag.
P., don’t you miss sleeping in a bed in a normal house with four walls and a ceiling?
“The best bed is here. This is the site with the best view. And this is the most normal way to live. The choice of Rabbi Shimon is the best. It’s not a default. Last week it was hellishly hot. The abuse by the authorities must have caused the heat. But Rabbi Shimon has the power to annul evil decrees.”
Do you consider yourself a homeless person?
“The word ‘homeless’ is used pejoratively. I’m a person who moves forward, who wants to meet people. Once I went down to the stream here and sat with [the writer] David Grossman. We talked quite a bit and he said, ‘I’m impressed.’ We talked about culture and heritage. I asked him how much time he devotes to Jewish heritage each week. ‘An hour,’ he told me.
“I said to him that an hour a week is nice but little. These days, if a person is doing yoga, shiatsu, Shinto or something else from Asian culture, people will accept it understandingly. But he’ll be looked at badly if he deals with ancient Jewish culture – and it’s ours.”
What’s your dream?
“My dream is for people to stop seeing nature people as enemies. We’re not different. They’re different. Let us live. Today people have discovered green energy. We chose that years ago, so just don’t bug us.”
Flute, prayer, food
I first visited Mount Meron five years ago, when writing an article about the persecution of the beggars there. I was surprised then to discover that the mountain serves as a home for religious young people who left their families and live in caves and tents.
I meet Y., an introverted 17-year-old who left home three months earlier to “progress toward holiness” at Meron. “The guards at the tomb harass me. If I sing Psalms out loud, they tell me to stop. If I sit, they tell me to get up,” he says.
“When I sleep, they wake me up with a kick. This whole place has become commercialized. I come to be sanctified and to find refuge with Rabbi Shimon. Wherever I go there’s a guard. Yesterday I went to cut down trees in the forest for the bonfire. They asked me where I sleep. This is the house of a righteous man, it doesn’t belong to anyone. In my opinion, playing the flute is allowed and eating is allowed. This is a place of love.”
I ask Y. to take me on a tour of the caves. We walked for about 15 minutes into the marvelous hills around Meron. Behind a bush, a little garbage and barbed wire left by the previous tenant mark a cave. Y. says he slept there until he realized that it was an ancient burial cave. It’s a deluxe three-room dwelling.
“I saw garbage, and God directed me there,” he recalls about his first days. “I arrived here for Shabbat and I stayed. I didn’t even have a change of clothes.”
Not far from the site of Rabbi Shimon’s tomb is a lean-to belonging to Yosef, 37, who arrived two months ago. Next to the parking lot, he built a wooden ramp on which he pitched a tent and above it a little awning for shade. He says he did it all in one day.
Yosef once did renovation work but lives off charity now. He doesn’t want his picture taken because he hasn’t told his daughters what he’s doing. He tells me he’s living on Meron as a kind of mission “to reduce hatred and arrogance.” He expounds on his doctrine.
“We’re not the chosen people; all peoples are equal, including our ‘cousins’ [the Arabs]. Religion doesn’t exist for me. Do you know what the difference is between da’at and dat?” he asks, referring to knowledge and religion. “We are all blind. My mission is to remove money from the face of the earth. Money is damim” – a word meaning both “blood” and “money.”
“Stiff-necked people,” he says of the visitors to the tomb whom he begs for charity. “I say, ‘Have a good week,’ and they don’t respond. For me, intention trumps everything. Don’t give me a measly 10-agurot coin but say ‘have a good week’ back to me. If people don’t say ‘have a good week’ to me when they should, I let out a little roar. It is written: ‘Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor’” – Leviticus 19:17.
As he speaks, ants climb over me. A reminder that, despite the idyll painted by the local people, I wouldn’t survive there. “Creatures must be respected, too,” Yosef says, as I shake off the ants. “I pray for the whole Jewish people, for the animals, too.”