Neve Tzuf /Halamish: Fluff or Flint

Tegert Fort courtyard, Neve Tzuf. Near base of wall on right are iron rings to tether horses of British cavalry
Tegert Fort courtyard, Neve Tzuf. Near base of wall on right are iron rings to tether horses

Tzuf is the nectar made by flowers. It is sweet, evaporates on the wind, and is produced in such small quantities it seems insubstantial, l ike a bit of fluff. When a group of Jews moved into an old British Tegart Fort to found a new community about 30 km north of Jerusalem, they wanted to name their town Neve Tzuf. They believed this was the ancient land of Tzuf, where Saul went to look for his father’s donkeys. While here, he met the prophet Samuel, who anointed him the first king of the children of Israel.

Their evidence for this claim came from their surroundings. Eve Harow, our guide on this trip, explained that Arab towns throughout history have kept their names, many of which go back to the Talmudic or to older Biblical periods. The names have changed slightly because of the differences in pronunciation between Hebrew and Arabic and the need to transliterate them from one alphabet to another. Nonetheless, the old Hebrew name can be seen within the Arabic one. The Arab town closest to where the Jews wanted to build their community is named Umm Safa; the nearby wooded area is the Tsafa forest. The first Israelis to live here believed Umm Safa was the Arabic name for the area of Tsuf. The government declared that was not enough evidence to support naming the new Israeli town Neve Tsuf, and they named it Halamish (flint).

Hard unyielding rock like flint, sturdy and enduring, would seem to be the opposite of Tzuf. But in looking at the early history of the community, you understand that both groups gave fitting names to the settlers who founded it. The people may have looked soft and gentle like tzuf, but inside they were hard and tough like halamish.

The pioneers came to the area during the winter of 1978-79 and lived in an old British Tegart fort (usually misspelled as Taggart forts). These forts had originally been designed by the policeman Charles Tegart for use in India during British rule there. They were built to withstand prolonged attack. During the Palestinian mandate period, the British had built a line of Tegart Forts as military police stations along the Lebanese and Syrian borders to decrease Arab weapon smuggling. They also built forts in strategic locations in the interior. These stations were built of reinforced concrete and had storage for supplies and water to last a month. When the British pulled out of the country in 1948, some Tegart forts were used by Israel or Jordan as police stations or military outposts. Many were eventually abandoned. Today abandoned Tegart forts have been turned into museums, arts centers, and schools.

The first winter in Neve Tzuf was very hard; the Tegart fort was cold and uncomfortable. Some of the original forty families left. There was talk of abandoning the attempt to build a town here. By the end of two years, only six men remained, who by then lived in an abandoned shipping container. At a community meeting, the leader asked them individually to state if they wanted to stay or leave. One after another the answers came back. The result was unanimous—all were resolved to stay.

Today, more than thirty-five years later, Neve Tzuf/Halamish is a thriving town of 280 families. It is classified as a Yishuv, a community that has no shared economic basis. Although it is a mixed community, with religious and nonreligious residents, everyone is expected to publicly observe Shabbat. As Shifra Blass, who has lived here since the early 1980s, said, “Men have their heads covered, or not. You see women wearing long skirts, and women in shorts.” Nonetheless, there is a great deal of social togetherness, including the school that all the children attend. Although the largest proportion of residents is native-born Israeli, other townspeople come from Russia, South America, U.S, Australia, South Africa, and Europe.

Shifra also talked about relationships with their Arab neighbors, which were cordial for many years. Her teen-age son Shlomo had gone into business with the teen-age son of the muezzin in Deir Nizzam, less than 3 km away. The Arab boy recruited women to crochet kipot (skullcaps) using patterns from a book supplied by Shlomo, who then sold the kipot to his friends. The kipot were well made, colorful, and very popular. The business was so successful, they were able to export crocheted Israeli kipot to South Africa. When the First Intifada broke out in 1988, the business was no longer viable. Even if the women had been willing to continue to make kipot for the Jews, the PLO had killed the muezzin, and the Arab teen-aged business partner was now living with family elsewhere.

The highlight of the our tour of Neve Tzuf was our visit to the old Tegart fort. Part of the fort has been converted into a specialized high school for religious girls to study music. The school has been so successful, a second arts high school, for religious boys, is now being planned.

The other half of the old fort has been converted into a gan, a day care for young children. We arrived at closing time, and our bus became part of a small traffic jam: two cars and one bus trying to use a one lane street to a dusty parking lot.

The entrance hallway to the gan is narrow. The forbidding gray/beige cement walls are decorated with children’s drawings. Once inside, we turned to the left, and entered a large courtyard surrounded by classrooms. The courtyard and classrooms were brightly lit by the sun. The children were chattering in several languages, telling their parents about the day’s events. Some were walking, some were strapped into strollers. One of the teachers was grabbing each parent to give a reminder about an upcoming activity.

Gan (daycare) courtyard in old Tegert Fort, Neve Tzuf
Gan (daycare) courtyard in old Tegert Fort, Neve Tzuf

The courtyard was wonderfully large. It held standard day care equipment— climbing equipment, sand boxes, a large parking area full of colorful riding toys—and was partially covered by a large blue tarp to shield the children from the sun.

As we walked toward the other courtyard, to the right of the entrance, the director of the school stopped us. She was leaving and needed to show Eve how to lock the door when we finished looking around. Most of us on this tour were Americans, and we felt a cultural disconnect. The teachers and parents here did not know any of us, yet we had been allowed to walk in and wander around during the confusion and chaos of dismissal time. And then, we had been left to lock up for the day. What school in the US would allow such a thing?

Some of us went into the second, larger, courtyard. It was empty of equipment and furnishings. It was just an empty dusty area open to the sky. We noticed an unusual feature of one of the walls. Small iron rings were screwed into it at intervals. This was where the British cavalry had tied their horses.

As she locked the door, Eve commented that this building was an example of how we turn swords into plowshares. I looked up at the outside of the forbidding structure, and thought about the toddlers’ riding toys and bright pictures on the walls inside.

Swords to plowshares indeed.

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