Tag Archives: History

Gamla–One of Israel’s Oldest Synagogues

Approaching Gamla from the east you can see the camel-like shape of the mountain from above.
Approaching Gamla from the east you can see the camel-like shape of the mountain from above.

The Golan today is heavily agricultural, covered with farms growing apples and cherries, vineyards full of grapes for wine, and cattle. There are almost as many cattle here as people. While the human population is less than 25,000, the bovine population is more than 20,000. Driving around the plateau, we saw many small herds of cattle. The many waterfalls and pristine countryside make the Golan prime tourist area, but there is a caveat. During the years Syria controlled the land, they planted thousands of land mines. Many of the explosives are still hidden just under the surface. Every year a farmer or two loses an animal because it stepped on a land mine.

The earth is one of the most distinctive features of the area. Having been built up over millennia by volcanic eruptions, the soil and rocks are gray to black in color. Although the area is still subject to relatively frequent earthquakes, no one worries about the volcanoes. The last one ceased being active over 10,000 years ago.

Jewish settlement in the Golan is ancient, dating back to the early Biblical period. When Joshua led the tribes of Israel out of the desert into the land, the tribe of Menashe received the Golan. After King Solomon’s death, when the kingdom split, the Golan naturally became part of the northern kingdom, Israel. King Ahav defeated Ben-Hadad, the King of Damascus near today’s Kibbutz Afik. About five hundred years later, Judah Maccabee helped the local Jews fight their Syrian neighbors. His nephew, Alexander Jannai, one of the last Hasmonean kings, later added the Golan to his kingdom.

The area continued to be a battleground during the Great Revolt against the Romans. The most famous battle was the one for the city of Gamla. The name of the city is related to the word ”gamal,” which means camel. From the mountains above, the area does resemble the profile of a camel. It is an isolated hill top surrounded by deep valleys, connected to the mountain on its eastern side by a narrow land bridge. The mountains that surround the site and the challenging terrain make it a favored hiking destination for younger people. A recently built road from the picnic area to a spot near the archeological site allows people to ride part of the way in a bus. But to get to the city itself, we still had to walk about ten minutes from where the bus stopped.

The path winds around the side of a mountain. The drop into the valley on the other side is frighteningly steep. But the view across the valley is breathtaking. In the distance we could see the northern end of the Kinneret and on its far side the mountains of the Galil. We had no idea where the city itself was; we just stayed on the road.

We walked around a bend and saw the city below us, the hill on which it sits nestled among the mountains. From there it was easy to understand its strategic location. One gate across the land bridge could have easily kept enemies out of the city.

It was a sunny day, and by this point on the path we were all hot and tired. The Nature and Parks Authority must have known this would happen; they built a shady shelter at that bend. We sat drinking our water and drinking in the view.

Roman ballista replica, aimed at city of Gamla
Roman ballista replica, aimed at city of Gamla

Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pointed out landmarks within the city to help us understand what we were seeing. On the lower slope of Gamla we saw a wall that the Romans had breached and the remains of the synagogue. Higher up were remains of houses. Next to the shelter the Parks Authority had placed a replica of a Roman ballista, a weapon used in the assault of the city. When I stood behind the ballista, I could see it was aimed at the synagogue. The stones flung from where I stood would have helped break down the city wall.

Three Roman Legions, about 16,000 soldiers besieged the city for several weeks. The 9,000 Jews within its walls resisted for more than a month.

As we entered the city, Shulie pointed out an opening where the wall had been breached by the Romans. Although this was not a major break in the wall, some of the legionaries had entered the city here. But the Romans had also undermined one of the defensive towers protecting the wall and the city. When that fell, the legionaries poured in. They fought their way across the city, pushing the Jews closer and closer to the cliff on the city’s western edge. Many residents threw themselves off the cliff into the ravine far below, rather than be captured. This mass suicide has led to Gamla’s being called the “Masada of the North.”

Shulie Mishkin points out features of Gamla'ssynagogue
Shulie Mishkin points out features of Gamla’ssynagogue

The synagogue faces southwest because Jews have always turned towards Jerusalem in prayer since the day King Solomon dedicated the First Temple. Like other Second Temple period synagogues, it is rectangular, measuring about 52 by 65 feet. The steps on all interior sides would have been used for seating. A mikveh is next to the entrance. Several small rooms and cupboards surround the main room. Their function is unknown today, but many ideas have been proposed. A niche near the door on the southwest side may have held Torah scrolls. Perhaps the room off the western end housed visitors staying overnight in town.

After the destruction of Gamla by the Romans in 68 CE, its location was forgotten. No Jews lived in the Golan until the Byzantine period, about two to three hundred years later. At that time, the northern portion was a pagan center, which then became a heavily Christian area. The Jews stayed primarily in the central and western areas. Around thirty or forty Byzantine era synagogues have been found here. Many of them feature beautiful mosaics, whose style help archaeologists to date the remains.

The large earthquake of 749 CE destroyed most of the communities, as well as Beit Shean in the Jordan River valley. After that, almost no one lived there.

From 1948 to 1967 the Golan was controlled by Syria. They used the beautiful fertile land almost exclusively for military purposes. They built several military and terrorist training bases. Multiple artillery units were stationed in the area, from which they frequently fired at Israeli kibbutzim in the Galil.

After Israel conquered the Golan in the Six Day War, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) sent archeologists to survey the area and locate forgotten Jewish sites. During a lunch break one day, Yitzchaki Gal, a young kibbutznik who was working in the survey team, wandered off from the main group. As he ate his sandwich, he looked at the mountains around and below him. Something looked familiar. As he started to trace the outlines of the hill, he suddenly realized he was seeing  what Josephus had described: the camel shaped-hill on which the city of Gamla had stood. 

An archeological team was dispatched to explore the site in depth. The more places they dug on the hill, the more closely it matched Josephus’ description of the city. Even more importantly, they found evidence that adds details to his description of the Roman siege and conquest.

 Yitzchaki Gal was not the first amateur to discover important relics, nor was he the last. Every year the IAA reports several amazing discoveries made by tourists casually participating in a dig for a week or two or by students hiking through the country. The history of Israel may be very long, but it is still being, literally, uncovered today.

Location of Gamla:

Climbing the Temple Steps

The southern wall of the Temple Mount--Har Habayit.The triple Hulda Gates that led up to the Temple Mount Plaza are in the center.
The southern wall of the Temple Mount–Har Habayit. The triple Hulda Gates that led up to the Temple Mount Plaza are in the center.

The steps at the southern wall of Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, are surprisingly well preserved. The limestone is cracked in some places. In places where the limestone was broken and a step was dangerous, it has been repaired with cement. These obvious repairs allow visitors to see what is authentic and what is the work of modern restoration. We can look at the worn limestone and appreciate the damage that 2,000 years of weather and people’s feet inflict on hard stone. The distinction between the ancient and modern will no doubt blur over the coming centuries, given that today’s concrete will similarly weather in

Two thousand years have taken their toll on the limestone steps leading up to the Temple Mount
Two thousand years have taken their toll on the limestone steps

the years to come.

Meir Eisenman guided three of us on a private tour of the Southern wall excavations. We had started at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, where we could see how the Herodian stones had been placed like Lincoln logs. The long edge of one course of stone faces south, and the short edge of the next course faces that direction. Building this way makes a very strong structure. This system has helped the wall to stand through years of war and its associated destruction, as well as numerous earthquakes.

The construction is distinctive. The stones are large. Archeologists estimate most of these stones weigh between two and three tons; the largest stones are estimated to weigh 80 tons.   Each stone has a sharp incised border, about two inches wide. The Hasmonean builders before Herod also used stones with borders. Their stones do not have such sharp edges, and the borders are not quite as distinct. Obviously, the Roman quality control department had higher standards than the Hasmonean one did.

 When the area was excavated and made accessible to tourists, several piles of the huge Herodian stones were left as the archeologists found them. The stones lie where they landed on the ancient street when they were pushed off the Temple Mount by the Roman soldiers in 70 CE.

We walked around the corner to the southern wall and walked up the steps towards where they enter the mount. The steps are in groups of three: two narrow steps followed by a wide one. The reason for this pattern is unknown. Perhaps the Temple architect put in the wide steps so that the animals going up to be sacrificed had sufficient space to stand comfortably. Perhaps this pattern was to ensure that people coming up to the Temple would have to watch their steps. They would take time to think about the act of worship they were about to perform. Meir posited a third explanation: the irregular pattern is to slow the progress of people leaving the Temple Mount. No one should speed away after worship. Ideally they will remain in the contemplative mood inspired by closeness to G-d.

On the festival days of Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, the steps and the whole Temple precinct would have been crowded. At these times, when all Jews were required to come, the stairs would have been jammed with people and animals. While waiting to get in, the adults would have chatted and the children shouted to each other, against a background of sheep bleating and calves mooing. The quiet cooing of the doves would have been lost in the clamor. The people’s attention would have been focused upwards, as they wondered how soon they would arrive at their goal. How long would it be before they would hand over their animal to the Cohen, the priest, to be offered up?

I stood on the stairs, looking at the two sets of the Hulda gates. It was easy to  imagine the crowd and all the animals that needed to be ritually slaughtered and offered up by a Cohen. That would have been my father’s job, I thought. He was a Cohen as was his father before him, stretching all the way back to Aaron the first High Priest. Something of that ancient heritage remained in the family. My grandfather butchered the meat in his small grocery store in Pennsylvania, back in the days when grocers sold only fresh meat. Later, my father had been in the meat distribution business. His plant cut and froze beef, veal, and lamb, the same animals he would have cut had he lived in the Temple era.

He probably carried within him another piece of the ancient priestly heritage–a bit of DNA on his Y chromosome. The Y chromosome, which determines male gender, is the only verifiable piece of heredity that can be traced down the line of male ancestors. In the mid-1990s Professor Karl Skoreki, wanting to test the priestly lineage, gathered samples of DNA from Jews. He found a distinctive section of DNA on the Y chromosome of men who were Cohanim. This mutation has passed down within the cell nucleus for an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 years. It is not often found in Levites, the descendants of Aaron’s brother Moses and other members of the tribe of Levi. Later researchers found the Cohen gene in 45% to 56% of Cohanim, but in only 3-6% of other Jewish men. In the rest of the world’s population this gene is even more rare.

At the top of the southern steps are the arches of the Hulda Gates, three on the right, two on the left. Today the gates are blocked with stone. Once worshipers entered the Temple Mount through them, and walked up the interior tunnel to the Temple precinct itself. This was the main entrance, the one used by all the people bringing sacrifices.

Millions walked up these steps. Hundreds of them brought sacrifices every day. People brought doves or lambs for sin offerings, men came leading a goat or a sheep to fulfill a vow, women brought doves to thank G-d for surviving childbirth. There was probably a steady flow of people up and down the southern stairs. Those ascending went in the gates at the right; those descending came out the gate on the left. Those who came with special requests, such as for comfort following the death of a loved one, healing of a sick relative, or to find a lost object, however, went in the opposite direction. When seeing someone walking the wrong way, worshipers would ask what the problem was. After hearing about the problem, they would naturally reply, “May G-d answer your prayer,” thus giving an additional blessing to the troubled person.

Mount in the model of Second Temple period Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Model of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount in the model of Second Temple period Jerusalem at the Israel Museum

As I looked at the two sets of gates, I remembered what they looked like in the model of second Temple Jerusalem at the Israel Museum. The model was built in the late 1960s before archeological excavations revealed the structure of the steps and wall. Michael Avi-Yonah, the historian who designed it, relied on descriptions by Josephus and Deo Cassius. It shows both sets of gates as double doors in the stone wall. No one yet knew where most of the street ran at the time of the Temple, where the mikves and Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) were, or what the lower portions of the retaining walls around the Temple Mount looked like. Today we have much better idea of all these things. What is most impressive is how accurate the model is, how much of it has been verified by archeology.

My father, of course, would not have ascended to the Temple Mount through the Hulda Gates on the south side. When serving in the Temple, the Cohanim had their own special entrance on the western side. To get there, they walked over a bridge from the Western Hill of Jerusalem, where today’s Jewish Quarter is. The bridge was held up by Robinson’s Arch, named for the British archeologist who first realized what an outcropping from the western wall must have originally been.

Excavations in the area continue. Every year we learn more about ancient Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. What amazes me the most however, is not what has been lost or destroyed, but by what remains. The wall of the Temple precinct stands tall. In this earthquake-prone area, few structures have lasted more than several hundred years. Yet these walls and steps have survived over two millennia.

Visiting King Hussein’s Palace

King Hussein's summer palace on Tell al-Ful, Jerusalem, abandoned unfinished since 1967
King Hussein’s palace on Tell al-Ful, Jerusalem

The first time I saw King Hussein’s summer palace, I was on a tour bus heading north. We were going to spend the day exploring the Shomron, part of the Biblical Northern Kingdom of Israel. As we rounded a bend in a sparsely inhabited area just north of Jerusalem, Eve Harow told us to look up to our left, just beyond the large water tank. There on a hilltop I saw what looked to be the metal framework of a large structure under construction.

But it was not a building under construction, not any more.

In the early 1960s King Hussein of Jordan decided to build a new summer palace in the land his country had captured in 1948. Jordan officially annexed this area in 1950, and called it the West Bank. Only two countries recognized the annexation: Pakistan and Great Britain. Except for periodic trips to the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, the king had ignored the area. Sometimes when he came to Al Aksa, he stayed at his home in Beit Hanina, at that time a small neighborhood north of Jerusalem. Perhaps on one of his trips, he had seen this hilltop, Tell al-Ful. Perhaps he had even landed his helicopter here, to survey the site. He would have been struck by the beautiful breeze, and the incomparable view of the whole city of Jerusalem, the Judean mountains and desert, and the Dead Sea, beautifully blue in the distance.

In 1964, the Israeli government decided to build an official residence in Jerusalem for its President. They announced a competition for Israeli architects to submit designs. King Hussein probably felt he could not be outdone. He consulted architects all over the world to design a suitable palace in Jerusalem, to be built on Tell al-Ful.

Ground for the palace was broken in 1964. Construction proceeded at the usual slow Middle Eastern pace. There was no hurry. If the King did not spend this summer near Jerusalem, he would spend next summer here.

King Hussein once wrote that the biggest mistake he ever made was attacking Israel in 1967. Less than four days after the first Jordanian soldiers attacked the south of Jerusalem, Hussein had lost all the territory on the west bank of the Jordan River.

Work on his summer palace ceased. It still stands today as it was then, an incomplete skeleton of a building.

This week I went to see what is left of the palace on a tour with Chaim Silberstein, president of Keep Jerusalem. The organization works to dispel inaccuracies in media portrayal of the city, its history, demographics, and current events.

The road up Tell al-Ful is paved only part of the way, so the last portion of the ride was quite bumpy and dusty. But as often happens, the worse the ride is, the bigger the payoff. When the six of us on this tour got out of the car, we all agreed the view had been worth the terrible ride.

The first thing we saw was the remains of the King’s palace. The ground floor, second floor, roof, and some walls are intact. Graffiti decorates the walls. A stairway leads from the ground floor to the first floor. The first few steps have deteriorated to a steep pebbly ramp. The steps themselves, where they exist, have crumbling edges. I held the metal railing tightly as I climbed. Chaim mentioned that he had installed the railing himself so he could safely bring visitors. We all ascended very carefully.

The first floor is open in all directions to the view—there are not even low

Looking west from King Hussein's unfinished palace, over most of modern Jerusalem
Looking west from King Hussein’s unfinished palace, over most of modern Jerusalem

parapets to keep you from falling off the building. In a couple places, neat rectangular holes in floor could trap the unwary. Were these meant to be openings in which air conditioning ducts or dumbwaiters would have been installed?

Chaim took us almost to the edge of each side to point out landmarks. To the south lay the Old City. From this angle, we could not see the Golden Dome of the Rock, but he said in the evening, you can see a flash of gold as the setting sun hits it. To the southeast, a barely visible bit of blue–the Dead Sea–peeks out between the tan Judean Mountains and the blue-gray Mountains of Moab in Jordan.

The building has wings going in each direction, so we walked back to the center before walking out to the easternmost edge. Chaim had given us binoculars, and now he directed us where to look for the city of Amman, high in the Mountains of Moab. Between the haze and my elderly eyes, I only saw a fuzzy light colored area. I’m sure King Hussein, had he ever moved into his completed palace, would have had an excellent telescope installed, or perfectly focused binoculars to offer his guests a view of his capital city on the other side of the Jordan River.

Looking north from unfinished palace, over Beit Hanina and Kafr Aqub neighborhoods. In left foreground, part of the King's ten car garage
Looking north from unfinished palace, over Beit Hanina and Kafr Aqub neighborhoods. In left foreground, part of the King’s ten car garage

From our high vantage point, we could see a series of Arab towns and neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city from north to south. From Kafr Aqub, to Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and south through Isawiya and A-tur, to Jabel Mukaber and Sur Bahir, the towns run one into the next with little empty land between them.

Arabs can build without any of the permits that other Israelis need, so they do not submit building plans to the municipality for approval. Nor do they need to meet city building codes, including those requiring earthquake-resistant construction. Israel, lying on the long Syrian-African rift, is subject to many small earthquakes every year, some measuring up to 5 on the Richter scale. The country suffers a large earthquake approximately every eighty years, the most recent one having been in 1927. The next big earthquake will no doubt prove disastrous to buildings that are not up to code standards.

From 1948 to 1967, all the towns on the west bank of the Jordan River, including Jerusalem, slumbered undeveloped. Since coming under Israeli rule, the Arab population in the area has increased from 55,000 to about 300,000, a more than five-fold increase in less than fifty years. Aerial photographs attest to this growth.

These neighborhoods have grown in an unplanned fashion. In photographs, there are no green areas visible and streets have no pattern. These Arab neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city have all developed since 1967.

Even the neighborhood around the King’s summer palace has changed. When King Hussein picked the site, nothing had been built on the sides the hill, or even close to it.

But the site had not always been empty. Charles Warren was the first archeologist to explore this hill. He dug here in 1868, and identified it as ancient Gibeah, where King Saul had his headquarters, as described in the Biblical book of Samuel. C. R. Conder, in 1874, and William F. Albright, in 1922 and 1923, also excavated here and agreed with Warren. The evidence, they said, supports the view that the first fortress here was built by King Saul and later either he or King David repaired it. Professor Israel Finkelstein disagrees with that opinion.

The question of what really lies under the surface of Tell al-Ful can only be answered by further archeological excavations. Many archeologists would jump at the opportunity to dig here. Some have said that Tell al-Ful is the second most important archeological site in Israel after Ir David, the City of David. But unlike most of the land in Israel, this hill is privately owned, by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. King Abdullah has shown no desire to learn the answer.

Perhaps Saul was the first king to live on this hilltop with its lovely breezes and view of the mountains of Judea and Moab. Or perhaps Hussein and Abdullah would have been the first kings to do so. Maybe someday we will find out.

Location of Tell al-Ful and palace:

Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Jerusalem

Standing at entrance to Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem
Standing at entrance to Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem

One of the first things you notice when you walk in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center is the fabulous view of the Hinnom Valley and the Old City walls through the large arched windows on the eastern side  the building. It takes an effort to remember that only 50 years ago the view of the walls would have been much less pleasant. The valley was then No Man’s Land, between Israel and Jordan, full of weeds and the barbed wire. The beauty of the city walls was there, but hidden.

I’ve been to the Begin Center several times, and the lobby was always almost empty. This week it was full of people wearing name tags dangling from blue ribbons around their necks. We had come during the international conference of Israel studies, which is not an event advertised in the newspaper we read. Like many international conferences, its “official language” was English, so throughout the lobby we heard a familiar language. I wished I could see the titles of the presentations, but the schedules were reserved for conference participants only.

We had signed up for an English language tour of the Begin Museum. The museum is the section of the Heritage Center that presents the life of the former Prime Minister and his legacy The videos in each room would be in Hebrew, but we could hear them translated through our headphones.

Before we went in to the museum, our guide asked what people knew about Begin. Most of the answers offered were from the last quarter of his life: peace talks with Egypt, Anwar Sadat’s visit, Nobel Prize. I contributed that he was head of the Irgun (also called Etzel) in World War II and until the Irgun was totally integrated into the IDF in mid 1948. 

Each room focuses on a period of Begin’s life, in chronological succession. Photographs on the walls surround the video screen so that visitors can absorb a feel for each period and see some of the people he worked with. Almost every video included clips of speeches he had made. After the first room or two I turned down the volume on my headphones, so I could hear the original Hebrew. I was surprised by two discoveries. First, I could understand him! He spoke clearly and slowly enough that even if I didn’t get every word, I knew what he was talking about. The man had opinions and strong beliefs, and had no trouble expressing himself. And then I realized what an effective and powerful speaker he was. I’m old enough to remember when Likud won the 1977 election and Begin became Prime Minister. I remember Sadat’s visit, the Camp David talks and accord, and the Nobel Prize ceremony. But I don’t remember ever hearing him make an important speech before a crowd or in the Knesset. Hearing these clips was a revelation.

The other woman in our small group of six visitors was about our age (I later found out she is a few years older than me). Other than our guide, she was the only one not wearing translation headphones. In the introductory room, where they briefly mentioned the election Likud won, she seemed very moved by a video of the announcement that Menachem Begin would be the new Prime Minister. It was almost as if she was reliving the experience. Later, she verbally disagreed with the guide’s explanation of an incident in 1948, when the IDF, under orders approved by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion sank the Altalena just off the coast of Tel Aviv. The ship carried essential arms and ammunition brought by Begin’s Irgun to Israel. Thousands of people saw the attack. They breathed the smoke from the wreck for two days.

As the guide led us to the next room, I asked the woman what she had wanted to add. She said her father was a doctor, and he had taken care of some of the people from the Altalena. They had told him that the firing had been in one direction only—from the shore at the ship. Begin, on shipboard, had ordered the Irgun members not to fire back. He refused to allow Jews to kill Jews. The Palmach members of the IDF had received no such order, and continued to fire at Irgun members in the water, those trying to swim away from the sinking ship. Later in life, Begin would say that he wanted to remembered as someone who had prevented a civil war.

After the museum tour, we admired the view of the Old City from the terrace. It was too hot to stay out there for very long, so we climbed the stairs at the south end of the terrace to see the archeological excavation.

The Begin Center is built into the side of the hill that descends into the Hinnom Valley. As with many building projects in Jerusalem, when they began to dig for the foundation, they found something very old. Here they found tombs from the First Temple period. In Israel, it is possible to determine the period a burial

 First Temple period tombs behind the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem
First Temple period tombs behind the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem

cave was used by how the dead are treated. These tombs feature stone slabs with a round indentation at one end. The dead were placed on these slabs, dressed in shrouds, with their head resting in the indentation. At the end of the official mourning period, one year after the death, the family would return to the tomb and remove the bones to a repository located under the slab. When the Bible refers to someone being “gathered to his fathers” as a synonym for ”died,” it means the phrase literally.  

Near the burial caves the workers, under the supervision of archaeologist Dr. Gabi Barkay, found another, later, burial cave. This one contained the graves of Roman soldiers of the 10th Legion from the late Second Temple period. This was the Legion that laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. The cave was used for other purposes during World War I, as evidenced by supplies left there by the Turkish army.


Golan Synagogue: Majduliya

Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan
Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan

About thirty-five of us followed the archaeologist down a dirt track across the high plain of the Golan. In every direction, all we saw were dried yellow grasses and an occasional purple thorn flower. Here and there, a black basalt rock stuck up through the vegetation. In the distance, off to the northwest, the faint blue gray mountains reached up into the bright blue sky.

Mechael Osband PhD, the archeologist who had discovered this site, reached the seven wire cow fence. He opened the gate by lifting one post and peeling the wire back to let us through, asking one of the men in our group to close it after everyone had walked through. He was not about to let any cow wander through his site.

From a short distance you can't tell that this is the site of an ancient Golan synagogue
From a short distance you can’t tell that this is the site of an ancient synagogue in the Golan. Sign reads: Danger. Entrance forbidden. Archaeological excavation.

My class on the development of prayer and the synagogue carefully walked down the track. Neither Mechael (pronounced Mee-chah-el) nor Shulie Mishkin, our guide, felt the need to make sure we didn’t wander off on our own; the thorns on either side of the path were too numerous. They grabbed at our skirts and slacks. My classmates wearing sandals complained that they should have worn sneakers.

We passed through another gate in a wire fence, all but invisible a few feet away, and saw black earth, some black rocks, and lines of white sandbags. This was Majduliya, Mechael’s first archeological dig of his own, one he had discovered about a year and a half ago during his post-doctoral research. He was now preparing for the new season.

This part of the Golan was known as an area of Jewish settlement in Second Temple times. Not far from Majduliya are the remains of Gamla, a Jewish stronghold during the Great Revolt, which was captured and destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. Many other towns in the Golan are mentioned in the Talmud.

Thus, it has long been of interest to archaeologists. Gottlieb Schumacher, the German-American engineer who surveyed the route for the Damascus-Haifa railway and excavated at Megiddo, came by here in the late 19th century. In his survey of the Golan plateau, he mentioned Majduliya, saying that its original name is not known. He did find four ancient olive presses, but the area was already known to be an olive growing area. He concluded that there was “nothing of interest here.” Little did he know.

Mechael discovered the site while conducting a survey of Roman pottery in the Golan. A pool of water in the middle of the field attracted his attention. Then he found something man made, some dressed stones in a row—a portion of a wall. Inside wall or outside wall? That was yet to be determined.

When you find a wall, he told us, the first thing you want to do is find a corner. That will tell you the orientation of the building. Starting from the corner, you can then look for other corners and determine the size of the structure in question. Before he walked over to the first corner, he pointed out indentations in two stones, evidence that two doors had led into the structure.

He walked along the northern wall over to the eastern corner, pointing out benches built into all four walls. From the size of the building— about 50 by 75 feet—and the presence of the benches, he determined that this was obviously some type of public building. But he still needed to determine the ethnicity of the village in which it was found.

The presence of a mikveh is the generally accepted sign of a Jewish town. In most of the places where synagogues have been found, at least one mikveh has been found nearby. But almost no mikvaot have been found in the Golan. This site isn’t completely excavated yet, so the lack of a mikveh is not significant. However, the excavators also look for artifacts that are associated solely with Jewish habitation—stone vessels.

The Jews in earlier periods observed laws of ritual purity and impurity strictly. The advantage of vessels, such as cups and bowls, made of stone is that stone cannot contract impurity. The presence of stone vessels means that Jews lived in the area. Although stone vessels have been found at other sites in the Golan, none have been found yet at Majduliya. Finding them would show the archaeologists that this was a Jewish village, so they will continue to look for stone cups and dishes this season. Finding such vessels will confirm that building must have been a synagogue because the only large buildings found in Jewish villages of the Roman period were synagogues.

But more evidence was waiting to be discovered.

He turned the corner and walked along the southern wall of the building, the wall closest to Jerusalem, the direction of Jewish prayer. About halfway along its length, he knelt down, and leaning over, moved a few sandbags. “These things were found in the last week.”

During the month-long active archaeological season in midsummer, dozens of students and other volunteers will be busy here. They will carefully dig with small shovels and clear away soil and debris with brushes. But now, four weeks before the volunteers arrive, Mechael is the only one at the site. He’s getting ready for the busy time. Nonetheless, the lure of possible discovery is too strong. It may not be the season yet, but as he examines the site to see what has changed during the rainy winter, he is not averse to uncovering something that looks promising. Which is what he did on this southern side of the building.

As he hunched over, he pointed out that the area he was leaning over was lower than the rest of the building. A lower area on the side closest to Jerusalem is typical of synagogue architecture of the Roman period.

The sandbags he moved had been protecting two objects, which he now held up. They were red and looked like pottery. “Anyone know what these are?” he asked.

Most of us shook our heads. One brave person hazarded a guess. “Roof tiles?”

Mechael smiled. “These are tiles from the roof. Tiles came with the legions; they show that the synagogue was built in Roman times.”

From seeing excavations of earlier towns, I knew that roofs had been constructed either from stone beams or wood and mud. When the Romans ruled the land, they needed to provide year-round work for the soldiers. In the winter, the cold rainy period when fighting ceased, the legions were put to work making tiles. When digging the foundation for the Binyanei HaUma, the international convention center in Jerusalem, builders had discovered the Tenth Legion’s tile factory.

Carefully placing the roof tiles on the ground, Mechael moved two more sandbags and lifted the corner of a rubber mat. He peeled it back, and then brushed some of the dirt from the surface. Small white spots appeared through

When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.
When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.

the black dirt. He brushed some more dirt away and sat back on his heels, a pleased expression on his face.

The white spots looked to be the size of the small tiles used to make mosaics. And indeed that is what they are. Most Roman period synagogues found so far have mosaic floors, and Mechael believes he has found one here as well. Only time, and painstaking removal of the dirt covering the floor, will confirm his belief, or tell him he jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on too little evidence.

As he discussed the possibility that he has found a mosaic floor, he mentioned that finding it cleared up another mystery. Now that it is summer, the whole area is dry, but when he first saw this field in the winter, a pool of water filled this area. “Of course,” he said, as if the idea had just then occurred to him. “There’s no drainage here–there’s a floor under it!”

A small village once stood here, with a synagogue near its edge. The whole site is about seven and a half acres, and only a small part of it has been excavated–a few houses and the synagogue. Much work remains to be done, and will no doubt take several years to accomplish.

Mechael Osband is enthusiastic about the prospect of uncovering all of it.

Josephus at Yodfat

Looking down at a line of simulated Roman attackers from near the top of Yodfat
Looking down at a line of simulated Roman attackers from near the top of Yodfat. The Roman camp was in the valley where the bus is parked.

Rome. Its name still evokes conquest, power, and empire over 1500 years after its final downfall. Yet the tiny province of Judea fought the mighty empire for more than three years. The Roman legions may have been unstoppable, but the stubborn Jews refused to give up. There were some exceptions; Yosef ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the most famous.

Yosef was a Cohen who had worked in the Temple in Jerusalem. In his youth he lived with the ascetic Essene sect in the desert for three years. Later he traveled to Rome and pursued a classical education. On his return to Judea, at the start of the Great Revolt in 66 CE, he was appointed military commander of the Galil.

We have few details about his life, beyond what he chose to share in his autobiography. And for political reasons, his autobiography may not have been dedicated to the true facts of his life. What we do know is that as commander of the Galil, Yosef went to Yodfat, called Jotapata by the Romans, to command its defense against the advancing legions.

The city of Yodfat stands on a hilltop about 25 kilometers  west of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). With cliffs on the east side and very steep drops on two other sides, it is accessible only from the north. And even from the north, the climb is steep. Most of the people in my class, including me, were out of breath from climbing part way up the hill to a stopping place. We sat on rocks overlooking the parking lot where our tour bus was parked far below. That valley was where the Romans, under the command of Vespasian, had camped during the brief siege. They didn’t have to put up a tight perimeter wall as they did in other places; geography itself prevented defenders from leaving for supplies.

The path to the top was neither as long nor as winding as the famous Snake Path to the top of Masada. The ledge where we stopped to learn about the battle

Roman battering ram (replica).The end does look like a ram's head.
Roman battering ram (replica).The end does look like a ram’s head.

looked to the north, towards what would have been the camp of the  Roman 15th Legion. About a third of the way up the slope, two rows of long spears and shields stand as if held there by invisible Roman soldiers. Next to where we sat stood a replica of a Roman battering ram. The replica weapons were placed here to give visitors a hint of what the enemy might have looked like to defenders.

After conquering the hill, the Romans had destroyed what was up there, and left. The only evidence that remained were traces of foundations, a few mikves, and some cisterns. No one ever built there again. It was not of sufficient strategic value. But this is where Yosef ben Matityahu, and a band of fighters made a stand in 67 CE during the Great Revolt against the Romans.

At the beginning of the revolt, Yodfat was one of the towns that was fortified with a surrounding wall. Undeterred by the height of the hill or the city walls at its top, the Romans built a ramp to the top. Their archers and spearmen were able to shoot over the wall. A battering ram damaged the walls themselves.

The siege went on for 47 days. It was summer and although they had sufficient food, the town ran out of water. When Yosef instituted water rationing to preserve what little they had, the people complained that knowing they had so little each day made their thirst even worse.  And then the Romans broke through the wall. Titus, Vespasian’s son and one of the commanding officers, led the legionnaires into the city, where they killed all the men and captured 1200 women and children. The Romans then razed the city, and burned what was left.

Forty of the fighters survived the initial Roman onslaught and retreated to one of the caves that dot the sides of the hill. Yosef proposed that rather than allow themselves to be killed by the Romans, or be captured and taken into slavery, they should take their own lives. They would choose, by lottery, men who would be responsible for killing others. In the end, two would be left. One would kill the other and then kill himself. Maybe Divine Providence helped Yosef that day, maybe it was sheer good luck, or maybe he had somehow rigged the lottery. Whatever it was, Yosef was one of those last two men.

Perhaps he had already known when he arrived at Yodfat that the Jewish revolt was doomed to fail. Perhaps he realized it as he looked down on the Romans from the city walls. He does not write about his thinking. It is unclear what happened to the other man, whose name is unknown, but we know Yosef ben Mattityahu, Jewish commander of the north, surrendered to the Romans.

Somehow he managed to convince them not to kill him. Being able to write better than the Roman commanders, he suggested they needed an official historian. He offered his services. The captive Jewish general was useful to the Romans. Changing his name to Flavius Josephus, he wrote the history of the Great Revolt, The War of the Jews. This book is almost the only detailed written record we have of the end of the Second Temple period .

When we read history, we always ask, how reliable is this author? Does he take an objective stance, or does he have some agenda to promote? In The War of the Jews, Josephus clearly has an agenda—his own survival. He needs to flatter the Roman generals, so they will allow him to live. By the time he writes Antiquities of the Jews many years later, he is no longer worried about his survival, and is somewhat more objective. So should we trust him as a historian? Yes, and no.

As Shulie Mishkin often says when referring to Josephus, “When he does not have a reason to lie, he tells the truth.” So when he writes about life in the Second Temple period, or about geography, he is trustworthy. Indeed, many of his observations and comments have been supported by archaeological finds. But when he is talking about war and the Romans, that’s another story.

Although Josephus wrote War of the Jews in a way that glorifies Rome and the achievements of her brave legions and its officers, the book nonetheless tells us many details that we would otherwise not know. Even if in doing so, he invented some of those historical details. For example, he reports the speech made by Elazar ben Yair on top of Masada the night before it was captured by the Romans. It was a stirring inspirational speech. Josephus most likely wrote and polished every word himself, since the only survivors at Masada were two women and five children who would not have heard Elazar’s words. I wonder how much of Elazar ben Yair’s speech came from Josephus’ own words to his men at Yodfat.

But most other non-military details in his history are accurate. Some of us climbed further from the ledge where we had paused to catch our breaths and hear the story of the site. Josephus wrote that the Romans killed 40,000 people in Yodfat, and, indeed, the flat top of the hill is large enough for a city with that size population. We could see traces of building foundations, but not much h

Near the eastern edge of the city--the dark green hills are on the other side of the Yodafat wadi
Near the eastern edge of the city–the dark green hills are on the other side of the Yodfat valley

ad been excavated. We walked towards its eastern edge. The drop to the valley far below was breathtaking. It induced thoughts of slipping on a pebble and dropping so fast and far it would take a team of dedicated mountaineers and people being lowered from a helicopter to rescue you. I backed away as quickly—and carefully– as I could. Although two people went even closer to the drop, no one dared standing on the absolute edge. No wonder the defenders of the city felt invulnerable. Unfortunately for them, the Romans had enough men and supplies to make the word “invulnerable” meaningless.

When the archaeologists finally came to Yodfat, they found one cistern had been filled with bones. They also found a stone nearby with two drawings carved on it. One was the ancient symbol of a mausoleum, the other a crab, the zodiac sign of the month of Tammuz, the month that the Romans conquered the city. After the Romans left the area, someone had come to Yodfat to take care of the dead, depositing their remains in this one place, and marking it with a memorial stone.

Tour guide Shulie Mishkin at monument to fallen defenders of Yodfat
Tour guide Shulie Mishkin at monument to fallen defenders of Yodfat

Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, known in the US as the Jewish National Fund, has erected a monument to the defenders of Yodfat at the foot of the hill. Above the story of Yodfat are the two strange symbols. The fight against the Romans may have been futile, but we remember the stubborn fighters who tried to restore Jewish rule to the land.

Yodfat’s location

Magdala on the Kineret

Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.
Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.

Father Juan Solana was impatient. He had started a project to build a center for religious tourism at Migdal (Magdala).  The Legionaries of Christ had bought the land by the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and received approvals from national and local authorities. All they needed was certification from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that nothing of historic value would be disturbed.

“When will you finish?” he asked Arfan Najar, one of the supervising archaeologists sent by the IAA in 2009.

“Two, three months,” replied Arfan. They would dig a couple trenches, find nothing significant, and leave.

Arfan chuckled as he related that story. He was standing in the middle of the archaeological excavation at Migdal where he is still working, seven years later. ”Father Juan keeps saying, ‘Please finish. Please finish.’”

Everyone in my class from Pardes on life in the Second Temple Times laughed. We were at Migdal this week to learn about the Great Revolt (66- 70 C.E.) which ended the Second Temple Period. We’ve heard a similar story in several other places. In order to construct something new in Israel, the builder must obtain a permit from the IAA. Thinking there is nothing interesting at the site, the IAA sends a relatively unknown archaeologist to conduct a salvage dig. A salvage dig, the archaeologist reassures the builder, doesn’t take too long. He digs for two months, maybe three. Then he writes his report that there’s nothing important at the site, and the permit is issued.

But once in a while the archaeologist finds something interesting, something of historical significance and the dig continues for years. Some of the most important recent archaeological finds have come out of salvage digs. These include findings from the Givati parking lot and the Kishle in Jerusalem. That’s what happened at Migdal.

Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. Note the menorah in the middle and the oil jugs to each side of it
Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. The menorah with oil jugs to each side of it can be seen on the end. The original stone is in the IAA storehouse.

Arfan and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the other supervising archaeologist, and their team started digging a trench. They dug through the earth about a foot and a half and found a large rectangular stone. As they brushed the dirt from the stone, they became more and more excited. It is about the size of a large foot stool, and has short legs. The four sides and the top are intricately carved with incised religious symbols from the Second Temple era.

Within two months the archaeologists had unearthed parts of walls of what looked to be a decent sized building. The salvage dig was extended, and then became a full-fledged archaeological dig sponsored by Anahuac University of Mexico, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the IAA.

The building they unearthed is a synagogue, dating from the first century. Because a few coins were discovered in the foundation, the archaeologists know that the building was built about 30 years BCE. In 67 CE, when the Romans conquered Magdala during the Great Revolt, they destroyed the whole city. However, this building was not buried in rubble of its upper layers. Here, at the edge of the city, no destruction layer was found. The foundations, lower walls, mosaic floor, and the mysterious stone remained intact under a layer of earth for almost two thousand years.

Magdala had been built by the Romans as an administrative and commercial center for the whole Galil and served that purpose for years. The Temple in Jerusalem still stood; it was the religious center for the country. Very few synagogues existed at the time—there was no need. In 2009, when Najar and Gorni started digging, only six synagogues had been found in the whole country dating from the Second Temple period, all in the south. The only evidence of synagogues in the north came from the Christian Bible, in the stories of Jesus’ preaching. Magdala was the first Galilean synagogue to be discovered.

Like the other synagogues of the time, it is built with stone benches on its perimeter, and faces Jerusalem. The floor is decorated with a black and white mosaic in a geometric design, which reflects the great wealth of the community. Since all the pieces of the support columns have been found, the archaeologists know the ceiling was about three meters high. The main room was large enough to hold 120 people. Two small rooms on the southern side had shelves and were most likely to have held Torah scrolls.

Herod, the great builder of Caesaria, Masada, Herodyon, and the Temple, was also a great despot. He managed to hold on to the Roman province of Judea and keep everything under control. The Judean kings who came after him were not so strong, and became puppets of Rome. The real power was held by the Roman procurators, who tried to extract ever more taxes from the country. The Jews were not going to tolerate so much Roman interference and they rebelled. The Great Revolt of the Jews started in the Galil and spread south to Jerusalem.

Magdala is built on the flat land between the Kinneret and the cliffs of Arbel, just north of Tiberius. It had no natural defenses. Joseph ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the Jewish commander of the Galilee. He ordered a wall be built around the city. The Jews of the city realized it would  fall to the Romans. They did not want the synagogue desecrated so they decided to carefully dismantle it. The stones of the upper walls and the top two-thirds of the columns that supported the roof were used to build the defensive wall. The bottom third of the walls and the furnishings, including the Stone, were then covered by a thick layer of earth. They were holy and would not be subject to destruction—the layer of earth would protect them.

And protect them it did, until two thousand years later an Arab and a Jewish archaeologist dug and swept it away.

Magdala is a town of significance to Christians because of its association with the life of Jesus. Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala) may even have been the wife of Jesus, according to a minority interpretation of scripture. This association is what brought Father Solana here. He wanted to build a hotel to house religious pilgrims and a spiritual center that would be open to all faiths. The spiritual center, called Duc in Altum, has already been built close to the Western shore of the Kinneret.

The synagogue was found where the hotel was supposed to be built. After being redesigned, construction has finally started. As Arjan told us about the excavation, he occasionally had to stop speaking for a moment or two because he could not be heard over the construction noise. The new design incorporates the synagogue and other elements of the ancient city into the hotel. One wall of the lobby will be glass, offering hotel guests a close view of the ancient synagogue. A wing of the hotel is built right up to the eastern side of the synagogue.

Up to now it has been thought that early synagogues played a different role than today’s synagogues do. The word for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Knesset, House of Gathering. People came here to meet friends, study Torah, and attend community meetings. Communication with God was through sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue only became a Beit Tefila, a House of Prayer, after the destruction of the Temple, when people had to find a new way of communicating with God.

Archaeologist Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial's vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch
Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial’s vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch

The Magdala stone may have served as a resting place for scrolls, such as a Torah scroll. It is the right height for a seated person to read. Or perhaps it was a reminder of the Temple, designed to give the building an aura of holiness. Many of the incised designs—the menorah, the table, the oil jugs, the arches—are fixtures or architectural elements of the Temple. The rosette design on the top of the stone might be a reminder of the heavenly chariot, as described by Ezekiel. One thing is sure—it was found in the oldest synagogue ever discovered (so far).

One feature that always helps identify a building as a synagogue is a nearby mikve. So it was natural for someone in my class to ask Arjan where the mikve was. He said that four mikves had been found in the town. Then he turned and pointed to his right. “But we have here the Sea of Galilee,” he said with a smile, “the biggest mikve of all!”

For many years the town of Migdal, ancient Magdala, was of interest only to Christian pilgrims. Thanks to a Catholic priest’s desire to build a spiritual center, and the work of both a Muslim and a Jewish archaeologist, one of the earliest synagogues has been discovered. As more artifacts of life in first century Galilee are uncovered, it may well become a site of interest to more Jews as well.

Location of Migdal:

The Road to Jerusalem: Latrun

memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.
At the memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.

Near Latrun, just southwest of where Road 3 crosses Road 1, a small memorial overlooks a wide valley. The valley looks beautiful and peaceful under the warm late winter sun. The farmland in a dozen shades of green stretches to the Judean mountains where the Latrun Trappist Monastery and the old British Tegart fort can be plainly seen. This is the Ayalon Valley, whose long bloody history belies its pastoral sleepiness.

The Ayalon Valley is one of a very few east-west valleys in the region. Because it is wide and flat, in ancient times it linked two major trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its flat terrain also made it perfect for war. The Ayalon was where Egyptians fought Canaanites, the sun stood still for Joshua, the Maccabees fought their sixth battle against the Seleucids, the Byzantines fought the Arabs, the Arabs fought the Crusaders, and the British under General Allenby fought the Turks in World War I.

Here is where the nascent State of Israel fought the Jordanian Legion. Whoever held Latrun controlled the Ayalon Valley and the road to Jerusalem. Both sides recognized its crucial geography. The Haganah tried to capture Latrun from the Jordanian Legion, the best trained and equipped army in the Middle East, three times.

The first battle is probably the best known. The myth is that Israel sent untrained immigrants, just off the boat from European DP camps, to Latrun to die. The truth is much more complex.

New immigrants were given rifles, quickly trained, and sent to join the Haganah. But in the plans for battle, they were placed in the rear. In front of them were better trained fighters, men who had been in battle already. In front of those fighters, was G’dud (battalion) 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, the best trained most experienced fighters of the Haganah. Leading them was the best, most experienced officer, twenty year old Arik Scheinerman. A large force was assembled to capture the poorly manned fort in the middle of the night, May 26.

In war, as in other parts of life, things do not always go according to plan. The intelligence was not current. The Israelis did not know that in the previous few days the Jordanians had reinforced the garrison at Latrun. Instead of a few dozen soldiers, the attackers would face the fire of 2000 better trained better armed soldiers.

The other problem was timing. The Israelis wanted to attack at night because they needed to cross the large flat valley directly in front of the fort. To win, they needed the cover of darkness to surprise the defenders. However, instead of starting at 12 AM, they did not move until 4 AM, just before dawn started to light the valley. They had lost the element of surprise. Not unexpectedly, they lost the battle as well.

Arik Scheinerman, a young soldier in the Haganah's Alexandroni Brigade
Arik Scheinerman as a young soldier in the Haganah’s Alexandroni Brigade (Getty Images)

Arik, the twenty year old commander leading the attack, was severely wounded in the abdomen early in the battle. As he lay there in the sun, he was sure he would die, with soldiers dying all around him, gave the order to retreat. For the only time in his career, he ordered that the wounded be left on the field. But one of his men decided to try to pull him to safety. They had to move slowly and carefully; they were under Jordanian fire, and Arab villagers were on the field killing the wounded and stripping them of anything of value. Numerous times during the next few hours, as the soldier slowly pulled the officer towards safety, Arik told him to go, to save himself. The soldier was as stubborn and brave as Arik was. It took hours, but both men made it to safety behind the Israeli lines.

Arik’s experience under the guns of Latrun reinforced his conviction never to leave wounded or dead soldiers behind. This has been one of the operating principles of the IDF up to today; they do not leave the wounded to die or be captured.

Even dead soldiers are used as bargaining chips by our enemies. Their bodies are held and returned for proper burial only in return for some advantage. In 1986, after Israel released over 1000 convicted terrorists in exchange for the body of a kidnapped soldier, a new protocol was developed. It stipulated that all efforts be made to rescue a kidnapped soldier, even at the risk of endangering his life. Kept secret until 2003, it has come to be known as the “Hannibal Protocol.” Because of events in recent wars against Hamas, the IDF is reconsidering the Hannibal Protocol. Soldiers lives have been lost and many enemy civilians have been killed in IDF efforts to bring home our kidnapped soldiers.

Hamas knows Israel will do all it can to get even dead bodies back.

During a cease fire in the summer of 2014 war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and two other officers were shot by Hamas gunmen in Rafah, Gaza. Hadar was pulled into a tunnel. One of Hadar’s men continued to follow the trail of blood into the tunnel to try to rescue him. When he realized his efforts were futile, he returned to his unit, bringing with him evidence of Hadar’s death. The IDF never announced what that evidence was, but it was enough to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Rabbinate to declare him dead.

Although the Goldin family sat shiva, said Kaddish, and observed the other rituals of mourning, they were not satisfied. Today, over a year and a half after his death, they are still pressuring the government to bring Hadar home for a proper burial. Hamas understands the lengths Israel will go to in order to bring her people home, alive or dead. Israel released over a thousand convicted terrorists to get Gilad Shalit released five years after his capture. Hamas wants a similar payment for Hadar Goldin’s lifeless body.

A few weeks later the Haganah became the Israel Defense Force. Arik Scheinerman became Arik Sharon. Known as a daring, clever, and at times insubordinate officer, he rose through the ranks. He eventually served as Chief of Staff and Prime Minister of Israel.

And Latrun?

Israel attacked it two more times. Both attempts were equally unsuccessful. It remained in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, the siege of Jerusalem needed to be broken. Where Israeli might did not work, Jewish ingenuity did. In the midst of the war, with little heavy equipment, the Hganah built a new road through the impassable mountains. It was completed two days before the first ceasefire on June 9, 1948. Without this road, Jewish Jerusalem would have been choked off by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies, and forced to surrender.

The new road, ironically called the “Burma Road” after a British road similarly built during a war, under extreme conditions, supplied Jerusalem for the next five months. Then a good road, properly engineered and built opened. But the Burma Road remains. It is a monument to the hard work and sacrifice that went into the founding of the State.

Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948
Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948

As is the memorial across the Ayalon Valley from Latrun. Next to a pale stone arch that frames the valley battlefield is a stone pillar that lists the names of the members of G’dud 32 who died during the first battle of Latrun. Fifty eight names are listed here. Fifty-eight men from one unit—a shockingly high percentage. Over a thousand men were on the battlefield, and only seventy five were killed. G’dud 32 had been the best soldiers of the Haganah, the most experienced in battle, the bravest. The untrained fighters, the new immigrants, fought behind the Alexandroni and the other trained units and suffered relatively few casualties. G’dud 32 had borne the brunt of the battle, and they suffered accordingly.

Latrun would remain in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem, for the next nineteen years. Yet the siege had been broken. New roads would be built, and Jerusalem would survive.

The Road to Jerusalem: Mishmar David

Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Dorps who gave their lives in service to Israel
Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Corps who gave their lives in service to Israel

Mishmar David is one of those places in Israel that I never knew about until a tour guide took me there. It was once of the key points in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948. Once Eitan Morell told its story, I wondered why I had never heard about it before.

Mishmar means guard, so Mishmar David is David’s Guardian. In this context, it refers to those who guard Jerusalem,the City of David. Atop the hill is the memorial to the Haganah Engineers and their successors, the IDF Engineering

IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)
IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)

Corps, who gave their lives protecting Jerusalem. It’s not too far from Road 1, at the top of one the hills that border the road, and marked by a few small brown directional signs. Basically, if you don’t know it’s there, you probably won’t find it. Yet this spot was critical during the time the British were preparing to leave mandatory Palestine and to the new nation of Israel.

The Arab siege of Jerusalem started months before the proclamation of the State. At the time Jerusalem was just a small city. It could have been classified as a Jewish outpost since it was surrounded by Arab towns. Those Arab towns not only surrounded the city, they also surrounded the road to it. Strategically, Jerusalem was worth little. It was distant from the population centers, surrounded by the Mountains of Judea, far from a good source of water. It had no decent airport nearby and didn’t even overlook any major road.

But psychologically, emotionally, it was worth everything. As the direction of Jewish prayers for millennia, as the focus of longing for a land of our own, Jerusalem was the heart of the nation. Without Jerusalem, there could be no Jewish nation.

Even the nonreligious David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and first prime minister of Israel, recognized this. Although he was determined to keep the Negev part of the new country, he pulled army units from the south to save Jerusalem.

Saving Jerusalem meant breaking the Arab blockade.

The first attempt to break the blockade was sending convoys carrying food, water, and weapons from Tel Aviv. Armored trucks and jeeps carried the supplies. The word “armored” is used loosely here. The vehicles were covered with thick boards, over which thin sheets of metal were attached. They offered a little protection against bullets. Worse, the “armor” made the vehicles much heavier, which slowed them down on the way up the steep roads through the Mountains of Judea on the way to Jerusalem.

The road wound up to Jerusalem along the valleys, through the mountains. Arab villages were located on almost all the hilltops, which made the slow-moving trucks easy targets. The truck drivers knew that their chance of getting through were not good. In every convoy, at least three, and maybe five or eight, drivers died. Nonetheless, as long as the Haganah was able to send supplies, men and women were willing to drive the vehicles.

On March 30, a large convoy gathered at Hulda to make its way to Jerusalem. Although winter was almost over, it was still the rainy season, and it rained. As the slow trucks passed Mishmar David, one after the other become bogged down in mud. The Arabs on the nearby hilltops saw, and attacked. They then looted what remained. Little of the valuable food or weapons arrived in the city, but the Arabs in the nearby villages were well armed and well fed for weeks.

Convoys continued to travel, Arabs continued to attack, and truck drivers continued to die, but a trickle of food reached the city.

Zipporah Porath, a young American who had come to Jerusalem to study for a year in the fall of 1947, described the convoys in one of her letters home that spring:

           “A convoy…generally sets out from Hulda or the outskirts of Tel Aviv                   with thirty, forty, or fifty trucks laden with hundreds of sacks of flour,             canned food, other staples and fruit—the city’s needs for less than a                   day—accompanied by a couple of armed escorts to “protect” it. Burdened             as they are, the trucks, which can’t travel faster than about ten miles an             hour, are perfect targets for a bloody massacre by the Arab bands that             lay in wait.

          “If the convoy is in luck, maybe fifteen or so of the trucks will make it to            Jerusalem. If they have ben waylaid by roadblocks, most of the trucks                will be knocked out of commission and block the way for the others, so                the whole shebang becomes sitting ducks for the Arab attackers and the            precious cargo is dislodged, scattered and looted. We’ve lost so many of              these armored trucks—along with their drivers and Haganah protectors—            that stocks are now almost nil. “ (Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, p.              135-136)

Jerusalem was kept going by the convoys for several weeks. The memorial at Mishmar David includes a map of the area as it was in March and April 1948(see below). The British camps are yellow, Arab villages are red, and the Jewish settlements, including Jerusalem, are blue.

Map of road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948 at Mishmar David, showing Arab (red) & Jewish towns (blue)
Map of the road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948

Looking at the map, I wondered how the city managed to remain in Israeli hands. Jerusalem’s rescue seems like the hand of G-d, working through the hands of the Engineering Corps and soldiers of the IDF. I’ll describe what they did later—it’s too long a story for one installment.

When I came to Israel in 1962, the destroyed trucks and jeeps still sat at the side of the road to Jerusalem. They were the rusted skeletons, left where they had been stopped as memorials to the brave men and women who had saved Jerusalem. Our guide told us that they would not be moved from the roadside where they sat because they were people’s graves. The visible deterioration and the rust that had accumulated in fourteen years contributed to their emotional impact.

The trucks still sit there today. You can see them as you travel Road 1 near Sha’ar Hagai. In the smallest national park in Israel, six old truck skeletons sit in the grassy median between the east bound and west bound lanes.

None of the trucks are exactly where they had been stopped by Arab bullets; they have been moved several times as the road was widened or straightened. Periodically, they are taken to the shop and given a coat of preservative paint, to keep them from rusting away to nothing. The pale green paint is not quite the color of old rust. The solidity and new look of the painted relics lacks the emotional impact of the old rust. Their smoothness covers up the destruction and deterioration beneath. Visitors who don’t know the history of the road probably think they are statues placed artistically along the road towards Sha’ar Hagai, not even identifying the location as the fearsome Bab al Wad. The urge to preserve them is understandable—they are the only physical evidence of the lives sacrificed to save Jerusalem, to keep it part of yet to be born Jewish state.

Nevertheless, I miss the rust.

To get there:

On the Road to Jerusalem: Hulda

"Defense and Labor" memorial sculpture by Batya Lishansky at Hulda
“Defense and Labor” memorial sculpture by Batya Lishansky at Hulda

All tour guides study the same curriculum and take the same tests to get their license. They all understand and convey how the topography of the land influenced history. They all have a mastery of the history of the land that I envy. But each one also has a special interest or develops a specialty. It is these specialties that make them stand out from each other. Eitan Morell tells stories that make the past come alive. As he takes groups to different places he slowly builds his story of seemingly unrelated events until it all comes together. He makes a convoluted history seem like a straight line.

He called a recent tour “Tales from the Road.” All that those of us who signed up for the Orthodox Union (OU) sponsored tour knew was that we were going to be staying fairly close to Jerusalem. Most of us had been on one of Eitan’s tours before, and we knew it would be interesting.

Our first stop was Ya’ar Hulda, Hulda’s Forest, less than a half hour outside the city. It’s not too far from where Road One, the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, crosses Road 3, one of the main east-west roads in the country. We would also visit Mishmar David, Latrun, and the Har-El monument. All the names were familiar to me, but aside from visiting the Tank Corps museum and monument at Latrun, I had never been to any of them. They are so close together, they would be a nice day’s hike for a youth group learning about the rise of the state and the battle for Jerusalem. However, the OU tours cater to a distinctively older clientele, and we traveled from site to site by bus.

At Hulda, we entered a large walled courtyard. This, Eitan informed us, was once an agricultural school. Founded in 1908, on land bought from the Arab landowner, it was a place for Jews from Europe to learn agricultural methods before going out to settle the land. Started two years before the founding of the first kibbutz, Hulda served as a model for both kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the land.

World War I severely stressed the whole Middle East. Shipments of food and money to Israel stopped. A drought at the beginning of the war resulted in food shortages. The 1915 locust plague demolished all that year’s crops. People starved all over the country. Most of the people at Hulda left, but a few hardy pioneers remained.

We had driven through a forest to get there, which is not unusual in the environs of Jerusalem. Today the Jerusalem forest forms a broad ring around the city, but in the early 20th century, no forest existed anywhere in the country. Israel’s forests are man-made, every tree planted by hand on land bought by the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) with money contributed by Jews all over the world. Scattered through those forests are trees I paid for as a child by collecting dimes from all the grown-ups I knew.

The JNF had planted its first forest of olive trees here, but because of the drought and other unsuitable conditions, most of those trees had died. Following the war, Hulda reestablished itself and by 1929 it was a thriving agricultural settlement. However, the dusty courtyard where we stood was at that time still surrounded by dusty hills.

Nothing happens in isolation. In Jerusalem, the ongoing dispute for power and influence between the Nashashibi and Husseini families was about to spill over and affect the rest of the country. At that time the Nashashibi family held political power—Rajib Nashashibi was mayor of Jerusalem. Haj Amin al Husseini was the mufti, the Muslim religious leader. He knew the way to gain power was to gather the people to him. The best way to do draw them together was to preach violence against the Jews, whose population had been steadily increasing. Husseini was a superb orator, and he knew how to use his skill. On Friday August 23, at services in Al Aksa mosque he promised that anyone who killed a Jew would go straight to paradise on his own death. He then continued, falsely claiming that the Jews planned to burn down Al Aksa, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. At the end of the service, the worshipers streamed out of the mosque, down from the Temple Mount, and out the Damascus Gate into the new city. They destroyed the neighborhoods of Nissim Bek and Eshel Avraham. As they approached the walls of Mea Shearim, Aaron Fishler pulled out his rifle and shot several times into the air. The unarmed mob dispersed.

The rioting spread from Jerusalem. Over the next few days, Arab mobs killed 67 Jews in Hevron, leaving mutilated corpses in looted houses. In Tsfat, the Arabs murdered 20 Jews, wounded 40, and looted and burned 200 houses. As a result of the rioting and looting, people fled from the Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa, Haifa, Acco (Acre), Nablus, and Gaza, never to return.

The residents of Hulda, a small settlement surrounded by Arab villages, realized they were in danger and appealed to the Haganah for help. The Haganah sent twenty fighters, led by Efraim Chisick. Some of these men could stay only one day.

Beit Herzl, where defenders of Hulda took shelter from Arab attack in 1929. The trees would have been about waist high then, little more than bushes.
Beit Herzl, where defenders of Hulda took shelter from Arab attack in 1929. The trees would have been about waist high then, little more than bushes.

When the Arabs attacked on September 4, the people at Hulda quickly realized the wall around their courtyard would not hold for long. One by one they crawled across the courtyard to the stone house, which was protected by an additional wall. Efraim covered them and would be the last to go. With no one to cover his retreat, he was killed by the Arabs only a few yards from the house. The 13 remaining Haganah fighters and the 24 residents of Hulda continued to defend themselves through the afternoon into the night.

Somehow word of the attack was relayed to the British army, who came and dispersed the Arabs. The soldiers said they had been sent only to rescue people; they refused to take Efraim’s body with them. He was left lying on the ground between the courtyard and the empty house.

A week later, the British allowed Efraim’s brother and sister to go to Hulda for a short time. Without shovels or other tools, they dug a grave with their hands and buried him just outside the courtyard.

Two years later the Chisick family built a memorial at the site of Efraim’s grave. The sculptor, Batya Lishansky, wanted to carve it from one large block of stone, but the stone was too large to move, and had to be cut in half horizontally. Nonetheless, it is impressive—over 12 feet high, and about 5 feet wide. It is called “Defense and Labor,” and depicts three people. The man at the top has his left arm outstretched, like a wing protecting the two people below. He has never been definitively identified, but is believed to be Benny Munter, one of the people who died nine years earlier defending Tel Hai in the north. The other man is Efraim Chisick and the third person is his sister, Sarah Chisick, who also died defending Tel Hai.

The agricultural school was abandoned for two years. When it was reopened, it thrived as a farm and a center of reforestation. But it was abandoned in 1937, when Kibbutz Hulda was founded nearby, on a hill better situated for agriculture.

Its location remained strategic. During the 1948 Arab siege of Jerusalem, the kibbutz served as the point from which convoys carrying food left to try to break the blockade of the city.

But that’s another story. One for another day.