“I was lying there in the coffin with Ben Zakai,” Danny opens, “and they drove those swords through the coffin to make sure we were dead.” Danny, whose family built the first streets of Tel Aviv, tells me how after he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in the first century with Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai in a coffin, they came in front of the Roman ruler. “The governor offered him a wish. Ben Zakkai asked for Yavneh, a small town where the Jews could restart their lives after the Romans destroy Jerusalem. I just kept my mouth shut. That’s how the Jews survived.”
We’re in what’s left of the Palestinian village of Susya, which looks like what Abraham and Sarah’s dwelling must have looked like: a rocky enclave in the desert with sheep pens and hot, vast beauty all around. Five Israeli activists, my father, my son and me are having tea with Azam, who miraculously still lives in his hut with his family and his animals despite two decades of violence, home demolitions and harassment. Matan’s Bar Mitzvah is coming up, so his grandfather is showing him a piece of his life; the landscapes of the South Hebron Hills, the villagers he’s been helping for years, the incredible people who show up in these circles, the work that he says allows him to continue living in this country.
Between cups of sweet spiced black tea, in the shade of his sukkah, Azam agrees to recite one of his poems. In an Arabic thicker than earth he sings of a white goat with patches of black around her eyes. “I raised her like she was my daughter, fed her milk as if I were her mother.” He pauses to tell us that he improvised this poem while visiting his sick mother, and it’s long because she kept asking for more rhyming couplets. He recites how the goat walked behind him one day and butted her head into his back bringing him to his knees, a betrayal he couldn’t take. “You don’t forgive the betrayer,” his mother had insisted. But Azam is a gentle man, and you can tell that he can’t help but forgive this rebellious she-goat.
We thank Azam, and he us for the support, and move on to the next village, Rakiz, a few hills to the east. This is a harder story, which Matan heard during the car ride from Jerusalem. The army showed up at the request of the settlers early in the morning of January 1st. They entered the house of one of the impoverished families of Rakiz. After a…