Saturday, July 17, 2004

A few years ago, I was staying with friends in Kiryat Tivon near Haifa. In the late afternoon a group of us walked down a path in the woods. After some time descending the hill we came to a clearing. It was twilight, the sun had just set and it wasn't dark yet.

There before us, already lit up for the evening, were three archways, carved into the rock at the foot of the hill. It was the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, head of the Sanhedrin of old, and compiler and sealer of the Mishna, an important part of the Oral Torah.

I was overwhelmed. I hadn't been to the ancient Necropolis of Beit She’arim since childhood, and had completely forgotten that we used to drive through Kiryat Tivon on our way. My parents used to love Beit She’arim and would to take all our visitors there. I sometimes tagged along.

* * * *

We spent this last weekend in a lovely little place called Beit Lehem Haglilit, Galilean Bethlehem, in a quaint reverted barn, built by German Templars at the beginning of the Twentieth century (These people were all chucked out by the British at the beginning of World War Two, because of their open Nazi sympathies). Our rooms were on the second floor of what used to be the hen house. Our friends slept downstairs in the former stables. Dad made all sorts of cracks about the rooster and the chickens and watching out for the fox, when he rang to see how we were doing. I actually saw a fox, but not in the hen house. I saw him when I went for a little walk. He was at the end of the field, and when he saw me he scurried towards the safety of the trees.

And on Friday morning we went to nearby Beit She’arim . It must be cool in the burial caves, I told everyone, in my attempt to persuade them that it was preferable to the ancient ruins of Tzipori, which I have never seen. I wasn't sure about the coolness, I made a wild guess because I really wanted to see Beit She’arim properly again. But I was right - natural air-conditioning in the dark, damp caves.

And even the kids enjoyed themselves, and found it interesting, more than the usual ‘old stones site’. I think they appreciated the spookiness of being in caves full of graves and coffins, even if they no longer hold any skeletons (all stolen long ago by grave robbers). Us so-called grown-ups enjoyed the Hebrew inscriptions on the sarcophagi and on the walls, and the uncharacteristic use of ‘Goyishke’ symbolism in the carvings (we saw a couple of Roman goddesses, and even a mask of a face), seen as a sign tolerance and openness of the Judaism of the time.

We did something I never did with my parents, we took a guided tour, and our reward was to get in to see the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi himself (and his wife and the rest of the clan, apparently). I'd only ever seen it from the outside, because it’s kept locked.

The other tombs were mainly the burial places of rich Jews of the era (Roman period – about 1800 years ago) who wished to be buried near to him and were transported from all over the Jewish Diaspora of the day.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to revisit Beit She’arim as an adult. I can now better understand why my parents were so drawn to it when they were relatively new to this country, and preferred bringing foreign visitors there than to the more obvious choices in the vicinity of their Haifa home, such as the rather kitschy Bahai Temple.