Children of the Land

by Moshe Dann (June 2012)

The bus station in Afula was packed with local Arabs, Russians and young IDF soldiers on their way to or from their bases, rifles slung casually next to heavy backpacks, the smell of roasted nuts, diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke.

A small, poor town with little industry nestled in the lower Galilee's Jezreel Valley, Afula serves as a commercial and administrative center for the surrounding agricultural communities, Jews and Arabs. I had come to visit my 21 year-old daughter, Ayelet, her husband, Akiva, and especially my grandsons, Eliyakim Shlomo, 3, and year-old Tzadok Aryeh. They lived in Kfar Gideon, a little moshav near Afula, named after the commander of the Jewish army of the north who fought here during the time of Judges. Just a few kilometers north of Jenin, a large terrorist-infested city, people pass through Afula on their way to someplace else.

Inside an L-shaped line of small stores selling fresh pastries, snacks, candies, nuts and newspapers, green inter-city buses pull into uncovered parking spaces where travelers wait to board. Standing at the entrance, surrounded by the pungent smell of turkey shwarma spiced with lamb fat, tumeric and cumin, and the tumult of various languages, I remembered watching TV after a terrorist attack in the same place a few years ago, the screams and cries of bloodied, helpless victims, the rage of those who survived.

The harsh mid-morning sun was already baking the flat parched fields between Megiddo and Afula, a crossroads battlefield where foreign armies clashed thousands of years ago. Recently, on the grounds of the sprawling state prison, near the ancient garrison town, Tel Megiddo, one of the largest and most important archeological sites in Israel, where Kings of Israel dwelt, the mosaic floor of a Byzantine-era church was discovered.

Clouds of dust rose in the distance; I imagine thousands of chariots, tens of thousands of infantry, spears and shields glistening, thundering hoof beats shaking the ground as the armies of Sanherev and Tilgat-Pil'eser, Assyria kings, moved across the plains. After conquering Eretz Israel, the Assyrians removed the ten tribes and dispersed them throughout their empire; assimilated, they were lost forever. Then came the vast armies of Shishak and Neco, Pharaoh-kings of Egypt. Young king Josiah, who revived Torah in the land, went out to confront them, and was killed at Megiddo. (II Kings 23;29). And then the Babylonian army invaded. The Holy Temple was destroyed; the remaining Jews were sent into exile. And through this valley Jews returned a generation later.

Soldiers piled off buses, like children on their way home, lugging weapons and gear, MP3 wires dangling from their ears, mobile phones ringing, flirting and weary in rumpled uniforms and dusty boots. Two thousand three hundred years ago, the army of Alexander the Great swept through this valley, and then the armies of Rome. The Holy Temple was destroyed, again. Jews were sent into exile, and they returned.  

At the end of World War I, in September, 1918, British and Allied troops led by General Edmund Allenby defeated the Turkish Army in this smoldering valley, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule in Palestine and earning him the title, Viscount of Megiddo.

According to Christian tradition, the final battle of civilization, Armageddon (a reference to Megiddo), will take place here, when the forces of Good defeat those of Evil. Hopefully. The Final Showdown. The End of Days.

In this valley, as told in the Book of Judges, the Prophetess Devorah and her general, Barak rallied the tribes and defeated the Canaanite inhabitants of Ta'nakh and Megiddo, powerful allies of the Philistines, who had “nine hundred chariots of iron.” Yael seduced the enemy commander, Sisera, and drove a tent-peg into his head while he slept; and, on nearby Mt Gilboa, King Saul and his sons were slain, beheaded, their mutilated bodies hung on the walls of Bet Shean.

Nazareth, Jesus' hometown is visible on the hilltops to the north, and farther on, Mount Tabor, Lake Kinneret, and Tiberias. In 1910, Yehoshua Hankin bought land near Afula for the JNF and the first Jewish co-operative farm, Merchavia (wide space) was founded.

Afula began as a Turkish train station on the Haifa-Damascus railway during World War I and in 1925 the area was purchased by “Kehilat Zion,” an American-Jewish Society for Settlement. Eventually, the entire valley was purchased, drained of swamps and filled with Jewish farmers. It was and still is one of Israel's most productive agricultural areas.

Behind the bus station local residents sell second-hand goods, spices, falafel and nuts in an open market of tiny shops and cluttered tables. Afula (the name derived from the Arabic word for bean, ful) is known as the best place in Israel to buy fresh garanim, sunflower seeds which grow in the surrounding fields. An elderly, golden-toothed Russian lady asks me in heavily-accented Hebrew to examine piles of old clothes and utensils. Another, sitting on the ground in front of a rug spread out with home-made delicacies gestures to me, her weary face indicating a lack of customers. Picking up a small plastic container, she holds up one hand, spreading five fingers; I give her five shekels and back inside the bus station, leave it on a counter near the shwarma stand as a grizzled middle-aged man in a worn track suit rummages through the trash.

The bus to Kfar Gideon takes only a few minutes. The heat sinks into me as I walk down the road that ends in a field a hundred meters away; the smell of manure and fertilizers mixed with orange blossoms. The houses are simple, some with tractors, or agricultural equipment parked in backyards, some with flowers beyond their gates, others, overgrown with weeds. A truck's horn wails from the highway like a wounded beast. Seeing me walk towards them, Eliyakim runs into my arms and as I swing him around, Tzadok waddles towards me as quickly as he can, stumbles and cries out. I carry them inside their tiny home, with gifts of toys and food. Grandpa's delight.

My daughter, baking bread, wipes her hands on her skirt and embraces me. Clearing a space on the table cluttered with dishes and toys, I set down my packages and tumble into a wooden chair. Ayelet brings me water, with news and plans; they moved here a few months ago and will move again, she explains, after the winter. 

Refreshed, I grab a shovel and plant a horseradish root, remembering that my father did this in Detroit to keep it fresh for Pesach, pulled some weeds from Ayelet's little garden and fed their four goats penned next to their 3-room stucco home that Akiva had rescued after years of neglect.

“We're going to shecht today,” Ayelet announced, pointing to one of the goats designated for slaughter.

Shecht? I asked. “Why? They seem pretty happy,” as they nibbled the weeds.

“That one,” she indicated a small fawn colored goat. “He's crazy.”

He looked fine to me, as goats go, but soon one of the neighbors dragged him out of the yard and led him to a large oak tree. A few children sat on the ground, pulling feathers from a goose that had been slaughtered a few minutes earlier. Several young men tied the goat's feet; lying on his side, he looked around calmly.

As we gathered around the goat, I thought of Isaac bound, waiting for his father, Avraham, to take his life; Daniel Pearl, crying out “I am a Jew,” in front of his executioners.

A sharp knife clenched between his teeth, Akiva knelt next to the goat, poured some water on his neck and rubbed gently to find the right spot.

“Blessed are You, God, who allows us to take a life, to shecht,” he pronounced and with a quick motion, severed the goat's throat. Blood spurted onto the ground, pulsing a few times with the last heart contractions; the goat's legs twitched and it was over.

One of the other men severed its head, cutting along bone and through sinew and then twisted it until it detached. Eliyakim stared.

“We'll get you another goat,” Ayelet consoled him as he turned to play with the other children. I wondered what they thought, but in stoic grandfatherly silence, didn't dare ask.

A few chickens were also quickly dispatched, intended for lunch, baked with onions and potatoes. This is the way things really are, I thought, preferring to buy my chickens wrapped in cellophane on a plastic tray.

“Want to do a mitzvah?” Akiva suddenly asked me. “Kisuey HaDam,” cover the blood.

Although killing the goat was necessary for food, I understood, blood represents a life force, and is therefore sacred; even this blood deserved to be treated with respect. Standing over a small dark red pool, I recited the blessing, Asher Kideshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Al Kisui Hadam Be’afar (Blessed are you, God, who has commanded us to cover the blood with dust), and, bending over, covered it with earth. 

According to Jewish law, respecting all forms of animal life is such a serious matter that one is not permitted to cover the blood disrespectfully, by pushing earth over it with our feet. To cover it with dignity, we must use our hands. Taking an animal’s life for nourishment, though permitted, is nothing to celebrate. Ayelet promised a stew; I was hungry, but hesitant.

Memories of the aftermath of homicide bomb attacks haunted me, streets littered with glass, charred bits of metal, the smell of burnt flesh; the bearded men of Zaka, the civilian emergency response unit, wearing yellow vests and surgical gloves, carefully collecting pieces of bodies from trees, scraping blood stains from cars and buildings. 

The goat had been strung up on the tree. Soon large chunks of meat were arranged in bowls on a table as one of the men began cutting out bones and parts that are forbidden to eat by laws of Kashrut.

Akiva spread the hide (fur side down) on the ground and covered it with salt. “I'll make a coat,” he said. I thought of Biblical stories, Jacob bringing fragrant delicacies to his blind father, Isaac, covering himself with goat skins to disguise who he really was, asking for a blessing; the sounds of sheep around me, bleating, waiting to be fed.

Holding Tzadok in my arms, we watched other goats and sheep chewing peacefully in their pen. Some of the children played with them until they were instructed to gather the feathers into a large plastic garbage bag. It's the way of life on a farm: there are those who eat and those who are eaten. The stew was tasty, but I remembered the goat.

Riding the Egged bus back home to Jerusalem at night, the driver tuned to pop Sephardi music and then, the news: reports of continued attacks by Hamas, Palestinian militias, and Fatah gangs. Hizbullah has rearmed in Lebanon, Syria has new, more deadly missiles and Iran threatens to wipe out Israel with nuclear weapons. I imagined a huge luminous mushroom cloud rising on the horizon. Who will survive, and who will not?

A full moon hangs like a pendant in a bosom of clouds. Looking out from the dark silence of the bus, the lights of towns and stars illuminate the wonder of civilization and God's creations. Jewish homecoming; Jews returning. Where are we going? Where have we come from? An emptiness throbs inside the bus, a pulse waiting to be felt.

Among weary passengers on their way home, I thought about those lost in the Holocaust, who could not return, and those who sacrificed their lives to build the country. How close we are to annihilation, amidst the miracle of life. The whole world seemingly against us, who will survive, and who will cover our blood?

The author is a writer living in Israel.

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