When you look around Peki'in, with its overwhelming Druze population, you may think that it looks much the same as any other Arab village in the north of Israel. Far off the major roads, it has been left largely untouched by the influence of modern life.
Peki'in is a village with a secret, a human secret whose guardians are two old women of the Zinati family. The secret is that there has been a continuous Jewish presence here for almost two thousand years. For unlike the 'family chains' which have wandered over many lands during the course of the last millenia, the Zinati family of Peki'in claims to have been in this village since the Bar-Kochba period - or maybe even earlier!
Peki'in is famous in Jewish tradition for being the site of the cave in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son hid for 13 years while trying to escape the Romans during the Bar-Kochba rebellion. According to legend, Rabbi Shimon and his son lived off spring water and the fruit of a miraculous carob tree during their years of hiding, and passed the time by writing books of Jewish mysticism.
It seems that there was once a large Jewish community in Peki'in, but over the centuries it became smaller. In order to continue to live as Jews in an increasingly non-Jewish environment, the Jews of Peki'in adopted the external trappings of the surrounding community, speaking Arabic and adopting the life-styles of their neighbours. But they kept their religious lives strictly separate; on all other things they could compromise, but they knew where to draw the line. Even so, despite their generally good relations with their neighbours, conditions were hard for them and the community grew progressively smaller with time.
During the seventeenth century, the community was enlarged when families came to Peki'in due to isolated attacks on Jews in other places in the Galil It was in this period that the Peki'in synagogue (which can still be seen today) was built. But the revival was only temporary, and the number of Jewish inhabitants residing in Peki'in continued to decline.
Through the centuries, Jewish travellers looking for the cave of Shimon Bar Yochai, were often surprised to find Arabic speaking "peasant Jews" in this isolated place. If we follow the accounts of some of thesetravellers from the 18th and 19th centuries, we can watch the Jewish community of Peki'in dwindle from tens of families to just a handful:
In Peki'in there are Jews, some fifty households, workers of the land and vineyards.... And Peki'in is full of good things; nothing is lacking in this area. Springs of water come from the valleys and hills. And there is the huge carob tree of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai; it is old now and does not bear fruit, and all the non-Jews regard it as holy, and any branch that falls won't be used for anything, not even for firewood. And a fellow traveller told me that the tree is so large that he sat together with some other men on the top of the tree and they learnt the Kabbalah (mystical Jewish books) together!"
- Simcha ben Joshua of Zalazich, 1764
Peki'in is a six-hour ride from