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Taking off

Rarities in Israel

Email|Print| Text size + By Irin Carmon
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2004

PEKI'IN, Israel -- The days when Jamillah Chir needed to steal olive oil from the kitchen to make miracle soap are past. But long before she was known as Safta (''Grandmother") Jamillah, Chir says her mother would slap her every day for sneaking the precious oil to experiment with soap-making.

''We were poor," she says, briskly arranging the white headscarf that marks her as Druze, part of an ethnically Arab, non-Muslim religious sect. ''A few olive trees and you were a millionaire."

Chir is a legend in Peki'in, an ancient village climbing the hills of western Galilee that may be the only community where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze cautiously live together in peace.

Despite enduring political tensions, Israel continues to be a destination for youths, who are drawn to this compact country that bursts with history and culture. Tens of thousands of students, for instance, have participated in the Birthright Program, which sends young Jews on a free 10-day organized trip to the country.

In the north of Galilee, the Druze traditionally draw sustenance from olive trees that dot the valleys, and nearly every household makes humble olive oil soap. But Chir, whose skin positively glows well into grandmotherhood, added medicinal herbs, opened her own store, and now exports the soap as far as Germany.

''I believed in the plants," says Chir, who plans to open a factory this year. ''I started to use the wisdom of the elders."

Indeed, all of Peki'in is said to be infused with such wisdom. An anomaly of coexistence, it is also reputed to be one of the only places in Israel where Jews have lived continuously for 2000 years. Another legend has it that in the second century BC, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai took refuge from the Romans in a cave here and wrote the Zohar, a seminal cabalistic text. Mystics believe that the ancient carob tree that still stands by a Peki'in cave arose as a gift from God to feed the rabbi as he wrote. Visitors to the cave still light candles and tuck into the cracks their notes bearing prayers and requests.

Today, the village is predominantly Druze, with a smattering of Muslims and Christian Arabs. But a synagogue, whose most ancient parts are two thousand years old, still stands. To enter it, visitors must first knock at the nearby white door emblazoned with a blue Star of David. This is the home of Margalit Zinati, scion of a Jewish family that traces its lineage back to Peki'in's antiquity. Now in her late 70s, Zinati holds the key to the synagogue and will gladly take guests inside.

Just a few steps away, a barefoot, green-eyed Druze woman sells the fruits of the fields, sheltered from the blistering sun by a tarp. She is modestly dressed in blue, with a white headscarf and a well-worn apron. Wreaths of rocks collected from the hills are hung to decorate her stand, which is laden with handmade baskets of freshly-picked figs and grapes. There is labneh, the delicious yogurt cheese that is eaten in these parts, and homemade olive oil in recycled Coke bottles.

In accented Hebrew, she declines to be photographed, though on the other side of the village, the chatty Safta Jamillah is camera-ready, boasting of her numerous appearances on local television.

Most Druze communities retain their traditional customs, living simply and practicing their religion under a self-imposed cloak of secrecy. They tend to stay out of the conflicts that have ripped apart this region, even as lines have been drawn that left relatives on the other side of the borders with Syria and Lebanon. But the Druze hold to their dictum to adopt the loyalties of their country of residence, and for many of Israel's Druze, lifelong service in the Israeli army is a significant source of income -- and of pride.

Meanwhile, ask anyone in Peki'in and they will tell you ethnic conflict between neighbors is a non-issue. The outside world creeps into the village only in traces: A convenience store sells Israeli snacks with Arab-language labels, and in nearby Quisra, Leonardo DiCaprio T-shirts from the ''Titanic" era are up for sale. Men in Greek Orthodox pipe hats and long robes congregate by the village spring for a chat with friends in button-down shirts, and children in white Druze caps crouch on the stones in the spring.

Safta Jamillah's Miracle Soap (13 shekels, about $3 per bar) can be ordered via mail at Jamillah Chir, PO Box 28, Kfar Peki'in Hayashan.

Irin Carmon, a student at Harvard University, is a researcher-writer for Let's Go Travel Guides. Taking Off, her column on student travel, appears the third Sunday of the month. She can be reached through www.irincarmon.com.

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