by Mara Vigevani
For 2,000 years, the Zinati family lived in the Galilee village of Peki’in, first as a Jewish family at the time of the ancient Second Holy Temple and in later centuries as Mustarabin, Jews who lived in Arab surroundings and were influenced by Arab culture.
Wednesday evening, Margalit Zinati, the last remnant of the family, will be honored as one of the torch lighters at Israel’s 70th Independence Day ceremony at Mount Herzl.
“I never imagined anything like this. I am so excited to light one of the Independence Day torches,” Zinati, 86, told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) at a reception prior to the ceremony at the Jewish Agency Headquarters.
Margalit said she never got married because it would have meant leaving Peki’in (local custom is for brides to move in with their husbands), where she still works as a fellah (farmer), tending her small piece of land.
Even more important, it would have meant abandoning the town’s ancient synagogue, which features a limestone column capital engraved with two Hebrew inscriptions dating to the Roman period and for which Zinati serves as the unofficial local caretaker. The synagogue is undergoing a renovation and will be reopened to the public next month.
In recent years, Margalit’s home has also become a quasi-pilgrimage site for travelers and researchers called Beit Zinati, where they hear the unique story of the Zinati family and learn about other Jewish sites in Peki’in: a burial cave from the Talmudic era that is located inside the ancient Jewish cemetery, the ancient mikveh (ritual pool) and the school building, built in 1926 by the Jewish Agency for local residents, at the behest of then-future President Yitzhak Ben Zvi. The sites are operated by the Zionist Council of the World Zionist Organization.
Researchers and local officials say Zinati is a local fixture and link to the prestigious history.
“Margalit has the ability to connect with people from all walks of life,” says Uriel Rosenbaum, the director of the Beit Zinati heritage site. “She greets tourists who come to the site, and people from many different religions come to ask for her blessing. They believe she is a righteous person.”
“Margalit’s story is a very important part of the Jewish heritage (in Peki’in),” added Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a scholar at the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem who has conducted research in the town.
“Our second president, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, understood that the Zinati family’s story stressed the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and he became a great supporter of the Peki’in Jewish community. On the old 100 shekel bill there were featured pictures of both the Peki’in synagogue and of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi,” Shalev-Khalifa said.
“Margalit is a first-rate diplomat,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. “She has terrific relations with people from all walks of life… she is a terrific example for all of our diplomats.”