A Jewish Story about a Jew meeting an Arab Boy Sheperd

    June 2011          
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Shepherd Boy

By Mendel Weinberger

I was on my way to the synagoue on erev Shabbat and I happened to look across the road to the hillside next to my neighborhood. I saw a flock of sheep grazing there, a not uncommon site here at the northern edge of Jerusalem. I looked closer and saw a young boy leading the sheep with a stick. He shouted at them and threw stones at the stragglers to get them moving. I stood watching as the flock walked slowly down the slope until they were in the va'adi, the valley down below. The boy then sat down on a rock and looked in my direction. Though I was about 300 meters away from him he looked right at me, then he raised his hand and waved. I looked around me and when I saw no one else I realized he was waving at me. I picked up my hand and waved back. Then I heard the sound of the gabai's voice saying "Mincha" and the chazzan begin Ashrei yoshvei veitecha…I took one last look at the shepherd boy and then turned towards the synagogue .

The next morning I was up early and decided to take a walk before the morning service began. I emptied my pockets in case I needed to step outside the eruv and put on a warm jacket against the cool morning air. I started down the hill past rows of almost identical apartment buildings just as the sun was coming up. There was a mist covering the valley floor and the houses of the Arab village of Beit Chanina poking through the cloud looked almost surreal. As I rounded the corner and came to the end of the street I had an idea. Why not take a walk into the va'adi. It was still early enough that I probably would not see any Arabs around and I felt it would be good to get out of the 'ghetto' for a short time. I crossed over a vacant lot filled with debris from the local children and then turned onto a dirt path into the va'adi. I made my way along an old jeep road until it abruptly ended at the bottom of the ravine. So I made my own path through the low shrubbery and occasional rocks that blocked my steps.

After climbing up the hill I looked back at the houses of my neighborhood of Ramot Dalet and was surprised at how close together they were, almost like a fortress. Here on a hill a couple of hundred meters away I felt in a different world. The wind was blowing and I listened to it whispering in my ears. A crow flew overhead and I watched it glide over the hilltop and land on a small tree nearby. I continued walking across the ridge that separated Jewish Jerusalem from our Arab neighbors. I didn't see anyone about and felt safe. The white brick buildings diminished in size as I walked further and the clear blue sky was brilliant as the sun rose and shone over the land. As I reached the end of the ridge I stopped to admire the view. I turned to my left and then I saw them – the same flock of sheep I had seen yesterday and the same shepherd boy leading them.

They were not more than fifty meters away from me at the bottom of the va'adi on their way up. The boy who looked about ten years old smiled at me and ran towards me. I was surprised and a little scared but I didn't see any other Arabs with him and he didn't look dangerous or hostile to me.

"Hello," he said to me in Hebrew when he reached me.

"Hello," I said back trying not to sound scared or suspicious.

"My name is Jabal," he said. "I live in the Bedouin tent pitched next to Beit Chanina and these are my father's sheep. There are fifty-five in the flock but there used to be more. What's your name?"

My name is Shmuel, I said. "I live in the neighborhood over there. Where is your father?

"He is sleeping in our tent. He is tired because he works five days a week in a factory in Atarot. My brother Ahmad works there too. My mother sells figs in the shuk when they are in season."

"Why aren't you in school," I asked him.

"I learned to read a little when I was younger but now I am needed to take care of the flock. I will do this until I am old enough to work a job, maybe in construction or driving a truck."

I nodded my head thinking to myself what a different life he led from the Jewish boys in the neighborhood.

"Would you like to try some sheep's milk?" he asked. It is really sweet when it is fresh."

"No, no," I said. "That's okay. I need to start back to prepare for the morning prayers for today is our day of rest, the Shabbat."

But Jabal wasn't listening to me. He grabbed hold of one of the big ewes and pulled her over to where I was standing. Then he took out a plastic cup and told me to hold it under the sheep's udders. I was too surprised to refuse and before long I was holding a hot cup of sheep milk in my hand.

"Go ahead," he said. "Drink it. You'll see it is really delicious."

I deliberated and since there didn't seem to be a question of kashrut, I said the blessing shehakol and took a sip. The liquid was warm and sweet, like nothing I had ever tasted before.

"Thank you so much," I said to him and meant it. "That was fantastic. But now I really must be going. It was a pleasure to have met you today."

"Come again Shmuel," Jabal said. I am here every morning and afternoon until the summer. Then we must move on."

He smiled at me and I smiled back and then I turned and retraced my steps back to streets of black tarmac and white brick buildings. All during Shabbat I couldn't stop thinking about Jabal. He was so friendly and good. But he was still young. Perhaps he hadn't yet been poisoned by the hatred of Jews that many Arabs felt. Who knows what would happen when he gets older.

Over the next several weeks I went to see Jabal often. I brought him chocolate bars and small toys and he responded warmly with a fresh cup of sheep's milk and stories about his family. He told me how soon it would be time for shearing the wool off the males and the birthing season for the females. It was a lot of work but also exciting. He also told me about his five brothers and seven sisters, how they all lived together in the big tent, even his two married sisters and their husbands. His father Yusouf had two wives, the older one Fatima was the mother of ten of the children and the younger one Surach the mother of two. I was fascinated and amazed that so many people could live together in a small space.

One weekday afternoon Jabal invited me to meet his family. I was hesitant for who knew what they would think of me and how they would relate to me. He reassured me that they were not Jew haters and just the opposite they had a better life under Israeli rule than under the British or Turkish governments. So I agreed, feeling a little nervous nevertheless. We walked together with the sheep over the hilltop and down into the valley where his tent was pitched. From that place I couldn't even see Ramot. As we approached the black tarpaulin that covered the living space a small dog came out barking and wagging his tail. He came over and sniffed me and then jumped up onto Jabal licking his hands and face. Then an old man came out of the tent and greeted me with the Arabic greeting 'Salaam Alehem'. I answered in Hebrew and told him I was sorry that I didn't speak Arabic. He told me he was Jabal's father and to please come inside.

The tent was surprisingly spacious with mattresses and blankets piled up at one end and a cooking area with a gas stove at the other end. We sat down in the middle on a handmade wool carpet. A samovar was brought and hot tea served to everyone. Jabal and his father were joined by two of his older brothers. The women stayed in the 'kitchen' looking at me with curiosity. Jabal's father wore a long gray robe called a jalabiyya and the customary head covering, and a kufiyya, a black and white scarf tied around the head with tassels hanging down at the bottom.

"Jabal has told us so much about you," Yusouf said. "We are so happy you came to visit us so we could meet you too."

"Jabal is a special boy," I said. "He has taught me so much about shepherding and the Bedouin way of life. It is so interesting to me."

"Yes," he said. We have lived this way for thousands of years, herding sheep and goats, weaving clothing and trading wool and goat's milk for our livelihood. But now all that is changing. I can no longer handle the large flocks that my father had and we must work in factories for money. We used to travel long distances with our flocks but now the highways and railways make that impossible. Many of the youth are leaving the clan for city life. It is a shame."

"Yes," I said. "I can relate to that. My people, the children of Israel have wandered the world for two thousand years. In every place we have settled, we have tried to maintain our way of life, to keep the laws of the Torah and maintain the purity of our communities. But in almost every place the gentiles come against us to kill us, steal from us, or drive us away. Only now in the Land of Israel we have our own home that we can defend. Still our Arab neighbors won't accept our presence and want to drive us out. We have many scholars learning our holy Torah, but still there are youth that leave the fold to seek excitement in the cities. We will not find peace and security until Mashiach comes and builds the Third Temple. Then we will finally live in peace with ourselves and our Arab neighbors."

Yusouf and his sons were listening intently to my words. I was wondering if I said too much. Then I heard the sound of voices outside the tent. I looked over at the opening and saw three Arab youths talking to one of Yusouf's sons. They were shouting and pointing in my direction. I heard the word 'yahud' and guessed what they wanted…me. Yusouf stood up and walked outside and I followed him. The three Arabs looked to be about sixteen years old wearing the modern dress of blue jeans and t-shirts with the name of rock bands on them. Yusouf pointed his finger at the village of Beit Chanina and I think he was telling them to leave and go back where they came from.

I tapped him on the shoulder and said to him, "I don't want to cause any trouble for you so I will leave now and return home."

Yusouf shook his head and said, "No Shmuel, it is they who should leave. You are my guest here."

Then the tallest of the three spoke up and said, "Yes, Jew, go back to your ghetto. You are trespassing on Arab land and soon with Allah's help you and all your Jewish neighbors will be driven out and we will live in your homes."

"The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps," I said. "So we will see who will prevail in this conflict. Your Sheiks have poisoned your mind with hatred and in the end you will suffer for it. I have discovered in this Bedouin family that there are still Arabs who possess the dignity of human beings and not animals."

I saw the look of insult and rage in the young man's face, but for some reason I didn't feel afraid. I said goodbye to Yusouf and Jabal and turned to go. After I had gone about ten meters I heard the words 'Allah Achbar' and I turned around to see the tall youth coming at me with a knife. I stood frozen on the spot unable to move. Just as he was a step away Jabal jumped between us and the knife's blade plunged into his chest. The Arab saw what he had done and pulled out the knife. I bent down over the little boy's wounded body and didn't see the Arab raise the knife over his head, ready to try again to kill me. Then I heard a shot ring out and the youth fell to the ground. The other two took off in the direction of Bait Chanina. I turned around and saw an Israeli soldier about fifty meters away, his gun still raised to his shoulder ready to shoot.

Jabal was bleeding badly and I called to the soldier to radio for a medic. He approached the tent, his gun still aimed at us and asked if everyone was okay. Then he got on his walkie talkie and called for help. Soon a jeep arrived with two more soldiers. One of them was a medic and he managed to stop the bleeding. They put Jabal on a stretcher and drove off to the emergency room of Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. Jabal's mother Fatima went with him.

Thank G-d Jabal survived his wounds and I did go to visit him once in the hospital. I found him awake surrounded by his father, mother, sisters and brothers. He was happy to see me and I felt the same warmth around them that I had felt in their tent. I gave Jabal a small wooden camel I had bought in the Old City. He thanked me and asked me to please come and visit again when he gets well. I told him I would think about it.

Before I left I turned to the family and said, "Please forgive me for causing this trouble for your family. If it wasn't for me, this never would have happened and I feel responsible."

Yusouf stood up and said, "All things good and bad, come from Allah. We never for a moment blamed you for what happened to Jabal. We know you are a blessed people and as long as you are on the land, we too will be blessed. Go in peace, brother."

We shook hands and I nodded to the clan surrounding Jabal. Then I looked at the boy one more time and smiled at him. He smiled back.

I never again went into the va'adi on a Shabbat morning or any other time. The IDF lieutenant made me promise that I wouldn't because the next time I might not be so lucky. Still I think about Jabal often and wonder how he is doing for he really was like a rose among the thorns.


from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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