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San Diego Jewish Times...an enthralling story that also invites comparison with the problem faced by Israel today.
— Carl Alpert, December 2003
From Michal bat Dosa - to my nephew - Rabbi Yose ben Halaft a, may your peace be great.
You have asked me for the story of the Jewish people during the last forty years or more. That is also the story of my life, and I shall gladly write it all down for you. I know that your work is very important, my dear nephew. I am very proud of you, for your name is known everywhere in Eretz Yisrael, people say that you are now an even greater scholar than your father, of blessed memory. Writing down events comes easily to me. You may know that I recorded all the happenings of the century before my lifetime, even though that was not my story, but that of my grandfather, Archinas, of blessed memory. And he remembered everything about his father-in-law, the great Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, of blessed memory, and all the sages who lived in Judaea and here in the Galilee before and after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This will be a very long letter, almost a book like the one my grandfather dictated to me. I am now eighty years old; may the Lord grant me enough time to finish it all.
Where should I begin? You were interested in the Africa events; perhaps I shall start with our trip to Africa, a sea voyage. Shimeon and I traveled to Africa from Jaffa on a galley belonging to my father. It was not really a galley, for it needed far fewer oarsmen then the typical ship: my father did not like to hire oarsmen, and was always looking for other ways of moving his vessels over the waves. Our ship, the Okeanos, had a new, triangular type of sail, called "lateen." They could move that sail very quickly to catch the wind, the ship flew over the sea...
At first, I took no notice of the ship itself. I did not feel so well, since the ship was heaving a little. Apparently, that was only my impression; people remarked on how smooth the sea was. We had a little corner to ourselves, more than a corner, really, for it was almost enclosed by a canvas partition. We were privileged to have that area, the other travelers all slept together in the hold. Only the ship's captain had an entire room to himself. He was a very nice old man, a Greek, and he told us that all the sailors and oarsmen on board were Greek, from the islands. He behaved quite deferentially towards us, due to my father owning the ship, no doubt. He told us on the first day that he was hired as a young boy by my grandfather and stayed with the family all his life. When I felt a little better, I asked the captain about his crew, especially the oarsmen. You see, I was worried that they might be slaves, as was quite common. Of course I should have known that my father would never use slaves. No, the captain assured me, they were strong men who rowed for money. They received good pay, got time of in the ports, and, after fifteen or twenty years with the ship, could retire with a generous gift, buy themselves some land or, if they wanted, their own fishing boat. Some even had family in the homeport of Jaffa.
Shimeon and I spent most of our days on the top deck, talking. We had been married for eight years, but this was perhaps the first time that Shimeon had nothing else to do but talk with me. We were sailing towards Cyrene, where Shimeon believed the Jewish people should start the war of liberation from the Roman Empire. Did I agree with him? I did raise some arguments, if only because I thought that he expected those from me; of course, he would not really listen, and deep down, I felt he was correct in his assessment of the events. And so he was. Of course, in the end things did not turn out as he expected, but that did not mean his thinking was at fault. No, the Lord, may His name be blessed, wanted it otherwise.
And so, on board that ship, he told me all the facts about Cyrenaica, the country, and I told him all the legends about Cyrene, the city. They were fine legends; I imbibed them at my beloved mother's knees. From whom did she hear such stories? I don't know, quite possibly from her grandfather, Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, for he was a great voyager, who sailed all over the Greek islands. I mention this to you, so you won't believe that it was my grandfather Archinas, your own great-grandfather, who taught me such stories. You see, Grandfather was a Greek, a proselyte. He was very proud of belonging to the Jewish people, and did not want them to think of him as a Greek. So he was careful not to tell us any tales from the Greek mythology. Even when he dictated his life story to me, he said next to nothing about his life before coming to Eretz Yisrael.
The story I remember most clearly had to do with the foundation of the city of Cyrene. It went like this:
There was a young nymph named Cyrene who lived in Greece. One day a lion attacked her father's flock of sheep, and Cyrene rushed to defend the animals. In wrestling with the lion, she attracted the attention of the god Apollo, who was smitten by her. Apollo brought Cyrene from Greece to Libya, in Africa, founded a city named after her and made her its queen. A simple story - totally untrue, of course. But strangely enough, it annoyed Shimeon.
"What's wrong, my dear?" I could see on his face that something seriously bothered him. "I know it's silly, with gods and nymphs, there are no such things, but is it not a charming story? Quite harmless?" At first he did not answer. In those days, he liked to think things over. He stood by the rail, his long black hair blowing in the wind. Oh, he was so handsome. With his forehead creased, you might have thought that he was angry. But my Shimeon was seldom angry, and almost never with me. Finally he spoke:
"There are several things wrong with it. Yes, there is that god that is not quite as harmless as you think. The Greeks believe in him and in many other gods, and that's why we are fighting them. Then, there are the facts. Cyrenaica was founded by people who came over from Thera, they say it was about eight hundred years ago. But all right, that is not very important..." He lapsed into silence for a minute or two. Then he turned to me. "This is what bothers me about the story. That girl who fought with the lion. That is stupid. You don't fight with a lion. You don't choose to fight with anyone or anything, unless you are con. dent that you can win." "But how can you be sure? By never fighting against anything bigger than a small bird?" "No, of course not. You can never be sure, we are only people, no one but the Lord can be sure of anything. But when one decides to fight, he must believe, at that moment, that he will win that fight. And you cannot expect to win if your opponent is a lion." He was so serious, I almost believed him. But all I said was, "Shimeon, I hope you will always remember what you've just said, especially in Africa. There are many lions there, and not all of them beasts." "I know, my sweet. I will remember."
Then he started to tell me about the Jewish people in Cyrenaica. I knew some of the story, for I had participated in his recent discussions with Pappus and Julianus - well, I was in and out - but I listened anyway. "Our people have been in Cyrenaica for hundreds of years. They were originally invited there by the Ptolemies, to help them fight the local people. The Jews became farmers, tenants of public land." "So I suppose they had lots of trouble with the native people?" "Strangely enough, no. Not much. But they just can't get along with the Greeks. You see, the local Greeks run the country. They won't permit land ownership to Jews, at least not close to the cities. And we cannot get full citizenship, except for a select few in the last century, and look what happened to them."
"Well, that's a long story. It started with Greek landowners and Roman contractors. They manipulated land deals and let shepherds move their flocks up the hills and down to the plains in different seasons, and that ruined the land. One way or another, most of the Jews lost their tenancy of public land and had to hire themselves out to Greek landowners. In such a blessed, rich land as Cyrenaica, they became paupers." Shimeon's voice was getting louder. I patted his hand, indicating that there were others on the deck, for it was nice and sunny. Not everyone was necessarily sympathetic to our cause. He continued in a lower voice. "The Greeks even prevented them, sometimes, from paying their annual half-shekel tax to the Temple in Jerusalem. You see, they had to pay the local taxes first, and not every man for himself. No, they had to make remittance as a group, and collection was very difficult. Yet until the total sum was paid, money could not be sent to Jerusalem."
"How could such poor people afford to pay local taxes as well as the half-shekel?" I asked
"They really could not, but they had to. And not only that, they had to pay taxes to Rome as well, the tributa." "So what happened to the citizens?" "I am coming to that. During the War with Rome in Eretz Yisrael, forty- five years ago, there were many Cyreneans fighting in Jerusalem, they were friendly with the Zealots."
"Yes, I am very familiar with them..." I did not continue, for I remembered that he knew about my first husband. "Well, when the Temple was destroyed and we lost the war, many of the Zealots went to Cyrenaica. These were extremists, not ordinary Zealots, but the Sicariim, you know, the 'daggermen.' At that time, Jews and Greeks hated one another more than ever, perhaps because each group heard about all the clashes everywhere else, in Caesarea and in Syria and, even closer to Cyrenaica, in Egypt, in Alexandria. Also, there was more trouble between those groups because the Jews wanted the Romans to reorganize land tenure. Greeks and Jews were on the verge of attacking one another. And then came Yona than. Yonathan the Weaver."
"Yonathan the Weaver... I seem to have heard that name before. Was he really a weaver?"
"I have no idea. But he was either a great leader or a great troublemaker. Perhaps both. He was certainly one of the original Jerusalem Sicariim..." "But I thought that nobody survived there," I interrupted. "No, but he may have gotten out of the city before the siege. In any case, he arrived in Cyrenaica soon after the war and thought that he would start a revolt there and reverse all the losses."
"Like you." That was a mistake. For a few moments, he was angry with me. "Not like me at all! Don't say stupid things! I told you that I only fight when I know that I can win. He had no chance of winning, but we have. It's a totally different situation."
"All right, sorry, I did not mean it that way. But what happened then?" "Well, by then there were Jewish citizens in Cyrenaica. Some were wealthy and involved with the leadership of the cities, not only in Cyrene but also in Barka and Teucheira and Bereneike and Ptolemais. There was also a middle group, not rich, but not poor either, many farmers and some craft smen - don't make faces, they are people, too - and then, all the myriad landless people who had lost their tenancy, or their fathers had. This was the group that Yonathan the Weaver wanted for his revolt." He continued. "He organized some two thousand of the poorest people and led them into the desert. He told them that they would soon see wondrous things, signs from the Lord and miracles." "Why, did he say he was the Messiah?"
"I don't think so, but he may have hinted, dropped some suggestions. Jews who had some possessions did not like him much, and the rich Jews, who considered themselves Greeks, just hated him. So when Yonathan went into the desert with his followers, they reported him to the authorities." "Oh, no!" I was shocked. "Yes. We Jews should stick together, even when we disagree among ourselves. But, of course, we don't, most of the time. So the Roman proconsul, a man called Catullus, I think Valerius Catullus Messalinus, something like that, sent cavalry and infantry after Yonathan's crowd, and they were dispersed, most of them killed, but Yonathan was captured in the end." "What did they do to him?"
"They made him talk. Not the truth, though; he saw this as his opportunity to repay the Jewish leadership. So he accused them of supporting his movement. First, he accused a wealthy Jew named Alexander and his wife Berenice, with whom he had some trouble before. So Catullus arrested and executed them, as well as three thousand wealthy Jews all over Cyrenaica, the entire Jewish leadership. Of course, Catullus also con. scated their property."
"That man Yonathan was a rat!"
"Yes, he was. Then he tried to implicate the wealthy Jews outside Cyrenaica, in Alexandria and in Rome. Catullus thought that he could then carry out investigations all over the Roman Empire, but the Emperor Vespasian called a halt to that. He conducted a personal inquiry and found that Yonathan's accusations were a fabric of lies."
"And what happened to Yonathan?"
"Oh, he was killed, of course. Sentenced to death by burning." "Well, I should probably feel sorry for him, but not now. Maybe later." "You know whom else they killed in Cyrene at that time? The High Priest Ishmael ben Phiabi. Five years before the war he had traveled from Jerusalem to Rome, to complain against Agrippa and the Roman procurator. That was also interesting: he was not received by the Emperor Nero, but he managed to see Nero's wife, Poppea, and not just once. She became very interested in him and tried to get her husband to act more kindly towards our people." "She could not have been very successful. They started the war and destroyed Jerusalem."
"True, but they say that she tried. And she insisted that the priest stay there, in Rome. She really liked him. But then, after a year or two, Poppea died. She was pregnant and they say that Nero kicked her down the stairs. Two or three years later, Nero was forced to kill himself, and there was great turmoil in Rome until Vespasian took over. But Ishmael stayed there, in Rome." "Very interesting. How old was Ishmael at the time?" "I really don't know. But that trip saved his life. At least for a while, for in Jerusalem he surely would have perished, along with everyone else. Still, in the long run, it did not help. When Jerusalem was destroyed, Ishmael sought refuge in Cyrene. Three years later, he was killed there by Catullus, along with the three thousand, the entire Jewish leadership. He was decapitated."
"Ugh. A horrible death."
"Few forms of death are nice."
We were quiet for a while, watching the waves. There were birds trying to catch fish. We were told to expect to arrive in Africa in a day and a half. I knew Shimeon was thinking about the political situation in Cyrenaica, how the great rebellion might be started, what role he would have in it... Up to now, he had told me very little about what to expect. I thought that this might be the time to ask. "Tell me, Shimeon. Is the situation really that much better there now? Do we have a hope of winning?" He considered for a minute. "I'll tell you, Michal. Of course we have a chance to win, more than a chance, I am quite certain that we shall win, otherwise I would not have come. And you know why? There are several reasons, but the most important one is precisely what happened there forty-two years ago. What I just told you."
"You mean this Yonathan business?"
"Yes, and the murder of the entire Jewish leadership. Ever since, the Jews have suffered even more than before, because they no longer had any influence with the Greek and Roman authorities. The large middle group has become poorer. They are persecuted. They are desperate. They are ready to start a fight, any fight, and now there are no upper classes among the Jews to interfere, to calm them with promises of getting a better deal from the authorities. If a new Yonathan were to appear now, not two thousand would follow him, but two hundred thousand."
I threw him a quizzical look. He grinned.
"No, don't worry, that is not my role. In any case, they have their own leaders now, Lucuas and also Pappus and Julianus - you have met the two brothers - and they are all reasonable people. I am needed only to help them." "Help them in what? Exactly what will you do, Shimeon? What are the plans? You can tell me now. You don't have to worry that I will not come with you. You did worry, did you not?"
He held my hands. "Yes, Michal, I did worry. A wife must accompany her husband, if he asks her, but if you had said that you were afraid, I would not have insisted. You are not afraid, are you?" I tried to smile. "No, I told you. I trust you, Shimeon. But it would be better if I knew exactly what you will do, what to expect." "But I cannot tell you that, for I don't know myself. Pappus and Julianus suggested that I come, that this is the time and the place, that I would be needed here. That's all I know. When I meet with them, when I see Lucuas, I will know more."
"But listen, Shimeon, what if you don't like what they say? What if you think that they are about to fight a lion? Will you be able to say no? Will you be willing to sail back to Eretz Yisrael then? Will they let you?" He did not answer for a while. Some minutes later he said, "We'll see."
Next day, the sea was a little rougher, but by then it did not bother me at all. We stood by the railing and watched the clouds, watched the waves. Suddenly I saw a fish jumping up from the water. Shimeon saw it, too. "What is that?" I asked him. To my knowledge, he had never been on a ship before. Yet he assured me that it was a dolphin, a playful sea creature that was a friend of men. "Men?" I teased him. "Which men? If you jumped in now, would he help you swim? And what if your enemies jumped in? Would he choose sides?" He did not answer right away. Shimeon did not care for frivolous talk. But after a while he turned to me: "Enemies? You want me to tell you about our enemies? We have many of them, we'll meet them soon enough." Then he told me more about the situation of the Jews in Cyrenaica, which had become much worse since the destruction of the Temple. Not only have the Romans diverted the half shekel Temple tax to their own Fiscus Iudaicus, set up to serve the cult of the detested Iupiter Capitolinus, but they have imposed many additional taxes and penalties on the Jews in Cyrenaica and in Egypt, and everywhere else they ruled. He also told me how the Greeks hated the Jews because our people refused to participate in their silly cults, because we excluded ourselves from all Greek activities. But the curious thing was that, while the Greek masses hated the Jews, the leading classes sometimes became sympathetic. "Do you mean they actually stood up for the Jews against the Roman authorities?" I asked him.
"No, they would not go that far," he replied. "But individually, some members of those classes actually converted, or came to accept our God as the only one. That has been a major problem in Rome, too, even members of the emperors' families joined our faith times. They have also been severely punished for this, oft en executed cruelly." We were interrupted by the captain, who came over to point out Alexandria on the port side, in the distance. It was too far to make out any of the buildings in detail, but we could see that it was a very large, beautiful city. After the man walked away, Shimeon talked to me about Alexandria. It seems that there were lots of clashes between Jews and Greeks there also. The Jews actually attacked the city's gymnasia some time ago. It should have been a situation similar to Cyrenaica; but there was an important difference.
"You see, in Alexandria the Jewish leadership, the elite, is still there. Yonathan did not succeed in annihilating them, for better or for worse." "Why do you say 'for better or for worse'?" "Every time there's been trouble between the Jews and the Greeks, the leadership has tried to calm the tensions, to find compromise solutions, to pacify the authorities."
"Is that so bad?"
"It can be. When it is finally time to take up arms, as it will be soon, they may be in the way."
This was serious food for thought.
The captain came over again to chat with us. He apologized for the rough sea, as if it were his fault. He was solicitous, asked me about the health of my father. I told him that my father had serious problems with his eyesight, and that my mother worried about his heart, which was a little weak, but thank the Lord, his mind was still very sharp, and we hoped that he would be with us for a long time yet. The man nodded and expressed the same hope, then said something like "Sorry, duty calls" and walked away. Shimeon looked at him, and then remarked: "I was wondering what to tell him if he'd ask me why we were traveling to Cyrenaica. The man is a Greek, I would not want to tell him about our plans."
"You don't trust him? Would he betray you to the Romans?" "The Romans. The Greeks. No, I don't think he would betray me. But we are going there to fight the Greeks. His people, after all. The less he knows about such things, the better."
"Does he have no idea, do you think...?"
Shimeon pondered my question.
"He probably has, but he prefers not even to think about such things. He may have heard somewhere that I am one of the Zealots, or something like that." "Tell me about the Zealots, Shimeon," I begged him. That was a difficult subject. I always had some sympathy for the Zealots, always felt that because of the excesses of a few individuals, the whole movement was unjustly called an extremist, murderous group. They just wanted freedom for our people, it seemed to me. My uncle also thought so, and so did my first husband. I think he actually participated in meetings and discussions, but I knew that I must not ask questions about that. Shimeon, I knew, was also close to the Zealots. How close, that is hard to say. He was certainly not one of the crazies, but he wanted to fight of the Roman bondage. Perhaps this was the time to ask him - not about his involvement, but about the group, the people, their beliefs and what they wanted to achieve. He was willing to tell me a little. "They have five major beliefs." He said 'they,' not 'we.' "First, that the Romans, or any other nation, cannot rule over us, because only God has sovereignty."
"Yes. Then, they are committed to liberty."
"Third, they believe that God will help, if they are willing to fight." "Well, I suppose that's reasonable, if..." "Wait, let me tell you the other two beliefs. They resist any Roman census that is aimed at establishing taxes." "And the last?" "They believe that the law obligates personal and direct action against the transgressors."
I thought about that.
"So that, no matter what, we must fight the Romans, right?" "Right, but there are differences. Some want to take up arms at any moment, while others advise that we should choose our time and place very carefully." "Like this year, in Cyrene," I said quietly. "Yes."
Later in the day, Shimeon told me about the "Sibylline Oracles." I asked him what they were. "The Sibyls were supposed to be ancient Greek prophetesses who gave out dire warnings regarding the punishment of unjust rulers and the liberation of the oppressed. So books have been written in the form of these warnings. Nobody takes the Sibyls seriously anymore." "And who wrote those books?" "Different people at different times. Lately some have been written by our people, mainly in Egypt. The latest one talks about frightful natural catastrophes. It also predicts that the Jewish people will now re-conquer our land, Eretz Yisrael, and the Temple. It says that a sacred ruler will burn down many cities and slay the wicked." "What cities, does it say?" "Yes, Antioch and Memphis and Salamis - that's in Cyprus - and in Cyrenaica, all the major cities." "Do you believe in that?" "I don't know. They are written by men, not by the Lord. But who knows, He may have been guiding their hands..."
Next day, our ship turned towards the shore. The wind died down, our oarsmen rowed steadily. We saw a busy harbor and hills behind: a lush, beautiful land. "Is this Cyrene?" I asked Shimeon. "No, Cyrene is half a day's journey inland. Up those hills. This is just some harbor town." Then we were told the name of the harbor town. It was Apollonia. Shimeon and I looked at each other. I whispered to him: "Apollonia. The town of the silly god, serving his silly nymph, who fought the lion."