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Planting Tomatoes on a Hilltop Overlooking Shechem

‘Let’s make a garden,” my 22-year-old daughter Ayelet suggested during my weekly visit to their little home in Yitzhar, a Jewish community near the ancient city of Shechem, or Nablus as it’s called today.

Nestled in the valley between two mountains, Eval and Grezim, Shechem is the place where Jacob bought property, where Joseph is buried and where Joshua built an altar and blessed the Jewish people shortly after they entered the Land of Israel, the Promised Land. It’s also become a major center for Palestinian terrorism.

“A lovely idea,” I replied, bouncing between my two grandsons with chunks of watermelon and love.

Every year in Detroit, where I grew up, my father planted tomato plants in our backyard. As we carefully tended the plants through the hot and humid summer, he taught us that we, too, could in a way be pioneers.

“Now that’s a tomato,” he would exclaim proudly, holding up a very large one, his redemption of city life and a genetic thread to his Russian peasant roots.

Ayelet led me to a patch of ground covered with thorny weeds and stones.

“Here,” she said, handing me a shovel and pickax.

“Where’s the earth?” I wondered. But trusting her instincts and hopes, I began to dig, prying stones from their earthen womb until the soil exposed itself, dark and merciful.

Ayelet, her husband Akiva and my grandsons live on a hilltop. From their place I can see the outskirts of Nablus to the north; to the west, the Mediterranean Sea shimmers on the horizon. In the valley below, the sounds of Arab children and street vendors swirl in the wind.

The Promised Land, I thought to myself as I dug into the unyielding ground, wasn’t such an easy bargain.

Turning the earth, I suddenly noticed something unusual: a small cube, a mosaic tile. Trained as a tour guide, I understood that this indicated the presence of someone from either the Roman period or the Byzantine period.

At first I thought it was a fluke, but then I found more tiles, hundreds of them. Tile floors are unusual, usually a sign of luxury. Could it mean that someone important lived here?

A few meters away, the rock surface had been chipped away to form a place where water was collected, perhaps a mikveh, or ritual bath. Nearby the rock had been carved out to form a place where grapes were pressed. Heaps of stones might once have been the walls of homes. A Jewish village, here on this hilltop?

Tomato plants in the midst of an archeological site? I dug more, looking for evidence of life some 2,000 years ago. A jug handle turned up, a few bits of pottery, but the mystery of this lost community remained hidden beneath the rubble, if at all.

My grandsons watched me work, too young to help. Leaning against the shovel, I tried to show them how to dig, their tiny limbs straining with the weight of tools too heavy for them to hold.

One day soon they will hold shovels and plows. When I can no longer lift the tools, my grandsons will dig, in their home, in our land. A promise.

In front of their newly built home, consisting of two old metal shipping containers connected by a roof, Akiva made a small cement porch. While still wet, Ayelet took some of the tiles we’d found and placed them in the floor, spelling out in Hebrew: “Bruchim Haba’im” — Blessed are those who enter.

Moshe Dann is a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist.

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