A long-lost grave, a beloved ancient rabbi and a fellow American brought illustrator Avi Katz to his latest children’s book.
“The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi” (Gefen Publishing House, 2020) is the 31-page illustrated tale of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, also known as the Ribal, a beloved third century-era rabbi who mysteriously disappeared from his home in Zippori, the ancient Jewish capital of the Galilee.
According to one legend, the Ribal frolicked with the Angel of Death, wresting away its sword, and extracting a promise. It was a version of this tale that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reimagined himself and told in a 1863 work, now illustrated by Katz in a series of mosaic paintings that have the feel of an ancient comic book.
That’s the short part of the story.
Katz, a longtime illustrator and cartoonist for news outlets (including The Times of Israel), magazines and books, came to this particular tale by way of Mitch Pilcer, a former New Yorker.
Pilcer has been living in Zippori for the last 20 years, having moved there with his wife and four kids to open a guesthouse and farm.
He called Katz to commission him for a mural, the finishing touch for an outrageous archaeological finding that was discovered at Pilcer’s Galilean homestead.
In 2009, Pilcer was digging an in-ground pool for his bed-and-breakfast business and unexpectedly came across a set of tombs — some with skeletons intact — from the third century, including one mysteriously empty tomb door with an engraved epitaph that read, “Here is the tomb of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi.”
Pilcer, an amateur archaeologist who has sifted and searched in his share of digs, was momentarily stunned but ultimately not completely surprised.
“Our house and farm is on the site of the ancient cemetery of Zippori,” said Pilcer. “We’re always falling into halls and graves, most of them robbed thousands of years ago.”
This time, however, was different.
For Rabbi Ben Levi was a renowned character, a rabbi with a heart and soul and a taste, it seemed, for adventure. But first Pilcer had to deal with the Israel Antiquities Authority, which reacted strongly at the time, fining Pilcer and eventually putting him on trial for illegal excavations.
“It was a different regime at the time at the authority, with a much different attitude toward the public,” said Pilcer.
The gravestone was put in storage by the antiquities authority, and it took a full decade of court appearances and lawyers until the tomb door was returned to Pilcer in 2017.
The Antiquities Authority — now with a gentler, more friendly attitude — worked with Pilcer to turn the site into a privately-run archaeological park, the only authenticated Mishnaic period rabbinical tomb in all of the Galilee, according to an Israel Antiquities Authority spokesperson.
These days, all visitors are welcome, free of charge. Any money that is left by visitors is given to the needy.
As Pilcer wrote in an addendum to the book, “Our family is proud to host the Ribal. We look after the Ribal, and we are assured that he looks after us as well.”
With the tomb restored to its rightful spot, Pilcer commissioned Katz in 2019 to create a mosaic mural of the legend of the rabbi.
“He wanted an eight-foot mural across,” said Katz, who was charmed by the notion, and never says no to a new form of illustration. “I loved the idea of illustrating Rabbi Ben Levi, who was such a character.”
Once the composition of the mural was completed, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic turned out to be an ideal time to work on the mosaic, which Pilcer spread across his kitchen table and worked on, stone by stone.
While working on the mural and researching additional illustrations for the angel of death, the Longfellow poem popped up, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863 when the poet was the editor-in-chief.
Katz could immediately see this tale told in illustrated form.
A graduate of Berkeley and Bezalel, Katz also happens to be a pioneer of digital illustration. He has experimented broadly with drawing techniques, successfully learning how to draw mosaics during his long tenure at The Jerusalem Report, where he had his own page for many years.
With plenty of time to spend at home due to the coronavirus, Katz wrote a book proposal for a mosaic-styled illustrated book based on Longfellow’s poem, which was snatched up by Geffen Publishing and will be published this year.
“The cool thing about illustration is that you get involved with every subject and a different world of discourse,” said Katz. “Mitch likes to say that the rabbi is asking to have his story told.”