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On show'Our goal is to tell their story as they would tell it'

Film shines a spotlight on Israel’s tiny Samaritan community fighting for its future

Trifecta of published book, film that opened Nov. 8 and ongoing exhibit examines how unique people struggle to ensure survival without compromising their unique religious practices

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Samaritan priest lifting a Torah scroll (Eitan Bino/Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)
    Samaritan priest lifting a Torah scroll (Eitan Bino/Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)
  • Samaritans sitting under their Sukkah decorated with fruits and vegetables during Sukkot holiday. Nablus, Palestinian territories, October 2017. (Yadid Levy)
    Samaritans sitting under their Sukkah decorated with fruits and vegetables during Sukkot holiday. Nablus, Palestinian territories, October 2017. (Yadid Levy)
  • Full-size model of a Samaritan sukkah, seen from the floor looking straight up. (Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)
    Full-size model of a Samaritan sukkah, seen from the floor looking straight up. (Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)
  • Samaritan men at Passover lamb cooking pits on Mt. Gerizim, Palestinian territories, April 2016. (Yadid Levy)
    Samaritan men at Passover lamb cooking pits on Mt. Gerizim, Palestinian territories, April 2016. (Yadid Levy)
  • American Colony . Photo Department, photographer. The Samaritans of Nablus Shechhem. Samaritan school. Nablus West Bank Nablus, 1900. [Approximately to 1920] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2019693319/.
    American Colony . Photo Department, photographer. The Samaritans of Nablus Shechhem. Samaritan school. Nablus West Bank Nablus, 1900. [Approximately to 1920] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2019693319/.
  • Section of 'The Samaritans: A Biblical People' exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC featuring Sha’alavim synagogue floor mosaic (5th century), and lintel Inscription of 10 Commandments from Beit Al-Ma (4th-7th century). (Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)
    Section of 'The Samaritans: A Biblical People' exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC featuring Sha’alavim synagogue floor mosaic (5th century), and lintel Inscription of 10 Commandments from Beit Al-Ma (4th-7th century). (Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)

The Samaritans have lived in the Land of Israel for 3,600 years. Some may be familiar with references to them in the New Testament, but few know who they really are.

A new multi-faceted project by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies introduces the Samaritans to a wide and varied audience, and explores how they have managed to survive for millennia despite efforts by conquering powers to erase them. Crucially, the project asks how the Samaritans plan to continue to survive into the future when today they number a mere 862.

The Samaritans are a distinct religious group descended from the northern tribes of biblical Israel, specifically the tribes of Ephraim, Menashe, and Levi. They are not —and have never been — Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. They hold both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship.

“Our programs and projects are about studying Israel in all its amazing complexity. You can’t get more complex than the Samaritans,” said historian Dr. Steven Fine, director of the Center for Israel Studies.

The Samaritans Project features a book of academic essays, a full-length documentary film, and an exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. All three share the same title: “The Samaritans: A Biblical People.” A Samaritan cookbook and artworks created through a collaboration with the Jewish Art Salon are also part of the project.

The film, by Israeli director and producer Moshe Alafi, premieres in the US in-theater and via livestream at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York on November 8. An Israel premiere will follow on December 18 at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“People find astonishing the fact that there are non-Jewish Israelites. It is hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that these people observe all of the Torah’s commandments, yet they are not Jews,” Fine told The Times of Israel.

Edited by Yeshiva University’s Fine, the academic book is illustrated with high-quality photographs of archeological and archival discoveries, and of Samaritan life in the past and present. Its 24 scholarly essays cover many subjects, including the historical Samaritan-Jewish split, early Christianity and the Samaritans, the Muslim encounter with Samaritans, and Samaritans in modern Israel.

“The Samaritans were always a ghost people on the side. A significant amount of scholarship and archeological literature about them only began to emerge in the 1980s,” Fine said.

The Samaritans were always a ghost people on the side

Support of the Samaritans by early European Zionists and Jewish leaders in the Land of Israel was pivotal to the Samaritan’s survival in the 19th and early 20th centuries. An essay by Dr. Katharina E. Keim on the rabbi, scholar, and folklorist Moses Gaster highlights his relationship (mainly by correspondence) with the Samaritans. It emphasizes the importance this had in terms of legitimating their identity and historical ties to the Jews.

‘The Samaritans: A Biblical People,’ edited by Steven Fine. (Brill)

An essay by Dr. Reuven Gafni quotes a critical letter sent by Rabbi Ḥayyim Abraham (Mircado) Gagin, then chief rabbi of Jerusalem, to the Ottoman authorities in 1842, when the Samaritan community in Nablus faced extinction. In it, he “decreed that the Samaritans were to be considered ‘a branch of the children of Israel, who acknowledge the truth of the Torah.'”

“This affirmation made by the Jewish Chief Rabbi… can with some certainty be said to have had far-reaching consequences, both in terms of protecting the Samaritan community in Nablus from immediate harm, and, to some extent, in terms of shaping social relations and mutual perceptions between the Samaritan and Jewish minority communities in the city over the following decades,” Gafni writes.

“The Jews in essence saved the Samaritans and changed the relationship between the two communities — made it more positive — after three and a half millennia of enmity,” Fine said.

Cooperation between the Samaritans (who traditionally base themselves on their holy Mount Gerizim above Nablus) and second Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi led to the integration of the Samaritans into Israeli society and the establishment of a Samaritan community in Holon, south of Tel Aviv.

According to the Museum of the Bible’s chief curatorial officer Dr. Jeffrey Kloha, a show on the Samaritans fit well with the museum’s mission to explore Biblical history, manuscript traditions, and the impact the Bible has had on different groups. The partnership with Yeshiva University helped bring together different areas of expertise and context.

Samaritans during prayer in the synagogue in Kiriyat Luza. (Ori Orhof/Courtesy of Museum of the Bible)

The exhibition includes historical background, ancient manuscripts, and archeological artifacts from the Land of Israel, as well as parts of Europe and Asia where Samaritan communities existed at various points in history before dying out. However, the remaining Samaritans and how they live today in Kiryat Luza (on Mount Gerizim) and Holon are front and center.

“It was important to represent the people correctly. Our goal is to tell the story of the Samaritans as they would tell it, because that is what produced the community as it is today and as they are passing it down,” Kloha said.

To that end, five video stations show Samaritans speaking about their traditions, ritual practices, identities, and lives.

Through the videos and other installations, visitors are introduced to the Samaritan Torah, which is written in an ancient script known as paleo-Hebrew. The Samaritan Torah is similar to a version discovered in Qumran and used by Jews during the Second Temple period. It is for the most part the same as the Jewish Torah, with the main difference being the Samaritan Tenth Commandment calling for the building of an altar and the making of sacrifices on Mount Gerizim. (The Samaritans built a temple to God on Mount Gerizim in the 5th century BCE. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is not considered holy by the Samaritans).

Samaritans take part in the traditional Passover sacrifice ceremony, where sheep and goats are slaughtered, at Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablus on April 29, 2018. (AFP)

On Passover, the Samaritans literally reenact the biblical sacrifice by slaughtering a large number of sheep and goats and burning them in pits. After marking themselves with the animals’ blood, the community eats the meat by hand together with bitter herbs, as is commanded.

Since the Samaritans, who are led by a high priest rather than rabbis, evolved separately from Judaism, they have distinct traditions and different interpretations of the Torah’s laws. For example, Samaritan women spend their menstrual periods completely separated from everyone else. They remain in a designated room, use a separate bathroom, and have food brought to them rather than cooking for others.

A Samaritan mezuzah is a large, inscribed stone plaque placed above the front door of a house, rather than a small, narrow box containing scripture attached to the doorframe. Samaritan couples do not stand under a huppah at their wedding.

Dedicatory inscription from Delos, Greece, mentioning the ‘Israelites who worship toward Argarazein,’ 150 BCE. (Steven Fine)

“How to put the Bible into everyday life, into an everyday context, is something everyone grapples with. The Samaritans are an example that people can reflect on,” Kloha said.

Alafi’s powerful film focuses on the most pressing issue for the Samaritans — physical survival. They are all extremely worried, but they do not agree on how to ensure not only survival but also growth. It is a painful situation for a people who claim that they once numbered a million.

Some are in favor of bringing in new blood (literally, as there are only four family lineages among the Samaritans) to widen the gene pool and make sure that every young member of the community can marry someone they choose.

Alafi devotes much of the film to the relationship between a young Samaritan man named Shadi and his new Ukrainian wife Natasha, who tries to adjust to new surroundings and a very different way of life.

“There are currently 30 Ukrainian women who have married into the community. This undoubtedly changes it, but I think it is a win-win situation for both the Samaritan men and the Ukrainian women,” Alafi said.

Others stand firmly against this trend and insist on continuing the longstanding tradition of in-marriage, despite the obvious genetic risks.

The film shows Samaritan historian and community emissary Benyamin Tzedeka trying to convince the high priest and his wife that they should consider bringing to Israel a large group of Brazilians who have expressed sincere interest in the Samaritan religion and way of life. He suggests they could live separately from the community until they have learned and proven themselves. The high priest and his wife are not enthused by the idea.

Alafi, who spent six years shooting the film, said he purposely did not broach topics such as how the Samaritans might handle modern issues like homosexuality or vegetarianism. He also didn’t explicitly deal with the dangers of endogamy.

Samaritan youth at Passover. (Moshe Alafi)

“These are a people that live on the seamline between an ancient civilization and a mix of complicated modern geopolitical issues. I think that is much more interesting to focus on,” the filmmaker said.

Kloha said that an important part of the exhibition at the Museum of the Bible deals with how Christians, Muslims, and Jews have interacted with the Samaritans throughout history.

Relations between Jews and Samaritans were negative for thousands of years, and have only relatively recently improved. Alafi suggested that this can be attributed to the ability to sincerely and appreciatively come into contact with someone “who is me but not me.” Yeshiva University’s Fine believes that this idea can be applied more broadly.

“On a social level, it is important for the Jewish world — and for others— to deal with people who are very similar to them and not hate them for it. The Samaritans are a safe place to think about this skill-building. We need to connect with other people and groups on what we share and agree upon, and put our differences in a box,” he said.

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