'God wants us to be under pressure here, which is good'

Meandering from Brooklyn to Samaria, Avraham Herzlich shepherded a dynasty

He traded in a 12-cylinder Ferrari for a herding staff, returning to the land of Israel the way he says his ancestors would have done, encountering spiritual highs and tragic lows

KFAR TAPUAH, West Bank — Life in the United States was passing by too quickly for Avraham Herzlich.

The now 77-year-old Brooklyn native admits he did not know it at the time, but how could he have?

Herzlich — then barely of legal age — was driving from New York to Miami in a 12 cylinder Ferrari and receiving offers from friends in the auto industry to represent BMW in exhibitions throughout Europe.

So how did this would-be sports car salesman go from the fast life in the Big Apple to herding goats and sheep on the outskirts of a rather smaller one — Kfar Tapuah (Apple Village)?

Given how frequently Herzlich has shared his story over the years, the question turned out to be a surprisingly difficult one for the whimsical settler to answer.

“I felt like there was something missing,” said Herzlich as he looked out at his flock of over 150 animals chewing on the leaves of oak trees outside the northern West Bank village he now calls home. “I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time, but I decided to travel to Europe in an effort to ‘find myself’ as they say.”

Avraham Herzlich stands next to an ancient mikveh in the fields near his home in Kfar Tapuah. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

He went on to share how he met a young woman named Monique on the beaches of France. “She was so beautiful, but also very modest. She never let me touch her!” he said, seemingly still surprised.

Just as things began to get serious with his new French girlfriend, Herzlich  decided to head back to his family in the states.

Monique wrote him, saying she wanted to get married. “But I told her I couldn’t because I was Jewish,” he said proudly.

It was then that Herzlich began thinking about the heritage that had long been of little significance to him. “I read Torah at my bar mitzvah, but I did not know the meaning behind the words.”

Herzlich paused upon noticing that his flock had wandered too far up the hill and called his dog — a Belgian shepherd — to herd them back in his direction.

“Good dog!” he shouted repeatedly, as the canine circled around the 150 goats and sheep and somehow managed to direct them back toward Herzlich.

“This dog saves me. It would take me ten times longer to do what he can in two minutes,” the shepherd of nearly 50 years explained. “That’s why I’ve never given him a name. He’s so valuable, and I don’t want to limit him.

“If Arabs tried to shoot at me, he would find them and eat them alive,” said Herzlich of his Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank hilltops — a topic of conversation to which he returned, without fail, every few minutes.

“Where was I?” he asked before coming back to his story of how he got to Israel in the first place.

Herzlich shared how a foot injury following his return to New York from Paris allotted him time to read about the Judaism that he knew little about.

“There was a book with an orange cover on my father’s bookshelf that told the story of the wandering of our ancestors. With it were records containing the songs of the early Zionists.”

Avraham Herzlich outside his home in Kfar Tapuah. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Herzlich began singing one of those tunes, bobbing his head and smiling through the chorus.

There was something so pure about their songs,” he said. “Those early Zionists wanted to go back to the truth, and they made me realize that I wanted to do the same.” 

From Kfar Zeitim to Kfar Tapuah

At the age of 23, Herzlich purchased a ticket to Israel. “But not a plane ticket,” he clarified. “In a plane, you go so quickly, you don’t even see what’s below. But by boat you get a chance to take it all in.”

Herzlich docked in Haifa and made his way to Jerusalem where he learned Hebrew. For the new immigrant whose roots grew out of Eastern Europe, religion was still not of the utmost interest. But upon peeking into a Yemenite synagogue in the country’s capital, he was immediately moved by the sounds he heard.

“I felt like I was taken back to my roots,” he said unironically. “Jews from Yemen preserved the holy tongue.”

Herzlich again began to sing. This time a verse from the Bible’s Exodus story, but with a Yemenite tune. His accent told the tale of his journey across the globe. The “r” sounds were uttered with a heavy American accent, yet he pronounced the Hebrew letters of “het” and “ayin” like a Sanaa native.

His infatuation with Yemenite traditions led him to a small community in Rosh Ha’ayin, in the center of Israel. There, he enrolled in a yeshiva to study religious texts. Due to his minimal Jewish literacy, however, he was placed in a second grade class.

Seemingly unbothered, Herzlich glowed as he shared what he had learned along with his younger classmates. “I began to read Torah, but this time in the way that it was supposed to be read. The power of the message was transferred without a hint of disbelief,” he explained.

“I learned how our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds,” Herzlich said, finally answering the original question. “If that gave them the ability to be close to God, why shouldn’t I do that too? Because it’s the 20th century?”

Avraham Herzlich in the fields near his home in Kfar Tapuah. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

While wandering around the outskirts of Rosh Ha’ayin one day, he came across an Israeli-Arab shepherd and asked him where he could find Jewish herdsmen. The then 26-year-old was told to head to Kfar Zeitim, a small village near Tiberias.

He wasted little time, embarking on a six-day trek northward shortly thereafter. “I walked there barefoot,” he said proudly. “I wanted to feel the land that I had for so long been simply driving over.”

In Kfar Zeitim, he began learning the shepherding craft, but more essentially — as Herzlich pointed out — he met his wife Aviva. “I was admittedly a very odd man at the time. I dressed strangely too, but she was not repelled,” he said gravely.

The two managed to make a living with Aviva selling the meat, milk and cheeses from the flock that Avraham herded throughout the day. This while also raising a family that grew to 11 children — five sons and six daughters.

Herzlich said he tried to instill in each of his children a similar love of the land. “I would combine their schoolwork with work out in the field,” he said. “Sometimes I would even take them out of class so they could spend more time with the flock.”

Today, the majority of Herzlich’s children live in West Bank settlements. His oldest son, Shmuel, — one of four children who live in Kfar Tapuah — frequently joins his father in the field and assists with herding the flock.

Another son, Yehuda, did the same when Herzlich was living in Kfar Zeitim. Yehuda manages a dairy farm there today.

“I have over 70 grandchildren,” Herzlich pointed out excitedly. “I haven’t counted, but my son tells me that’s the number. Each is a true source of happiness in my life.”

Returning to his recollections from Kfar Zeitim, Herzlich said, “I found total tranquility there. It was a Garden of Eden for me and my flock as well.”

But after over 30 years in the small village, Herzlich’s son Shmuel convinced him to move with his flock to Kfar Tapuah.

“For a long time, I had rejected his offer to come because my flock had everything they needed in Kfar Zeitim. The vegetation was plentiful and there was even a spring for the sheep and goats to drink from,” he said.

“But that year, there was a drought, and I took that as a sign from God that it was time for me for a change.”

Herzlich agreed to move, but on the condition that he would do so by foot. While he agreed to wear shoes this time, he set out on a similarly treacherous ten-day journey from Kfar Zeitim south to Kfar Tapuah with his flock then numbering in the hundreds.

Since then, Herzlich has never turned back. “I didn’t this realize in Kfar Zeitim, but while you might gain riches in the north, you’re losing spirituality because you’re so further from Jerusalem,” he explained. “Here, I’m much closer to that holiness.”

Getting knocked down

But that boost in spirituality was also met with tragedy.

In March 2000 — two years after moving to the West Bank — his daughter and son-in-law were gunned down by Palestinian terrorists outside of the Ofra settlement.

Binyamin Kahane (Flash 90)

“I was out with the flock when my son Shmuel called and told me that Binyamin was killed.” He said referring to his son-in-law and son of Jewish radical Meir Kahane.

“He then called back five minutes later and told me that Talia was killed as well.”

“She had a child that was two months old,” Herzlich said as his voice cracked. “She does not even remember her mother!”

I understood almost immediately that when you get hit you’ve got to take it, and not rebel,” he said nodding.

“But that’s why I can no longer be neutral toward the Arabs,” he added before going on to refer to Meir Kahane as a mentor. The latter established the Kach political party in Israeli in 1971, which was disqualified from the Knesset and later from Israel entirely under anti-terrorism laws.

“I don’t consider myself a ‘Kahanist’ though,” Herzlich clarified, adding that he opposed the idea of forced transfer of Palestinians from Israel.

But the shepherd also sported a navy blue polo shirt with the words “Hebrew Labor” on the back, referencing a movement deemed illegal and discriminatory by a Jerusalem court earlier this year for encouraging employment of Jews only.

Israeli police inspect the remains of the van of Binyamin Kahane, who was shot dead along with his wife Talia by Palestinian gunmen in an ambush near the West Bank settlement of Ofra, December 31, 2000. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

He insisted, though, that he’s no racist. “The shepherd who pointed me in the direction of Kfar Zeitim was an Arab. I’m forever indebted to him.”

But beyond the murders that orphaned six of his grandchildren, Herzlich also blames Palestinians for the theft of over 400 of his livestock. “If the Arabs weren’t here my life would be so much easier,” he said. “But that’s the way God wants it — for us to be under pressure — which is good.”

Herzlich then led his flock up to a hilltop community adjacent to Kfar Tapuah. He pointed at one of the homes in the illegal outpost deemed to have been established on private Palestinian land and said proudly, “That’s my son’s home!” 

‘They’re not on the land!’

The 77-year-old shepherd had other messages to convey.

He looked out at the cars speeding down roads between the mountains “You know, I have pity on them,” he said. “They’re not on the land!”

He then spontaneously addressed his next grievance to Benjamin Netanyahu: “Mr. Prime Minister, we cannot continue this process of urbanization. City life destroys the individual and the family. It prevents us from protecting the holy land,” he said sternly, as if Netanyahu was right in front of him.

Avraham Herzlich in the fields near his home in Kfar Tapuah. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Herzlich argued that all Israelis should join him in the mountains of the West Bank. “Population concentration is the destruction of Israel. We have created, in cities like Tel Aviv, modern-day concentration camps! These mountains of Ephraim (the northern West Bank) are endless. People could move their families here and have their kids run around in clean air.”

“Look at the flock eating from the trees,” he exclaimed.

He turned around and smiled. “How many people have full satisfaction at their work? I have full satisfaction from what I do!”

Herzlich dusted off his sun-bleached navy pants, dropped the wooden staff he had been carrying all morning, spread out his arms and began to sing — this time in English.

“He’s got the whoooole world in his hands!”

He repeated the verse four times before running out of breath. He closed his eyes and allowed his arms to move as if the tune was still going.

“I’m not nervous,” Herzlich said, explaining the song choice. “I do believe that what’s happening in the world, God wants it to happen to bring the redemption.”

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