Letter from Modi’in: The Maccabees of Malibu
In a city known as a place to fulfill modern Israeli notions of ‘villas and Volvos,’ residents are uncovering surprising, deep connections to the past.
I live in Malibu—a sunny strip of spacious homes and palm-tree-lined parks. Malibu, Israel, that is.
That is what my neighborhood in Modi’in is called; it is named after the contractor, Malibu Israel, Ltd., that built it 11 years ago, making it one of the first neighborhoods in this city of 70,000 halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Implausible as Malibu sounds here in the Jewish state, there is something fitting about it. The neighborhood is a collection of sprawling apartments and large private homes, many with basements and garages—something rare on the Israeli landscape. Plenty of cars bear logos of leading high-technology firms: Comverse, Intel, IBM. A lot of the others are SUV’s.
It is not just Malibu but, to some extent, all of Modi’in that brings to mind suburban America. Not that the majority of residents in this bedroom community hail from the United States (although more and more English-speaking immigrants are choosing to live here); according to a recent city survey, Americans make up no more than 4 percent of the population. It is that the quality of life here appeals to immigrants and native Israelis alike, seeking what you might find in suburbs from Scarsdale to Seattle: big houses, well-kept lawns, sweeping parks and like-minded people. It’s a place to realize the post-Zionist dream of villa and Volvo.
Designed by internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, Modi’in has a Lego-block look, as though it is assembled from stacks of modular white cubes. Many of the apartments are built into the slopes of the hilly terrain; parks, public buildings and the town’s main boulevards are situated in the flat valleys. This has made for some extraordinary housing layouts: Take the elevator down to the Minus-2 level and emerge in an apartment with a breathtaking penthouse view. Since it is all new, apartments in Modi’in routinely offer amenities that are considered the height of luxury in more established towns: walk-in closets, private entrances, terraces with lawns. I don’t mean to sound like a real estate agent, harping on housing features, but it is because of details like these that many are enchanted with Modi’in.
Take Nefesh B’Nefesh immigrant Penina Neustadter—whose family was among the 50 North American families who made aliya straight to Modi’in in the last two years. Neustadter left her three-story colonial home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, this past summer to realize a long-held dream: moving to Israel with her husband and four children. “We wanted to make aliya, but we didn’t want to downsize,” says Neustadter, 35, who describes the family’s rented triplex with basement and garden as “an apartment about the size of a house.”
And, unlikely as this may seem, it is affordable.
Not surprisingly, this affordability has attracted many young families, and Modi’in boasts the fastest-growing population of children in any non-haredi city in Israel. (Modi’in’s population is a mix of secular, who are the majority, and national religious.)
Most people do not move here out of passion. They are driven by a quest for comfort and convenience. Modi’in has none of the soul of Jerusalem, the verve of Tel Aviv or the charm of Zikhron Yaakov.
I moved here seven years ago for practical reasons, thinking it would be temporary. For a long time, I thought of Modi’in as a sleepy suburb, with walk-in closets its most outstanding feature.
All that changed this past spring when my son’s first-grade class was invited to participate in an archaeological dig on the hill across the street from his school—a five-minute walk from our home.
The hill, called Titora, is a 140-acre green sanctuary in the heart of Modi’in. It is as much a landmark as “the mountain” is to Montreal or Central Park is to New York. Everyone has hiked on Titora, with its winding trails, picturesque olive and almond trees and crumbling Crusader fortress. But until last spring, few residents of Modi’in had dug any deeper into Titora’s history.
Armed with his red plastic sandbox shovel and Indiana Jones fedora, my son, Matan, led us up the trail to an area where about 30 other residents of all ages had gathered. Archaeologists and other guides gave us instructions, furnished us with picks, spades and brushes—my son held on to his plastic shovel—and sat us down at a clearing of rocks.
Within minutes, nearly everyone had unearthed something of the past—the ground was bursting with relics and stories. I looked over at Matan, who spoke as though he had been doing this all his life. “This is pottery, you see; this here is glass, and this is flint,” he said authoritatively to a friend. A 2-year-old spit out his pacifier and blurted excitedly to his mother, “a shard, a shard.”
I, too, found myself racing over to the archaeologist whenever I discovered something of interest. I showed him a relatively large, rounded piece of pottery. He examined it and pronounced it part of a jug from the Hellenistic period. I stared at him in disbelief for a few seconds before I felt a wave of dizziness.
Who held this jug, I wondered. What became of him or her? Did that person stand atop this same hill that still affords a strategic and breathtaking view of the region—stretching from the sea to the road to Jerusalem—and watch Antiochus’s army approaching?
Titora is considered one of the two likely sites of the ancient Hasmonean city of Modi’in, where Judah the Maccabee and his family lived and died. In between, they led a successful revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, culminating in religious and political freedom in 161 B.C.E.—a story commemorated each year in the festival of Hanukka.
When you hike on the hill you have to watch out for the many gaping well openings. I learned that Jews had hidden in the water system tunnels during the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans; archaeologists even found a coin dating from the third year of the uprising.
Now, all around me, the ground was spewing up clues to the past: a Byzantine mosaic floor, Roman glass, flint tools. People have been living on this hilltop for 6,000 years.
Biblical archaeologist Shimon Gibson, head of the dig, believes this is the most likely site of ancient Modi’in because of its strategic location and the elaborate tunnel system—both indications of its importance. But he has not yet found any conclusive evidence.
As we immersed ourselves in digging, there was a palpable thrill in the air. It was as though we who spend our days chauffeuring children to ballet and karate class were touching some remnant of a colossal historic drama, maybe even one that has something to do with our lives today.
A few miles away, at the southwest outskirts of modern Modi’in, lies Um el Umdan, which is considered an even more likely site for ancient Modi’in. It is situated next to Buchman, a luxurious new neighborhood made up almost entirely of detached homes—and a magnet for English-speaking immigrants like the Neustadters.
Developers had to drop plans for yet another housing complex there when a survey revealed that the site held the remains of a sprawling Hasmonean city. The finds from the city include one of the oldest synagogues ever unearthed in Israel, a mikve, a 25-room villa—all from the Second Temple period—and a fire layer corresponding to 70 C.E., the year Titus destroyed not only Jerusalem but over 100 other towns and villages in Judea.
Recently, aerial shots exposed a Hasmonean road connecting Um el Umdan to a site across the street called Givat Sher. For the third consecutive year, local families are digging at Givat Sher, which archaeologists believe was probably a satellite neighborhood of the larger settlement nearby.
Here the scope of history is more condensed, beginning with the Hasmonean period and giving way to Byzantine and Muslim settlements spanning the 5th through 19th centuries. Here, too, the land is bursting to reveal its secrets.
“While walking from the parking lot to the dig, one girl scooped up a coin—which turned out to be from the Mamluk period around the year 1100,” recounts Yuval Gadot, an archaeologist from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology in Jerusalem. Gadot, along with Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Yoav Farhi, supervises the Givat Sher dig.
While Titora was briefly explored by French archaeologists a century ago, Givat Sher was a virgin site until the start of the community dig. The excavations here, like the ones at Titora, are sponsored by the Nelson Glueck School, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, a few local schools and the municipality of Modi’in, mainly through its deputy mayor, Alex Weinreb (see sidebar, right). Most of the objects from the digs are kept at the archaeological school, which studies and assembles the pieces, though photographs of the finds are shown in local schools.
“None of this would have been excavated if not for the participation of Modi’in residents,” notes Gadot, who estimates over 2,000 have participated to date. “We have no written references about this place—everything we know is by virtue of what we find on this dig.”
You see this jug?” asks avner Yoffi, pointing to a photograph of a large clay vessel in his living room. “We found it,” he says, as his wife, Mazal, nods proudly.
Retirees in their late sixties, the Yoffis have become fixtures at the Givat Sher dig. Last season, they found pottery shards that were assembled into an entire Mamluk-period jug.
The Yoffis moved to Modi’in 10 years ago to be near their son who had bought a home here. “When we came, it looked like the Wild West, with nothing but barren hills,” says Avner Yoffi.
Yoffi talks about the 1948 battle on Titora that determined the region’s eastern border. He speaks animatedly about Modi’in’s past, ignoring the intrusive sounds of the present—bulldozers and cranes—just outside his window; a mall and train station are being erected across the street from his home.
“Now I know that these hills have stories, I feel connected to them,” he says. “Now nothing would move me from here.”
“The idea is not just to dig, but to create a sense of place, a sense of belonging,” explains Gadot, who has dug at monumental sites like Megiddo and is himself a Modi’in resident.
“I don’t expect to find the Temple here,” he continues. “But there is the story of the people who lived here over the course of thousands of years. We’re a link in that chain.”
He believes that residents have a particularly strong need for that sense of connection. “To live in Modi’in is to live with a sense of rootlessness,” he says. “None of us was born here—I’m a veteran resident and I’ve been here all of eight years. It looks like a city born out of nothing. But there was much here before, and finding out what that was can deepen our roots.”
As the sun sets at Titora, we pack up the picks and shovels and carry our pails of pottery, glass, mosaics and other finds to a tent.
I walk along the dirt path that winds down the hill and pass a pizzeria, video library and supermarket—once the site of a thriving Byzantine wine industry—before arriving at my nifty garden apartment in Malibu.
At the end of a day of digging, the residents of Modi’in return to their ordinary lives. But as quiet descends on the town, many of us can still hear the voices of the past. And as long as we do, Modi’in will—for all its modern amenities—never be just another American-style suburb.
Eye on the Past
Alex Weinreb is a man with a mission: He wants to preserve the legacy of the Maccabees in modern-day Modi’in.
The former print-shop owner, who grew up in Queens, New York, moved to Israel with his family when he was 12, and to Modi’in with his wife, Nili, shortly after the first houses were built 11 years ago. Weinreb (right, at the entrance to a Hasmonean-period mikve) is now the city’s deputy mayor and a mayoral hopeful in the 2008 election.
The 48-year-old father of four has spearheaded numerous campaigns to preserve the antiquities of Modi’in, sometimes even throwing himself in front of bulldozers in efforts, most of them successful, to save Hasmonean graves, other artifacts and the Titora hill itself from being buried under apartment complexes or roads.
“A city without a past has no future,” is his motto. An avid archaeology buff, Weinreb is currently pursuing a master’s degree in archaeology; his thesis looks at the location of the ancient city of Modi’in. He has used his office to advance the preservation of Modi’in’s heritage—financing digs, incorporating the topic into school programs and launching courses on Modi’in for tour guides.
His enthusiasm is fired by a deep personal—some would say quixotic— sense of destiny. “It may sound odd, but since I was a boy, I’ve had the Maccabees in my system,” he says, laughing. “If you believe in reincarnation, then sometime back then I was around.”
On a coffee table in his city hall office are a few artifacts from the Titora dig: Roman glass, a glazed Crusader vessel, a Byzantine plate. Weinreb’s personal favorite is a Hasmonean oil flask.
“This is the Hanukka story right here,” he says, gushing. “This is where the independence of Israel began—in the land of the Maccabees. If Mattityahu [the father of Judah the Maccabee] hadn’t started the revolt, Hellenism would have won, and we would have lost our identity; we’d be speaking Greek today. That’s why I say the independence of Israel didn’t start in 1948, but in 167 B.C.E.”
Weinreb is currently waging a battle against what he sees as modern-day Hellenism: the infiltration of the use of English in the names of commercial enterprises.
“One of first things the Maccabees did when they came to power was to reinstate the Hebrew language [from Aramaic],” he explains, “and issue the first coins in Hebrew. We are reliving this 2,173 years later by having Modi’in city hall declare that everything will now be in Hebrew.”
His pet project—for which he is trying to raise funds—is a mammoth tourism-education center, to be called Land of the Maccabees. He would like to build it at Um el Umdan, which lies at the outskirts of the modern city, a major Hasmonean archaeological site that may have been the original Modi’in. —L.E.F.