Beyond Biblical caricatures
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans."
Ñ Elezar HaCohen, Samaritan elder
By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service
MOUNT GERIZIM, WEST BANK—Dressed in flowing robes of the type their ancestors wore thousands of years ago, the 670 people in the world who call themselves "Samaritans" gathered on this lonely mountain one evening in early May and celebrated the holiday of Passover.
At sunset in the small mountaintop village they call Kiryat Luza, the male heads of the various clans prayed and then cut the throats of 30 lambs as part of the Pascal sacrifice in accordance with the Book of Exodus.
For the remainder of the week, while the world below their mountain carried on its own routine, Samaritan children stayed home from school and their parents from their jobs. They ate special foods, including home-made "matzah," or unleavened bread.
Despite the Samaritans' marking of Passover, the Sabbath and other rituals and observances similar to Judaism, Samaritans are not Jews but a distinct people. They are best known from the New Testament parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan who came to the aid of a mugged and wounded traveler.
In contrast to Jews, who follow both the written law of the Torah as well as the oral law, the Samaritans adhere only to the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch. Like Orthodox Jews, the Samaritans strictly observe the laws of circumcision, family purity and kosher dietary laws. They write in ancient Hebrew script, the language of their Torah, and pray in the ancient Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews through the first millennium AD.
"Jews and Samaritans are both sons of the Israelites," says Israel Tzedaka, one of the Samaritans' much-honored elders, during the Samaritan Passover feast, which occurred a month after Jews celebrated the holiday.
Tzedaka lives in the Israeli town of Holon, as do roughly half the world's Samaritans. During holidays and family occasions, the Israel-based Samaritans travel to Kiryat Luza, where the community's other half resides on Mount Gerizim, in Palestinian territory just southwest of Nablus, the biblical Shechem.
"We trace our roots to the 12 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel," Tzedaka says. While there have been centuries of animosity between Samaritans and Jews, it was Christians and Muslims who almost succeeded in wiping out the Samaritans.
"Once we lived throughout the land of Israel and there are 1.2 million of us," Tzedaka says of the Samaritan's Golden Age, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. "When the Christians and Muslims came they persecuted us. They killed many of us and the rest were converted by force."
By the early 1900s, the community consisted of just 146 people, according to a local census. It grew a bit during the 1930s, under British colonialism and has continued to grow, very slowly, ever since.
Today's Samaritans are an eclectic mix of ancient and modern. While the older members dress as if they had just stepped out of the Bible, the younger generation sports jeans and T-shirts. They attend college and surf the Internet, while practicing their faith to the letter.
Arguably the most challenging precept the community maintains is the one related to marriage: Under Samaritan law, single women Ñ who are outnumbered by single men by a 3-to- 1 ratio Ñ must marry another Samaritan. Usually, that's a first or second cousin. Samaritan men are permitted to find a wife outside the group, but only on the condition the bride adhere strictly to the community's laws and traditions.
The Mount Gerizim Samaritans identify with their Palestinian neighbors. They speak Arabic among themselves and attend local Palestinian schools. Yet unlike other Palestinians, the Samaritans have Israeli identity papers that enable them to travel freely to and from Israel even when other Palestinians cannot.
Israel-based Samaritan men serve in the Israeli military, "though we're posted close to home so that we can maintain our traditions," says Osher Sassoni, a 25-year-old Holon resident who served in the armed forces before becoming a computer expert. "We can't eat the meat served in the army, so we eat like vegetarians."
Zahara Yehoshua, the mother of three grown children, credits the close-knit community's education system and its day-to-day practices with instilling a love of tradition in the younger generation.
"From the time they're born we raise our children in a Torah atmosphere. By the time they're 2 or 3, they start learning our language and religion, and how to pray," Yehoshua says.
Despite living in two such different cultures, the Israeli and Palestinian community members get along well, according to Sassoni. "Of course, we're not the same. We act differently and even our jokes are different. We dress more like Israelis, who dress like Americans. The others dress like Europeans."
Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, "the Holon people have traveled more to Mount Gerizim than vice-versa. We speak better Arabic than they speak Hebrew, but we communicate and get along," Sassoni says of his Palestinian Samaritan brethren.
Following such an unusual path, which skirts both Palestinian and Israeli society, is fraught with minefields, says Elezar HaCohen, a Samaritan elder.
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans. We keep the Torah like they did in the beginning," he says. "What is permitted is permitted. What is not permitted is not permitted."
HaCohen says the community's leaders go to great lengths to remain apolitical, but adds the group's biculturalism makes the transition between the two warring societies less harrowing than one would expect.
"Personally, I was born in Shechem but have lived in Holon for 35 years. When I go to Shechem and I meet people there we hug each other."
Yaffet Ben Asher Cohen, the self-appointed guardian of the community's priceless ancient texts and family trees that span 3,700 years, says, "Our hope is that we will be able to preserve our language, religion, traditions and unity of the people until Judgment Day. We also hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will learn from us.
"We Samaritans have survived countless wars," he says. "In every generation they have conquered us, killed us, imprisoned us. War brings only destruction."