KIBBUTZ Baram is a flourishing Jewish community situated 300 meters from Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.
Owners of one of the largest apple industries in the country, the kibbutz members, overseas volunteers, Israeli students and hired laborers work against the clock during harvest season to bring in an estimated 3,000 tons of Jonathan, Golden Delicious and Royal Gala before the fruit begins to soften past the point of no return for export.
During the Mishna and Talmud periods there was also a more than flourishing Jewish settlement at Baram and apples were amongst the many varieties of fruits the ancient Hebrews would have cultivated in the rocky but rich Galilean soil.
The village is not mentioned in the Bible but Jewish travelogues from the Middle Ages attest to the presence of not just one, but two synagogues at Baram.
Nowadays it is possible to admire the ruins of those two synagogues lying a short distance from each other. The larger of the synagogues, and far more ornate, has been partially reconstructed from the well-preserved ruins but unfortunately only the foundation of the second but far smaller synagogue remains.
In 1865 a British survey team documented what was left of the small synagogue. The structure faced Jerusalem, they noted, and was typical of Galilean synagogues.
Some 50 years later archeologists carried out small-scale excavations at Baram and after the founding of the state and Israel’s Department of Antiquities and Museums, they, together with the National Parks Authority reconstructed the larger synagogue and maintain the site. In addition, archeologists from the Antiquities Authority and the University of Rochester conducted more scientific excavations there in the late 1980s. There seems to still be much to be discovered under the rock-strewn area that is now a pay-to-enter National Park.
The more recent excavations indicate that the two synagogues were built during the late fourth or early fifth centuries even though architecturally they resemble third-century buildings. The archeological and architectural disparity also found in other ancient synagogues in the Galilee has become the focus of ongoing and inconclusive academic research that has regenerated interest in the site.
The larger rectangular synagogue, like most Galilean synagogues, faces south to Jerusalem. Six large columns grace the synagogue portico and above the central portal (there are three) sits a stone lintel with a carving of a wreath. On the upper part of the lintel and carvings of grape vines and clusters of grapes and the remains of what are clearly two winged figures on the sides.
The reconstructed arch over the portal relieves the upper part of the structure of some of the weight. The eastern portal is of particular interest as it is adorned with an Aramaic inscription at the base of its window. The inscription tells that the builder was Elazar, son of Yodan.
The prayer hall has rough interior walls. However, in the long lost days of ancient times these would have been plastered over and no doubt also decorated.
Three rows of columns supported the second floor and ceiling and the remains of the gable are now on view to the southeast of the synagogue. The large stone slab flooring would have been lined with wooden benches. Standing in the hall - half squinting against the strong rays of sunshine bouncing off the enormous stones - one can almost imagine the scene as scores of local Jewish farmers, shepherds and craftsmen would have come together in prayer.
Interestingly, archeologists did not discover where the ark of those times would have stood but they did successfully uncover a statue of a lion deemed likely to have stood near the ark in ancient times.
A lintel found in the small synagogue, and similar to that which was discovered in the bigger one, also bore an inscription. “Peace in this place and all of Israel. Yosef Halevi, son of Levi, made this lintel. May his deeds be blessed. Peace” it states.
The original lintel ended up in the Louvre and then eventually in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem - on loan from the Louvre would you believe! A copy of the rare find is on display at the Bar-Dor Museum situated in Kibbutz Baram just a few minutes’ drive away. The lintel found its way from the Galilee to the Louvre in 1861 when French scholar Ernest Renan passed through Baram and carried it off to Paris.
A famous Middle Ages’ legend jotted down in one of the travelogues of the time is known as the “Infant from the Village of Baram.”
The legend goes that a child prodigy named Nahman, the son of Pinchas and Rachel, spoke words of the Torah immediately upon birth but was silenced by his rabbi father.
When Nahman reached the age of 12 he again began to recite the Torah and whilst doing so one day, collapsed and died. He then became known as ‘Nahman the Snatched’ because his life had been snatched away so abruptly.
The Jewish community of the village of Baram fell on hard times. Economic woes coupled with a more than precarious security situation led to the abandonment of Baram in the 18th century. At the beginning of the 19th century Maronite Christian Arabs settled the site, renaming it Biram.
In very close proximity to the two ancient synagogues of Baram stands the church they built, a large bell still aloft in the bell tower.
During the War of Independence the local Christian Arab population, who diligently guarded the remains of the ancient synagogues in their midst, was evacuated from its village and that of neighboring Ikrit. Villagers were told they would be allowed to return to their homes after a few weeks but that was not to be and the majority of the families either settled in Haifa or in another Galilean Christian village in the vicinity named Jish in the region of Gush Halav. They petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court some years ago for the right to return to their villages as was promised at the time of the evacuation, almost sixty years ago. Although the courts found in favor of the Biram and Ikrit evacuees and their descendants, none have been given permission to rebuild the villages involuntarily abandoned in 1948 but where Jews had lived in biblical times.
Demobilized Palmach soldiers of the Hashomer Hatzair movement renewed Jewish settlement on the ancient site of Baram when they established Kibbutz Baram in 1949.
Little remains of the villages themselves and the land is now covered with the apple and other orchards of Kibbutz Baram and other Jewish communities. However, a large walled off well-tended Christian cemetery, still used as a burial ground for the scattered Biram and Ikrit Arab communities, is situated between the kibbutz and the National Park containing the two synagogues and the church built by their forefathers.