Varda Meyers Epstein, the niece of Pittsburgh sports broadcasting legend Myron Cope, sits at a table Tuesday in front of Scoop, a shop selling ice cream and salads in the Gush Etzion city of Efrat.
Daniel Sass, who grew up in Pittsburgh, flies a Steelers flag from his home in Efrat, Isarel.
Daniel Sass, who grew up in Pittsburgh, holds a helmet signed by Mel Blount during a trip to Israel as he poses in what he calls his "Middle East Man Cave" in Efrat, Israel. Dedicated to his love of the Steelers, Sass also has items representing the Pirates and Penguins.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
EFRAT, West Bank/Judea — Walk with a camera and a notebook into The Scoop ice cream shop in Efrat — an Israeli town near Palestinian Bethlehem — and the locals promptly ask: "So, which side are you on?"
Today, these particular ice cream seekers happen to have ties to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but they're not talking about the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. They're in a town of roughly 1,000 Jewish families living in a rocky region separated from stabbing-wracked Jerusalem by walled-off roads that wind around or tunnel under older Palestinian villages, flanked in places by guard towers and high walls. They are nervous about their mostly-Muslim neighbors, and they feel the global media and even some fellow Jews detest them for being "settlers" on land that has been controlled by Israel since 1967.
The Handshake and the Fists
Twenty years after an assassination changed the course of Israeli history, emigrants from the Pittsburgh region to the Holy Land live on all sides of the world's most intractable divide.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Rich Lord and Larry Roberts are in Israel this week, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, exploring the lives of ordinary people in this polarized place. Some of the people you'll meet here believe that familiarity can ease the anger between Arabs and Jews. A few who came in peace now cry for justice. Others are standing firm on land where it often rains stones.
On Sunday, we'll look at Israel 20 years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who famously shook hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993. Until then, follow Larry and Rich here every day as they bring images and stories from Israel's fault lines.
"I'm a settler girl. I've got this in the front pocket of my purse: lipstick and pepper spray," said Varda Meyers Epstein, 54, a Squirrel Hill native and niece of the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope.
Mrs. Epstein is part of Efrat's own Steel Curtain, a clique of people with Pittsburgh roots who seem ready to make a goal-line stand if the Palestinians, the world press or some future government were to ask them to pull up roots. Israeli politicians of the past — including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated 20 years ago — talked about ceding some of the land out here to the Palestinians in a peace deal. Growing settlements like Efrat make that concept seem increasingly distant.
"This community is a secure, gated, camera-monitored, gun-toting community," said Daniel Sass, 49, whose Efrat home includes a Steelers-themed basement called the Mideast Mancave. He's quick to add that in a typical week he "will interact with Palestinians in a friendly manner more often then the liberals of Tel Aviv," because the neighboring villagers work maintenance and construction jobs in the town.
A few weeks ago, the Palestinian workers were told to stay home for two days as stabbings mounted in Jerusalem. Since their return to their posts they've been closely guarded. And in front of The Scoop, a young Jewish man hawked pepper spray from a plastic bag.
"Jews don't want to hate people," said Mrs. Epstein, whose very conservative blog posts on Israeli issues and politics have garnered her an international readership. "We want to find the thing that binds us all, that makes us all human. But we've got to be real."
Daniel Sass, who grew up in Pittsburgh, poses in what he calls his "Mideast Man Cave" in Efrat, Israel. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
The sacred seats
Daniel Sass lived just the first two years of his life in Pittsburgh, grew up mostly in California and became a West Coast attorney before moving to Efrat. He's here because during a two-week vacation to Israel in 2001, Palestinian suicide bombers struck a Sbarro restaurant at a busy Jerusalem intersection, killing 15 people and injuring 130. Among the dead was the daughter of an acquaintance. He ended up at the family’s home for shiva, the ritual following burial.
While there, he read a letter written by the deceased girl. “I’m a very flat-line person, except during a Steelers game. Reading that letter hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “What am I doing [in America]? I need to be here.”
A year later, he toted to Israel what he calls his “two most sacred items: My pool table and my four seats from Three Rivers Stadium.” The seats sat loose in his previous abodes, but are now bolted to the floor in the home he shares with his wife, Emma, and their two sons, ages 8 and 5.
When the Steelers played the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, scores of fans from all over Israel showed up at the Mancave, even though kickoff was in the wee hours of the morning.
“I didn’t even know who these kids were,” Mr. Sass said, now a videographer and partner in a fledgling digital marketing firm, PHKDigital. He turned no one away, and even put a big screen in the front yard for the overflow crowd. “No shmos are going to drive a half an hour into the territories unless they’re a real Steelers fans."
Varda Meyers Epstein, the niece of Pittsburgh sports broadcasting legend Myron Cope, sits at a table in front of Scoop, a shop selling ice cream and salads in the Gush Etzion city of Efrat and talks about how she never goes anywhere without two things — her pepper spray and her lipstick. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
Though Mrs. Epstein adored her uncle Myron and other family members in Pittsburgh, by age 18, she knew that would not be her home.
“It’s like I had a bug. I had to come," she said, so in 1979 she arrived, alone, and kissed the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport before reporting to college. “I lived in the old city, and I was walking to my dorm and thought, oh my God, King David walked where I am today.”
While she was studying at a seminary, she met a young seminarian from Skokie, Ill., named Dov Blair Epstein. They married and in the mid-1980s moved to a tiny Jewish settlement called Metzad.
The growing family relocated to Efrat in 2002. Most residents there speak English as their first language, hailing from America, Great Britain or South Africa.
Mrs. Epstein was surprised to find that a member of her choir, who lives around the corner, was also from Pittsburgh. "Sometimes our singing teacher insults our diction, and we turn to each other and say, 'Go Stillers!' " she said.
The West Bank, called Judea and Samaria in the Bible, was part of Jordan until the Six-Day War in 1967. That's when Israel seized it in a pre-emptive strike as Arab armies massed on its borders.
Mr. Rabin came closest to giving it back.
“We were afraid we'd end up with Jordanian passports, those of us who live in Judea and Samaria,” Mrs. Epstein said. “We were frightened. We were being left to twist in the wind.”
Jewish nationalist Yigal Amir fatally shot Mr. Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995. On the Jewish calendar, the 20th anniversary is this Sunday. During the ensuing decades, land-for-peace has been part of negotiations, most recently those led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last year. But in Efrat and elsewhere, Arab workers are now employed building new apartment complexes for Jews.
The CIA's World Factbook puts the West Bank's Palestinian population — including those in East Jerusalem — at around 2.8 million, which some Israelis, including Mrs. Epstein, call an inflated figure. The Israeli population of Judea and Samaria is around 550,000.
"We're hoping that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will recognize now that there's no choice but to exercise sovereignty over our lands, and give [the Palestinians] Israeli citizenship," Mrs. Epstein said.
Might that not threaten the Jewish majority? "That's why I had 12 children," she said. "You think I'm joking?"
Varda Meyers Epstein stands in her Efrat home surrounded by photos of her husband and their 12 children. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
The Epstein kids — eight boys, four girls — now range in age from 15 to mid-30s. One is in the Israel Defense Force, serving near a Palestinian-run city that has been the scene of clashes.
The grown kids have moved away from Efrat, because it's too expensive. On Mr. Epstein's pay as a handyman and Mrs. Epstein's salary for writing for the charity Kars4Kids they can afford to rent "five teeny-weeny little rooms," as she put it, with no air conditioning and a front yard just big enough for a lemon tree.
She regrets nothing.
“I could never go back to the states to live there. It would be like I turned my tail and ran,” she said. Jews "outlived our enemies. … We’ve preserved our language, and our history and our literature. … And we returned, and it’s just incredible. It gives me goosebumps.”
Coming tomorrow: An Ohio lawyer crosses East Jerusalem's checkpoints for the Palestinian cause
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord
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