Monday, August 8, 2011

24 Hours in Safed/Tsfat/Zefat/Sfat

Note: I’ll soon post the link to a new album, “Israel: 24 Hours in Safed.” Also, I’ll wait until my next post to do a “Day-to-Day” write-up.


“Whaddaya lookin’ for?”

The Brooklyn accented voice was impatient and authoritative. I turned from scrutinizing the city map billboard in front of me, careful not to move too fast since my pack’s momentum would make me stumble. Sweat was beading on my face and I blinked in the sunlight. The man who’d spoken was already turning away, though he kept looking at me, as though he was in a hurry but felt committed since he’d asked.

“Dunno, just got here on the bus and trying to get my bearings.” He sighed.

“Ya Jewish?” I nodded and he took off. “Well, c’mon then.”

IMG_7058I grabbed my third bag, a paper bag of various goodies and odds and ends, and followed the man. Despite the heat he wore, as most religious men in Israel do, a black suit and a black hat. He wore perfectly round glasses that seemed the type for reading and his white beard covered most of the lower half of his face. His wiry form was soon ten paces ahead of me and I struggled to keep up. I panted out the answers to his questions – where ya from, why ya here, how long, etc – as I caught up to him, trying and failing to keep track of where we were going. Round a corner, down the slope of a hill, up some steps, across the street, then back across the street, round a corner.

It had been an easy morning so far, waking up at Paula’s house in Nahariya, eating breakfast and chatting with Paula before packing up and taking a bus to Akko, where I then caught another bus to Tzfat, which has multiple spellings on Israeli buses, street signs and pamphlets. The bus ride was especially nice, slowly climbing through the hills of the Galilee and round sharp turns as it wound it’s way to the famously religious city. When I’d gotten off the bus at the main bus station, I used my pidgen-Hebrew to ask where Jerusalem street was. The lady I asked blinked and said, “No English.” Apparently she didn’t understand my Anglicized Hebrew either…

Suddenly I was in front of a building, the door opened, I climbed some stairs and was in a lobby-like area of what seemed to be a community center. As I’d walked in the door I just glimpsed a signed: “The Ascent.” The religious man I’d followed headed off down a corridor. When I made to follow he shooed me off.

“No, no, not this way, over there, check in over there. And take some of the classes.” And he was gone. I wouldn’t see him again in my twenty-four hours in Sfat.

After meeting a kindly lady named Olivia, who gave me a printed schedule of events for the next few days after determining if I was Jewish, I checked in with the surly woman at the desk. The form she gave me to fill out had a “Yes/No” to circle as to whether I was Jewish. I tried to shake the hand of a man Olivia introduced me to, only to be reminded that religious Jewish men don’t shake hands with women, and learning that some Jewish women shook hands twice. I bustled up to my dormitory room, which had two bunks and was empty and clean and pleasant. Later, Deborah from Buenos Aires would join me. She was in Safed to take opera singing lessons.

IMG_7080As it turns out, The Ascent is a center for Kabbalistic study and some community members live and work there. Other than being asked more in a twenty-four hour period about my religious status than I have been in three months in Israel, I enjoyed my stay with them. That afternoon I went on an informal tour of the Old City, led by a bouncy, intense and knowledgeable girl from the community. In the evening, I participated in a “Painting from the Soul” workshop, which was surprisingly fun although I thought my picture was like a kindergarten spatter-paint next to the other five lady’s paintings. And I sat partway through an informal discussion of Kabbalistic theory before deciding to go read some good, easy fiction to let my brain rest.

Inbetween all that I still had time to wander around the Artist’s Quarter a bit. There I came across a small courtyard where I was smacked with the sudden sense of déjà vu. In fact, I’d really been there before. About fifteen years before, granted, but it was the same place my Jewish youth group had rested while touring through Zefat. I visited a familiar feeling synagogue during the tour where I had the same sense of familiarity. And I visited the Safed Candle shop, where I’d bought my grandmother a hand-crafted beeswax Havdallah candle for my grandmother, all those years ago.

This morning, I had breakfast at the hotel across the street, then set out to wander the Old City some more. I went to the Citadel, ruins of a Crusader setup at the top of the mountain around which Sfat is built, then followed signs to the Safed Cheese factory, which took me over an hour to find. I looked down on the cemetery where many famous rabbis have been buried and wandered through the Artist’s Quarter once more. After briefly freaking out about losing my passport (I found it), I packed up and set off after lunch to catch the bus to Jerusalem.

I liked Safed. It’s kooky and religious, beautiful and atmospheric. The sunset was gorgeous and walking the narrow lanes and clambering up and down steps was an experience unlike the others I’ve had in Israel. Next time, I’ll schedule myself for several days in this neat little city.



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