This morning, in what is becoming a tradition, or just a symptom of jet lag, a group of us again got up early to watch the sun rise. This morning there was some scattered cloud cover, which lead to a beautifully pink sunrise. While I was relaxing with my morning coffee talking Israeli/U.S. politics, which is much easier to do at six when you’ve been up since three or four, our active Navy officer was showing the rest of us up with a two hour insanity workout and our yoga instructor was holding class. One of these days I’ll stop being so lazy and join one or the other.
As this was our last day in Tiberias we all packed up our rooms before heading down to breakfast and onto the bus for yet another forty five minute journey to Zefat, our day’s focus. As always watching the land provided ample distraction along these trips, as well as picking up some of the local lingo from both the staff and our medic. Before too long we pulled into Zefat and walked up to the monument which gave us one of the first of the many vistas of the day. In the lower left of the scene is a yellow flag with writing on it that says messiah, referencing the belief that on his way to Jerusalem the messiah will travel through Tzfat.
After hearing Shimi’s introduction we started towards Defenders Square, stopping to pull out more money from a rare ATM along the way. Next door was a little marketplace; I’m constantly astounded by the amount of fresh produce here. In Defender’s Square was one of the last bastions of resistance of Tzfat’s defence in the Independence War. On the last night of the siege by Arab forces, with ammunition, supplies, and hope running low, all of the Jewish defenders gathered in the temple to pray, while at the same time, unknown to them, an Israeli unit was infiltrating through the Arab siege lines. In the morning, the resupplied and reinforced defenders broke the siege. If you look closely at the stonework throughout the town you can see the repairs from the damage caused by the fighting.
As we continued through Tzfat we stopped at what had to be one of the narrowest alleys in the country. Like everything else in this country it had a story, and like everything in Tzfat it was mystical. The alley got it’s name from a story of an old woman who used to always light a candle in her window. When a visitor went to ask her about the light one night he found her sitting at the table by the door with two cups of tea. When he asked who the tea was for she replied that it was for the messiah; the hike up to Tzfat was steep and she was sure that he would be thirsty and appreciate a rest along the way. Then he asked why she made two cups of tea, to which she replied that she wasn’t sure if the messiah would prefer regular tea or mint tea, and she wanted to give him options.
Our next stop was into a small amphitheater where we gathered to listen to the music of Agadetah, a band reviving the Jewish musical traditions. We began with a song featuring the santur, a stringed instrument that is the distant ancestor of the piano. Instead of individual hammers and keys the artist holds a hammer on either hand and strikes the individual strings. The amount of coordination is astounding. Accompanying the santur was the kamancheh, a four stringed instrument from which the violin was derived. The kamancheh is played on the knee, and is swiveled back and forth in a socket. I’m not sure if this is simply to create more travel for the bow across the strings or to affect the sound. During one of the songs Shimi joined in playing the drum. At the end our host pulled out the pantam, a unique new instrument from Switzerland and played an enchanting song. As he said, the music is already in the pantam, he was just releasing it to the world.
When we left the musical side of Tzfat we traveled down the hill some more to learn about the Mikvah. Here we split by sex, and I’ll only be able to tell you about the men’s experience. Our guide through this was David, a Canadian by birth who had changed direction in life from a club promoter to a rabbi. David brought an energy and speaking ability that I could only admire. He spoke at length about finding purpose in life, focusing on the present and not letting the intellectual side of yourself to take a backseat to the baser desires in life. After this introduction we went to see the men’s Mikvah in David’s synagogue, and then down to the original Mikvah in a cave below Tzfat where many of us experienced the act of Mikvah.
After coming back up we stopped at an authentic candle shop, where all the candles are made on premise. This hilarious old Jewish woman then explained to us the candle making process. Scattered among the shop were wax sculptures of everything from Noah’s arc to a Jewish captain America fighting mechaHitler. Outside we grabbed some crepes, made to order, before heading on.
Next we tried to stop into a synagogue. I say tried because at first a very angry attendant tried to prevent us from entering. I was towards the back of the group, but I can only assume Shimi turned on the charm because the next thing I knew we were heading into the synagogue. All the men had to don hats, it’s still strange to me that wearing a baseball cap is not a sign of disrespect, and we processed into a forty foot square room, dominated by an arc and a large raised platform. We slowly circled through the room, admiring the arc, which had been intricately carved out of olive wood. Quickly we were chased out by another group of tourists, which was difficult when you consider the single door of the synagogue.
And now to my favorite part of the day; lunch. Arielle, one of our group leaders, talked up a Yemeni shop for it’s fancy cheese creation. It started out containing five different types of cheese, by the time we were gathering for lunch it was up to ten. Needless to say we were stoked. Though we first met up outside the Yemeni shop we had to walk down through the artist’s quarter. This was really a small alleyway filled with tiny shops. We hurried through with the promise that we would have more time to explore later. Once we walked the twenty minutes to the one end of artist’s alley, and spend another ten or so trying to count out (not one of our greatest skills), we split up and headed back towards the promised food. The walk was all uphill, the line was long, and the seating was limited, but the food was worth all of that and more. The four cheeses were more than enough, and augmented with fruits, veggies, and spices. They say Tzfat is a spiritual place, and with all the music, mysticism and history it certainly is, but to those heavy hitters I would also add this meal. I was just devastated that I could only eat one.
To close the day we went to see a mystic artist; Abraham. Once an American college student named Robert interested in asian meditation, Abraham discovered the world of the Kabala, which eventually brought him to Tzfat, it’s home. He took time explaining the basics of his journey into the Kabala, and the pictures that he painted to encapsulate the ideas exemplified within. The best way to describe Abraham is chill. I feel that he would be very at home in the seventies, surrounded by a group of other free spirits. Afterwards we boarded the bus and began the long ride to Jerusalem.
In talking about Abraham, David, and Rachel (the woman who lead the women through their introduction to the Mikva) afterwards several people mentioned that they had never met people that appeared so content and fulfilled in their lives. All were doing things that they loved and it showed.