Monday, 21 December 2009


So, I got to Tzfat bus station after my connecting bus from Tiberias. Tzfat (also called Safed) is widely known as home of Kabbalah. Many famous rabbis settled here after the Spanish expulsion of 1492. There was a pitched battle between Jewish and Arab Israelis from the moment the British pulled out in 1948. Eventually the Jewish faction prevailed and the city is probably the most exclusively Jewish place I have visited in Israel. Okay, except Sedot Micah, the Jewish Moroccan settlement I stayed at initially. Tzfat anyway is crucially religious - religion stands at the heart of the city, which is full of yeshivas, ancient synagogues and haredim. The other drawing factor in Tzfat is the thriving artist community. Here, intermingled liberally with the synagogues and religious institutions, there are probably two dozen galleries, working artists' studios with displays and prints on sales, as well as a number of smaller souvenir and tat shops.

I was being picked up by the woman who runs the hostel, the Safed Inn. I thought this was a great touch - and I was very glad of it, not only because of my numerous bags and feeling of real dislocation after four cities in two days, but also because it gave me a chance to appreciate the drive there and ask questions about the city. The manager herself (I don't think she ever told me her name) is Israeli, but speaks perfect English with a strongly drawling American accent. I had to withold a laugh everytime she ended a sentence with 'Mmkaaay?', as she often did, in the manner of South Park's school teacher.

For some reason I didn't photo the hostel, but I had a twin room to myself - the dorm was full, and she had agreed to rent me one bed for NIS150 (roughly twiced the price of a normal dorm bed, but halfway between Safed's dorm and private prices). So, I had a bedroom, lounge, coffee and tea with kettle, private bathroom and cable TV. Stunned doesn't describe my state, I was quite sad that I was only in Safed for 2 nights and would be spending most of that in the city (3km away, at the bottom of a very steep hill). But her advice that buses stop at 9 meant that I would have to return before then, so at least my confined evenings would be very comfortable.

I unpacked and caught the bus.

This is one of several designs on the wall outside the bus station.

This is one of the views from by the wall

And this is an ostrich!

I don't think I've ever seen a real ostrich before. They're huge. I suspect that this ostrich has seen humans before, but still took a keen interest in me as I approached its fence.

This is a view from the other side of the road. My hostel was on the top of that hill.

Hanukkah had begun while I was in Haifa. There was really very little to indicate it there (apart from getting a free donut at the local cafe, and the candles being carefully lit at the Port Inn every night). But in Tzfat it was inescapable. Not only were these candles everywhere (outside homes, in shop windows, even electric ones on top of cars and outside supermarkets) but the whole city is in a state of heightened festivity. Regarding the candles, the taller shamash is lit first everyday, and then used to light progressively one more candle each of the eight days of Hanukkah. This is the festival of lights, and it occurred to me that it's really very similar to both the Christmas tree and the advent calendar.

I ate some lunch at a vegetarian diner called (ha) Tree of Life. This is run by a woman from Dorset - funnily enough. She was very nice, though she made a rather stupid comment about "Arabs" regarding their bulldozing of ancient archeological matter from around the Temple Mount - 'but they don't like it when you mess with their stuff'. I was too busy eating the quinoa stuffed pepper to get into an argument about it.

John Peel moment - I thought I'd corrected all the photos but I'm not going to reupload it now. Just turn the screen (or your head) sideways, this will solve the problem. This is an alleway in the artists' colony.

This klezmer two-piece provided entertainment as sun set - they had quite a crowd, and gthe music was very good. I assume this is just for Hanukkah.

More bits of the city, including an old mosque which is now the main art gallery.

I went to the Avuyah Synagogue. The lady in Tree of Life had told me it was the best in Tzfat, to which I think I may agree. I stood outside watching people happily congregating and preparing for the evening Hanukkah prayers, wondering if I could go in when a dishevelled and intense middle aged man wearing a kippa grabbed me and blurted "Avuyah Synagogue! You want see? See?" OK, I told him. He took me into the courtyard, which held an ancient "Etz Rimonim" (pomegranate tree - the pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, the same as the number of commandments in the Torah). Then he showed me the toilets - he couldn't explain why the womens' toilet was shut; though to be fair he couldn't explain much, knowing only about 30 English words. I could sort of follow his Hebrew, including his pointing to the three "Siphrim Kodesh" (Holy Scrolls). The service began and he grabbed me a kippah, then joined in with the rabbi's text - the rabbi looked round confusedly at this man shouting behind him.

The service was very good, though quite short. He sidled up to me and smiled nervously: "Synagogue charity - fifty shekhels". Oh. Wait - he was expecting to be paid for a five minute tour conducted mostly in a language I don't understand? I could tell what most things were (including the toilets) without it being told to me in a language I don't understand. The things I still didn't know I could have happily not known in my own language. Was it naive of me to think he was simply enthusiastic about his religion and wanted to share it with outsiders? OK yes, it was. Idiot. But I still wasn't going to pay him. As I walked away he ran around the courtyard trying to find someone who spoke English so they could explain to me that I had to pay for the tour. The only person who answered yes to the first question just laughed as he explained, which made me feel a bit less bad - I was feeling quite awful now, but not awful enough to part with £10. I asked this second gentleman to pass on my thanks and explain that he needs to arrange - or mention - a fee before providing Sde Bokerhis, uh, service in future.

I didn't feel like to going to any more of the synagogues that evening so I ambled and photographed random things.

A tiny house.

Hanukkah candles.

As I walked back to the bus station I saw this group of young yeshiva students (I presume - or perhaps just Haredim) dancing in a circle. I know it's not a great photo, I just didn't want to stand taking snap after snap of them.

I bought some junk from a shop: pot noodle, mushrooms, some wholemeal pittas, chocolate spread (this is very popular here...have my instincts just stopped me noticing such things in the UK?) and something I presumed was Hummus. I made this presumption because the hebrew said hummus something. I couldn't tell what the second word was, but left hoping it didn't have some dairy constituent. At the hostel it taste very creamy, so I took the precaution of googling my rough transliteration of the second word, which I made to be msabbha. To my surprise, this is an arabic variation on hummus, made from overboiled chickpeas (see here). It was nice, but I think I prefer standard hummus, which has slightly more of an edge.

The next day I went straight into the city.
This monument preserves some of the war damage from the 1948 struggle for the city. I'd be interested to hear some other versions of the story, though the official one does cite an English officer's vocal concern for the lives of the Jewish population as the British withdrew.

Here are some more of the city streets and views.

Check out the guard dog on the roof

This is outside the main gallery. Peculiar.

This is just one sculpture by Victor Halvani. He has a sculpture graden outside Tzfat, and his work is internationally regarded. He now lives in the states, but a gallery here displays models of his fantastic work. This is Adam, Eve and the apple. Unlike most of the artists working in Tzfat he rarely works with biblical themes, preferring universally human ideas. I like this.

I went to the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue. This is reputed to be the location that Isaac Luria prayed, although the previous synagogue was destroyed in a huge earthquake about 150 years ago.
The housing for the Torah scroll.

The altar

These wonderfully decorated things are made of olive wood.

This is the outside. The rabbi is actually a Londoner, which made me smile. He looks a bit like Tony Robinson. He showed me around (without asking for fifty shekhels after), and enquired after England.

I went to a store promoting a particular brand of Kabbalah - one that I'm not in favour of, all new agey pseudo-science bullshit about the effect of wearing tefillin on ones' aura, and the physiological differences in blood flow between kosher and unclean animals. I did like this diagram on tefillin use though.

And I think this is by Alex Grey, but I could be wrong. He's actually someone else I come to have a mild distaste for. But anyway.

A lot of places in Israel you see monuments, sculptures, interesting things like this in parks, on roundabouts, on walls etc. It's not a great photo but click to enlarge and see the sculpture.

I went for an amble, vaguely looking for the shouq (market) and the old cemetery. I'm aware that my sense of direction is worse than terrible, but still I persist in attempting to find things by ambling in the direction I think they should be. Needless to say I found neither, but I walked for a few miles in a twisting path downhill, and saw some things that were still very interesting.

Like this martial arts centre.

And this largely orthodox neighborhood. I felt very conspicuous here and not entirely comfortable, but I'm glad I saw how people live away from the usual tourist trails. So this is the other side of Tzfat, where the real ones eek out an existence.
I don't think this picture shows it, but you can see the Sea of Galilee from Tzfat. I've seen it from a few different angles now and it always looks amazing - shimmering and still, capturing the sunlight so beautifully you could watch it all day.

A few days ago in Haifa I had an impulsive desire to get a new piercing. I haven't had or wanted a piercing for more than ten years, so this surprised me but the desire was very strong. I failed to find an open in Haifa, but discovered a small studio on Jerusalem St in Tzfat. Highly incongruous, that a city without a record shop or even a single bar should have a piercing studio. Still, just before leaving the centre I went in and got a scaffold piercing. This (known internationally as an industrial) is a bar between two points on the rim of the ear. I've had it a week now and it's healed nicely - I'm very pleased, and it was at a price favourable to UK rates. It made me think about childbirth though (in my typical, condescending male way) because it hurt so much during the process (especially the second hole at the top) I couldn't imagine ever wanting to go through it again. But now I'm so happy with it I'd gladly have another one, if I had the overriding urge again.

So that's Tzfat. The next day I left for Tiberias.


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