Saturday, April 08, 2006

Israel: Tzfat

The trip that my good friend Geoff and I made up to Tzfat one Saturday was a bit of a bust. We realized that most things would be closed there for Shabbat, as in most other Israeli cities, but we thought that there would still be enough to see to make the trip worthwhile.

Tzfat, also called Safed, is a nice little city built on a hill near the Sea of Galilee. It's one of Judaism's Four Holy Cities (along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias), so it's a very conservative, religious place. It's also the center of Jewish mysticism.

After a drive of two hours or so, we parked the G3, my green gas guzzler, at the bottom of the town and walked up the hill into the artist colony. In the colony, there were many galleries and studios, and many places were open even though the streets were deserted.

The first gallery we passed was open, and we stopped to have a look. The owner of the shop was a nice older woman of Eastern European descent, and Geoff picked up on this immediately. A true lover of languages, Geoff entered into a conversation with her that freely danced through Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. For my part, I could only recognize the occasional word, so I spent my time looking at the paintings in the shop.

Geoff and the shop owner must have yakked on for 10 or 15 minutes, and I finished browsing before they finished talking. Before Geoff and I moved on, however, the saleswoman did switch back to English in an attempt to peddle some art. Her daughter was one of the artists, and her medium of choice was ceramic tile. Her pieces were nice, but like everything else in the store, they weren't anything that I had to have. They were also a bit pricey. We moved on.

We stopped in a few more galleries and then moved on to Citadel Park which overlooked the town by virtue of its position on the hill. In the park, there were a few monuments and a path winding through some trees. There were several Jewish families enjoying the park, and there were some interesting wardrobes to be sure. The best were the religious men wearing long, black, satiny robes and big fur hats. The hats aside, these guys were dressed about like Hugh Hefner.

From the park, we reentered the cobblestone streets of the Old City and before long we came across a group of Orthodox Jews. The group consisted of a man who appeared to be in his thirties and three teenage boys. They were all dressed in their black suits and hats.

As we approached the foursome, the older man pounced on us. He was exceedingly hyper, and as he peppered us with questions at an annoyingly frenzied pace, his younger companions all cracked up.

Geoff was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of King Tut on it, so the hyper guy made a big show of jumping back like he was afraid. He continued to act theatrically dramatic about the shirt for what seemed like several minutes.

All the while, I was thinking, “We get it: the ancient Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Can we move on already?”

Eventually we did move on, but throughout the rest of our conversation, he continued to mention how the shirt was creeping him out.

Before he had moved to Tzfat, Hyper-Man had been living in Maryland and New York. In response, Geoff told him that he also hailed from the DC/Maryland area. They started compared notes on Jewish personalities in the region – which rabbis were still around and so forth.

Around this point in the conversation, Geoff also mentioned to Hyper-Man that he had recently visited the tomb of Rabbi Schneerson in New York City and had received a blessing from the dead rabbi. Hyper-Man acknowledged this and quickly turned his attention to me.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No, I'm Christian,” I replied.

And in response to this, Hyper-Man gave me a brochure.

“You should read this,” he told me.

As we stood there, I gave the pamphlet a look. It listed seven laws that I, as a gentile, was expected to follow. The seven laws included the following:

1. Don't have any idols before God.

2. Don't murder.

3. Don't steal.

4. Don't commit adultery.

5. Don't blaspheme God's name.

6. Don't eat an animal while it is still alive.

7. Do set up a judiciary to fairly judge observance of the previous laws.

The laws were good and well, but, frankly, I found the brochure insulting. I could understand its usefulness if I had admitted to being a Satanist or something, but I hadn't. I had told him that I was a Christian. Did he really think that there was anything on his list that wasn't covered by Christian teachings?

The conversation eventually wound its way through more pedestrian topics, and Hyper-Man started inquiring as to what Geoff and I were doing in Israel.

Geoff mentioned that we worked in Tel Aviv, so our inquisitor asked him where.

Geoff didn't think it would be a good idea to tell this guy that he worked at the Embassy in the visa section, so he started playing coy.

“We work in an office building,” he said.

Hyper-Man could tell that Geoff was being evasive, so he pushed the issue more. I followed Geoff's lead, and we both danced around the question until Hyper-Man accepted defeat and moved on to another question.

Eventually, we broke away from Hyper-Man and continued walking around the Old City. Before we left him, though, he offered us some more brochures which Geoff gladly accepted.

Once we were out of earshot, Geoff mentioned to me that as obnoxious as Hyper-Man had been, it would have been even worse if he had known that Geoff was Jewish. This is because Hyper-Man would have put his energies into encouraging Geoff to take his faith to a higher level.

I thought Geoff's comment was funny, though. If Hyper-Man hadn't realized that Geoff was Jewish, he wasn't very observant. Sure, a non-Jew might know the head of the Jewish Day School in Rockville, but I doubt that one would get a blessing at Rabbi Schneerson's tomb. I suppose it's possible, though.

Flipping through the brochures we had collected, Geoff also offered a bit of an explanation on the seven laws.

“To be a good Jew,” he said, “you have to follow hundreds of rules. But, if you aren't a Jew, you are only expected to follow these basic seven.”

It was nice that the expectations were so low for me, but by then I was already soured to the seven rules. Just to prove a point, I went out and ate an animal while it was still alive. Just kidding.

As Geoff and I continued to walk through town, we came to one of the more conservative neighborhoods. There was a sign at the entrance that explained that proper dress and behavior were expected. The unwritten, yet still understood, part of the message was that violators would be dealt with swiftly, quite possibly with a good, old fashioned stoning.

In many a t-shirt shop in Israel, there is a shirt with the words “I got stoned in” across the top. Below this heading, several cities are listed with check-boxes so that the wearer can mark the places where he or she in fact did get stoned. This shirt has a double meaning, of course, alluding both to flying rocks and to the marijuana culture in Israel.

Geoff and I were dressed appropriately enough to avoid any problems, but we did get some suspicious stares. In general, women are more likely to find themselves in violation of the dress code, I think.

As we walked through the conservative area, we passed by several synagogues that were closed to visitors.

Besides the synagogues, nearly everything else in this part of town was also closed. We didn't stay long.

After we left that neighborhood, we came across one more art gallery that was open: the Masha Gallery. Geoff's girlfriend was named Masha, so it only seemed fitting that we take a look at the gallery. Masha, the artist, wasn't on hand that day, but her husband was happy to show us his wife's collection of watercolors.

Both Geoff and I ended up making purchases. I bought a landscape that reminded me of Akko, and Geoff picked a painting of a pregnant woman wearing a red dress, sitting in a chair. He hadn't realized that she was pregnant until I pointed this out.

The Masha Gallery was our final stop in Tzfat, so after we finished there, we made our way back to the car.

Just as we reached it, a scraggly man materialized and started asking us for money. I spoke with him, and within a few seconds, I was sending him on his way empty-handed.

“Wow! You got rid of him quick,” Geoff observed, and he was right.

The interesting thing to me about the beggar was that his teeth alternated on the top and bottom of his mouth like a jack-o-lantern so that when he closed his mouth, all his teeth interlocked.

Anyhow, the beggar was the last we saw of Tzfat. After that, we didn't pass Go; we didn't collect $200. We went straight back to Tel Aviv.

No comments: