Sunday, November 27, 2011

Where the Deer and the Kabbalists Play Pt. 2


We left off last episode -- the one in which we heading up to Tzfat in a rental car to enjoy the short vacation that our kids were subsidizing -- at the point when we had arrived at our destination. It's as if we had hit the pause button to stop the movie on the DVD so we could get a snack or answer that annoying phone call, and the characters on the screen were frozen in place. Let's resume the action, or else the woman who was showing us to our suite in the Olive Pelech Rimon will forever be left bending over to put the key in the keyhole, trying to unlock the door. That's better; the door is opening, and we are let inside. Ooooooh! Very fancy!

We could see why this little apartment would cost about 1000NIS a night full price. First of all, there is a large combination living area and kitchenette (where there was a table with a half bottle of wine, two wine glasses, and a half dozen heart shaped pieces of chocolate just waiting for us). On our way to bring our suitcases into the bedroom, we peeked into the bathroom. Yes, the suite does come with a jacuzzi -- assuming we could figure out how to use it. Likewise, how to open the sliding door leading out to the merpeset. The view (from the balcony, not the jacuzzi) is alone worth the price of admission. The pension is on the west side of the city, just south of the artists' quarter and the oldest section of town, all of which we could see by craning our necks a little. As you might expect, there is a table and chairs on the balcony, the better to sit on a long summer evening with an appropriate beverage, watching the sunset over the nearby hills of Har Meron. That view and the following day's exploration of the old town started me on a train of thought about the Kabbalists of Tzfat and their activities on a Friday afternoon.

Since we've been here in The Land, I've had the opportunity to hear a number of people talk about and give examples of what can be called the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, which is a high-falutin' way of stating what should be obvious: when you're johnny-on-the-spot and see something with your own eyes you get a different slant on things than if you're far, far away-- which may be why they bothered to send men to the moon. (There's another wrinkle, that the air in The Land makes you smarter; but looking at the folks around me, I'm somewhat dubious about that explanation.) One example of T.E.Y. that had struck me a little while before was the business of 'The Four Species,' the lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow that are taken together and 'waved' on Sukkot. A standard explanation -- beloved by one and all -- is that these four items represent four different types of Jews with different of Torah learning and good deeds to their credit, all of whom are needed to make a totality (tell that to some of the folks here!).

We were on an earlier tour (which I didn't get a chance to write about) during the intermediate days of Sukkot, down to the southwestern tip of Israel, where Gaza is right over there one way and Egypt is right over there the other. We were visiting a relatively new moshav comprised of Gush Katif expellees, and we were ushered into an area where vegetables were being packed for shipment. We were suddenly in a sea of yellow, amidst hundred and maybe thousands of etrogs, the ones which had not been sold in time and were now worth approximately nothing. Big, fat ones, much more zoftig than the one I had purchased two weeks before, along with the other three species, for 85 shekels (about $25). We were invited to take home as many as we wanted; and a few of these steroidal fruits are sitting in our kitchen in a jar of pure alcohol, soon, we hope, to turn into an etrog liqueur. Looking at these citric refugees, I remembered something our mentor, Nachum, had mentioned in a talk he had given a week or two before. The four species, what is so special about them? They are all easy to obtain here in The Land, BUT..........not in one place. That's the trick. Etrogs grow in certain places; lulavs, which are a part of a date palm, grow in others, usually where it's warmer; willows usually by the banks of streams and brooks; myrtles up north where it's cooler. If you want to collect all four, either you yourself will have to travel the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael, or, more reasonably, the guys who have grown one of the species will have to trade with the guys who have the other three; which means they have to come together and engage in commerce -- which is what happened in The Land in days of yore when thousands of Jews would arrive in Jerusalem for the Holidays. In today's jargon, we can say that none of the twelve tribes was given a monopoly, allowed to restrain trade on the species. All of a sudden, wham bang, a metaphysical conception of togetherness, pleasing as it may be, has been replaced with some very wonderful facts on the ground. Something so simple and inspiring, but it wouldn't necessarily cross your mind or seem relevant in Minsk or Monsey.

Back to our balcony in Tzfat...... Pick up a siddur, any one with an English commentary, and turn to the beginning of the Friday night service. You will find some variant of the following theme, regarding the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the late sixteenth century: "Dressed in white, they would go out into the fields as the sun set, singing psalms and songs to the Shabbat bride" (from R. Jonathan Sack's commentary in the Koren siddur). But standing and surveying the landscape, one might pause to wonder, "What fields?" What fields are we in fact talking about? Let's begin with the assumption that, generally speaking, if you want to see the sun set, you will have to look towards the western horizon. When you are in Tzfat, it's hard not to notice that you are on top of either a very big hill or a very small mountain, depending on how you want to describe it. If you want to go out to "the fields" west of Tzfat, you would have to go down the mountain to the adjacent valley. (Barbara imagines that there might have been terraced farming on the slopes; even so, that's not the same as going out to "the fields.) Of course, once you have arrived down in the valley where there could well have been the fields in question, there's no way you could ever see the sun set because the next mountain, Har Meron, would be blocking your view. You could possibly walk in one of the other directions to watch the sun descend towards the horizon, but what would be the point? You might as well stay where you are. It would be great if there were a monument inscribed, "On this spot, Rabbi Elazar Azikri first recited Yedid Nefesh;" or a plaque with a similar inscription, "Here is where Rabbi Shlomo Alkabets composed Lecha Dodi." Nothing like that exists, and so my question still stands, where did these rabbis go? I keep looking at the photographs I took of the view from the merpeset, hoping to locate some likely location, but to no avail.

It might not be the most earthshaking question, and it might even seem trivial or irrelevant to some. After all, we know the rabbis were in Tzfat during that all too brief renaissance of Jewish life before the Druze and then a plague destroyed everything in the Galilee. The Kabbalists obviously wrote the liturgical poems that are still used today. I'm sure they prepared for Shabbat by dressing in white, greeting the Shabbat Queen, an image as real to them as the piece of chocolate I'm munching on is to me. Did they stand and face the door to the shul, as men do today for the last stanza of Lecha Dodi, all the while imagining they were out of doors? That sounds a little too weird, even for a bunch of Kabbalists. Perhaps there is a simple explanation, one which has eluded me, as to where they stood and prepared for The Holy Sabbath. It's not that I'm skeptical, just curious and a little annoyed. Here in The Land we can look around and try to make sense of our collective past, find out what really happened and where. It's not as easy as sitting halfway around the world, facilely repeating what we thought we knew, but it's sure a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Where the Deer and the Kabbalists Play Pt. 1


This saga began, in case you are interested, aaaaaaaall the way back in January when our two daughters, momentarily flushed with money or with gratitude for the splendid job Barbara and I did in parenting, chipped in and purchased for our anniversary -- half priced of course -- a night at an exclusive pension in Tzfat.  However, when we received the joyful tidings, we were already planning our trip to The States (well documented in previous articles; in fact, Barbara had to make two trips to The States).  My thoughts, therefore, were "Not now, later; maybe after the Holidays."  Of course, the thing about "later" is that it always shows up, sooner or ...................

So, anticipating "later's" arrival, Barbara got to work sometime around Sukkot to arrange our journey up north to that spot where the deer and the kabbalists play.  We would pick up a rental car on a Wednesday morning, head eastward to route 90, up to Tiberias, then westward towards our destination.  We would cash in our voucher for one night of luxury, hang out in Tzfat Wednesday and Thursday -- spending the second night in less expensive quarters -- and then head over sometime on Friday to our friends Barbara and Richard for a relaxing, wine-filled Shabbat in Har Halutz..

Tzfat,we believe, is the last major spot we had been to on our five week sojourn to The Land in 1980 that we have not subsequently revisited.  No surprise, my memories of the place were somewhat foggy. Par for the course. Almost every place we had gone back to bore little resemblance to what I thought it would look like.  It had never occurred to me   thirty years ago to take detailed notes of where we had been and what we had seen: that the gevaldig couscous and chicken dinner we had in Yaffo was in a place called so-and-so on rehov so-and-so, and here's a picture of what it looked like; which was the bus station we were in where the two cabbies got into an argument as to whether the liquid in the container was water or coffee.  All I conjure up about Tzfat was that much of the old area  was in ruins, and there were a lot of working artists with studios.  I do have one great photograph from there: a baker feeding scraps of meat to a herd of hungry cats; but I have no idea where I took it. We do remember coming across a group of teenagers having a French version of a hootenanny in an abandoned storefront.  And then there was the old man with pants so shiny that you could have used him to draw yourself a self-portrait; he had appointed himself a tour guide and was trying to collect coins of the realm for synagogues that you could enter for free.  That wouldn't have been so bad, except that all the while he was doing his best to fondle my wife's fanny. Life is filled with wonderful memories.

Finally, "later" did arrive, and Barbara headed into Jerusalem to pick up our car at the Eldan office.  WHEELS!!!!!!!!!!!!!  After almost four and a half years, we were renting a car and going somewhere.  No more looking at all the articles in the newspapers describing this particular valley which on a February day is a carpet with wild flowers, or that mountain top where you can see the raptors gliding majestically over head, or this fort or that cave, this battle field or that  spot where the Elijah prophecized -- any of which you can get to  in your car.  Of course you have a car!  Egged buses?  Not a chance. We would have this little Hyundai, and we could go wherever we chose Wed., Thurs, Fri., and Sun. (For reasons I cannot begin to understand, because we have American passports, we were give unlimited mileage at no extra charge. Just fill the tank with gas before you bring it back.)

There's one other wonderful thing, I thought, about having your own vehicle.  You can stop wherever and whenever you want, a feature of some relevance for a photographer.  Many of the most remarkable sights I have seen hither and yon in The Land have been viewed from elevated perches on tour buses or out the side windows of someone else's car -- meaning that you see it and then it's gone in the twinkling of an eye.  There is one image stuck permanently in my mind.   It was back in 1980 and Yehuda was being kind enough to drive us down to Masada and Ein Gedi.  We had taken a route through east Jerusalem -- one you wouldn't take now -- and were now on one of the  insanely winding roads that is typical here.  There are on the side of this road was a dead donkey, evidently hit by a passing vehicle, with two other donkeys, one on each side, standing vigil.  If only I had been able to photograph that poignant scene.....  But, even if I had somehow gotten Yehuda's attention and convinced him that he had to stop the car somehow in the middle of nowhere -- no mean feat in itself -- I would have had to walk back who knows how far up the road, quite possibly meeting the same fate as the fallen donkey.  Some things are better left in one's mind's eye.

We had taken route 1 heading towards Jericho on any number of tiyulim, and each time we passed the Bedouin encampments on either side of the road, I wished I could stop long enough to get my camera out and snap away.  I could do it now, couldn't I?  Barbara was driving, and I was looking out the window, camera in hand.  You know something: it just doesn't work.  Cars don't stop on a dime; and even if they did, you don't want to do it in the middle of the road with a bunch of Israeli drivers breathing down your rear bumper.  So the image of a flock of sheep dotting a hillside in the shadow of a power grid remains untaken.

Undaunted -- even though we missed the turnoff for route 90 and had to double back -- we headed north, stopping long enough at a rest area to get some coffee and share our tuna fish with some local cats.  Then back on the road to Tzfat.  When Barbara had most recently been back to The States, she had purchased a GPS.  It was much cheaper to do that than to rent one for two weeks; plus the one she bought worked a lot better than the one we had rented in March.  For a few dollars more, she was told, we would be able to download all the maps we would ever want, assuming that "all the maps" meant all the maps, not just those that related to the continental US of A. Part of her preparation for our journey was a concerted effort to download something relevant to the roads here in The Land.  Let's just say, No Luck, and spare you the gory details of why not. So all the way, we were relying for directions the old-fashioned way, on a bunch of maps, some which Barbara had collected and one which came with the rental car.  We came to realize that there is one distinct advantage to using a GPS; it is better at playing "Find the Highway" than we are.  Many of you are familiar with this game, even if you don't know it by name.  Here's how you play: you're driving along a main road which goes through a decent size town, and now you're lost.  One of the streets is actually the road you want to stay on, but you have no idea which one it is because it doesn't say.  Are you supposed to go left or right where the street forks; should you follow the traffic or your intuition -- neither of which is foolproof. If you want to play that game big time, head over to Tiberias for an afternoon of fun and frolic.  At some point, you will eventually find your way out, which will put you on the new road leading to our destination.

Now, if a good GPS is better  than we and our maps were at playing "Find the Highway," imagine how much better it would be playing "Find the Street." For, you see (actually you don't), there are no street signs in Tzfat.  General indicators for the bus depot or the artists' colony, yes, but actual signs saying "Jerusalem St.", no.  A GPS is supposed to know where you are, without cheating and looking for a street sign.  It is blissfully unaware that there is no sign -- the one that would confirm that what it says on the map is where you actually are.  By dumb luck we drove past the pension and I could yell out, "Stop, we're here."  At least on a local street, we could turn around and park our car.  No fallen donkeys to photograph, just one concierge type lady anxiously awaiting our arrival -- so she could give us the key,  let us in, and head home.