Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the Deer and the Kabbalists Play Pt. 4


When Barbara was first planning our excursion to Tzfat, she realized that we could not afford to stay at the Olive Pelech Rimon for a second night -- especially since that second night would be a Thursday, which would be at the weekend rate. So my wife, in searching for something more in line with the realities of our finances, googled "hostels in Tzfat." There are quite a few youth hostels in Israel, one of which we had stayed in up on the Golan Heights as part of a tiyul a while ago;it did not offer deluxe accommodations, but it was fine as far as we were concerned. Come to think of it, we were invited to a bat mitzvah celebration at a pretty nice place in Jerusalem, which was also considered a youth hostel. I would have been happy to spend a night there.

Anyway, Barbara came up with something for something like 100 shekels each, which is dirt cheap at today's prices. So that's where we were heading, as we got into our rental car parked where we had left it in the morning and headed we weren't sure where -- because, as I have mentioned before -- conversations and even public statues are commonplace in this home town of the Kabbalists, but street signs are at a premium. Good thing we left when it was still light; the better to find people on the street to ask directions until we finally got where we needed to.

I'll never forget the look of shock on Ricky's face as we arrived and introduced ourselves. The problem wasn't a language gap; the proprietor was originally from Canada. She just couldn't believe that we were the ones renting this room. She would need to see our passports. Why did she need to see our passports? So she wouldn't have to charge us V.A.T. But we are Israeli citizens -- despite our accents; and we expect to pay the tax. But no self-respecting Israeli would even consider such sub-standard accommodations! Turns out that the typical renters of these rooms were twenty-something backpackers making their way across the Middle East -- not some alte kocker Americans. Do you have anything else to offer us? No, the better rooms -- and there really were better rooms -- were all filled up. Then we'll take the dorm room, and you'll recalculate the room rate. Which she did, and we headed off to our lodgings for the night.

It would have been better if we had done it the other way around: stay at this place first and then head over to the Olive Pelech Rimon. Instead, we were going from a large cheerful suite with a kitchenette, a large screen TV (which we didn't turn on), a drop-dead view of the setting sun, beds so comfortable that you'd never want to get up, and a jacuzzi, to a small, charmless room furnished in Modern Decrepit with an original sitzbath (a tiny high-sided bath tub that would have been all the rage in Dresden in 1925). In fairness, the room was as clean as it could be, given the age of the appliances and the furniture. Nor were there any other living creatures present, if you get my drift (our two cats, Moby and Cookie, were sleeping by themselves back in our apartment) or any other unpleasant surprises. It would do -- for one night.

Ricky did give us one good tip: where to go for dinner. Less than a mile away, nestled near a couple of swankier places to stay, was Gan Eden. Not the original, but a charming little restaurant with food to make you smile. Which is what will happen if you ask Barbara to describe the dessert, ice cream smothered in chocolate, which we had the good sense to order. The breakfast that Ricky and crew prepared for all assembled wasn't quite on that level, but it got us up and going lickety-split and on our way to Har Halutz for a quiet Shabbat with our friends Richard and the other Barbara . We did, however, have the morning free, and now we had a wrenching choice to make.

If you remember from my last article, we had stopped briefly in a tourist information type place in downtown Tzfat, in which the lady working there had recommended the yummy Yemenite pizza. As my Barbara was chatting with her, I was idly rifling through the various tourist brochures in the wall rack. With my eagle eye, I spotted a brochure from the Adir winery, which I immediately pocketed. Before we left Ma'ale Adumim, I had thought about checking out a winery or two Fri. morning. In fact, I had made a list of a few possible choices and taken that with me, along with the latest Daniel Rogov wine guide. My problem was that the addresses meant nothing to me; I had no idea where any of them were in relation to where we were. But looking at the little brochure, I realized that the winery was a little bit west of Tzfat, basically on the way to Har Halutz. Perfect! There was only one problem -- not an insurmountable one, but a dilemma which we would have to resolve. The Adir Winery was right next to the Dalton Winery, and we would only have time to visit one of them. It would be like visiting a Ben and Jerry's store and being forced to choose between Triple Chocolate Mousse and Death By Chocolate.

Well, let's see which one we come to first; that's the one we'll go to. Wouldn't you know it: after wandering through a large industrial park, we realized that both wineries were essentially side by side. There was no getting around it; we would have to make a decision. Adir or Dalton. Dalton or Adir. Vat to doooooo? Adir is what is known in the trade as a "boutique" winery, producing, according to Rogov, 10,000 bottles a year. Dalton, which considers itself the smallest of the major wineries, produces one million bottles a year (By comparison, Carmel, Israel's largest winery, produces over six million bottles a year). Let's play it safe and stick with the larger one. It's more likely we'll get a tour in English.

Perfect timing! We pulled in front of the Dalton Winery at about 9:45, enough time to hit the facilities and sign up for the 10AM tour in English. Ah, the little ironies of life. The young woman leading the tour of the winery was Israeli, with a decent command of English. She was giving her talk to about ten or twelve of us; and we soon realized that we were the only native English speakers in the group. One couple was from somewhere in Europe; the rest were all Israelis. There is something surreal about Israelis speaking to each other in English when none of them are really fluent. At one point, our guide looked at Barbara and me and asked if we minded if she reverted to Hebrew so that the other Israelis would understand! So, using English and Hebrew, she carried on. When she was finished and we were back where we started, I told her, being absolutely truthful, that it was the best presentation I had ever heard at a winery; for which compliment, I was given a cup of coffee on the house.

In about an hour, she went over the history of the winery, the kind of grapes they use, how the topography and the amount of sunlight in the area determines what grapes to plant where, the different kind of oak barrels they use, and (gasp!) the effect the winery has had on the economy of the region. Then, of course, we had gone back to the tasting room and sampled some of their wares. Most of the Israeli wineries we've visited before offer up some of their less expensive wines or a combination of lesser and better wines, somehow thinking their doing themselves a favor by skimping on what they serve. Wrong! Why would I shlep all the way up to the Galil or the Golan Heights to buy the kind of timid offerings I can get in MisterZol? Plus.....some of these wineries charge you more -- sometimes a lot more -- than I would pay in one of my places in Jerusalem. The nice folks at Dalton served us samples from their Estate series (about 50 shekels a bottle) and their Reserve series (about 100+ NIS per). And..... they gave us a plateful of the soft goat cheese which they also have for sale. Who could resist such temptation? It was no wonder that we left the winery with some cheese and two bottles of wine. Life is good.

We headed west, away from the playground of the Kabbalists to the tiny community of Har Halutz where our friends live, spending a restful Shabbat and consuming one of our bottles of Dalton's best. Sunday morning we retraced our steps eastward, going past Tzfat to Kibbutz Ginosar, near the northern shore of the Kinneret. Barbara had found herself in the area several years ago because the ceremony in which Natania was formally inducted into the army was held on an adjacent base. She had noticed that there was a museum there and wondered what it contained. Not much, it turns out, except for "The Jesus Boat." In 1986, a couple of local amateur archaeologists discovered the remains of an ancient boat that had been partly uncovered by the lowering of the water level in the Kinneret. There's nothing special about the boat, or what remains of it -- except that it still exists and is on display. What is special was the extraordinary effort it took to remove it unharmed from its muddy bed where it had been entombed for two thousand years, and the twelve year chemical process devised to keep it from disintegrating further. Hundreds of similar boats must have existed to ply the waters of this lake two thousand years ago, and there is no reason to connect it with any specific historical figure. Nonetheless, talk about a sure-fire way to attract the Believers!

We were on the final leg of our journey, and once we arrived at Beit Shean, I decided that it was time for me to take the wheel. That wouldn't seem to particularly newsworthy, except it was the first time since our driving test three plus years ago that I have driven a vehicle in The Land. We stopped in Ma'ale Adumim to unload our bags -- including our remaining bottle of Dalton's best and our goal cheese -- and then, with Barbara back at the wheel, we drove to Jerusalem to return our rental car. We were glad to have had its use for our little trip to where the deer and the Kabbalists play; but we were just as happy to give it back and take the bus back home.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Where the Deer and the Kabbalists Play Pt. 3

(Before, I proceed, let me answer some questions I raised in my last article -- thanks to our good friend Jeff Glazer, who has just completed a tour guide course. Let's hope he passed the final examination! The Kabbalists of old did not go down to the fields west of Tzfat, which were filled with springs and where was located the old cemetery. To greet the 'Sabbath Queen,' they stood on the hillsides, looking for the sun to set over the nearby Har Meron -- at which point, for them, Shabbat would begin.)


Somehow a few weeks ago, a postcard, one sent by the former Barbara Cole to her family at South Goodman St. in Rochester, NY on May 1, 1968, managed to emerge from its hiding place in one of Barbara's old photo albums; although how it got back to my wife, the sender, is not clear. The message, written in green ink and visible through the tell-tale stain of a coffee cup, would be of little interest to the casual reader: Barbara and her roommate Elisheva have moved to new quarters for 80 lira (the old Israeli currency) apiece. More to the point, "I am BROKE, so please take money from my account and send it QUICKLY!" Any parent has gotten a similar appeal, although postcards have been twittered and tweeted out of existence.
The photo caption at the bottom reads in English:

The photograph on the front does match the Hebrew text: a simta, an alleyway, near the end of which is a solitary figure, a woman walking away, carrying a handbag. In the distance, there are some newer apartments; but here in this less-than-romantic 'lane,' even in broad daylight, the shops that line the simta are all boarded up -- complete and absolute desolation.

I have a similar mental image of Tzfat from 1980 -- although then there was a flourishing artists' colony which we didn't have the time to really explore. Now in 2011, we would be able to walk methodically through the old city to see what if anything has changed. It would be difficult to put into words what makes Tzfat seem so magical -- even if I thought I understood what it was. One thing that Barbara and I couldn't fail to notice though: the ease with which you could get into a conversation with a complete stranger at the drop of the proverbial hat, in English, no less.

After we settled in to our suite at the Olive Pelech Rimon, we decided to take a little stroll while it was still light, just to get our bearings. We walked a little way down the street, turned a corner, and there beckoning to us to enter was a gallery which by all rights should have been closed (at least according to the hours posted on the door) but wasn't. Neither Barbara or I had ever heard of Victor Halavani, although his statues graced a number of public spaces around the city. He and his wife Maggie welcomed us as we entered, and we spent a good hour in the gallery hearing stories about how they met (people who knew them warned that there was no way a marriage would work out between a nice Ashkenazic girl and guy whose family had fled from Egypt and who had been under her command in the Israeli army). It was understood that we were not about to buy anything; you don't walk in and purchase a five foot tall statue on impulse, and we were not there representing an American university looking for something to stick in front of their new library. Yet the couple graciously showed us photographs, sketches, and small models of his work until we were all exhausted.

Now, no one should assume from the above that we were too tired to worry about dinner. Oh no! Soon thereafter, Barbara and I were strolling along the main commercial drag, Rehov Yerushalayim (not that this street in any way leads to the Holy City) perusing the shop windows and checking out the restaurants. We wound up having a decent meal at a place called Café Baghdad and then, and only then, returning to our quarters for a good night's sleep.

The next morning after a lovely breakfast at a small café down the block, we began our exploration of the old city, taking no particular route and letting serendipity be our tour guide. After a while, we found ourselves in front of a multi-colored sign with the following inscription:

גלריה ימות המשיח

That stopped me in my tracks! Was it the Messianic Era that was out of business, or just the gallery? As I continued to photograph the sign and ponder its meaning for mankind, Barbara walked into the adjacent courtyard a few paces ahead of the current owner of the property. He gently reminded her that the gallery was indeed closed; to which Barbara responded that she was simply fascinated by the courtyard itself and came in to look at it. That exchange would normally prompt a two minute conversation, but, as I said, this is Tzfat where a thousand conversation bloom. Turns out that this fellow was from originally from Syracuse, and, being of a certain age, a number of kids he grew up with were in the same NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth) chapter as Barbara. After about ten minutes of standing outside and listening to their chit-chat from afar, I decided to join the conversation. It turns out that Reuven and his wife have lived in Tzfat for thirty some odd years, raising their family there and watching it "arise from the dust" of history before their eyes. So much to tell, but Reuven had things to do and we had places to see. So, half an hour later, we set off to continue our wanderings, not before being offered Shabbat hospitality -- which we could not accept, as we would be in Har Halutz, on top of another mountain.

As we learned from the Halavanis, a lot of the "art scene" in Tzfat is only a memory. Without much effort, you can be wading knee-deep in kitsch. But if one is discerning, there is still much of interest.. We peered around one corner into the doorway of one gallery that looked promising. The art work looked worthwhile, but as we entered, I was more taken by the music. I walked up to the guy whom I correctly suspected of being in charge and uttered two words: "Django Reinhardt," referring to the legendary Gypsy jazz guitarist. A minute or so later, another two words: "Stephane Grappelli," referring now to his one-time sidekick, the equally legendary French violinist.

Of course, if one person is causing such precious sounds to emanate from his computer (via YouTube), and another person correctly identifies it -- especially in Tzfat where conversation is common but this kind of music is rare -- a bond is formed at once. The fellow was originally from California (where else would he have been from?), and he was happy to sit in his gallery and watch the world go by. Don't get me wrong; he would have been happy to sell me something. One piece in particular, I would have been happy to buy: a large drawing which was in effect an homage to Vermeer's painting, "The Milkmaid." It was the kind of work that, if you didn't have a wall to put it on, you should build another one. The proprietor suggested that the price wasn't as high as I might have thought, but I stopped him. Whatever it was, it was less than the pleasure I would have had all my life looking at it, but more than it would have been prudent for us to spend. So we reluctantly left and turned another corner, coming onto another busy street.

Barbara decided to stop in a tourist information type place, of course getting into a conversation with the English speaking woman who worked there. The best bit of advice she had to give us was to go across the street and have lunch at the Yemenite Food Bar. What a business model! You start with a relatively small space on a well-traveled street. To attract attention, you have the proprietor dressed as a traditional Yemenite Jew with long payot, because he is a traditional Yemenite Jew with long payot. To cut costs, you simplify your menu. You have one main dish, called Lachuch, a Yemenite pizza (Let me explain: you make it with batter as you would a pancake in a crepe pan, adding vegetables and cheese; when it's done, you stick the concoction in the equivalent of a waffle iron to make it crispy. Oh was that good!).

We got there in time to secure a table in the front where we could people-watch to our hearts' content. Tour groups came by, and some of them, intrigued by what they saw, stopped at the Yemenite Food Bar for a quick lunch (Another part of the business model: get your customers in and out at lightning speed!). Within minutes, we were in another conversation with a Canadian who was part of a tour group. With the enthusiasm of a little kid checking out his Chanukah presents, he described his delight at being in The Land for the first time. Back home, he confessed, he is a self-described three days a year shul-goer. Here, he was at the Kotel, holding a Torah scroll, dancing with Israeli soldiers. Yup, that's what being in The Land can do to a man. Too bad I didn't have any containers labeled "Air from Tzfat;" he would have wanted a couple of cartons to take back to Toronto.

He left with his group, and we finished our meal cheered by his exuberance, which served us well the rest of the afternoon. We continued our wanderings, standing now at the bottom of the narrowest alley way in the city, at the exact spot where for many years a woman sat every day, waiting for Moshiach to arrive (I'm not making this up; that's what the plaque says); now in one of the several "Ari" shuls, watching the 'caretaker' drape shawls over the shoulders of the female Christian tourists whose attire did not meet his standards of modesty; now admiring the beautiful gates and doorways in newly renovated buildings, standing adjacent to other buildings which must be abandoned for at least half a century. It occurred to me several times that this city must be a real estate speculator's dream come true: so many shells of building to buy, so much potential, such a location!

Finally, it was time to return to our rental car,which was still parked outside the Olive Pelech Rimon. We needed to head to the place where we would be staying for our second night in Tzfat. In a city with so many conversations but so few street signs, it is best to travel to unfamiliar destinations while it is still light.