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.

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