E-Travels With E.Trules.....hannah, tzipper, & the tzaddiks of svat, Safed, Middle East,Scandinavia, Borneo, Malaysia, Travelogue

« the tzaddiks of svat »

may 25, 1999

safed, israel

the next day i'm on my own again. i take the bus from haifa to safed, one of the four holy cities in israel. just like the three other holy cities which are connected with a specific element: hebron - earth, tiberius - water, and jerusalem - fire (naturally), sfat is connected with air. perched high up in the eastern mountains of the galilee, overlooking the hula valley, on the opposite side of the golan heights, svat (yet another city of multiple spellings) is home to the jewish mystics, or “tzaddiks”. descendants of the chasidic and lubavitch jews of eastern europe, these long robed and ultra-religious men have created a very rarefied community based on prayer, solitude, and devotion. one can feel it in the air. at least i could. a special breathless purity. a piety. magic. worship. people who live in sefed believe the “messiah” (savior) will come first to these hills. they also believe that strange, unpredictable, mystical meetings and events occur in the forests, in the winding streets, in the holy air of zvat. meetings and events of synchronicity. one is supposed to be able to go to the grave of a certain high rebbe or tzaddik, ask for his help, and be able to find one's husband - or wife. the enchantment, the spell, the energy of this place is unique in all of israel. a little like big sur in california. pine forests growing out of the desert below. artists. lovers. alternative cultures. a fine place to visit - with a compelling siren call to come back and stay.

i get off the bus and walk towards the center of the old city, where both the religious and the artists quarters lie. i go for the history first, and wander into a visitor center that appears amidst a tangled maze of narrow pedestrian streets, small shops and old synagogues. i meet a dark-haired, english-speaking girl there, who sets me up on the off-line computer to give me the condensed cyber history of this very dense, un-cyber town. it turns out she is just a visitor like me, and we decide to walk through the small historical quarter together. hannah is from brooklyn, and it doesn't take me very long to discover that she is a nouveau religious pilgrim in search of the holy grail here in tzvat. we wander into several of the uniform, but nonetheless beautiful, one room, blue and white painted synagogues. the pulpits sit spanish style, in the middle of the rooms, surrounded by old books, benches for worship, prayer shawls, and torah scrolls. i realize that prayer and worship occur in the most modest of rooms; that not all believers and communities are able to build mighty stone and stained glass temples, mosques, or churches of worship to their omnipotent, awe-inspiring gods. that here in these old wooden rooms of sfvat, in the concrete, monotone rooms of modern-day hebron, in the simple christian churches of jesus' old galilee, that people came - and come - together - of necessity - because it is the function and importance of prayer itself that transform a simple room into one of worship. that no amount of money, art, or social status can replace the power of a community or individual in communion with its source of inspiration. that no amount of suppression, intolerance, or destruction can keep these rooms and the devotions spoken, or silently made here, from rebirthing, rebuilding, or remembering themselves.

hannah and i walk down the steep slope of the winding old city and come out to the open crest that overlooks the western outskirts of the city, the towering mountains in the distance, and the sprawling graveyard in between. we breathe in the fresh air, and pass the ritual bath, or mikveh, where men only are allowed to clean, wash, and purify themselves for religious devotion. there are thousands of graves dappled like monotone brush stokes in a pointillist painting, each representing the lifetime of worship of a reverent tzaddik scholar. hannah is awestruck, not only with the sprawl of the graveyard, but with the religious fervor she feels coursing through her. i am standing there right next to her and i feel nothing. she starts into her "isn't judaism the greatest of all the religions. can't you just feel the entire history of our race standing here on this holy ground?" i look at her and see the light in her eyes. i reluctantly say something like, "well, no, i think all religions are more or less the same. jews, christians, and muslims all believe in the same god, but fight and slaughter each other in his name. it just doesn't make any sense to me..." she looks at me, the light flickering in her eyes a bit. "what do you mean? what kind of jew are you?" "well", i say, "i'm sort of a reluctant jew. as a kid, i didn't have a very good... or very positive religious upbringing." "but can't you just feel it in the air?" she says. "there is so much love and piousness here." i continue to dampen hannah's passion with my self-doubting agnostic ways, at least feeling guilty doing so, guilt being one of the few things i learned well from my jewish forefathers.

is it simply a matter of education, who teaches you about god? the way you carry it through life? i remember asking my mother about god. i was lying on her bed; she was doing something to herself in the mirror over her dresser. "ma, where does god live?" "well, he's everywhere," she said. "what do you mean?" "well i don't believe that god is a person, but he's a spirit that lives everywhere in nature." "like in the trees?" "yes," she said without hesitation. like in the dirt?" "yes", she said again. "like in the garbage cans?" "yes," she said again smiling. "god can't live in a garbage can," i insisted, shocked with her irreverence. "why not?" she said gently. "i don't know. he just can't!" silence. "he does?" Silence. "really?" then my mother looked away from the mirror for the first time and came a little closer to me. she said, "everyone believes something different about god. i believe his spirit is everywhere, wherever you want it to be." pause. "you have to decide for yourself." i looked back at her. that was all. i don't remember saying anything else. i just remember... garbage cans!

i wonder where hannah grew up and who taught her what about god. i wonder who teaches their children that to kill in the name of god is a great and sacred act? i wonder why i stand on the same "holy" ground as these jews, christians, and muslims and feel nothing for god. hannah and i do not descend into the graveyard. i buy her a lemonade from a local arab vendor, and we walk back to the crossroads of the artists' quarter in svat. hannah seems to have lost interest in me. we say our pleasant goodbyes. we are on different paths. she makes a left, walking up the cobblestone street, back into the religious quarter and her search for meaning. i make a right, walking down the asphalt road, looking for a garbage can to throw my empty bottle into.

the artists' quarter winds through the old arab section of the city. in fact, the central gallery is now housed in a former mosque. i walk around, enter the mosque, wander some more. the thin air is the same as across the way, up the cobblestone path, but somehow it feels different. it is a lot more familiar to me here, a lot more profane, even with the signs in hebrew, even knowing that bands of early christians hid out in these same hills above the sea of galilee, that muslim and jewish blood was spilled defending these same stone homes but now quiet streets.

a brightly colored yard calls my attention. i look through the black wrought iron fence, past the green stalks and red splashes of flowers, and i see a large, fanciful figure, dressed in a long black jacket or robe, over a white button down shirt. he is wearing the typically black hasidic hat with the twisted pais crawling down below his ears, but where you would expect him to be carrying the two stone tablets of the ten commandments in his outstretched arms, he is carrying two large hamburgers. he is "mcmoses", a paper mache creation by artist, mike leaf. i walk in the yard. there, around the gurgling fountain in the central courtyard of this old Arab home, is a wacky garden full of vibrant mediterranean foliage and irreverent creatures of paper mache: "bob dylan, the messiah, and the lubavitch rebbe". "jesus christ and jerry garcia" (of the grateful dead). like wow! who is this guy who made these things? so child-like and conceptual at the same time. i think i'll have to track him down.

i see a woman in a long black skirt watering the yard. i call out to her, introduce myself, and ask her about this mike leaf. he turns out to be her husband for almost thirty years. she calls him down from his studio (although i insist that she doesn't), and soon we are all sitting around the courtyard having mint nana tea, right from the garden. wild-eyed mr. leaf is a jesus-bearded, tie-dyed, hippie-like sixty-something ex-patriot brit-Jew who has been living in svat on and off for over 30 years and has had many shows of his work all over the world. i would like to buy a piece, but i can't see myself carrying a three foot paper mache figure of bob dylan around with me for the next month and a half.

an eccentric, scruffily-bearded, mostly silent neighbor appears in the yard and very inadvertently, starts absorbing the conversation - and me. his name is moshe tzipper, known to his friends simply as “tzipper”, and in about five minutes he has quickly arranged a “shiddach” for me - on his cell phone. a shiddach is a match - between a man and a woman - as in wedding match. it is a traditional middle eastern custom popular amongst both arabs and jews, but the yiddish word, “shiddach”, is especially popular and revered amongst eastern european jews living in the "old country". "but i'm not looking for anyone, tzipper," i protest. "vat, you're fifty years old and you're not married?" "so what's wrong with that?" "nothing. nothing," he says in his sing song english, "but vat do you have to lose? give a try." "i don't like jewish woman," i say, knowing this will wreak havoc with his brain chemistry. "so, you don't," he says, very laid back and zen like, "trust me, i have a feeling. she's very nice." and he hands me the phone.

oy. what have i got myself into? i'm up in the high holy air of tzvat, on this out-of-place cell phone speaking to a strange fifty year old jewish american religious woman living in a tent above the hills of nazareth and the sea of galilee. where strange meetings of synchronicity, meaning, and permanence are everyday occurrences. with this zen beat maynard g. krebs (from tv's “dobie gillis” show) telling me "he has a feeling" and that i should just be spontaneous and hitchhike to her tent and spend the night with her - sight unseen. "uh, tzipper," i say, forcibly handing the phone back to him, "i really appreciate your generosity and your impulsive intuitive inspiration, and i'd really like to meet this woman, what's her name -- roberta -- she sounds really cool-- but guess what -- my bus -- which i already have the ticket for -- is leaving in about half an hour -- and i'm expected back in jerusalem - tonight - so - why don't i just take a rain check - and come back to svat - a very cool city which i really like very much - another time." "you vill?" he says with a twinge of skepticism and disappointment. "yes, i will," i say more prophetically than i know at the time. "okay," he says smiling, "you will come to mitzpeh amuka and visit us in the forrest." "okay," i agree, taking my leave of the leafs and my new-found spiritual and marital guru moshe tzipper, "i'll be back."

to be continued...

art from http://www.thestudioinoldjaffa.com/greetings.html

photos were collected from various file pages on the web.
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