It’s not the first time that Tzfat was a happening place. Kabbalah has always been at the center of the town’ popularity. Starting in the 16th century, when the dispossessed Jews of Spain came there to study the newly-published Zohar. The town, located on the highest mountain in the Galil’s picturesque north, was popular with said Kabbalists because it was across the valley from Meron and the grave of the main character of the Zohar, Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai.
During the formation of the State, the town was settled by Tunisian and Moroccan Jews fleeing pogroms and discrimination. It’s hilly green terrain is reminiscent of both those North African countries. Before that it was home to a Persian migration. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor Faivelson from Radun started a kollel next to the famous Ari Hakodesh Synagogue and established an Ashkenazi presence as well.
Tzfat has been the home of many artists since the 1960’s. Today, galleries for paintings, ceramics and photography line the famed Alkabetz street. Seeking out like-minded Bohemian types, it attracts young people from around the world with an interest in music and art. Its famous for its Klezmer Music Festival (August 6-8) held every year, with free access to several stages around the city. It has become so popular that its closing night is broadcast live for Israeli TV. Under the leadership of musical director Eyal Shiloach, it brings together the best of the Klezmer world, with new beats and rythmns — Bee Bop, Ethiopian drums, and Oriental-Jewish fusion suffuse the streets with music like a bazaar with all its fragrant fare.
The town has become a magnet for young people. Many come through with Birthright and stay on. Often they enroll in Livnot, and experience an archaeological dig first hand. (Tzfat was hit by earthquakes in the 19th century; there are wonders to be found underfoot). Most young people do what many did throughout history: they come to Tzfat to study Kabbalah. Whether its a seminar at The Kabbalah Center on Alkabetz Street or a Shabbat at Ascent, they discover the mysteries and beauty of their heritage through the secret teachings.
Ascent is a hostel that fills in the gap for people coming to Tzfat who are suddenly “aroused” to know more. Their classes and Shabbatons are organized around a variety of subjects: They welcome people from various backgrounds with programs in English, Hebrew, Russian, etc.
The Kabbalah Center, under the expert tutelage of Yair Reiss is a drop-in center that also has retreats in Tzfat and the environs. Their brochure promises art, meditation, psychology and more. Both have tapped into the many Jews, young and old alike, who have discovered the pleasures of Judaism through its mystical teachings.
The town is booming, thanks in no small measure to the dynamic Mayor, Elan Shochat. Under his direction, the town has added a Medical School to its list of academic institutions. A memorial to the victims of the Maalot Massacre is under construction. In fact the 1974 terror attack victims were high school students from Tzfat on an outing to Maalot. The trauma rocked the town for years. Because of their success, Mayor Shochat mandated the Israel Trauma Care in 2011 to prepare Tzfat as the first model city to train urban areas to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When visiting, check out the Carlebach Shul for music and whatever’s happening; the Lahuhe “Bar” for a great Yemenite “sandwich”; the homemade cheese and the Candle Factory. And if you have time, you can blow glass.
If you can’t make it for the festival, check out Israeli TV or find the schedule online or look up individual musicians. Be sure to check out Musha Berlin, Simply Sfat…and Eyal Shiloach is amazing whatever he’s playing.
If you love art and want something unique and Jewish for Tzfat, check out the website “I loveTzfat.com”.
Tzfat is best known for his synagogues: the Abuhav with its 500-year-old Sefer Torah that was miraculously saved from destruction in an 1837 earthquake; the Joseph Caro (author of the Shulchan Orach synagogue); the Ari Hakodesh synagogues (all three of them, though the one above the cemetery is where he davened).
Visit the cemetery for all things spiritual and uplifting. Its a really Jewish thing to do, hang out in the cemetery and connect to your Jewish ancestors. Don’t tell anyone in NY, they’ll think you’ve lost some portion of your mind. It might be the part that says what you see is not all you get. We Jews need more!
Whether it’s the air or the proximity to so many holy souls, Tzfat stirs Jewish awareness like no other place.
If you need help organizing a trip for you or your loved ones, contact me, [email protected]