13 Kislev 5759

(Tuesday, December 1, 1998) – Tel Aviv

I am sitting here in a luxurious hotel room with the balcony door wide open, thoroughly enjoying the sounds of the Mediterranean and the fresh breeze. Yesterday I shopped all over the place for a birthday present for myself, and found nothing I wanted that could properly commemorate this adventure. But tonight, as I stood on that balcony and watched the last of the sun kiss the turquoise waves, I knew that this was God’s birthday present to me. All of it, not a silly souvenir, but the whole of it, every drop of these eighteen days.

Once again, “my” day did not go at all as planned, but was more exquisite than I could have imagined.

At breakfast one of the wait-staff approached my table. With tears in her eyes, she apologized for Shabbat. She’s what – 15 or 16 years old? We started talking. I learned she is painfully shy. Once she realized she had nothing to fear, she cut loose and turned out to be great fun.

Before breakfast was over, she reappeared with a piece of chocolate cake lit with a sparkler and sang happy birthday to me. What a great start to my birthday! Although I cannot recall ever having had my cake for breakfast.

It had rained the night before (and here, no one complains about rain!). I worried that the road up to Z’fat would be dangerous. But it was dry there, no rain. The only headache I encountered: Construction work on that mountain road.

When I was planning this trip back in Philadelphia (and even a little of the time in Jerusalem), I had thought that my birthday in Z’fat (alt. Safed) would be the highlight of the trip. I am not interested in kabbalah, not even a little. Yet I had hoped that perhaps a town with a reputation for its dedication to spirituality would be a place of answers, a place where things would make sense without searching. That probably doesn’t sound logical in the light of day, and it’s badly explained. I simply thought that maybe Z’fat would be a “special” place to spend my birthday.

But driving Route 90, it hit me sure as day that whatever answers I would find in Israel had already been found, even if I had not yet recognized them as answers. It was a gift to realize that before Z’fat. Because otherwise I would have come away bitterly disappointed. As it was, I left merely halfhearted about the place, but not disappointed.

Even when I go back to northern Galilee, I doubt I will return to Z’fat.

First I went to the Jewish Quarter. I had read so much about Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and Caro (Rabbi Yosef Caro) the people that I felt sure their synagogues would have a holy “feel” about them. Instead, they were souvenir shops. The Caro synagogue was locked. I rang the bell, and the shammes acted like he was doing me a huge favor to let me in. At least it is still used as a yeshiva in the evenings.

Caro shul, November 30, 1998

The Caro shul was dirty and unkempt – unloved and uncared for. I spied a piece of trash on the floor, a fragment of a candy wrapper. I picked it up and asked the shammes where I could find a trash can. He took it from me and set it down on a shelf! I asked questions (he spoke perfect English), but he professed to know almost nothing about Caro except that he wrote the Shulcan. Oh, and I could buy a copy of the Shulcan there! Surprise!

He tried to sell me cards that his wife created, kabbalist pictures fashioned from words. Quite pretty, and tempting even at NIS 15 (about $5) apiece. I still was going to buy a handful, but he only took cash. Later, I was glad I turned him down. The Kfar Blum gift shop had the same art notecards for less than half the price.

The Ari synagogue was even worse. All stacked up, in terrible shape. It was open, but the shammes sat inside the front door asking for donations. He claimed not to be able to speak English, but he was able to say the word “donations” quite well. When I didn’t produce a donation immediately, he harassed me until I did. I would have felt better about giving them money if I thought it were going to maintain the place. But it was in such awful condition, I couldn’t believe anyone was investing in its upkeep.

I had imagined that I would feel inspired to sing L’cha dodi in the Ari synagogue. But I found the atmosphere too stifling.

Third synagogue in Z’fat. Everything else was stacked up.

The third synagogue in that quarter was only partially open. I could stand in the balcony-storage area and look down on the main part of the shul. But that appeared to be in use as a storage area only.

Fodor’s did not reflect the poor condition of these three synagogues, the primary reason most people go to Z’fat. I have not seen anything recently to indicate that anyone cares about them, nothing that says to me that steps are being taken to improve their structural soundness and use them as beit knesset or beit t’fila. But then again, perhaps the current status of these synagogues reflects what Z’fat has become: A maze of souvenir shops and art galleries selling nearly-identical wares, banking on the glory of the past. A pity.

Lunch in Z’fat was quite another matter. I decided to go for the Elvis experience, so I ate at Pinati’s. (Elvis is still king in Israel.) I ordered a hamburger, just for the heck of it. They brought out two plates. The first featured pickles, hot peppers, and olives. The second had a piece of hamburger meat, very good French fries, chopped-up cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes, along with a baked tomato. Finally, they gave me a basket of pita bread. From these ingredients, I was to build my own Elvis-burger. Not exactly what I had envisioned, but still oh-so-good.

I thought I would go back to the gallery I had frequented my first day in Northern Israel to see if I could find something for myself. After all, this was my birthday. I’d like to buy myself a present! But as friendly as the people had been earlier in the week when I needed a specific painting, that is how annoying they were this day. I had a limited budget, and the sales clerk kept insisting I buy paintings that were way out of my price range. I felt disrespected, although she probably believed I was merely trying to haggle.

Back streets and alleys of Z’fat, November 30, 1998

Nor did I find anything I could afford at the General Exhibition. It seemed to me that everything in Z’fat was either overpriced kitsch, or beautiful but overpriced art.

The town itself was lovely, nestled as it is in the Northern hills. When I deliberately got off the beaten path, I discovered charming alleys and kind people. But I felt that Z’fat had lost its way. In its pride at being one of the four “holy” places in Israel – as Z’fat bills itself – it has lost its holiness.

Although my original plan had called for spending my entire birthday in Z’fat, after lunch it became clear that I had exhausted everything of interest. I checked Fodor’s and considered a side trip to Tel Chai. But in the end, decided that would be too much like the trip to Old Gesher the day before. I wanted to get a broader view of Eretz Yisroel than its military history. So I chose Metula (alt. Metulla) instead.

Ah! I want to go back to Metula! What an amazing town! Suddenly I was in Bavaria, the foothills of the Alps I love so well. That feeling intensified with the Zimmer Frei signs posted in the occasional B&B window! This day, I did not trek to the Good Fence, nor the nature reserve. I saved something for my next trip.

Metula would be such a wonderful place to stay, if there were lasting peace on that border. With the constant fear of missiles hurtling into Israeli territory, Metula may be charming, but it is not safe. I recalled those long conversations with Michel and Abu Rim of Beirut in 1988, and their surprising and unequivocal support for Israeli politics. Theirs was not blind acquiescence to “whatever Israel wanted,” as some in the United States deem necessary. But these Lebanese patriots taught me that if there is to be peace and security in the Middle East, Israel’s democracy must prevail. I thought of them often in Metula.

Later that afternoon, I met up once again with Dubi at Kfar Blum. He’s down to earth and charming, a very rare (and welcome) mixture. We talked of mutual friends in Philadelphia, but soon drifted into more meaningful topics. He spoke of the parameters of his job at Kfar Blum, and what he envisions long-term for the kibbutz’s guest house.

Fields of Kfar Blum

I ended up buying myself a bunch of cool souvenirs at the Kfar Blum gift shop, inexpensive and nice things I will be able to use: A key ring, mezuzah, notecards, post cards – and small gifts for friends and family at home. I was happy I hadn’t spent my money in Z’fat. The gifts here were just as nice (if not nicer), and less than half the price of the shops in Z’fat.

After supper, a British couple and I visited Steffi, one of the original Kfar Blum kibbutzniks. She has been there over fifty years. She still works in the kitchen, cooking – actually at the guest house kitchen. She told us about the tents and boulders and eating treif (non-kosher) food just to survive in those early years. The British had left behind canned ham, which initially they were not going to touch. But hunger trumped kashrut.

Steffi came from a wealthy German-Jewish family. They sent her to England to live with a Jewish family just as things worsened in Germany. In England, she heard about “Zionism” – a new concept to her. She and her new husband lived in Wales for three years, where she made some Christian friends. Eventually, they decided to give it all up and join Kfar Blum.

When they arrived in Northern Israel (pre-1948), the fields were filled with rocks. The kibbutzniks of Kfar Blum had no machinery, no plows, no bulldozers. They simply picked up the rocks one by one, tilling the ground as they went, clearing the land and making it ready for planting. They slept in small tents for the first year, no mattress to soften the hardness of the ground. It was a brutal life. But she said she would not undo a single thing, not even those awful first years.

She told us that the kibbutz is now following the lead of the majority of the kibbutzim and un-socializing. They’re going a step beyond a moshav, in that salaries will be paid – tariffs dependent on skill sets and education. The kibbutz will also start charging rent to its residents. Steffi said it’s becoming more like a small town. The kibbutz council will now be a town council. There will be no more “equal sharing of the profits” as has been the case the last fifty years.

Steffi said she welcomes the change. She admitted most of the older people don’t like it. But she sees it as a necessary step. They were losing all their young people to the big city. Before the move away from kibbutz life, the average annual income for everyone, including college students, was only $3000 – 4000 annually. She noted that they could not get young families just starting out to accept such minimal income.

Saying goodbye to Kfar Blum this morning was harder than I expected. In such a very short time, these people planted themselves in my heart. Special goodbyes to Dana, the young waitress, and Dubi, and Steffi.

I talked to the young German-Jewish girl (a volunteer from Germany) who cleaned my room each day. I left her all my cookies and goodies I had bought in Jerusalem. She seemed delighted to get the sweets.

At the turnoff to Route 90, I picked up a soldier who was hitchhiking. He was going to Tel Aviv. He could not speak a word of English, so at first I dreaded two hours of silence.

But he turned out to be a great help. The road signs to Tel Aviv were sometimes flat wrong (pranksters had turned them 45 degrees or something). Each time he would point out the right way to go.

Even without being able to talk much, we shared reactions to the sights along the way. An 18-wheeler lying flat on its side in the other lane puzzled me – it did not appear to have jack-knifed. He shared my puzzlement. And a pickup truck dragging a pair of work boots by a shoestring (literally!), well, I don’t think it was intentional. There was no need for words to understand how funny that was.

After I dropped him off at a Tel Aviv bus stop, I drove blindly through the city, hoping I would somehow find my way to the Sheraton. I drove straight into a police blockade. I later learned that there was a bomb scare at exactly that spot. But at the time, with no panic evident, I assumed it was just construction.

Boardwalk outside the Sheraton Tel Aviv, November 30, 1998

Eventually I saw the Dan Panorama hotel, which gave me a landmark to use as compass. After that, it was pretty simple to find my hotel.

From the moment I arrived, the hotel staff took care of my every need. They arranged the Eldan rental car return. The bellboy got my stuff from the car and up to the room. They even explained the El Al early check-in routine and got me a cab, loading my two big suitcases before I even knew the cab was there.

I forgot to put nice clothes for evening dinner in my carry-on, so I had to buy a pretty shirt (but I treated it like another souvenir and got something I liked a lot). The Twelve Tribes Restaurant had a dress code, and my super-casual travel clothes did not qualify. [2012 note: Twelve Tribes no longer exists; it’s been replaced by the Olive Leaf restaurant, which describes its dress code as “smart casual”.]

Before dinner as sun was setting, I walked the Promenade. The Mediterranean sparkles turquoise bright in this place, a hue so unbelievable, I know no one will believe my photographs. Here along the ocean, there is no sense of bomb scares or skirmishes along a northern border. Here, people soak in the sun, dance along the boardwalk, play beach volleyball, and live.

Next year in Jerusalem.
L’Shanah Ha’Ba’ah b’Yerushalayim!

It will be hard to leave.


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