Beside Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Broadway showtunes and the Rat Pack, I grew up listening to my dad’s Klezmer music. So – how to describe Klezmer? It’s a mixture of Eastern European (Ashkenazi Jewish) meets New Orleans Dixieland meets Balkan gypsy style, meets improv Jazz and everything in between. Think “Fiddler on the Roof” on steroids. Anything goes, lots of fun.
Last week, the mountain city of Tsfat (Safed/Sfat/Tzfat/Z’faht) held their annual 3-night KlezmerFest and of course, I had to go. Tsfat is about a 20 minute drive Northeast of Karmi’el (7 min. as the crow flies). The city has been in existence and continually inhabited, mostly by mystical Jews, since the Talmudic period and Second Temple era (early 100s BCE). It’s one of Israel’s four Holy Cities, including Jerusalem, Hebron & Tiberias. An area trod upon by Jews, early Christians, Mamalukes, Crusaders, Ottomans, and British, it has always held its strong Jewish history and presence. A great many famous rabbis and mystics are buried there up in the hills, and many people come today to make pilgrimage because of that. Tsfat was a center for Torah and Talmud (interpretive books) learning as well as an early place (1500s) for the practice of Kabbalah, a type of Jewish mysticism. The Shabbat hymn we still sing every Friday night,”Lecha Dodi” – was composed there. The famous Rebbe Shlomo Alkabetz use to take his congregants (all dressed in white) out to the fields below Tsfat every Friday night at sunset. There they would sing this lovely song both welcoming the Sabbath as a bride and welcoming the Messianic Age. The wedding imagery is more than beautiful (read Song of Songs). Today Tsfat, the highest point in the Galillee, still sits with many of the structures rebuilt on their ancient foundations overlooking the rolling hills and mountains and the Sea of Galillee (Lake Kinneret) to the South and Golan Heights to the East. It is home to mystics, ultra-Orthodox, hippie-like ‘Na-Nakhs,’ musicians, poets, authors, and artists. Tsfat is famous throughout the world for its artists’ colony, and its artisan bakers, cheesemakers and winemakers. It is indeed a magical place, and I would have lived there, but thought a 20 minute drive would be the more balanced decision. Instead I can go to take pictures, to meditate, and to have a small getaway place anytime I need.
At sunset last Wednesday evening, John Max & I, and Max’s friend from camp who was visiting, set out for Tsfat. We took a shuttle from Rosh Pinna, as the roads into the city were closed for the festival. The sun was just setting as we walked up the steps to the Old City.
We were greeted by a duo of Hasidic Men (looking like they just stepped off the set of “Yentl”) playing traditional Jewish tunes on accordion and clarinet. It was like being transported to another time and place. My father and my Uncle Sam would have loved it!!! And just then, as usual here in this magical country, the tears started to flow. This land has that effect on me. A cloudy memory from my childhood will float to the surface and I find myself in tears at a most unexpected time. Is it just a memory, or a connection with the distant past, or a combination both – disheartening and cleansing at the same time?
As we rounded the corner, the streets became more and more packed. People from all over the world come to this street scene. Throughout the city, multiple stages were set up with various performers. They were all different, yet connected through the Klezmer tapestry.. Some more sedate, others jazzy, and many rousing the crowds gathered into impromptu dancing and singing. Vendors lined the streets selling art, handcrafted jewelry, intricately braided Havdalah candles, woven talit (prayer shawls) and Judaica), toys, and objects unique and holy to the Jewish faith. Restauranters had their stalls set up selling everything from felafel and shwarma and pizza to different cheeses and amazingly spiced and aromatic pastries (and for my husband, hand-crafted beers). But the best part by far, were the buskers. They were on every corner, and in the middle of every street. Young girls playing harps, recorders and violins playing for money. Old men, young boys, and hip Indie boys playing their alternative takes on Klezmer. I wish I could share them all with you, but have reduced it to a few choice acts:
Busking gandpas (video above)
A jazzy “Steely Dan” klezmer on stage (Video above)
(A Jewish Hildegard of Bingen singing ancient and Medieval melodies, above)
These busking boys (above) were absolutely adorable and talented. I gave them all my shekels)
It seems like fireworks are quite typical for these summer festivals, and this one, at midnight, did not disappoint. It seemed that the evening was just getting into full swing for both young (children) and old alike. The night air had cooled down and it was a beautiful summer evening. There were male and female soldiers stationed in the area who came to enjoy the scene. Even they took part in the dancing!
It was most certainly a grand event, wholesome and great fun. This is one town that truly knows how to put on a party!