No visit to Israel’s North is complete without a trip to the Holy & Mystical City of Tsfat. One of the four oldest and continually inhabited (by Jews) Israeli cities, it is perched on top of the Galilee mountains overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and rolling foothills, this is a place filled with mysticism – the Kabbalah was formed here; religion – many various sects of Orthodox Judaism have their home in Tsfat; music and art – home of the August Klezmer festival and famous artists’ colony. Because it is a transliteration of a Hebrew name, the English can be transliterated Tzfat, Tsfat, Safed, Sephad, Tsfas… and can be really confusing. But this city is well worth seeing. (Scroll over pictures for captions)
Elizabeth and I headed up before Passover, and had a wonderful day just strolling the artists’ quarter and taking in the natural beauty from the rooftop terraces. The artists are more than friendly and many will not only take you on a tour of their shop, but will share their process of artistic creation. We were fortunate to meet up with a few people who invited us into their private studios and homes, even sharing a home-cooked meal!
I asked why some of the older Israeli cities have so many different shades of blue, turquoise and aquamarine paint on the doors, walls, cupolas, and gates. It comes from an old superstition found throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean countries that if evil spirits come down and they try to enter one’s property, the shades of blue confuse them. They think they are entering heaven (or the sky or water) and turn around to go ‘haunt’ someone else. Today, it’s just beautiful, old legends withstanding…
In Tsfat, there are hundreds of small galleries, shops, gift stores featuring local art, crafts, foods, and wines. Intersperse these with private homes and small family-owned restaurants as well as historical synagogues and yeshivas, and you have a feeling for Old Tsfat. I picked out a handful of my favorite gems to highlight on this post. They are highly recommended must-dos!!! As you walk through Caro Street,the main street in the artist quarter, you will pass “Hershele” fine art and Judaica a few shops in on the right. Tsvi handpicks artists throughout Israel to feature in his shop. Not your ordinary traveler’s kitsch, but high quality and different, but reasonably priced items from jewelry to lace metalwork, including a gold car mezuzah to hold a pocket sized book of Psalms for $26.
Directly across from Hershele is a gallery that specializes in original paintings made up entirely of miniature letters from Scriptural passages and stories. A beautiful cluster of pomegranates on close inspection reveals it is hand-drawn letting of the entire book of Song of Songs! Continue down therein street passing several “mystical” galleries featuring Scared Geometry in photos and paintings, as well as hand-drawn re-creations of the Seals of Solomon. These are sometimes hung in homes to ward of evil or sickness, or to stand for wisdom or holiness. Be sure to ask the shopkeepers for explanations. You are sure to hear some great stories and old legends!
Now for my favorites: Tzfat Gallery houses a collection of artisan workshops. My two favorites are the front right workshop of Isaac, a metalworker. You can watch him make an assortment of items made of silver, gold and brass. Hisintricate metalwork is unique in all of Israel combining a Middle Eastern look with an Arts & Crafts Movement feel. From small to large, they include mezuzot, kids cups, candlesticks, prayerbooks, Judaica and sculpture including Torah crowns and breastplates. Some have precious stones set into the pieces.
At the back of this gallery is Canaan Gallery, fine weaving workshop owned by Orna & Yair Moore. Be sure to ask Rivka for a tour. There are many items available for sale including chenille weaving made from cottonwood bark – hand dyed and softer than silk. Be sure to go upstairs to the weavers’ workshop to see the pieces being made by Orthodox Jewish men. The sound of the shuttlecocks creates a mesmerizing rhythm, part of the spirituality of the city. Rivka also offers short classes, material included, where you can make your own potpourri bags stuffed with dried lavender from the garden for 80 shekels or about $17.50. The talit (prayer shawls) and wall hangings (hand-painted) are amazingly gorgeous! Her rooftop terrace holds majestic views of the Galilee mountains and valleys, and a view of holy Mt. Meron, burial place of Rabbi Akiva.
We had a Yemenite lunch at Lahuhe in the Olive Tree Courtyard next door. They make their own lavash type bread and fill it with an assortment of four cheeses, vegetables, and spicy hot shug, which you can request on the side. The “sandwiches” are served cut up on a board, and look and smell as good as they taste. This is an experience in itself, and the owners are very friendly.
Our favorite part of the day was a visit to the Quilted Art Glass Workshop of my good friend, Kathleen, a recent American immigrant to Israel from Southern California. Besides looking at her lovely creations, we took a glass workshop and created our own unique work of art. Kathleen fed us snacks and wine as she explained the process of quite art class. Using pieces of Bullseye glass imported from the states, we laid out our individual designs onto a piece of glass which was then fired on the spot. The class can take as little as 20 minutes or as long as an hour and a half and starts at 50 shekels, about $12 – an incredible bargain. The classes are suitable for all ages from kids through adults, and are a favorite with Birthright groups because you can make an amazing piece of art to take home for just a little money. Be sure to pet Jojo, a blind cat Kathleen has adopted, and Kobe, her dog.
A big thank you to Mona, who told me not to miss the holy cheese shop, Kadosh at the bottom of the Old City. I first visited Chaim in his home dairy when I made my pilot trip two years ago. Has it been that long??? This artisan hand-crafted cheese shop has been in the family for many generations. You are always treated like family here, and if you hit it at the right time when it is not crowded, you will be treated to a delicious meal with the family (they normally close up between noon and two). The matriarch of the family makes the most wonderful vegetarian Kosher mejadras I’ve ever tasted! It’s a mixture of lentils and rice with spices, crispy fried onions and currants. To die for! Always, Turkish coffee is served. Today they were making homemade ricotta cheese. It’s delightful to watch them. Sample the many fine selections of cheeses, halvah, and olive oil in the tasting room. And say hello to Chaim from me!!
We decided to take one last view of the countryside from the rooftop terrace of a friend. It was from this spot that I decided I wanted to live in the Galil. I’m sure you can see why from the gorgeous landscapes…