Shabbat in Sfat

    January 2011            
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Visiting the Holy City of Sfat

By Donyel Meese

Sweltering afternoon heat gradually replaced the pale sunlight of the early morning as our tour bus continued climbing northward toward Tzfat. The rapid ascent through the mountainous terrain blurred the scenes of lush green vegetation that swept into the undulating landscapes of slate and burnt umber. Tucked away in the Mountains of Galilee, the magnificent emerald hills that surrounded the ancient city were breathtaking. We passed crumbling buildings fashioned out of Jerusalem stone, which were closely nestled along the steep hillside.

After traveling for hours, the bus rolled over the smooth cobble-stoned streets that paved the older part of the town, bumping, jarring, and jolting its occupants. Private homes, corner cafes, and tiny guesthouses dotted the streets which wound through the city like snakes. Houses were fashioned from heavy cubes that hugged the hillside and its inhabitants like the castle of a king. Medieval synagogues, narrow alleys, and crevices that whispered mystical secrets, were as numerous as the artists' galleries. businesses lined the asphalt road, all of which were starting to close for the day in preparation for Shabbos. Slowly the hustle and bustle faded and the city started to shut down. Vendors packed up the colorful circus of wares that spilled into the sidewalks and, one after one, the shops closed their doors and busy streets became dormant. A few people hurried about like tiny ants, running their last errands before disappearing to prepare for nightfall.

After following the unfamiliar lanes and ancient signposts, we screeched to a halt on one of the more modern streets, outside a gated clump of dusty buildings. We lethargically descended from the buses and found ourselves standing in front of sandy unassuming building with an overhanging porch which threatened to collapse at any moment. After getting acquainted with our lodgings at the hostel and partaking of the chocolate rugelach that the group had ordered from Marzipan, everyone hurried to shower and dress to make the mad dash to the synagogue.

When the sun began its descent, we gathered in the hostel's main building, left with the question of which synagogue to go to. Never in my life had I been given so many options. In Columbus, there was just good ol' Ahavas Shalom or Main Street or maybe Beth Jacob, if we wanted to "walk on the wild side." In Tzfat, the possibilities were endless. On a single street alone, there were at least 10 different options. After much deliberation by the chaperones, the group opted to pray with a "Carlebach" minyan at the Beirav Synagogue, hoping for a real "Tzfat experience."

Then, slowly - at the same pace that the sun was hiding - we braced ourselves against the chilly air of early evening and began our walk through the mystical city to the Beirav. The group trudged up and down numerous stone staircases and wove our way through twisted alleys. The cobblestones provided endless opportunities to slip and fall and I was fairly certain that their seemingly polished surfaces hadn't been touched since Tzfat's 16th century origin. Through the rooftops we could see the hills and valleys framed against the breathtaking sunset. The bluish, white bricks appeared a deeper azure next to the night-lit street lamps.

We finally reached the alleys of the old city, and made our way to the Beirav synagogue. The exterior appeared to be no more than two doorways, little more than five feet apart. A lone lady was standing in the middle of the street, attaching a laundry line from one side of the alley to the other. Reaching up, she pulled a dirty shower curtain across the thin cord to separate the women's section to the men's section. A few chairs, strategically placed a few steps behind the door leading into the synagogue, marked the outer part of the women's portion.

We soon found ourselves encircled by a cluster of some of the most vibrant characters that I'd ever laid eyes on - and I mean "vibrant" in the most literal way. The group was clad in attire that surpassed by far that of the routine bunch of synagogue-goers who typically diverted me during the long Shabbat services. Why, I have no doubt that even a glittering feather boa would be deemed somewhat conservative here! Rather, our group was thrown into a sea of shades that would give even a box of rainbow markers an inferiority complex. Deep hues of indigo, emerald, and crimson blended with pastel blues, corals, and daffodil yellows to fashion an exquisitely clashing symphony of colors. Ornate silken scarves and turbans wound themselves tightly around the heads of the more observant women, while others let their long hair spill down their backs and entangle itself in the yarn of their crochet-shawls.

Children clutched at their mothers' layers of skirts as they swayed to the lyrical strains of the prayer service, which trickled from the congested men's section into the inky night. The dulcet tones of Lechu Niranena, coupled with the subtle harmony of some young girls around me rose into the air. We kept the rhythm with our feet, following the song, singing along softly. Inside, some of the tallit-clad men joined hands and began singing and dancing around the tiny room with all their might. Those brave souls who could penetrate the crowd entered into the fray. The ever growing circle of dancers and singers spun dizzily 'round and 'round, pausing only long enough to let the weary stumble out, back into the night.

The women stood and beamed with smiles of captured youth as they looked on and watched the children dance and twirl around in rings, mimicking the larger group within. People - complete strangers became a blur of movement as they danced with an unshakable passion. They sang those beautiful tunes over and over as their voices rose in one disharmonious chorus, filling the street completely. Their feet remained on the ground, but their song seemed to soar towards heaven, as if the ceiling of the tiny synagogue simply could not contain it. I was convinced that if I could have glimpsed their hearts and their souls, I would have seen them shining brighter than the strongest lights in the universe. The music started to envelop me like a cool blanket. I closed my eyes for just an instant to capture this precious moment- a sweetness unknown. A sense of togetherness and of camaraderie, had fallen on all of us.

All at once a large boom was heard and a shower of fiery sparks cascaded on the rooftops of our tiny alley. Everything went black. The music and dancing stopped abruptly, and for a single instant everyone stood silently in shock. Rooted to their spots, everyone remained too shocked to move. Suddenly the moment was over and utter pandemonium broke loose. Time was no longer suspended in the dark of the night. Although I could not see the hand in front of my face, I heard the click-clack as heels raced down the cobblestones. Mothers grabbed their screaming children and ducked into corners, seeking safety. Fragments of frantic French, English, Hebrew, and Yiddish fell from the bungle of languages as the women searched desperately for their companions. I stood, huddled in a doorstep across the street. I couldn't move for fear that I'd be trampled or carried with the mass of people fleeing down the street. A woman, carrying her baby, found refuge next to me. "Raiti! Raiti! Raiti et hapitzutzim! HaAravim matkipim otanu! I saw! I saw! I saw the bombs! The Arabs are attacking us!" she whispered to me in a hoarse voice. I started to shake. The Arabs were attacking? Tonight of all nights? My wits deserted me, and I continued to stare at the frightened woman in shock.

Before I could further react, the electricity flashed back on in the building behind me as quickly as it had ended. However the tiny synagogue remained black. In the dim light that illuminated the street I could see that the people had somewhat calmed and were venturing back to their seats. There were no further surges or sparks and the night became as tranquil as it had once been. A group was sent to investigate, and it was determined that the cause of the disturbance had been a fuse box that flared up. The congregants relaxed a bit and returned to their former places.

Muffled murmuring could be heard from within the men's section as the congregants fumbled with their siddurim in the pitch black. No one knew how to proceed, and confusion was widespread. Suddenly, as if by Divine Providence, one voice started to whisper the opening lines of Lecha Dodi, picking up where the prayer service had left off. Gaining momentum, he continued to sing, and music filled the synagogue once more. Another person joined in, creating a beautiful duet. Then a third, forth, and fifth joined. One by one, the men started to joyously welcome Shabbos once again. Some knew the words by heart, some struggled to keep up, and others simply hummed the melody, yet the newly inspired kedushah that filled the air was unmistakable. It was a spiritual wake-up call. Standing in the dimly lit street, straining to peer through the inkiness of the synagogue, I realized that nothing can truly stop us. Whatever tzaaros and struggle may come our way, we will persevere, and not only that, but we will rise once again with even more strength than before.

When Maariv, the evening prayer service, ended, it was with a full heart that I joined the group and strode away from the synagogue. The walk back to the hostel was a thoughtful one, and it was in the silence of introspection that we walked. All of us were together, and each of us was alone with our own thoughts and emotions. I promised myself I'd look for a Kabbalat Shabbat like that one for the rest of my life. As I raised my eyes heavenward to gaze at the starry night, I glanced back into the old city and silently thanked G-d for a prayer service which was "simply Tzfat".


from the January 2011 of the Jewish Magazine

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