“We have the same birthday: the 20th of Tamuz. I knew it before she told me,” says Yom Tov Blumenthal about his wife of three years, Sarah Gittel Blumenthal. “I felt this energy on our first date.”
An artist/gallery owner in Safed, Yom Tov grew up as Michael Scott Blumenthal in Boca Raton, Florida. “I thought Judaism wasn’t really different from being a Trekkie” is how he describes his attitude until he experienced an authentic Shabbat at age 24 when visiting cousins in Los Angeles.
“Once I had my first taste, it took me a long time – and it’s still taking me time – to really embrace it the way I want to, the way she does,” he says, nodding toward his wife.
A native of London, Sarah Gittel started becoming religious five years ago. She says she never liked her secular name, which she will not divulge, and remembered her father calling her Sarah Gittel, after his mother. So that became her permanent name when she entered a seminary in Jerusalem at the age of 45.
Trained as a beauty therapist, she went to Dubai in her 20s and lived there for the next 16 years.
She worked as a skincare and sales trainer, first at the upscale Paris Gallery shops in the UAE and then for Clarins and finally for Beiersdorf, the German parent company of Nivea and other luxury brands. Another job involved opening a beauty spa in Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world.
She traveled for work to 13 countries in the Middle East – except Israel – using her mother’s maiden name because it wasn’t safe in these countries to use her real surname, Cohen.
After a few more career twists and turns, including driving around the Gulf in a traveling beauty salon in an RV, she felt ready for a change.
“I wanted to get married. My jobs weren’t satisfactory anymore and my relationships weren’t working out. I was looking for something deeper and more spiritual.”
She went off to India and Australia, exploring Buddhism and Christianity but not finding what she was seeking. “I never thought Judaism was something spiritual,” she explains.
BACK IN London for a visit five years ago, she attended a Friday night service at the Kabbalah Center. “It was a mixed crowd. A lot of converts. And Madonna was there,” she recalls. She stayed in London to take a course there, but then a man she’d known in her youth pointed her in the direction of a spiritual guide, Rabbi Avi Hill, who lived near her mother.
Hill encouraged her to move to Israel, where he was moving too. She resisted that suggestion for the moment, but accepted his idea to start lighting Shabbat candles, and she also moved back to London from Dubai.
She began going to Rabbi Reuven Stepsky’s class at Kesher and other classes at the Jewish Learning Exchange. “I just wanted to feel a connection to God,” she says.
Jerusalem-based outreach professional Jeff Seidel worked with Stepsky to arrange a scholarship for Sarah Gittel at the She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women in Jerusalem. She was scared to go but went anyway, “to learn who I am.”
“I didn’t fit in at all. I was the oldest one there and the other girls were frum from birth,” she says. She told the head of the seminary, Rabbanit Holly Pavlov, that she wouldn’t stay, but Pavlov told her, “Give me 24 hours; I’m going to change your life.”
And so she stayed. During that time she spent a Shabbat at Ascent in Safed and decided this was where she wanted to live. Following Hill’s advice, she went to London, packed up, and bought a one-way ticket to Israel.
After she landed, a chance meeting in Tel Aviv with a rabbi from Safed landed her an instant place to stay and a job.
“I did that for 10 months, and then I met my husband,” she says.
YOM TOV was the friend of the son of a British woman whom Sarah Gittel knew in Safed (and his birthday, too, is the 20th of Tamuz). They went for a half-hour coffee date and got married six months later. “My first religious wedding was mine,” Sarah Gittel says with a laugh.
Yom Tov had made a similar daring leap by coming to Israel at age 35 with no particular plan. He attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem for a year and then remembered how he felt visiting Safed on an earlier trip. “So I came for four days, and I haven’t left.”
Trained in various artistic media at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, he opened a gallery in Safed’s Old City that has moved several times; the latest location opened in March. While its official name is Yom Tov Art Gallery, its marketing nickname is Weapons & Puppies. Yom Tov says that people love this “powerful and hilarious paradox.”
Sarah Gittel became inspired by Yom Tov to pick up a paintbrush, which she hadn’t done since her youth.
“I became an artist when I got married,” she says. “I started painting and sold three originals in two weeks.” She also makes jewelry, refinishes old furniture, “bedazzles” items such as a guitar and a telephone, and collects and sells vintage designer clothing from abroad.
The gallery offers an eclectic mix of his paintings and her various crafts and clothes.
“My father is a fashion designer, and my grandmother owned a dress shop catering to religious women in Golders Green. So I guess I have the genes,” Sarah Gittel says.
Yom Tov says that his gallery and his wife are divine gifts.
In previous relationships, he confided, “I always went for trouble, and she was clearly not trouble. Something in me finally said, ‘This is the right person.’ I knew meeting her was from God. Everyone, from my family to my rabbi, said she was the best thing that could happen to me.”
The secret to finding a marriage partner, says Sarah Gittel, is to go on coffee dates. “All it takes is half an hour. If that person isn’t right for you, there’s going to be someone else who’s right for you.”■
SARAH GITTEL BLUMENTHAL, 50 From London to Safed, 2018
YOM TOV BLUMENTHAL, 47 From Boca Raton to Safed, 2010