Mystics, memories and Mount Meron

Safed’s earthquakes  (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Safed’s earthquakes
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)

Ita Bolteneshter lived in an old house in the heart of Safed's Jewish Quarter during the years of the British Mandate. Although local Arabs repeatedly attacked Jews all over the country, the British specifically forbade Jews from carrying, using or storing weapons. Nevertheless, many Jews hid weapons - and weapons makers - in their homes.

On occasion, the British would enter Jewish houses looking for clandestine guns, rifles and explosives. The stalwart Bolteneshter had a weapons factory in her basement, and when the British came to her house she would stand over the trapdoor in wide skirts that hid the underground entrance and tug on a warning rope so that the Jews below wouldn't make any noise.

But one day, although she tugged the rope repeatedly, the noise continued. Bolteneshter kept her cool and began clutching her stomach, screaming hysterically and feigning labor pains! The British become so panicked that they dashed out of the house without even noticing that she was well over 60!

Stories like this are commonplace in a city as historic and as mystical as Safed, which is famous for its unique ambiance and diverse population. On your next trip to Galilee, try this atmospheric outing through historic sites and enchanting alleyways. Begin at the very top of the city, with a Crusader citadel, and end with a shopping spree through the art galleries of Safed.

After entering the city from Highway 8900, look for signs pointing to the Old City and to the Crusader Citadel. Follow the signs to the latter, where ongoing excavations have uncovered all kinds of fascinating ruins.

The citadel was built on a hill whose importance dates back thousands of years. Indeed, until the fourth century, it served as one of a series of mountain stations from which the Jews of Israel could signal the approach of major holidays and of the new month to their brothers in the Diaspora. Their chain of torches stretched almost to Babylon.

Yosef ben Mattitiyahu (a.k.a. historian Josephus Flavius) commanded the Galilee forces during the Great Jewish Revolt. In 67 CE he fortified the hill, hoping to turn back a Roman attack. While the Romans succeeded in taking the fortress, a 12th-century Crusader citadel and a 13th-century castle constructed on the site held out twice against foreign invaders. Both times, the Crusaders negotiated a deal in which they left peacefully. On the second occasion, however, Mameluke commander Baybars massacred them as they exited the castle walls. Continuous battles for the castle, and later Turkish neglect, left it in ruins, which were used as a British fortress during the Mandate period.

With the onset of the War of Independence at the end of 1947, the Jews of Safed came under continuous Arab attack. By the time the British cleared out in April 1948, the Jews were suffering terribly under an Arab siege. In those days there were only about 1,400 Jews in Safed: a tiny island in a sea of 12,000 hostile Arabs.

After handing all of their military strongholds over to the Arabs, including the citadel and the police station, the British considerately offered to help the Jews evacuate. The British offer was spurned, and the brave residents and Palmah troops took the surrounding Arab villages. After capturing the citadel on May 10, they were able to liberate the city.

The Crusader castle — the largest in the region when it was built — was surrounded by three concentric defensive walls. Look for remains of the inner wall, along with a 60- meter-high round tower erected by Baybars, hewn stones in the southwestern portions of the citadel, and the entrance to a square tower. Some interesting construction has been exposed, as well: an intermingling of large horizontal and vertical stones. At the top of the hill, where you have a fabulous view of the city, stands a monument to Safed’s defenders.

NOW TAKE a picturesque walking tour through alleyways, synagogues and galleries. Although these directions are for vehicles, very good walkers can walk down from the street across from the citadel all the way to the General Exhibition.

By car: Return to the sign leading to the Old City. Descend, finally parking in a big lot next to the Judith Gallery and the General Exhibition, between Beit Yosef and Abuhov streets. If you are hungry, stop at the atmospheric Maximilian cafe/restaurant adjacent to the Exhibition.

The General Exhibition, originally built as a mosque, houses artwork from several of Safed’s bigger art galleries. After browsing for a while, return to the parking lot, walk past your vehicle, and look for steps going both up and down (if you walked down from the citadel you will have done so on these stairs). The steps mark the division between pre-1948 Arab Safed (on your right) and the Jewish Quarter. Gaze all the way to the top to see the projector used by the British to light up the stairs. On your left, houses in the former Jewish Quarter are riddled with holes left from Arab attacks.

Take the steps all the way to the bottom. You have reached the Hameiri overlook, named for the Hameiri family that has lived in Safed for six generations. In the distance, Mount Meron towers over the landscape, while in the ancient cemetery down below, two little blue domes mark the site of the mikve (ritual bath) used by Rabbi Isaac Luria.

Known by the acronym Ha’ari, Rabbi Luria was born in Jerusalem in 1534 but grew up in Egypt. His return to the Holy Land came, some say, after the prophet Elijah ordered him to Safed. Considered the leading mystic of his time, Ha’ari and his disciples would usher in Shabbat from among the trees that covered the mountaintop. In one version of a famous legend, late one Friday afternoon Ha’ari suddenly told his students to accompany him to Jerusalem for the redemption that awaited them.

He expected them to follow him blindly to the Holy City. But when one young man hesitated, protesting that there was no time to reach Jerusalem before Shabbat, Ha’ari turned melancholy. ’Your doubts have delayed the return of the Messiah,’ he is reported to have said.

Turn right to pass Mahlevat Hameiri — Israel’s first dairy. Dating back 160 years, the dairy offers tours of the magnificent building, a movie about cheese production, and the opportunity to purchase its gourmet products. It was here, in the early 1940s, that the Irgun underground swore in new members.

Gaze up at the Rahamim Outpost, full of holes left from Arab fire. The position was built on the balcony of the Rahamim family home after Arabs ran riot through Safed in 1929. During the War of Independence, Rahamim Outpost was one of several dozen positions in the city from which Safed defenders protected residents from Arab attack.

Follow the street to the end and enter Beit Hameiri, a house of multiple floors. Built in the 16th century by Jews expelled from Spain, the house was destroyed in one of Safed’s earthquakes and restored in the mid-19th century. Afterward and until the first World War, Sephardi rabbis lived in the house and held rabbinical court there. Later, after Arab rioters burned the house and slaughtered the residents, the building was left deserted.

Following the War of Independence it was bought by Yehezkel Hameiri, who turned it into a historical museum that offers a fascinating glimpse into Jewish life in Safed over the past several hundred years.

Different stories and rooms in this unusual house present various aspects of daily life long ago, and include a reconstructed room typical of the homes in Safed. Many houses were one room only: this one once held a family of eight! Near the house’s cistern you will find for a ’bucket retriever’ used for fishing out pails that had fallen inside. Examine ritual objects used by long-ago residents of the house.

In the upper attic there is a display of common household items made out of recycled tin cans that originally held kerosene. One of the most famous is the ’kosher’ stove created by tinsmith Mordechai Meshil Segal. Separate compartments meant that meat and dairy dishes could be cooked simultaneously; the two-tier feature allowed for slow cooking of the Shabbat cholent.

Once Segal gave a stove to the rabbi’s wife and, unfortunately, it caused a fire. The Turkish officials who were soon on the scene told Segal he couldn’t manufacture any more kosher stoves until he registered the patent. And he did so, continuing to make the incredible variety of stoves you see in the exhibit.

Nothing was thrown out in Safed, from a rolling pin to a baby’s walker. Find out what you can make with almost anything, in one fascinating room full of recycled — everything! You will want to read about Haya Caspi, a widow with five children who lost three of them in the Safed famine early in the 20th century. Refusing to take charity, she took in laundry, cooked for wealthy families, and raised five orphaned grandchildren. Look for a picture of Avraham Buchne, whose one blue and one brown eye supposedly gave him special powers.

UPON LEAVING the museum, retrace your steps and at the corner of the road climb a short set of stairs. Turn left, and after a few meters go up another group of steps. Pass through the arch, climb more steps, then continue straight until you reach the Camus Gallery. Here, go up the stairs on your right and turn left onto Rehov Abuhov.

Stop for a moment at Alcheich, the only 16th-century synagogue in Safed. While the artwork inside has probably changed over the years, the original interior and much of the stone floor still remain.

The synagogue’s famous Torah crown, probably the oldest in Israel, was donated in 1434. It predates the expulsion from Spain and contains the inscription ’Those who have repented.’ As early as the 14th century, the Jews of Spain had been subject to severe religious persecution and widespread attacks; as a result many had converted to Christianity. On Yom Kippur, however, they came to synagogue to pray. It was for their benefit that the Kol Nidrei prayer — whose verses declare that certain vows are no longer valid — was composed.

Next you reach the Abuhov Synagogue, whose beautiful courtyard is graced with a pomegranate tree.

All kinds of legends have sprung up concerning this elegant, impressive house of prayer which was built by students of the renowned Spanish rabbi Yitzhak Abuhov. One story relates that after the rabbi’s death, his students had a collective dream in which the rabbi complained to his pupils that his synagogue back in Spain was surrounded by Christian churches. After they awoke the students prayed together and the synagogue miraculously appeared in Safed the next day.

Benches are plush and the decorations in the synagogue, including some wonderful paintings by Ziona Tajar, are beautiful. Between the arks on the southern wall is a picture of the Western Wall before the Six Day War. An alleyway leading to the Western Wall and the Wall itself seem to move with you as you walk across the synagogue. Symbolically, of course, this reminds you that no matter where you go, the Western Wall is with you.

A splendidly high ceiling is decorated with the traditional crowns mentioned in the Ethics of the Fathers: kingship, priesthood and Torah and the crown of a good name, which is the best one of them all. Here, however, they have added a fifth crown symbolic of the strong feeling that the Messiah will first appear in Safed.

Continue walking up the street, follow it to the right, go up a few steps to a T-junction, and go right again until you are facing the Lemberg Synagogue. Here, turn left to visit Livnot U’Lehibanot, a work/study program for Jewish, English-speaking young people with little or no knowledge of their heritage. The program, intended to acquaint participants with different facets of Judaism, includes nature and history hikes as well as time in the classroom.

During the Second Lebanon War, when municipal workers fled the city, so did the Filipino men and women who cared for nearly 100 of the city’s sick and elderly. Firm believers in community service as part of Jewish identity, volunteers from Livnot took their places. After the war, tourists joined members of the program in repairing and preparing bomb shelters in Kiryat Shmona, Hatzor and Safed. Their work continues today, with assistance to indigent people throughout the area.

While digging foundations for a new campus, Livnot director Aharon Botzer uncovered an entire Jewish neighborhood dating back at least 400 years! After seeing a movie on Safed and viewing some of the items at the Visitors’ Center, ask Botzer to take you for a look at this unusual site; it includes an ancient kettle standing on a shelf in one of the homes, a stove for heating water and a ritual bath.

Exit Livnot U’Lehibanot, turn right, and pass through additional picturesque alleyways filled with delightful artists’ galleries. At the end of the street, around the corner before the parking lot, stands Mila Rozenfeld’s tiny Doll Museum. Each doll in the museum is hand-crafted and took from three months to two years to produce. Made of porcelain, the figures have movable parts and are in exact proportion to the human body. Museum cupboards contain dolls that represent the Jews of the Diaspora; European aristocrats, figures straight out of the Carnival of Venice; and royal personalities.

Very little surprises us in Safed. But we were astonished on our latest visit to the city when we left the Doll Museum and headed for the parking lot. As we walked, we heard a rabbi giving a lesson about the weekly portion and we approached quietly hoping for a look. When we got there, however, we found this unusual sight: a man sitting in a car, door open, smoking a nargila while the vehicle’s tape recorder blared out the rabbi’s lesson.

Hungarian heritage hoard

Until the Holocaust, at least a million Hungarian- speaking Jews lived in Hungary, Transylvania, Slovakia and nearby regions. Their history dated back well over 1,000 years and their culture gave birth to some of the world’s top musicians, scholars and scientists. More than two- thirds of the Hungarian-speaking Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust, its communities destroyed.

The first Hungarian-speaking Jews reached Safed in 1826, with more arriving at the beginning of the 20th century and, of course, after the Holocaust. Decades passed until, 18 years ago, Safed Hungarian speakers Hava and Yossi Lustig realized that there wasn’t a single museum in the world dedicated to their heritage. Gathering together other Hungarian speakers from Galilee, the Lustigs founded the Memorial Museum of Hungarian-Speaking Jewry. It is run completely by volunteers, including the curator and computer expert who prepare its excellent programs.

On the day we visited, Hava Lustig guided us through the museum.

Hava explained that everything in the museum was a gift, from matza covers to a copper lamp — a wedding present dating back to 1830. So was a porcelain coffee set from 1874, and a cupboard decorated with a picture of Rachel’s Tomb. Look for a flag, discovered in a Hungarian storeroom after the war. It was sent to ’Yossale’ in 1942 by someone in Jerusalem. You can tell it is from this country by the kova tembel (hat worn by pioneers) on a child’s head.

Don’t miss the audio-visual presentation describing the history of Hungarian-speaking Jewry. Explore each item in the room devoted to the Holocaust and the Jewish Resistance. And ask museum volunteers to show you a recent discovery: the Holy Ark (and Torah scrolls) from the synagogue in Tokaj, Hungary. The synagogue, dating back to 1896, was completely destroyed, and the ark was found only by chance. It has now been restored to its original beauty.

You can reach the museum from the old entrance to Safed (Highway 8900) by turning onto Rehov Yerushalayim and going left onto Rehov Palmah. Find the museum behind the ancient Seraya (Turkish administration building with clock tower).