Katyushas can't stop a homey Safed Shabbat dinner

The summer is usually the busiest season in Safed. But for the second Shabbat in a row, this ancient, spiritual city was nearly empty. The constant Hizbullah bombardment has scared away an estimated 75 percent of the population, with most apartments left unoccupied. There was a strange, eerie quiet in the streets which tend to be full of the chatter of tourists and locals. There were also mixed feelings among those who have stayed. Breslav Chassid Yonatan Lipshutz invited a number of his friends who had decided to remain in Safed to his apartment in the Old City for Friday night dinner. "I've thought about leaving here many times over the last week and a half," the 46-year-old father of eight said as he munched on a piece of roast chicken. "On Tuesday or Wednesday when I was walking home from shul with my youngest son, my seven-year-old, and we heard a Katyusha land near by, he shook - once, and then again. "Right there I said we have to get out of here. Am I a meshugana? Even my rabbi has left," Lipshutz explained. "But it's not so easy when you are a family of 12 Where would we go? "I was planning to leave today [Friday], at least for Shabbat, but something made me decide to stay," he explained. He was definitely not in the majority. There were clearly many spare seats during the Kabbalat Shabbat service in the town's opulent Breslav synagogue, which is usually so packed on Friday night that it is difficult to even find any standing room. Sitting round the dinner table were other local residents. Most have made aliya from the US or England, and have lived in the city for more than a decade. Avraham explained how he had been constantly receiving phone calls and e-mails from family and friends around the world asking how he was doing and why he hadn't left already. "We're holding the fort here, keeping the minyanim going," he said. Everyone at the table spoke of their respect for the few local shopkeepers who had braved the rocket attacks and stayed open during the last 10 days since the Katyushas began raining down. Apart from a couple of groceries, two supermarkets and two bakeries, few businesses have continued to serve their rapidly depleting customer base. But the apparent difficulty in obtaining regular groceries did not seem to have affected Lipshutz's wife Talya's ability to make a sumptuous Friday night meal. The guests enjoyed two different types of challah, gefilte fish, roast chicken and roast potatoes. One could have been mistaken for thinking this was a regular Shabbat, but for the conversation, which inevitably centered on the situation in the North and how each of the residents have coped with the sudden change in circumstances. "It's amazing how quickly everyone left," said Mordechai, a retired former taxi-driver who moved to Israel from London 40 years ago and has lived in Safed for more than a decade. "I'm not worried about the situation," he added. Each of the guests had their own story, and as the wine, whisky and beer flowed, so did the conversation. Shlomo told how he lived in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip for four months before it was evacuated and moved to Safed from Jerusalem last week because he felt a strange pull to join Jews who were in danger. "It's funny how when we were in Gush Katif people always spoke of 'The North' as the area you went to get away from the rockets," he said. Early Saturday morning, the constant thud of Israeli shells being fired at Lebanon could be heard. Air raid sirens were sounded a number of times throughout the day. At around 1:20 p.m. there was a shudder as two or three Katyushas landed somewhere in the city. But guest house owner Rina Kuby was undeterred. "I'm not scared any more," she said. "The first time, when one landed in the college round the corner it was a bit of a shock. But now I am used to it. "My cousins in Jerusalem keep asking me to come and stay with them, and my daughter has left with her children. But I'm going to stay here." Rina's is one of the only places where any brave visitors to Safed can find a spare room to rent. "Nearly all the hotels around here have closed. Their owners have gone away, - to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem," she said. "But I've lived here in Safed all my life. I don't want to leave." Rina explained how her neighbors left when the fighting started last Thursday but came back a few days ago, after hearing that thieves have been looting the empty houses and shops. "This is the worst it's been since the War of Independence in 1948," she said. "I just hope it stops soon because I want life to get back to normal."