Metrotainment: A spiritual retreat

The three-day Klezmer Festival is a chance to explore the heritage of Safed and its unique history.

Safed Klezmer Festival (photo credit: Courtesy Klezmer Festival)
Safed Klezmer Festival
(photo credit: Courtesy Klezmer Festival)
For three days in August, Safed is awake and jumping almost 24 hours a day. August 20, 21 and 22 (Monday through Wednesday) are the dates of the 25th annual Klezmer Festival, which begins at 9 each evening and carries on through the wee hours of the morning. On Thursday there will be a concert by students of the top klezmer musicians.
Over 200,000 visitors are expected to come to this small, magical town during the three-day festival to listen to traditional Ashkenazi Jewish music, the kind you often hear at weddings and bar mitzvot. Some more modern Jewish music will also be included, to cater to all tastes.
Eight stages will be set up around the Old City, and each one will feature a variety of different bands and musicians throughout the evening. All the events are free and, to make sure that your physical as well as spiritual needs are being met, there will be a wide selection of food stands lining the lanes and alleyways.
Starting from 5 p.m., no cars will be allowed into Safed; You can park in the designated parking lots at the entrance to the city and take a shuttle bus from there. Leaflets with full details, listing all the bands and the times and stages on which they will be appearing will be available all over Safed during the festival.
Among the groups and artists from around the world appearing at the festival are Yonatan Razael, Mirel Reznik, Aharon Razel, Eyal Shiluah, Erez Lev- Ari, Daniel Zamir, Musa Berlin and Jimmy Lloyd, plus women’s group Klezmiriot. In addition to the many performances, there will be klezmer programming for kids, a magic show, storytelling, demonstrations of unusual instruments, plays and more.
Apart from the Klezmer Festival, Safed has a tremendous amount for you to see, so either come earlier in the day or be prepared to stay overnight and give yourself a chance to explore this enchanting town at your leisure.
You won’t need a car; in fact if you don’t travel by foot, you’ll miss much of the beauty and intriguing features.
Safed is steeped in kabbalistic history, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the alleyways of the Old City and the Jewish Quarter. Synagogues in which the most famous kabbalists prayed are still in use today and the legends surrounding them are infinite.
The Ari Sephardi Synagogue is said to be the synagogue in which the Ari himself, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, who is considered the main proponent of Kabbala, prayed and studied regularly in the 16th century when he arrived in Safed from Egypt. It was from here that he took his followers out to the fields overlooking Mount Meron to greet Shabbat on Friday afternoon.
He prayed with his contemporary, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, composer of “Lecha Dodi,” which is still sung every week in synagogues all over the world, and the congregation turns to greet the Shabbat Queen as they sing, reminiscent of the kabbalists walk out to the fields.
According to legend, the Ari studied here in an alcove with Elijah the Prophet. This synagogue is situated on the edge of what was Jewish Safed until the War of Independence. During the war, the Torah scrolls were removed and firing slits were made in the wall to defend the city. Very little remains of this synagogue today, although it is used for services on Shabbat.
The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue is still in regular everyday use and is the most frequently visited synagogue in Safed.
Don’t miss taking a look at the hole in the bima. It was made during the War of Independence, when a bullet flew in just as the congregants were bowing during prayers, just missing the assembled people and lodging in the bima.
The Abuhav Synagogue is one of the most intricately decorated and is named after 15th century Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, who had formerly been a rabbi in Toledo, Spain. It houses the oldest Torah scroll in Safed, which is used only on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shavuot. It is said that anyone who took it out and used it at any other time of the year didn’t survive the year. The Ark that houses the Torah scrolls was all that was left of this synagogue after the earthquake of 1837.
Another interestingly decorated synagogue is named after Rabbi Yosef Karo , who compiled the Shulhan Aruch, the main halachic reference book for all of the mitzvot, which is in daily use by Jews all over the world.
If you continue along the lower path, you will see below you the Ari mikve (ritual bath). Used hundreds of years ago by the famous kabbalist, it is still used by men on a regular basis. It remains unheated, as it was then, and the water is freezing cold year-round.
Next to the mikve is the famous ancient cemetery of Safed, where some of the kabbalists who lived in the city were buried. According to tradition, Hannah and her seven sons, who were murdered in front of her eyes by the Greek ruler Antiochus during the time of the Hanukka story, are buried here.
At the bottom of the cemetery are the graves of the 22 schoolchildren who were killed by terrorists in their school in Ma’alot in 1974.
Safed is home not only to the religiously spiritual but also to the artistically spiritual. Even if the Galilean hills in the background were not enough to inspire artists, the picturesque alleyways, quaint courtyards, intriguing nooks and crannies of the artists’ quarter and the old city have been the subjects of thousands of paintings that can be found all over Israel and are instantly recognizable to anyone who has visited Safed.
Wander around the alleyways at your leisure and drop in on the artists; they’re happy to have visitors and there is usually no pressure to buy any of their works, although it can be very tempting. There is a large general exhibition on Arlosoroff Street.
There are many other places worth visiting, depending on how much time you have. Pay a visit to the information center in the old city on Alkabetz Street and pick up a map of the town and information about the sites and museums.
You’ll also be able to see a short film about the history of Safed.
At Safed Candles, you’ll find not only traditional candles, but also wax models of entire scenes from the Bible.
There are many unique gift sets available, as well as different styles of Shabbat and havdala candles. If you pop in at the right time, or ask nicely, you might even manage to see a candle- making demonstration.
The citadel is the highest point in Safed and has always been of strategic importance for defenders and conquerors.
This hill, which stands 834 meters above sea level, was also one of the chain of mountaintops where bonfires were lit to signify the start of a new Jewish month. Apart from being a delightful place to have a picnic, you’ll be able to see some Crusader remains in the archeological park at the citadel.
To return to the 21st century, take a walk along the pedestrian mall. It is a section of Jerusalem Street that is above the old city and artists’ quarter and below the citadel. Here you’ll find plenty of fast-food outlets as well as supermarkets and other general stores.
During the week of the Klezmer Festival, most of the restaurants and sites will be open late into the night.
The 25th annual Klezmer Festival will be held August 20-22 and entrance is free to all activities and performances. For more information, visit