Right of Reply: Astronaut heaven

Floating high above the common man in a 'sea of spirituality,' certain Safed visitors won't see what's on the ground.

safed 88 (photo credit: )
safed 88
(photo credit: )
As a resident of Safed for almost 47 years, I feel obliged to comment on the article written about my town by Melinda Ribner ("Ode to Safed" August 7). It was by far the most nauseating column I have encountered in the many years I've been reading The Jerusalem Post. However, Ribner is correct when she says she "entered a time machine." In 1880 Colonel Sir Charles Wilson, the British explorer, wrote of his visit to Safed: "Being situated on the top of a hill, one would expect to find the town reasonably clean. On the contrary, the streets are filthy, and there does not appear to be any desire to improve them." Those words are even more true 128 years later. For those of us who live here in one of the most dysfunctional cities in Israel, Safed is terribly unkempt, with litter everywhere. Wherever one looks there are piles of garbage. Once a year, prior to the Klezmer Festival, the city is cleaned up, at least where the tourists are expected. The photo that accompanied the Ribner article is one of those "spic-and-span" publicity shots. And remember, Safed is not only the Old City; it sprawls out over a huge area, and it is doubtful that Ribner took the time or trouble to see the larger reality. Ribner goes on to say: "Little happens externally in Safed. There are few distractions; no movies, no theaters, no cafés, no music that I know of." That's simply because she did not bother to look. Most of us would disagree with her. UNFORTUNATELY, RIBNER belongs to a group affectionately known to the locals as "astronauts." The name is very fitting; they float high above the common man in a "sea of spirituality," completely oblivious to their surroundings. Some even have uniforms. Men don white robes, turbans and tallitot. The women dress in layers of hand-me-downs that testify to their "holiness." As Ribner herself writes: "I feel elevated to live in such a holy place. I can walk through its streets and feel blessed with a taste of life beyond this physical world." The garbage in the streets, the broken pavements, the construction litter strewn all about is apparently invisible to her as she floats along. Nor does she mention the hoards of beggars, or the squads of young Chabadniks that line Rehov Yerushalayim, our main street, pestering one to put on tefillin, especially on Fridays. She mentions the Breslovers and Chabad. What she fails to note is that almost every bare wall in the city is covered by "Na Nah Nahman from Uman" graffiti. Those walls too small for Breslover graffiti are plastered with portraits of Chabad's messiah. I wonder if in her eyes this contributes to the beauty and spirituality of the city, though the cars with loudspeakers on their roofs blaring (over and over and over) that the late Rebbe is the Messiah must certainly give her a lift. THE GRAVES in the area were once small tombs (of very questionable origins) visited occasionally by some locals and passing tourists. At one time we lived near the grave of Rabbi Nahum Ish Gamzu, and rarely saw anyone visiting. Then "kever crawling" became big business. No longer are the original tombs visible; huge grotesque structures have been built over them, no doubt at public expense. And make no mistake, there is big money to be made. Organized tours, and outings for the spiritually inclined have become a sacred cash cow. The same can be said of the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai. It is interesting to note that Ribner is apparently engaged in one of the most successful commercial operations in modern times - Kabbala. Becoming an instant kabbalist is the "in" thing. It is important for the newly initiated to be seen with a copy of Kabbala for Dummies (yes, there is such a book) tucked under their arms or placed on the table at one of the cafés Ribner claims do not exist. A half-hour lecture by one of Safed's so-called kabbalists will make one an instant expert. Ribner's article has done great damage to the true image of my city Safed. The vast majority of the population are not kabbalists or even hassidim. The local population consists primarily of secular and traditional Jews trying desperately to cope with an indifferent municipality controlled by elements who don't seem concerned that Safed is becoming another city living on welfare and soup kitchens. On weekend nights there is nothing for the majority of secular youngsters to do, so they gather in large groups, make noise and vandalize property. This is apparently of little interest to our mayor; let the police handle the matter. AS MORE and more haredim and "spiritually gifted" people are attracted to Safed, the city becomes poorer and poorer because less taxes are collected from these sectors. Meanwhile, the more affluent secular residents are leaving for friendlier parts of the country. Regardless of the mayor's campaign slogans, the town is providing fewer and fewer services such as keeping the streets clean. To attain "spirituality" one does not have to come to a dump like Safed. Countless numbers of our co-religionists find sufficient spirituality in the Diaspora. Otherwise they would all be living here. Ribner would have made a bigger contribution to our city if she had truly opened her eyes and written about what is really going on here. As it is, she did not write an "Ode to Safed," but rather a "Requiem for Safed." The writer made aliya with his wife and son in 1962 directly to Safed, and works in the metallurgical field.