On Thursday we started our visit to Safed (Sfat), one of Judaism’s four holy cities, along with Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron. It is the place where the study of Kabbalah began, and still flourishes. Safed is a unique place to visit, with loads of ancient synagogues, fantastic views of the Galilee and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), and a vibrant culture which includes a flourishing artist’s colony and loads of yeshivas, many of which cater to newly observant Jews, known as “baalei tshuva.”
Our hotel for the next three nights was the Ruth Rimonim Hotel, the most prominent hotel in Safed. With lovely grounds and picturesque stone buildings, good food, and a convenient location, the hotel had a lot to offer. However, most of us found it to be nothing special. On a private visit to Safed, we would probably have stayed in one of the many small hotels or B&Bs. As an example, we checked out the nearby Palacio Domain Boutique Hotel, a luxurious 12th Century palatial mansion, sumptuously reconstructed and modeled with the owner’s own artwork. Incredible!
Use the search box below to check out availability and best prices for the Ruth Rimonim Hotel, the Palacio Domain Hotel and other accommodations in Safed:
On Friday morning we went to to the studio of Sheva Chaya Shaiman, originally from Denver. Sheva Chaya, a vivacious, intense young woman, told us her story: the derivation of her name, which means seven lives; her discovery that she was an artist while attending Princeton; her fulfillment in becoming religious; her move to the Safed community with her husband and children; and discovering another art form, glassblowing. Sheva Chaya works mostly with glass and watercolor paints. Her art touches on themes of the Land of Israel, Jewish women, Torah and Kabbalah, great mystics, and inner light. She loves to meet new people and share her work.
The same morning, we visited the Hameiri Cheese Dairy, located in a large home that has been passed on through six generations of the Meiri family, who came to Safed from Persia. Yaniv, the family member who currently manages the dairy, told us that it was the first cheese factory in Israel. Yaniv is the brother of Shlomi and son of Meir. Those two names denote the oldest son in alternate generations of the Meiri family, in which the oldest son typically inherits the family home (but cannot rent it to someone else or sell it). The current Meir’s oldest son was born with disabilities and, until recently, the family believed that the dairy would close when Meir III retired. However, several years ago Meir’s second son, Yaniv, moved back to Safed from Tel Aviv to take over the management of the dairy.
In many old Safed homes additional rooms have been unearthed by each new generation, such as the basement where the Hameiri dairy is located. Salted cheeses are family’s specialty: tsvati and grinza cheeses, which are available only at the dairy and at selected fine restaurants and shops. Water for the dairy is provided by a spring running below the property, which Yaniv said may lead to the famous Ari Mikveh (the Ari is the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Issac Luria - the Lion) further down the hill.
Yaniv’s father Meir, who has a theatrical bent, regaled us with stories of the special qualities of Safed and its history, especially during the 1948 War of Independence. He explained that Safed’s 1,000 Jews (outnumbered 30:1!) refused to take the advice of the British to be evacuated on the eve of the British relinquishment of the Palestine Mandate. The Jews stood fast, reinforced by only 35 Palmach (Striking Force) soldiers. With God’s help and the fearsome Davidka (see below), the Arabs fled the city and the Jews retained Safed. Meir finished by assuring us that his son will continue the family tradition of making Israel’s finest cheeses.
We then visited a traditional tallit (prayer shawl) weaving studio at the Canaan Gallery, where these and other items are woven using the same techniques which Jews brought to Safed in the 16th and 17th centuries We were fascinated by the workings of the weaving machine, operated, of course, only by foot and hand power.
That evening, many of us attended Shabbat services. Some chose one of the ancient Safed synagogues and others one of the newer synagogues. My wife Michal and I went to the “Carlebach Synagogue.” We arrived early to get (separate) seats in the small hall. Before the service began, the room filled up to capacity with haredim (ultra-Orthodox) of all sorts, mostly wearing the style of clothing of their particular sect. Unlike a traditional service, the hall was soon rocking from the dancing of the men to the melodies made famous by the charismatic “Singing Rabbi,” Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994).
On Shabbat, we skipped the usual synagogue tour, which we had done on a previous visit to Safed, and walked with friends around the town. The day was perfect, and we soon arrived at the Saraya, a 300-years-old, white stone building in a commanding position on a hilltop. Constructed by D’har El Omar, a powerful Bedouin sheikh who ruled over the Galilee at the start of the 18th century, the building was later taken over by the Ottoman Turks and then by the British during Mandate times. During the War of Independence, Lehi (Underground) fighters blew up the building, which had become the Arab headquarters. After the war, the Saraya was rebuilt and served many purposes. In 1975, the Saraya was reconstructed and today is known as “The Isaac and Edith Wolfson Community Center.”
We next walked higher, to the lovely Mezuda Park and Crusader fort. We enjoyed the spectacular 360-degree views from there before walking back towards the hotel. We stopped at the Davidka monument, where we learned how the fearsomely loud mortar played a major role in motivating the Arabs to flee the city. The mortar, whose “bark” was much worse than its “bite,” was moved from location to location to give the impression that there were many mortars, not just one. The monument is located across the street from the bullet-scarred police station, which was on the dividing line between the Jewish and Arab sectors.
That evening we finished our visit by going to one of Safed's many Artist Colony studio/galleries. This one was David Friedman’s Kosmic Kabbalah Art Gallery. David, originally from Denver, came as a child with his family as immigrants to Israel. That attempt was unsuccessful, but eventually all the family members successfully made aliyah.
David was greatly influenced in the 1970s by psychedelic art, including rock album covers, and Buddhist mandalas. He became ultra-Orthodox, but later, while suffering a severe illness, he became less doctrinaire in his religious practice. David’s paintings are fascinating, exhibiting his belief that colors, shapes, and numbers - all important aspects of Kabbalah - are a universal language that speaks to all people.