Israel, Day Three: Tzfat’s What She Said

I ate! I ate the hotel food! That’s right, I had weird, gloopy macaroni and cheese for breakfast.1

Against all odds (and weather forecasts) it was raining outside.2 We scuttled onto the bus and headed out over the hills. Our first stop was in Meron, at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It wasn’t a tomb like the kind you’re thinking of, i.e. a creepy mausoleum in the middle of a graveyard at midnight, possibly with corpse fingers wriggling in the dirt. It was a small, stone building with separate entrances for men and women, no visible corpses. Inside, there wasn’t much going on. (I later found out this was because all of the action was on the men’s side.) There was a carved wooden barrier on the left side of the room, a few women with their faces pressed up against it, watching–I assumed–the men. When we walked in, they scurried back to a row of benches and sat, praying quietly. One wall was lined with books.

As we milled around, wondering what exactly we were supposed to see, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me a string of questions in Hebrew. I must have made the deer-in-headlights-I-don’t-speak-your-language-and-I’m-so-ashamed face, because she slowed down and I recognized a few words. Was I Jewish? Yes. Were we all Jewish? Yes. The follow-up questions were beyond my translation skills. She smiled and thrust a postcard into my hand, then wandered off. It was clearly a prayer card of some sort, with a photograph and some Hebrew sentences on one side. I turned to the nearest group member.

“Can you read Hebrew?”
“A little, yeah.”
“Can you read this?”
“Nope.”

Turns out nobody could tell me what was on that card.3 I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of postcards with prayers handed to you by well-meaning Orthodox strangers, so I set it on one of the benches as we left, hoping I wasn’t offending anyone. We ran back through the rain to the bus, still mystified. Later that day, the guys showed us videos of the men’s side. Loud prayers, exciting songs, decorative headgear, lively conversations– no wonder those women had been peeking through the wall.

Our next stop was the ancient city of Tzfat, the “birthplace of Jewish mysticism”. Now, Dima really talked this one up. He was throwing around phrases like “artist colony”, “street art”, “holy city”, and “art market” with wild abandon.4 So by the time we got there, I was ready to walk through a thousand rainstorms to see this legendary hotbed of artistic vision.

We started in the studio of David Friedman, a local painter and American expat who draws his inspiration from Kabbalah. All 40 of us filtered into his little classroom (David regularly holds classes in his studio) and he gave a talk about his spiritual beliefs and artwork. Though enlightening for many in our group, his discussion of the relationships between numbers, special numbers, and symbolism in color and shape mostly just made me feel validated for spending my life anxiously adding up hotel room and ticket stub numbers, repetitively drawing the same motifs, and looking for patterns in everything. (I had previously assumed this was just obsessive, superstitious behavior, but now I can claim spirituality.) David seemed like a nice guy, and extra nice for tolerating noisy Birthright groups day in and day out.

As someone who’d intentionally picked the secular trip organizer, I was starting to get cranky. Enough with the buried rabbis and prayer cards and spiritual watercolors! I was getting tantalizing glimpses of the town through the heavy fog around us. A brightly painted door to the left, a winding alleyway to the right, wrought iron lamp posts. At one point, the whole group paused to take photographs of a kid sitting in a window. I mumbled something about parental consent and huddled under an awning, squinting at the fog.

Misty stairs.
Down into the mist.

We walked through puddles and splashes from drainpipes. We walked past Orthodox men who looked away every time. We walked along slippery stones paths and down wide steps with dripping metal railings. And then we arrived at our destination. It was not, I regret to inform you, the famous artists’ market or–almost as good–lunch. It was a mikveh, and once again the women were ushered down a series of stairs and and doorways into the basement of the building. (The men’s entrance was, of course, right next to the road and aboveground.)

Inside a basement room decorated to look like a bridal room, but trying a little too hard not to look like a basement room, we all sat in a circle on brocaded cushions and fancy chairs. A young woman who I’m pretty sure was named Sara (she’s in my notes as “anti-feminist orthodox mikveh lady”) took some time to explain the role of the mikveh within Orthodox Judaism. She also shared the story of her personal journey that ended in Israel with a husband, kids, and complete lifestyle change.

Mikvehs. Let me tell you a thing about mikvehs. A mikveh is a ceremonial bath where Orthodox Jewish women go after twelve days of not touching their husbands to re-purify themselves so they can touch their husbands. Okay so maybe that’s reductive and probably culturally insensitive but come on, guys. No high fives for twelve days?5

Sara was very earnest and very enamored with her beliefs, her family, and her religious practices. She was also pretty terrible at fielding tough questions. “You can ask me anything!” She exclaimed at the end of her lecture. The first few questions were simple. Is your husband Israeli? No, American. Do you still like living in Israel? Yes. Can you describe the mikveh ritual in detail? See above. Do men have mikvehs, too? Yes, but it doesn’t mean anything. When do you start going? Before your wedding. Sara was on a roll.

“What if you’re marrying a woman?” I looked up, suddenly impressed with our group. Sara paused and adjusted her glasses. “If a lesbian wants to get married, can she take part in the mikveh before her wedding?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“Well, this is just for women to purify themselves before being with their husbands.”
“So what if a woman is Orthodox but wants to marry a woman? She can’t purify herself?”
“No, but there are other things she can do. Anyway, I hope that’s the beginning of an answer. Next question?”

I scowled. A few questions were raised about gender equality and contraceptives,6 most responses ending with the same “I hope that’s the beginning of an answer” brush-off. (I asked her what ritual men are expected to perform to purify themselves for their wives. Short answer: nothing.) Soon we were out of time for discussion and had a quick tour of the facility, including a pretty cool room for handicapped or elderly ladies whose religion compelled them to submerge themselves in ceremonial water once a month.

In all seriousness, though, I learned all about a new culture, Jewish history, religiously significant ladyparts, and so forth from somebody who seemed overjoyed with her life choices and I was happy for her, blah blah blah. I felt (and feel) that she could have answered the challenging questions more directly, and walked out frowning so hard that several people who’d never spoken to me asked me how it went.7 The guys apparently had a smashing time in the male mikveh and finished half an hour before us, even including a voluntary dip in the water.8

Back in the main square, Dima released us for lunch. An hour to find food, consume it, and explore the entire town. A troubling pattern was beginning to develop. As everyone lined up for hummus and falafel, I made a break for the nearest side street, determined to get my hour’s worth.

First street from the square.
First street from the square.

I walked through the artists’ market, which was actually just a street of upscale glass-fronted shops and beckoning shopkeepers. Everything looked beautiful but pricey, so I decided to seek out some beautiful things that weren’t encased in glass. I found a utility box painted to match the blue street and archway behind it. I found a tiny garden of succulents, stippled with dew. I found a staircase vanishing into mist, and another one vanishing into blue. I found an old woman carrying her groceries home. I offered to help and she shook her head, smiled at me like I was the dumbest, cutest thing, and patted me on the back before continuing her slow trudge up the hill. I found the rest of my group, still eating lunch, and missing the whole town.

The first painting.
The first painting.
Archway and steps.
Archway and steps.
succulent
A delightful succulent.
A double street.
Double street.

I sat on a soggy bench and watched crowds gather, disperse, and gather again. A German backpacker sat on a stoop, waiting for her companion to bring back lunch. A man came through with a wheelbarrow as two shopkeepers argued over ownership of plastic caf√© chairs. I hadn’t been inspired by the empty women’s room at the tomb, the mystical meaning of triangles at David’s studio, or the mikveh’s spiritual power, but I was inspired by the slow dripping of rain from roofs to cobblestones, mist-cloaked streets, paintings in narrow alleyways, and women whispering through head scarves. Yotam, our group’s Israeli guard, sat with me.9 We pulled out our notebooks and sketched quietly until the group returned from their shopping.

After a quick stop in a synagogue whose rabbi was several 40-person groups past his patience threshold10 and a visit to a traditional candle making studio,11 we paused at the top of the city to look out across the valley, newly revealed beneath retreating fog.

Our reward for sloshing through puddles all day was sloshing through a wine tasting at a nearby vineyard. (Technically it was a liqueur tasting, but the Birthright itinerary says “wine tasting”.) Friendly Russian Israeli men served us blackberry, passion fruit, coffee, and dark chocolate liqueurs in adorable miniature wine glasses. We learned the word for “more” just so we could charm them into topping up our glasses, and we toasted each other with each new flavor. I wasn’t going to mention this outing because it’s irrelevant to my narrative, but the liqueur was really good and you should be jealous.

That evening, our activity was yet another icebreaker. Jake and Mollie called it “When the Wind Blows”, otherwise known as “Trainwreck”. A combination of “Never Have I Ever” and musical chairs, it involves sitting in a circle with one person in the middle, who shares a fact about him or herself. Anyone who has that fact in common (i.e. “I have traveled to England”) has to quickly and gracelessly lunge for a different seat. The last person caught in the middle without a seat provides the next fact, and so on. Unsurprisingly, it quickly devolved into Overshare Trainwreck. I still didn’t know anyone’s name, but I knew exactly how many people regularly had threesomes or spent the night in jail.

Previously: Israel, Day Two: Water-falling for the Golan Heights
Next: Israel, Day Four: Shuk, Shabbat, Shimmy

  1. My roommate had salad, quiche, and cheese. Apparently this is breakfast food in Israel. []
  2. The consummate world traveler, I neglected to bring any rain gear whatsoever. One point for the overpackers. []
  3. My disappointment over missing the translation was balanced out by relief that I was not alone in my lack of Jewish education. []
  4. Can you tell which part I was excited about? []
  5. Not only that, but anyone who comes into contact–not sure how this is defined–with a woman who is menstruating or something she’s sat on has to go purify themselves immediately or, I guess, they will catch the horrible disease of being a woman. []
  6. The phrase “stuff of life” was used more than once. []
  7. Obviously it’s still making me cranky. []
  8. “Our lady told us that male mikvehs don’t really mean anything.” “Oh man, our guide would have been so angry if he’d heard that! He loved the mikveh!” []
  9. See? Another name memorized! []
  10. While Dima was explaining the historical role of the synagogue as both community center and place of worship, this guy rolled up and interrupted, exclaiming that synagogues were “only for prayer!” After an angry five-minute lecture, he wandered off to the back of the building and reappeared on our way out to ask for donations. []
  11. Or a chandlery, if you’re in medieval Europe. []

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