A weekend in Tzfat, Israel - My Family Travels

I spent the weekend before Pesach in Tzfat, one of the four holy cities (the others being Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias). I was there once before, in high school, and I remembered it being beautiful. As someone who goes to Friday night services pretty regularly, I love thinking about the fact that this is where Lecha Dodi was written, and really Kabbalat Shabbat as a whole was formed. The city has a lot of spiritual meaning.

The trip started out on Thursday by discovering that the 982 bus from Jerusalem to Tzfat doesn’t actually leave from the Central Bus Station, even though that’s where you buy your tickets. Also, the big “23” on the ticket dosen’t mean “gate 23” but rather a zone. So… Lynley and I missed our bus and had to wait two and a half hours for the next one. Yay. At least I finally got to check out the mall that’s in the Cental Bus Station, and obtained something that you’ll probably only find in Israelhaggadot in a dollar store.

We finally made it to Tzfat around 7pm after a three and a half hour bus ride up and down and around lots of mountains. (It’sIsrael.) Guidebooks tend to only spend a page on Tzfat as part of the section on the Galilee, so we got off the bus and had to wander around until we found a sign for our hostel, Ascent. “Go up the stairs and follow the map,” it said—what map? There was no map! Thankfully I remembered that someone at the office had called my phone to confirm our reservation, so the number was in my phone and I was able to call them for directions.

The thing about Tzfat is… even with a map, you get lost. It’s one of those places that maps can’t really handle, like the Old City of Jerusalem. For example, this:

That’s a road. There’s no signs and no stores or houses on it to indicate that it’s a road, no street numbers, but it’s very definitely marked on the map as Ma’alot Olei HaCardom. Such is Tzfat.

The first place we tried to go for dinner, Café Bagdad, kicked us out saying that they were only serving coffee, even though they were open for another half hour. (This was 8:30pm.) So we went to the next place the people at Ascent recommended, Café Milano. There we discovered that even though Tzfat is mainly known for kabbalah and art, there’s actually another piece to it: cheese. According to the faulty map there was entirely a whole cheese museum! (In actuality, no such place exists.) Anyway, this meant that there were a lot of cheese dishes at Café Milano. Lynley ended up getting something called “halumi salad,” which was actually pasta in teriyaki sauce with cashews, bell peppers, and halumi cheese. I got a cheese platter with roasted vegetables. Lynley very much got the better deal; her halumi salad was amazing. (I know cause I got to try some.) Take a look:

My cheese platter was okay. I really liked the labane, but of the other two cheeses one was okay and the other I didn’t really like. The veggies were also okay, not wonderful. But Lynley’s halumi salad… wow! Amazing. Just amazing.

After dinner we headed back to Ascent and went to bed. Then on Friday we woke up early and went to explore Tzfat before everything closed for Shabbat. Our first stop was Safed Candle Factory, where they really make art out of candles. Like, for example, the Temple:

or a whole bunch of penguins:

There was also one of David and Goliath and one of Samson tearing down the Philistine temple, but I wasn’t so interested in those. While we were there we also eavesdropped on a tour guide teaching a family a bit about how regular havdallah candles are made, basically by dipping string into melted wax multiple times and then weaving the tapers together while they’re still hot. It’s pretty cool. I actually spent as much money at the candle factory as I did for two nights at Ascent, which either says something about how cheap Ascent is or how impressive the candle factory is. Maybe both. And no, I did not buy a penguin—their faces were too weird.

From the candle factory we poked our heads into the Ari Synagogue (looks like a normal Orthodox synagogue, minus the women’s section) and proceeded to a street lined entirely with galleries of more conventional art—paintings, jewelry, and Judaica. There were some really beautiful things there, all of it expensive. There was even one shop where we got to watch weavers at work, which was really cool although I don’t understand why anyone would spend more than $100 on a really plain-looking matzah cover.

And of course we had to go find the cheese. There are signs all over the place saying “Tzfat cheese Ã ” or “holy Tzfat cheese Ã ” all of which led to another and then yet another sign. Reaching the cheese factory is like going thorough a maze, literally. When we get there it was just a little place—a table covered with different cheeses, a few tables for sitting down, and a room with vats in it that are used to make the cheese. Unfortunately we didn’t get to find out how cheese is made (we’d have to come back on Sunday for that, except that we were leaving Tzfat on Saturday night), but we did get to try every single one of his cheeses. They weren’t expensive, either; I got small pieces of feta and the special Tzfat cheese for only $10. That plus the four rugalach I’d brought from Jerusalem were more than enough for lunch.


So Friday was good. Shabbat… not so much. It’s odd because when I said I wanted to spend a Shabbat in Tzfat, I was warned that Ascent was really, really Orthodox—which is true. However, I’ve spent Shabbat with the Orthodox before, and as long as I know I’m there for Shabbat and not for a long period of time, I even sorta enjoy parts of it. Organizations that reach out to non-Orthodox students tend to be really concerned about how you’re doing and completely willing to talk to you about Orthodoxy. They have this kind of excitement to them. The people at Ascent… didn’t really. There was a shiur before Shabbat, but it didn’t really go anywhere. After that was supposed to be “Candlelighting and orientation,” but in reality it was just lighting on our own and sitting around until time to go to services. Dinner wasn’t with families in Tzfat, as it usually is at Ascent, but all together in a room in the hostel with not so wonderful food. Saturday was more of the same, if not worse; downtime until lunch unless you got up in time to go to 8am services at a synagogue of your choosing, a meal in which there was no vegetarian option (brisket and potatoes that were cooked together with the brisket), more down time until 4:45, an hour-long tour of Tzfat, and then more down time until dinner and even more downtime until havdallah!

Honestly, if I wanted to stay in my room and read and eat crappy found, I could have stayed in Jerusalem. I wasn’t too pleased with Ascent Shabbat. Usually they pay attention to us. Usually there’s singing and words of Torah and decent food when Orthodox organizations try to draw people in (and presumably the rest of the year, too), and that’s what I was expecting. That’s what I paid for. I feel like it would have been different if we’d gone to families for meals, but the website made no mention of the fact that Shabbat HaGadol isn’t a Shabbat where we get hosted. If it had, we probably would have come another weekend.

It all just seems very odd to me. They asked us twice if we were vegetarian—once on the registration form, and once when they called to confirm our registration. There was at least one other girl in our boat, too. If you know more than 48 hours in advance that 3 out of your 10 English-speaking guests are vegetarians, how in the world do you justify ignoring it? Apparently they expected us to just eat the salads, with no warning that we wouldn’t be able to eat the main dish. Thank you very much for your consideration. I really appreciate it.

I think, in the end, I’m still glad I went to Tzfat for Shabbat. As much of a let-down as it was, as much as it was so not worth the 200NIS we paid for it, if I hadn’t done it I would have wished I had. I would have just continued to have this fantasy of Shabbat in Tzfat and regretted never experiencing it. And there were some good parts to it. I discovered that while no one drives on Yom Kippur, the Shabbat of Shabbats, in Jerusalem, no one drives on Shabbat in Tzfat, period. Not a car moving that I could see, at least not on HaAri Street or Jerusalem Street, the only two streets we walked on where cars can actually go. I also discovered that there are basically no cats it Tzfat. The entire time we were there, we only saw two—as opposed to the rest of Israel, where they’re everywhere. These things are interesting to me. They’re unique, the same way the history is unique. I just wish all of Shabbat was like that.

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