Monday, August 6, 2007

Tzfat or a house nearby

I’m sitting outside an apartment complex in Jerusalem, waiting for someone to let me in. My host left her landlady with the key; the landlady has gone missing for some reason or another (actually I hope she’s okay, apparently she just had surgery). In any case, since I have an unknown amount of time, I’ll use it to catch up on my Tzfat experiences, which were extremely interesting, but unexpected.

First, Steven and I rode the bus from Haifa to Tzfat, which was a truly godawful ride. It was very much not an express bus; the roads were narrow, hilly, and windy—which didn’t bother me near as much as the fact that the driver had been through the too-much-gas-followed-by-too-much-brake driving school and been an excellent student. Bleargh! In any case, we arrived safely at the Tzfat bus station, where I was promptly picked up by Arnon, who is Max and Hedva’s son. He is a PhD student in botany, doing research near the Negev on how to best grow native oaks in Israel and what the surrounding ecology should look like. As with many Israeli students, he is a bit older than the usual (not me!) grad student in the US—mid-thirties. He was up for the weekend to visit his parents and so able to pick me up. This was nice, since he speaks English and Max does not (I did make arrangements with Max on the telephone in Hebrew, to which Steven asked if I had passed my final exam. I pointed out that this was the midterm—the final was whether the plans worked. They did, but I think the jury’s still out on how I did—as the rest of this will show).

Max and Hedva recently moved near Tzfat from Tel Aviv—I think when they retired a couple of years ago. Their house is quite large (a bit larger than mine, I would say) and occupies the top floor of what could be a two-flat. Instead Max has all manner of collections of things in the process of being fixed, while Hedva has an area for plants. Like my mom, Hedva loves to grow plants—all kinds of flowers, some of which she grows from seed, some from cuttings, some she buys. Her garden is one of those lovely, untidy places where plants are allowed to grow as they will and when finished blooming, left for the seedpods to let fall their seeds. So it is not pristine, but it is very haimish.

They gave me a room filled with books and we talked for a while in Hebrew—I told them all about myself, then I took a nap. That evening was Shabbat, and the four of us sat around a Shabbat table. I made Kiddush and that sparked a great deal of conversation—what is religious? is the Torah a book of cruel laws or not? It would have been intense in English; in Hebrew it was an exhausting and exhilarating several hours. It is quite clear to me that speaking is getting easier. Listening though is still difficult. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that after a few months here, I would indeed be fluent. I’m really very close.

Underlying the conversation are the real facts and a deep sadness. Max was born in Belgium in the early 30’s (so he speaks French and Hebrew, but never learned Hebrew). Do the math on that one—even if he was young, he was there. It was not a subject he chose to discuss except in roundabout ways. Hedva was born in Israel, but like Max, had family in Europe, all of whom died. Not only that, but they had three children. Two were killed. I simply do not know how I could go on—generation to generation, with both bridges cut. Yet they get up in the morning and live and make things grow and fix things and clearly love each other and appreciate the world. Underneath there is a current of deep sadness, but it does not rule their lives—except that neither believes in God. BUT—there are mezuzot on every doorpost. Hedva lights Shabbat candles. And, without ever talking about it, they eat kosher style—that is, similar to the way I eat. I did not ask about the contradictions but I enjoyed them—in the midst of professed disbelief (as well as anger at the ultra-orthodox), they both practice something that defines them as Jews.

Shabbat morning, Max drove Hedva and me (Hedva never learned to drive—didn’t need to in Tel Aviv—but is learning now) to services. These were Conservative services in a tiny building and clearly for the non-Israelis. I keep intending to go to Orthodox services, simply to experience it, but after my visceral fury at the Wall, I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. This, on the other hand, was comfortable and reassuring which, given the unfamiliarity of everything else (well, the language, mostly), wasn’t all bad.

My hope was to go into Tzfat that afternoon or evening. I would have been happy to go by foot or to get myself there, but it was clear that if I went, Max would drive me. I kind of felt stuck—if I insisted on going, I would offend them; if I waited, I would be frustrated and furthermore, Max would do what Hedva wanted, but it felt like I would be putting him out a bit. And at some point, he lost patience with my Hebrew and insisted that Hedva translate from English.

Despite it all, we did go to Tzfat on Shabbat afternoon, and watching the variously dressed Hassidic men and women walk through the streets. Finally met up with Steven, who had been soaking up atmosphere and davening in various shuls all day. I was a bit envious, although I knew that, as a woman, my experience would have been quite different.

On Sunday, I found myself still at the house. I suggested to them that I walk into Tzfat in the morning while it was cool, but was assured it was way too hot. It was about 5 PM when we made it out to run errands and walk around Tzfat. First, to the bus station, to check on whether the buses really were separated by gender as had been rumored. (One thing I am learning about Israel—everyone knows with great assurance facts that may or may not be correct. This one—not so much.) The gate was open, so Hedva marched around the back and through an open door where two men were talking. She spoke very definitely, though I couldn’t really follow. The result was that Meir the bus driver said he would be happy to take a man and a woman on his bus. I should show up by 10, he would be drinking coffee and would buy me a cup. So that was set.

Then to use a computer at a community center that was only semi-working. It was free and worth every penny. (Thespacebardidn’tworkwhichmadetypingreallydifficult.) I was a bit grumbly as we finally hit the streets of Tzfat and walked into the middle of a group of Hassids dancing a Torah somewhere to loud music and with much exuberant dancing by the men. After watching for a while, we discovered that almost every shop was closed. As we passed closed shop after closed shop, Hedva got a bit panicky—clearly this wasn’t what she had expected. Finally we found the narrow alley full of artists’ shops and a few were still open. One elderly Hassid was just exiting from a shop full of prints. He had the most wonderfully gentle face and, unlike most of the rest, looked at me and saw me. He spoke Hebrew and English with the most beautiful hint of a Parisian accent. He wore a hat, a black satin coat, short pants or knickers, and black stockings (another group wore the same with white stockings). He had a long, very white beard and small round glasses. I think I knew I would buy something from him, just because he saw the face of God in every human being. I did—I found a bunch of grapes made from micrography of the Song of Songs. I thought that a pretty good thing to bring back to Livermore wine country. It’s really lovely and I was happy to buy it.

We left the store and Hedva took me back to the Ari synagogue which was almost deserted. I was able to get close to the Ark and take a picture and even to climb up to where I could take a picture of the top half (not, alas, a good picture). It’s funny, but without the crowds of tourists and without the insistent Haredim—the ones who push by women as though they don’t exist—it feels holy and sacred. The stones of the Wall, the air of the synagogue, sometimes a place is better than the people surrounding it.

Those two things—the purchase and the synagogue were enough to satisfy me. That night, we talked a bit more. Max quizzed me about homeschooling, Hedva and I tried to fix the world’s problems. They both have so much love to give—and some of the people who should get it are no longer here.

No comments: