First, Steven and I rode the bus from
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
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
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
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.