Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Saturday, 15 January 2011

Hippies in the cradle of Kabbalah

Clive Lawton (left) in Tzfat
Tzfat or Safed, a holy place for Jews, is situated high up in the Galilee mountains

By Clive Lawton
Tzfat, northern Israel

Israeli holiday resort Tzfat is perhaps best known for its claim to be the birthplace of Kabbalah, the system of Jewish mysticism, and attracts Jewish people of every type.

Perched on a hill within sight - and shelling distance - of the Lebanese border, Tzfat is cultivating a niche tourism profile as the home of Jewish spirituality. It can also make a fair claim to be the cradle of the distinctive and increasingly popular Jewish school of mysticism - Kabbalah.

Kabbalah seeks to define the nature of the universe as well as other tricky questions about the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and so on.

No better day then to encounter Jewish spirituality than the most spiritual day of the week, Shabbat. So after the day-tripper coach parties leave on Friday afternoon, Tzfat finds itself still full with visitors planning to stay and immerse themselves in the mystical ambience of a Tzfat Shabbat.

All around Tzfat they are getting ready. The most distinctively dressed are Hasidim, followers of the mystical charismatic teachings of an 18th Century Polish Rabbi. But their apparent uniformity is misleading, the various sects sometimes sport tiny costume variations.

Tzfat visitor
Visitors to Tzfat find a relaxed and friendly atmosphere

Jewish hippies who may have already tried Indian mysticism come to see if the Jewish version resonates.

Clapping, singing Bratslav Hasidim surround them on the streets, exemplifying the advice of their 19th Century Ukrainian master, who taught them to embrace all things with simple joy.

Bratslav's provide a striking contrast to most Hasidim who wear black coats, black hats and sport tight, shiny ringlets at their ears. On Shabbat it is beautiful black satin frock coats, knee breeches and stunning round fur hats.

Bratslav Hasidim, though, often wear white. Sometimes they are in white caftans, with large full head-covering crocheted white skull-caps. Their side curls are often hardly curled at all, but escape, straggly, as if life is too much fun to spend time disciplining hair.

Other orthodox Jews, dark-coated men and modestly dressed women, mingle with the Hasidim. Often they have several children in tow, and come from their fairly insular communities in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, north Manchester, Melbourne, Antwerp, wherever.

Time out

While some of the crowd are Hasidim, some are not and it takes an experienced eye to spot the subtle differences.

Dancing in the street of Tzfat
Bratslav Hasidim often wear white with full head-covering skull-caps

But all Jews it seems relax when they arrive in Tzfat. Time here is time out. Observing Jewish practices, learning Jewish things, seems easy and accessible. Singing lasts longer, people stroll sociably with apparently hardly a care in the world.

Tzfat on Shabbat is ideal for buttonholing some Orthodox Jews and getting to know them.

Or so I told my non-Jewish companion. I think he had misgivings as we approached three young men - perhaps late teens in dark suits and broad-brimmed hats. My trained eye told me they were not Hasidim - wrong hats.

"Shabbat shalom," I greeted them.

"Gut Shabbes," they respond in the German Hebrew Yiddish mix of central and eastern European Jews. But their American accents embolden me.

Generations of Jewish people
Observing Jewish practices seems easy and accessible in Tzfat

"Where are you from?" I said.

"Brooklyn."

"So tell me what are you doing at the moment?"

"We're still in high school."

"And your ambition?"

"Obviously we'd like to study but it's not always possible." (A life of Jewish study is their ideal.)

"And if you can't?"

"Then maybe I'll do what my brother did. He became an actuary."

These young men have studied Talmud for long hours around their American secular studies since they were 10. The Talmud is a 19-volume compendium of rabbinic debate. Those who study it are expected to become fluent in at least three languages and have been challenged by the complexities of rabbinic dispute since elementary school.

Qualifying as an actuary - a really challenging profession - seems like a reasonable and easily achievable fall-back position.

Rabbi encounter

Then we approached another two, father and son perhaps? Dark suits again, broad-brimmed fedora hats. My guess? They are Lubavitch Hasidim. Unlike all other Hasidic groups, Lubavitch Hasidim are out there all over the world, wherever Jews might be found, kind of internal Jewish missionaries, trying to make all Jews a bit more religiously involved.

Map of Israel

"Shabbat shalom," I said. "I was explaining to my non-Jewish friend here about Lubavitchers. Can you tell us why you don't wear conventional Hasidic clothing?"

"You're not Jewish?" says the older man to my companion. "Do you believe in God?"

"Well no, not really," says my well-mannered English friend, unprepared for full on rabbinic encounter.

"Not really? How do you know there is no God?"

"Well I don't really know."

"Aha. So you're almost certainly a believer who can't admit it to himself. Good. So what God wants of you - of all human beings - is to keep the basic laws of morality. Do you know what they are?"

No stopping him now. An instant seminar there on the street.

I stood like a spare part watching and listening as this Hasid lectured a non-Jew on his moral responsibilities in a quiet cobbled courtyard in northern Israel.

No doubt about it. There is something remarkable about Tzfat.

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