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Jewish Journal

An Otherworldly Gathering

In sunlit northern Israel, the graves of mystic rabbis draw the faithful.

May 18, 2000 | 8:00 pm

On a warm early summer afternoon in Meron, a hilltop village in the Galilee in northern Israel, the sun dangles like a big white bulb. A fanning breeze from the valley pulls up dust, and thedust and the bright light make you squint, as if trying to see something in the distance.But many people come from afar to this spot to visit the grave of Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century rabbi and purported author of the Zohar. That work is the central text of the kabbalah, a system of study in Judaism that deals with mysticism, personal action, and the nature of creation.It's impossible to know if Bar Yochai is really buried here. Isaac Luria, the illustrious medieval mystic who claimed to be an incarnation of Bar Yochai, identified the spot, and the faithful have the proof of their own intense feelings.

A modest stone building covers the crypt, and as you step through the blue gates at the entrance, you enter a world of seemingly perfect belief.Without any organized service, men and women pray, their eyes sometimes focused on an open book, sometimes closed, their prayers either personal or committed to memory. Their lips move; words come out in a murmur. Candles flicker, and there is an abundance of well-used religious books, as well as signs with kabbalistic charts and large Hebrew letters. Velvet curtains and coverings veilthe grave site itself.


The Aboab Synagogue in Safed. The interior is painted a celestial blue and contains frescos of many religious and symbolic images. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish mystic leaders and thinkers gathered in Safed, which became a haven for students of kabbalah.

Not everyone prays. A few ascetically thin young men make conversation, and one man with cavernous eyes and a figure as exaggeratedly elongated as an El Greco painting surveys the room. In an open space, some women offer trays with pretzels, cookies and dates, while a corpulent beggar insists loudly on adequate donations. He is not, after all, a lowly street beggar but a beggar in a holy place. Despite the fact that almost no two people are doing quite the same thing -- even the ones praying are on different pages -- the place has a discernible rhythm, a hum.

A copy of the Zohar lies open on a lectern. "People devote their entire lives just to understand a piece of this," a religious man tells me. "They study a single page for five years. You can never master it. Either you will go insane or die."This view of kabbalah as something dangerous is something of an anachronism, even among traditionalists who now guide the perplexed,along with the merely curious, to study.Students range from pious, committed Orthodox Jews to alienated secularists who suddenly feel a need to satisfy inchoate spiritual longings. Even pop stars Madonna and Roseanne are students.

Why the trend? Maybe it's the aura of Y2K, or, as mystics say, the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. "You don't have to be a huge scholar to get the gist of it," says David Friedman, a Denver-born artist and mystic who has lived in Safed for almost two decades. Friedman was reared in an Orthodoxhome, but eight years ago a battle with cancer caused him to reconsider his own spiritual journey.

At a studio on the upper fringe of Safed's Old Jewish Quarter, he fuses primary colors, geometric shapes,and Hebrew letters to create Escher-like images that take on depth as you focus on them. "It depends on whatyou put into it," he says. "If you are shallow, you will have a shallow experience."

The route from Meron to Safed winds through hills, past saints' graves marked by tiny structures shaped almost like igloos, until a long switchback road climbs the steep face of Mount Canaan. Here, set like a stone mold, is Safed. Now a sleepy town of 12,000 people, for the mystics who settled here in its medieval heyday, it was the City of Air. Little wonder. On a typically clear day, the view is so expansive that distant hills seem to ripple like waves, and the sky is a brilliant shade of blue. The kabbalists saw in it the lapis lazuli curtain of heaven itself.By midday in summer, the sun heats the smooth stone walls and streets, which reflect a blinding glare. In winter, I'm told, misty clouds wrap the hills like shawls, a phenomenon that surely must have encouraged the mystics, though they famously preferred the night, when they would gaze at the profusion of stars and ponder eternity.

Old Safed is a warren of stone passages connecting houses of worship and religious institutes, homes, shops, galleries and studios. The city was destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt, and has grown well beyond its medieval boundaries. The choice of materials on newer structures helps them suggest or acquire an old look almost as soon as they're finished. Street lamps set into walls cast a pale light at sundown, like medieval torches.

In the center of the Old Jewish Quarter, a dense cluster of synagogues houses stacks of religious books and arks containing 500-year-old Torah scrolls. The Abuhav Synagogue was designed according to kabbalistic motifs.Its modest dome symbolizes one God. Three arks represent the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob); four marble columns the four elements (fire, water, earth and air) or four worlds (physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual); nine arches the nine months of pregnancy.What is easiest to find in Safed, though, isn't always what is most worth seeing, and the town's inner life exists justslightly off its most visible paths. Chaya Bracha Leiter, a tour guide whose husband runs the Ascent Institute, which gives seminars on kabbalah, takes me first to the Cave of Shem and Ever, where Noah's son and great-great-grandson are said to have learned kabbalah, and where, according to Muslims, Jacob was given Joseph's colorful jacket and told hisfavorite son had been devoured by a lion.

Dank and cool, two subterranean rooms are lit by candles placed in what were obviously burial crypts. Without lights, signs or anything artificial to brighten the cave, the atmosphere is heavy, cloistered. "I don't like it here," Leiter says. "It just doesn't have a good feeling to me. I don't know why." So we drive on Safed's narrow streets to the Ari Sephardic Synagogue, the only extant house of prayer where Isaac Luria, known as ha-Ari, or the Lion, is known to have prayed.

Constructed on an enormous stone foundation, with a long stone staircase, the synagogue has the appearance of a fortress. On such sturdy ground, the faithful murmur prayers and their bodies sway.Leiter directs me to a blossoming citron tree in the courtyard of the synagogue's entrance and pullsoff leaves for me to smell. The fragrance is clean and sweet, and to Leiter quite literally divine.She has me say a prayer; the truly spiritual find transcendence through natural splendor and do notmiss opportunities to sanctify anything that signifies a spark of creation itself.

As we leave, an old woman, her back curled like a question mark, is making her assault up the stairs one stepat a time, pausing at intervals to recuperate. She is determined to pray, and the laborious ascent will be rewarded, I sense, by the scent of the citron tree.

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