Madonna talks about the importance of Rosh Hashanah. Caution strong language
When it comes to spirituality, Safed lacks nothing. But the Israeli mountain town (also spelled Tzfat) has been struggling economically since last year's war with Hezbollah.
That's why local tourism authorities are hoping a Rosh Hashanah visit by the Material Girl will bring real material benefits to its 30,000 residents.
Madonna, returning to Israel for the first time since September 2004, plans to visit Safed - the world center of Jewish mysticism - along with Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other points of interest as part of a tour being organized by the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre.
The pop icon is expected to bring along celebrity friends Demi Moore, Donna Karan and about 3,000 Kabbalah Centre students from around the world who are participating in a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel that is set to end on Yom Kippur.
"From a business point of view, anything that brings people into Safed is desirable," said Laurie Rappaport, who has lived there for 24 years and runs the visitor's center for Livnot U'Lehibanot, a volunteer organization.
Yet not everyone is seeing the Madonna visit as a shot in the arm for Safed, one of Israel's four biblical "holy cities" and the site of historic 16th century synagogues dedicated to Isaac Luria, Joseph Caro and other Jewish luminaries.
"The phenomenon of Madonna is not mainstream, it's just silliness," said Eyal Riess, former director of the visitors' center at Ascent, a Jewish studies program in the center of town. "The way she acts and behaves is shtuyot," or nonsense, he said. "She is not a role model."
Ya'acov Kaszemacher, a bearded, 66-year-old Orthodox Jewish artist who incorporates mystical themes into the watercolors he sells to tourists, also complained.
"Kabbalah is too holy to be put into the hands of everybody, even me," Kaszemacher said. "I'm a Jewish artist and I live in Safed, but I'm not a Kabbalist because I'm not at that level."
Yet as more and more Jews - and non-Jews - follow Madonna's example and take up interest in kabbalah, Safed officials see a unique chance to revive an economy that's still recovering from the destruction caused last summer by Katyusha rockets fired from nearby Lebanon.
"We have a very beautiful and interesting city," said Amos Lotan, director of tourism for Israel's Tzahar region, which encompasses Safed and the adjacent towns of Rosh Pina and Hatzor Haglilit. "Here there's magic in the air. This could be the best place to create a world center for kabbalah."
That's exactly what a Florida Jewish federation has in mind. Since 1995, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County has donated more than $8 million to fund development projects throughout the Tzahar region. Its latest project is the construction of an international kabbalah center along the shores of Lake Kinneret that would boost tourism revenues for Safed, which has few hotels compared to the nearby town of Tiberias.
The federation has donated $100,000 in seed money to get the center started. Several millions more will probably be earmarked in years to come, with other donors being sought, including some from Europe.
"Madonna's interest in kabbalah has certainly helped focus a lot of attention on Safed internationally, but the project we have in mind is very different from the Kabbalah Centre, with which Madonna is affiliated," said Sharon Levin, the Palm Beach federation's representative in Safed.