In the northern region of Israel, along the spectacular mountain ranges whose panoramic views include the Sea of Galilee, sits the ancient city of Safed. Known for its spiritually rich past, Safed continues to attract a vast array of spiritual seekers, artists, and musicians, all of whom live among the city’s growing ultra-orthodox Jewish population.
Israel is known as the Holy Land, and it contains a number of cities known traditionally as the Holy Cities. At the helm of the four holy cities is Jerusalem; the others are Hebron, Tiberius, and Safed. Each one has had a unique role in Jewish history. Safed, with its lush forests flowing with natural springs, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating architecture, has always attracted mystics and artists.
I am neither an artist nor a mystic, but Safed has always held a special place in my heart. Earlier this week I ventured out to the ancient city, driving along the narrow and windy Galilean roads that wrap around mountain after mountain, each one seeming to invite me to pull over and venture on a hike. However, I stayed the course and parked my car only a few minute walk from Safed’s artist colony.
The air in Safed is filled with excitement. Busloads of tourists crowd the streets, and travelers speaking a wide assortment of languages haggle with Israeli artists selling their wares. Exquisite paintings propped up in the semi-outdoor artist market draw your attention at every step. And as I walked through the city’s enchanting narrow streets, I kept setting limits on how much money I was willing to spend on any given piece of art.
After a nice long stroll in the artist quarter – which I managed to escape without a swipe of my credit card – I visited one of the city’s largest and most elaborately decorated synagogues. As I entered, there was a group of about 50 men praying the nightly service. I quietly took a seat and began to study a biblical text, but was quickly swayed into the dance circle which culminated the prayers.
When I sat back down to study the Bible, an elderly gentleman whose garb was traditionally Hassidic walked over and introduced himself. Although the person standing before me had the look of an ultra-orthodox Jew, he explained that his upbringing, which took place in southern California, was not traditionally Jewish at all. Like many of Safed’s residents, this man was a Ba’al Teshuva – a Jew whose background was secular before he returned to his Jewish roots.
We spoke for a while about faith in God’s providence, and shared some personal stories about times when we clearly had seen the hand of God at work in our lives. As the night progressed, I went back into the artist colony. By this point all the tourists had left and the artists were sitting around in coffee shops enjoying the cool mountain air for which Safed is famous. Although I came home empty-handed – no souvenirs, no paintings, no trinkets for the kids – I felt infused with inspiration and joy at having spent the day on a mountaintop in one of four Holy Cities in Israel.