So I went with my friend Ayelet (not her real name, by her request) to Tzfat this past Shabbos. (Or Safed, as it is apparently “officially” spelled, but that one drives me crazy…it’s sort of like the spelling “Bombay” when you mean “Mumbai.”)
So…Tzfat is one of Israel’s four holy cities, and I’ve been wanting to go there for awhile. Ayelet found out about this special Shabbaton thing, and I heard her talking about it and decided I wanted to go too, so we ended up going together. To make a long story short, we had an amazing time.
To give you more of the story…well, we got there late on Thursday night, having left straight from school (it’s something like a 3-hour bus ride). We were late enough that we’d missed the first couple of lectures as well as dinner, but they set us up with some soup and showed us to our room, where we dropped our stuff off before heading back down for the final lecture. Then it was off to bed for everyone.
Friday we woke up early for our tour around Tzfat. We walked around the Old City (the part with the ancient stone buildings and alleyways and such), stopped into a few synagogues, spoke about their history…and that part of the tour didn’t last long before we were let loose–“Girls, do some shopping!” our tour guide encouraged us. The guys in our group laughed at our shopping instincts (yes, I said instincts. Ladies, back me up!) and went on their merry way to some special men-only lecture. And we girls took off. At first Ayelet and I tried to stick together, but I wanted to check out every store and she wanted to stay in our first store for awhile and figure out what to buy. So off I went. A vendor was selling fresh-squeezed juices, so I met up with my dad’s old friend Pomegranate Juice, and can kind of see why he was addicted to it while he was here. Then there were a bunch of Jewish art stores (when it comes time for me G-d willing to decorate my own house, I’m buying from these places!), some fun restaurants, a few bookstores (no, I did NOT buy any books, for anyone who’s curious!), and probably some other stuff that I’m forgetting. At one point, I totally lost track of where Ayelet could possibly be, and was kind of worried for a few minutes before I found her…all’s well that ends well, I guess. So, as morning turned to afternoon, we hurried back to our lodgings to get ready for Shabbos.
Friday night was one of the most amazing experiences I’d ever had. Regular Friday night services generally involve some amount of singing, even in the least musical shuls in the world, and I knew to expect a lot more, given that this is a Chassidic organization known for its ruach (“spirit”). Little did I know, though, that I should have steeled myself for an hour of dancing before we even reached the Shma! Soooo much fun–and as I said to Ayelet, “It’s like being back at Shelly’s wedding!” Even the end of the services was sung (such as the entirety of Aleinu, rather than just the first paragraph), and I was brought back to my old Reform days with tunes I hadn’t heard since then.
Friday night dinner? Oh, THAT was an experience. I’m not going to do it justice, unfortunately, as it’s been a few days (walking back to our room, Ayelet and I were saying we needed to write down a lot of what was said at that table! But of course it is forbidden to write on Shabbos). Okay, so from our davening, we walked in a group to our various dinner invitations, armed only with sheets of paper with names and addresses. Ayelet and I were the only people from our group at our couple’s house, so we said goodbye and headed down our street.
The door had a big, fancy Hebrew sign, proclaiming that our host is a sofer–a ritual scribe, meaning he writes things like Torahs and mezuzah scrolls. “Cool!” said Ayelet and I to each other as we knocked.
A big, jolly old man with a long white beard and a black hat opened the door. If I may be slightly heretical, he kind of reminded me at first glance of some kind of Chassidic Santa Claus. He introduced himself as Mr. T., and led us into the living room, where we got our first shock–his wife was wheelchair-bound, and one look at her, and the way her face sagged on one side, told me she’d recently had a stroke (and Mr. T confirmed that suspicion in passing later in the evening).
“This is my wife,” said Mr. T happily, “she made all the challah herself! Bakes every week!” (Ayelet and I exchanged surprised glances.) “Oh, a friend helps her with it now, but she used to make a full five pounds of dough every time!”
Throughout the evening, Mr. and Mrs. T reminded me many times of my own grandparents (a huge compliment to them, as I consider my grandparents some of the most amazing people in the world). Anyway…they started by introducing themselves. He informed us that he and his wife were both from Colorado, where they had owned a ranch (“I’m a cowboy!” Mr. T told us proudly), but had sold the ranch and made aliyah some twenty years ago, and “I’ve been married to this lovely lady for fifty-seven years!” he announced. I tried to play Jewish geography, but he doesn’t know any of my family who lives in Colorado.
We made our way to the table. Mr. T handled everything with surprising dexterity, pushing his wife to her seat, grabbing the salad and gefilte fish from the kitchen, refusing any offers of help (Ayelet and I had to practically force a helping hand on him), and though he credited his wife, I suspect that he did most if not all of the cooking.
Mr. T continued telling us his life story. He’s got a bunch of kids and several grandkids (at whose mention his wife’s face crumpled. Ayelet and I looked on in alarm. “Mommy! What’re you crying for?! She gets sentimental when we talk about family,” he explained to us.), and though he loves being in Israel, he really misses his ranch. Even here in the city, though, he managed to keep himself busy with his hands (“See that bookcase over there? I made it! And the wagon in that picture on the wall? Couldn’t get it out of my yard when I finished it–had to hire a crane to come pull it out!”) An oft-repeated phrase of his was, “I’m a cowboy!”
They are Chabad Chassidic Ashkenazim, and since I consider myself a Litvak (non-Chassidic Orthodox), and Ayelet is Sefardi, there were some cultural gaps, which mostly led to amusement. “Really?” he asked in amazement, looking at Ayelet. “You don’t look Sefardi!”
“Really? What do I look like?” she asked.
“Oh, just a nice Jewish girl!” he laughed. “And you,” he turned to me–
Mrs. T whispered something and burst into tears again. Oh dear, I thought. “Um–what did she say?”
“Mommeeeee! You don’t have to cry! She said you look like her mother,” he told me. “See, over in that picture.” (There was, actually, a startling resemblance….)
Mr. T served dessert, bragging, “This is a very special cake. It’s a cowboy recipe!”
“Best Shabbos cake I’ve ever tasted,” whispered Mrs. T with her lopsided smile.
Ayelet asked, “Did you get the recipe from your mother?”
“My MOTHER?!” bellowed Mr. T. “My mother wasn’t a COWBOY!” And we all burst out laughing.
Mr. T is also a big fan of jokes–especially Jewish ones. “I’ll tell you one about Pesach,” he told us toward the end of the meal, “and by the way, you’re both invited back to us for Pesach, and I mean that.” As for the Pesach joke (Sorry, dear readers, you’ve probably heard this joke before): Some rich guy contracted some engineers to build a plane, the plane looked perfect but when it got up in the air its wings immediately broke off. They got a Jewish consultant to look at it, and he told them to drill some holes in the wings… the punchline being that, when you break your matzah it never breaks along the holes.
“Wow!” said Ayelet. “Is that a true story?”
Mr. T burst out laughing. “Is it true?! She asks if it’s real?! Oh, am I gonna have something to tell around Shabbos tables!”
We started the grace after meals. Mr. T tried to lead, but he was still chortling throughout the first paragraph. This greatly amused the rest of us.
“Do come back,” Mr. T said as he ushered us to the door. “And I’m serious about that Pesach invitation!”
…and that’s Friday night, and it is 12:30 am over here, so I’m going to have to wrap this up. Suffice it to say that the rest of my Tzfat experience included a lot of spirituality, reading, sleep, and some Chassidic ideas that I very much don’t agree with and about which Ayelet and I spent much time in animated discussion on the bus ride back.