Back in the States -- on what was Christmas Eve day -- I'm sure many people were finding themselves making all sorts of unplanned last-minute Christmas-gift purchases when they spied something out of the corner of their eyes on the way to the checkout line. But last night in Tzfat (צפת/Safed), the ancient mountaintop center of Jewish mysticism, when Minna headed to the checkout line at a little food store, what caught her eye were the tools -- 9 little shot glasses packed together in a box, wicks that can float on the top of oil and bottles of olive oil meant just for the task -- to make an oil-burning menorah.
As darkness fell, we lit five of the little lamps -- four for the fourth day of Hanukah and one as the "Shamas" -- out on the balcony of the little hotel where we came to stay in this northern Israel town for a couple of days. I had been here on Hankuah once before and fondly remembered the sight of many little glass boxes outside the houses with the little oil lamps inside -- the Jewish tradition asks us to "publicize the miracle" by lighting where other people can see, which is why we lit on the balcony of our little room.
We didn't have a wind-protecting glass box to put our little shot glasses into, so I didn't feel safe leaving them alone. We sat out on the balcony watching them burn for well over an hour, trying to keep warm under a blanket, snacking on crackers and cheese and listening to some NPR from back in the States.
Tzfat is a strange and magical place. It is so much like Jerusalem with their Old City's of winding, narrow medieval streets and stairways made of light-colored stone and with their hilliness. But there's a quietness to Tzfat that both adds to its charm and that makes it seem unreal compared to the stark reality of Jerusalem, a city that despite being much smaller than New York has an intense bustle quite like that largest of American cities. Jerusalem -- especially the Old City -- is very much at the intersection of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, with its intensely coveted Holy sites important to both faiths and its large minority Muslim population. In Jerusalem -- as peaceful as it can be at times and as safe as I usually feel when I am there -- it is impossible to forget that you are in a place that has been warred over pretty much continuously in one way or another for a very long time now. Tzfat, on the other hand, is a place that is only Holy to the Jews (although the Arabs certainly fought for it in the 1948 war, as the war memorials in the center of town attest).
The city is held most Holy by the Hasidim, who make a practice of visiting the graves of the famous scholars of Kabbalah -- like Isaac Luria -- and praying there. Yesterday afternoon, Minna and I walked down through the steep hillside cemetary to the grave of Joseph Karo. It was cold and rainy, but we enjoyed our walk. It is a privilege to be able to have this time with Minna in the Holy Land, and I will be sorry to leave in a week-and-a-half after this too-short trip.