Tzfat (Safed in Arabic), is a charming ancient city where spirituality, mysticism and artistry come together to create a harmonious and enchanting atmosphere. As Israel’s most elevated city (900m), it’s perched high in the Upper Galilee mountains about two hours northeast of Tel Aviv. We rented a car in Tel Aviv to make our way into the countryside. It was surprisingly hassle-free navigating around Israel with signs in English and no check points (unlike our experience in Jordan). Little is known about Tzfat’s early history, but archeologists have found evidence that the city was inhabited since 1500 BC. The city flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries with the settlement of Sephardic Jews who fled from the Spanish Inquisition. Many were practicing Jewish Mysticism (Kabbalah). Shortly thereafter the city was declared one of the four holy cities of Israel.
There is warm and almost magical feeling in the air as you wander through Tzfat’s labyrinth of narrow cobbled stone alleyways. It’s easy to find hidden beauty as you turn each corner, encountering centuries old synagogues, antiquated stone houses, stunning turquoise doors, and decorated iron gates. The spiritual city is home to a mix of traditional Hasidic Jews and modern Supernaturalists practicing Kabbalah through mystical teachings of Judaism. There are a number of bohemian travelers as well as student groups that come to Tzfat from around the world to study Judaism and connect with their inner soul.
We stayed at Ascent of Safed Kabbalah Center, where we encountered people of all ages and nationalities coming together to learn about this ancient practice. Although the staff were quite anxious to have us participate in one of their daily classes by offering us each a 10 sheckel ($2.50) room reimbursement per class….. we opted to only observe from afar as we hung around the center’s kitchen and communal areas. Brett tried to avoid being roped into discussion, but we knew within a few minutes someone was bound to spark up a conversation. As Brett was searching for the router to get Internet access, one guy explained that he avoids technology at all costs and focuses only on communication within. It was our cue to leave..
Tzfat is not only a center of Jewish mysticism, but it has a thriving artist community. During the 1950’s the Israeli government funded artists around the country by giving them a free house and art studio if they moved to Tzfat. Many talented Israeli artists relocated to the old Arab quarter of Tzfat, which is now called the Artists’ quarter. We had so much fun meandering through the tiny streets, talking to artists and listening to people as they discuss art. Unfortunately, the entire quarter has an influx of tourists stopping through on daily bus tours, hence prices have skyrocketed.
We were lucky to have met up with the sister-in-law (Bilha) of Itzhik who hosted us at Ramot Naftaly winery. She has a gallery and lives amongst Tzfat’s artist colony, where she sells embroidered pillows and decorative linens. Bilha is related to the only Finkelstein family in Safed who may also be from Europe. She’s going to do some digging in the family tree to see if perhaps there could be a relation to Brett’s family. Wouldn’t that be amazing! You never know!
See our Photo Album:
Tzfat (Safed), Israel