For a very old city, Safed has lots of fresh things happening. While Kabbalists, Crusaders, combatants and crafters all have a place in the story of the Galilean city, its two biggest draws are the Artists’ Colony and significant religious sites centering around 13th-16th century rabbinic mystics such as Isaac Luria.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Kabbalists, Crusaders, combatants and crafters all have a place in the story of the Galilean city of Safed (Tzfat), a breezy mountaintop marvel in Israel with a history dating back more than 2,000 years.
Given its rich history and vibrant present, Safed offers visitors a few days’ worth of activities and touring. Probably its two biggest draws are the Artists Colony and significant religious sites centering around 13th-16th century rabbinic mystics such as Isaac Luria.
For a very old city, Safed has lots of fresh things happening, from a brand-new medical school – Israel’s fifth, and the only one in the Galilee region – to a newly declared National Heritage Site that’s getting transformed into a living history center expected to attract another 200,000 visitors every year.
Inside Safed’s Meiri House history museum
Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism
More than art galleries and synagogues
Laurie Rappeport runs the Safed visitors’ center established 12 years ago in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach, Florida, and Livnot U’Lehibanot, an organization offering young adult programs that encompass touring, Jewish learning and community service.
An American émigré and owner of a local eco-guest house, Rappeport helps people find licensed tour guides who speak their language and can take them on the type of tour they prefer, whether it’s focused on history, storytelling, art or mysticism.
Safed’s tourist infrastructure has grown exponentially in the past couple of decades.
“Twenty years ago, our street was empty, and now it’s full of galleries,” says Rappeport, whose website (safed-home.com) has contact information for guides and accommodations. “But there’s a lot more here than art galleries and synagogues, and when I see people really take advantage of everything that the city has to offer, I’m thrilled.”
Rappeport’s calendar of events shows a hodgepodge of activities: pottery-throwing classes; raw-foods workshops; concerts at the Khan of the White Donkey, a center for healthy living; Jewish text exploration; walking tours; and an annual Klezmer Festival in the summer.
In the eye of the storm
As a strategic city along the “spine” of Israel, sitting exposed 3,200 feet above sea level in the Upper Galilee, Safed has suffered more than its fair share of wars and pogroms over the years, as well as deadly epidemics, earthquakes and poverty. Alongside the city’s modern and ancient buildings, you can see evidence of military episodes over the course of time, starting with the ruins of the Citadel, a fortress built by the Crusaders during their 12th-century conquest of the Holy Land.
The Great Stairs are a relic of the British Mandate. As its name suggests, it’s a very long staircase that the Mandate government used to divide the city in two and to separate the Arab and Jewish sections of the Old City.
Today, the Great Stairs – with the Old Safed Winery tucked nearby — serve as a dramatic and convenient starting point to tour the Artist’s Colony and the historic synagogues of the Jewish Quarter.
Art in Safed
Painters, sculptors, textile artists, potters, calligraphers, glassblowers, micrographers and scribes all populate Gallery Street in the Safed Artists Colony.
The Safed Artists Museum has a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures. That and the Frenel Museum are good places to begin an exploration of Safed’s art world.
Abstract painter Yitzhak Frenel, great-grandson of the 18th century founder of the Hassidic movement, led a group of 1930s artists in setting up the Artist Colony in scenic, mystical Safed. Among his students were notable talents such as Moshe Castel and Ziona Tajar, the first woman artist born in the state of Israel. Frenel went on to paint portraits of all 120 members of Israel’s first Knesset (parliament).
One of the newest and most comprehensive centers for art is Sarah’s Tent on Alkabetz Street in the Old City, a branch of a successful Jerusalem gallery. It boasts seven different galleries exhibiting and selling one-of-a-kind items made by more than 70 artists, from jewelry to paintings.
Established by immigrants from Montreal about eight years ago, Sarah’s Tent has become the exclusive dealer for Israeli artist Avi Ben Simhon, whose exuberant Fauvist and Cubist-influenced work is displayed in more than 100 galleries in several countries.
Last year, the newest Sarah’s Tent enterprise, Fig Tree Courtyard, opened to display contemporary Israeli handcrafted art.
Inspiration and holiness
The Fig Tree is situated in a renovated old stone mansion surrounding a courtyard dominated by an old fig tree. Ceramics, paper-cuts, metal sculpture, glass, wood, bamboo-work, silk, oil and acrylic paintings are all found here, including many unusual ritual Judaica items such as mezuzah cases, Kiddush cups and Chanukah menorahs.
The spot itself is worth a visit, says Emmanuel Bouzaglou, a partner in Sarah’s Tent.
“Fig Tree Courtyard offers an observation point over the whole Galilee,” he says. “The magic ingredient here is that Safed is one of the four holy cities along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberius. Every city has an element that defines it – fire, water, earth or air – and Tzfat’s is air. People who spend a day or two here feel that it’s an uplifting experience. It’s a place where you don’t feel pressure, you just feel inspiration and holiness.”
Among Fig Tree’s exhibitors are Enya Keshet, who makes calligraphed paper-cuts of biblical verses and prayers; Calman Shemi, who developed the “soft painting” technique featuring layers of variously textured and colored fabrics on top of drawings; David Schluss, who uses his fingers as paintbrushes; and Bracha Bien-Venida Guy, whose paintings create dialogues with bouquets, dresses and roses.
You can also see the handmade silverwork of Avi Nadav, a third-generation Yemenite silversmith; and stylized, whimsical dreidels (spinning tops) and menorahs by Andreas Myer.
Micrography, sculptures, candles
Ever heard of Shalom of Safed? This artist, who popularized the ancient art of microcalligraphy – creating images out of words so small that they can barely be seen – was born in Safed as Shalom Moskowitz and worked as a laborer before becoming a painter and calligrapher after 1948. Shalom went on to create iconic colorful images of biblical scenes filled in with tiny texts from those scenes.
Thanks to Shalom, who died in 1980, Safed became a focal point for the art of microcalligraphy.
Moshe Dadon is one of the city’s notable micrographers. He learned the art as boy in Morocco, where 1950s religious leaders were eager to find a way to create miniature Hebrew ritual items, such as a Torah scroll, which could be transported without attracting the attention of anti-Jewish rioters.
Two other well-known Safed microcalligraphers are Leon Azoulay, also born in Morocco – whose painting “Story Of Creation” is composed of the entire book of Genesis in microcalligraphy – and Moshe Yair, a seventh-generation Safed resident who also creates three-dimensional and oil paintings inspired by the lanes and passageways of his hometown.
New York-trained Yaakov Kaszemacher, one of the leading kabbalah artists in Safed, has exhibited his geometric constructionist paintings, double-exposure photography and other multi-image abstracts in museums and art galleries all over the world. Many of his designs are based on symbolic numbers in Judaism.
The works of sculptor Jonathan Darmon are owned by many serious art collectors (including American TV producer Merv Adelson and Canadian political leader Guy Charbonneau) and are displayed in galleries, art centers and museums in Paris, London, New York, Toronto, Dallas, Spain and Belgium.
One of the most popular tourist stops is Safed Candles, an Old City factory, showroom and store established about two decades ago by a Breslav Hassid.
Originally just a shop for hand-dipped beeswax candles, it became a gallery when artist Moshe Chaim Gress started sculpting beeswax into biblical scenes, Jewish caricatures, good-luck hamsas and many other colorful sculptures.
During a 2008 renovation project, rooms were discovered underneath the existing candle store, covered with rubble from earthquakes. Just months later, Safed Candles burned down but its owners were able to reopen within weeks thanks to the unused old rooms they had only recently discovered.
Touring and staying in Safed
The historic synagogues of Safed are perennial favorites with tourists. There’s the famous 16th century HaAri Synagogue, where guides tell a miraculous story; the Abuhav Synagogue with its three Torah arks; the Avrutch and Alshich synagogues that survived a devastating 1837 earthquake that leveled most of Safed; the Yosef Caro Synagogue, where you can see the famous Shulhan Aruch (The Set Table), a Middle Ages Jewish legal work that is still the primary source for understanding religious laws; and the Bana’a Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Safed, constructed in the 15th century.
Some of the more unusual places to visit in Safed include the Gallery of African Art (inside the Fig Tree), the Hungarian Museum, the Meiri House historical museum and the Rosenfeld Doll Museum.
Never thought scribal arts could be entertaining and adventurous? Then you haven’t been to Otzar HaStam in Safed. You can watch a genuine scribe at work and try your hand at the ancient, sacred calligraphy on a sheet of parchment with a quill and ink, and enjoy a multisensory, 3D “Letters of Adventure” ride designed by Epcot Center engineers.
The newest attraction in Safed isn’t quite ready yet. It’s a 700-square-meter 16th century ruin called Kahal, under renovation for the past seven years by Livnot U’Lehibanot with the Israel Antiquities Authority. At the end of October it was declared a National Heritage Site that is planned to be a living history lesson in the Golden Age of Safed Jewry.
Mayor Ilan Shohat recently said that he is counting on Kahal and other new sites to help transform Safed into a major tourist center that will merit more than just a day of sightseeing.