Saturday, June 15- Our Final Israeli Shabbat

17 Jun

Today was our final Shabbat in Israel, so I went to sleep last night both excited for the day of rest and a little wistful at the thought of leaving in just six days. We’re in Tzfat, the birthplace and home of Jewish mysticism—steeped in rich history and lore alike, and overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

After breakfast outside in the yard, we gathered on the porch for an informal discussion on one of the Kabbalistic texts, the Zohar, with Rabbi Lenny Gordon. The Zohar was written in 13th century Spain, but it imagines itself coming from our current home base of Tzfat during the second century, as this is the epicenter of Kabbalah. The Zohar is unique in that it was written anonymously in a made of version of the Aramaic language, adding to its mystique as one of the cornerstones of this spiritual tradition. Lenny told us a lot about the way Kabbalah imagines the universe to work: rather than translating the first lines of Genesis to mean “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” as the Judeo-Christian tradition does, Kaballah translate it to mean, “in the beginning, with a sort of cosmic Torah, the unnamable and unknowable god created God.” It suggests a theory that aligns much more closely with the scientific theory of the big bang—that all of creation spawned from this one infinitesimal point in the darkness.

I should digress for a minute to let you all know that something very tragic happened on this foray into the land of Jewish mysticism—we suffered, as a group, from a vicious strain of the travelers’ stomach bug. At the height of its wrath, it claimed 10 out of 14 of us kids—there was a guided tour of the old synagogues where Kabbalah was born in the afternoon that only four brave souls made it out to see (shout out to Anna, Matt, Lucrezia, and Rachel for sticking it out). Me? I slept for what seemed like the shortest two hours of my life before waking up, pouring my dehydrated self a glass of water, realizing that it was probably the water that got us all sick in the first place, and then sulked a little bit and watched Mad Men. Now, back to the important stuff.

We pulled ourselves together enough to make it to the old city by 9:00 PM, at which point we received a lecture from a Kabbalah artist, David Friedman, in his gallery. He’s been here since 1976, but he’s originally from Colorado (shout out to mom!).  Since the significance of Kabbalah relies very heavily on symbolism, it lends itself very nicely to the creative arts.  David walked us through some of his favorite and best paintings for interpretation. He taught us about gematria (related to the word geometry, the principles of which he put into practice in his paintings as well), which is the practice of assigning numeric values to letters and words. Kabbalah, and Judaism in general, focus on the gematriac meanings of words all the time; it is the reason the word “chai,” life, also signifies the number 18 and vice versa. It was one of my rabbi’s favorite things to talk about at our Friday night services in the temple I attended when I was a kid, and it made its way into much of David Friedman’s art. There’s no way I could explain it all to you as eloquently as David did (though he has much more practice), but here’s a simple example: In Hebrew, the four letters used to spell out God’s name add up to 8 when they are assigned a numeric value. The number 8 is symbolic in Kabblaah because it is the infinity symbol tilted upward. Therefore, according to the tradition, God is 8—he is infinite.

David’s work was dynamic, colorful, and rich in meanings and symbols for interpretation. Even the religious skeptics and the contemporary-art-o-phobics among us found something they could appreciate in his work. I fell in love with a couple of his pieces—one that he showed us he intended to contain Jewish imagery alone, but found in the process of displaying it that it also resonated for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians as well. He said that in his experience, the more tapped into spirituality you get, the more you realize that even when you don’t mean for it to be or see it as such, everything in this universe is interconnected.  I’m not sure if I believe it, but it sure is a nice thought. I bought a couple of prints in his gallery afterward. One was for the wall in whatever room I end up with when I voluntarily turn my world upside down for four months to co-op in Switzerland next semester. The other is a souvenir for my best friend, who I have started to miss desperately over the past couple of days.

After the gallery, we found ourselves in a little bit of a pickle. A handful of Tzfat locals had told Lori that there would be restaurants and shops open after the Sabbath ended at around 9:00 PM. We were counting on this tip for dinner, since our bed and breakfast was not going to supply us with any more meals for the day.  However, when we moseyed out of the gallery at about 10:30 PM, the streets of Tzfat were completely and utterly deserted. It would have been my nightmare if I was feeling up to eating anything, but the remnants of the day’s stomach bug lingered. I walked home with four or five other girls, which was an adventure in itself because we’d only been in Tzfat for 24 hours—and never out on our own. I noshed on a stale roll from lunch and got into bed, hoping that those that stayed in town, determined to find an open eatery, had hit a stroke of luck and found something delicious (maybe they’d even bring me the ginger ale I’d been craving all day? Wishful thinking).  When they returned after midnight, I learned that they’d found one open pizza parlor in the whole city. With full stomachs and a full week ahead of them, the students of the Israel Dialogue 2013 drifted off to sleep a little bit after 1 AM for brief a respite before our 7:30 breakfast wake-up call…


-Kelly Ganon



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