The Mysteries of Safed, The Banners of Haifa
by Stephen Schwartz
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By now many non-Jewish Americans know the names of Safed (Tzfat in Hebrew) and Haifa better than they did in the past, for both the former small town and the latter maritime metropolis have been targeted by Hezbollah rockets in the assault on northern Israel.
I was in both places only six weeks ago. Each spoke profoundly to the yearnings and strivings of my heart. Mine was not a "Jewish roots" journey. But I had been on the path to Safed, and had dreamed of visiting it, for 27 years; and had turned in that direction after 16 years' straying on a road that leads to Haifa.
Both Safed and Haifa are "unknown capital cities," each the center of a hidden, or obscured, Jewish tradition; but in both cases, of a legacy that became universal.
Safed is small, and is the holy city of the Lurianic Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical movement that commenced in the 16th century C.E. under the charismatic guidance of a Jerusalem-born rabbi, Yitzhak Luria. This was a profound development in Judaism, having almost nothing in common with today's Kabbalah fad – though I condemn nobody who sincerely seeks after the divine.
I close my eyes and savor Safed as I first observed it so recently, in the sunlight of peace. My memory moves back to the year 1979, and my first trip to Paris. I knew little of Kabbalah then – little more than fragments. I was 31. I visited an American tourist trap, the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop on the left bank of the Seine. I was invited into the inner sanctum upstairs (and did not realize until much later that it was infested with fleas). But there was a red-bound volume on a crowded bookshelf: The Zohar in Muslim and Christian Spain, by a Palestinian rabbi, Ariel Bension.
The Zohar (Splendor) is the greatest work of Kabbalah, and I had read at it for years. I close my eyes and watch my hand reach for the Bension book as I ask if it is for sale; it was, and it was my door to Jewish spirituality, as well as to the relationship of Kabbalah to Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. It was my first introduction to the lore of Safed. I followed the path laid out in Bension's book through Spain to the former territories of the Ottoman empire, which sheltered the Jews expelled from Spain, and finally to Safed. The hand touching the red spine of the book marks the biggest turning point in my life.
Six weeks ago I visited synagogues in Safed named for Luria, for the Kabbalists Moshe Kordovero and Shlomo Alkabetz, and for a great law-giver, Rabbi Yosef Karo. I sat in a café and looked through the window at a hill where the fabled 2nd century Jewish mystic and leader of an anti-Roman rebellion, Shimon Bar Yochai, is reputedly buried. It is said the Kabbalists came to Safed because Bar Yochai's remains rest there.
Safed is green, a welcome relief after the dry stone of much of Israel; Safed lies in hills reminiscent of California. And now it appears empty, we are told, with its population in shelters under the rocket attack of Hassan Nasrallah. It seems an unmistakable conclusion that Nasrallah seeks to eradicate the memory of Kabbalah, of Jewish mysticism, as it developed in a Muslim setting, four centuries ago. He and his minions and backers strike out against a symbol of mutual respect between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
It was, for so long, my dream to see Safed, and I could not imagine that I would come to it so close to the explosion of terror in its ancient streets. I observed there that a historic mosque had been transformed into an art gallery, and wrote a proposal for the mosque to be reconsecrated as a center for Sufi studies, in collaboration with the Kabbalists among the Jewish residents. Nasrallah has made my perhaps-naïve project seem impossible, at least for now.
And then there is Haifa. I was a radical leftist when young, and the turn to spirituality expressed in the Parisian anecdote above came at the end of my revolutionary commitment. I became a conservative and a registered Republican, and was quite surprised when, in Haifa, I was taken to meet an elderly Jewish Communist, and given a tour of the city's crimson-festooned memorials.
The port was once known as Red Haifa, because it was so far to the left in politics. If it is now considered "pink," because its radicalism has faded in the direction of a more moderate socialism, it is still known as a place where Jewish and Arab workers celebrate a long history of friendship.
Haifa has also been targeted by Hezbollah. Among the first dead were workers in a railroad repair yard. I worked on the railroads in America, as a young Marxist. These railroad workers are my people, along with the Kabbalists. It is also difficult to avoid the presumption that rockets have fallen on Haifa precisely because it represents, once again, Arab-Jewish cooperation. Indeed, the whole Hezbollah target zone is filled with Arab communities that have learned to function within Israel. They include Nazareth, the Christian holy site, which has an Arab majority and whose walls are also decorated with leftist posters bearing the same scarlet banners as those seen in Haifa..
I observed that nearly all of the great religions have holy sites in Israel and I visited the most famous: the Western Wall for Jews, Nazareth for Christians, the Al-Aksa mosque for Muslims, Safed for Kabbalists – and there are Sufi shaykhs of great wisdom at Ottoman mosques in Akko, another city within range of Hezbollah's weapons. Finally I joked that even anti-religion, in the form of Communism, with its false promise of human solidarity, has shrines of hope in Haifa.
The universal values of spirituality and of the failed socialist ideal, the faith in humanity embodied in Israel, the legacies of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and yes, the heritage of the heroes of the Shia sect, Ali and Hussein, the memories of Safed – all is brutally injured by the whims of Nasrallah. The Hezbollah chief, like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, has decided to unite his followers by a bloody attack on his neighbors. Let him meet the same fate as the butchers of Baghdad and the Balkans. Tyrants of that ilk will never prevail. I truly believe that people of differing faiths will soon return to their lives together in Haifa, that Sufi devotions will be celebrated in Safed – and that the fragile Lebanese and sturdy Israeli democracies will endure.