This last Purim, March 2015, the kids were at an After school activity and Maayan and I had some free time together. The weather was excellent; we had a few hours in the morning all to ourselves, and so we decided not to stray too far while getting into the holiday spirit and chose to visit old Safed in Israel (this wasn’t our first time visiting the old city of Safed, but the atmosphere during Purim is something special). Our visit focused on the Jewish quarter and its alleyways, old synagogues, and of course the desire to experience a different Purim atmosphere than the one we know.
We started in the main art gallery street, Beit Yosef St. It is a long street, out of which a number of alleys branch out to connect to parallel streets. On the street entrance, there’s a fresh- squeezed juice bar. In the summer, the owner squeezes pomegranates on the spot, and in winter- citrus fruit.
The street itself and its surroundings are full of Judaica stores and art galleries. One of the more interesting places is a gallery which sells different Tallitot and you can see them being woven on the spot. Another interesting shop is Safed Candles, which has a great variety of colorful candles, as well as wax sculptures, some depicting biblical stories.
From the gallery street, we then descended through the alleyways to two synagogues: HaARI and Abuhav. HaARI (Rabbi Isaac Luria), who is known as the father of contemporary Kabbalah, settled in Safed in 1569 and lived in it for three years, until his passing away at the age of 38. The compound in which the synagogue is located today used to be a field outside the city. It is told that in those days, HaARI used to welcome in the Shabbat with his disciples in that place, wearing white. Some hold that the synagogue was built in the early 16th century, a few years after HaARI’s death, by Greek immigrants originating in Spain. The synagogue was destroyed in the great earthquake that happened in Safed in 1837, and was rebuilt in 1857. The most prominent thing inside the synagogue is the great Torah Ark, which is wood- carved and stands tall. The Ark has many colorful carvings of Jewish symbols, flora, fauna, and more.
We continued from HaARI Synagogue to Abuhav Synagogue. The temple was built in the 16thcentury, and is named after Rabbi Isaac Abuhav who lived during the 15th century in Spain. In it, you’ll find the original Torah Scrolls written by Rabbi Isaac Abuhav himself. The Sephardi immigrants (Olim) who arrived in Safed in the 16th century brought the Torah Scrolls with them, and they are taken out to be read on three specific times a year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shavuot. It is told that in one of the great earthquakes that frequented the city the whole place was ruined, except for the eastern wall, in which resided The Torah Ark and The Torah Scrolls. Inside the synagogue, in the center of the hall, is a raised wooden platform painted blue, and the attending audience sits around it facing it. The walls are white and painted with depictions of fruit- bearing trees, the symbols of the 12 tribes, musical instruments that were used in The Temple, and more.
While walking through the alleyways we followed the signage leading the way to Kadosh Cheeses. When we arrived there, we rang the doorbell and the owners showed us into a room in which we could purchase the cheeses. The proprietor brought out the selection of cheeses they produce from the fridge in the room, gave us tastings and coffee. The cheeses are excellent: they produce Safed Cheese of course, as well as very delectable hard cheeses. It was difficult to choose what to buy for home out of all the goodness we were offered a taste of.
As I already mentioned, we had toured Safed many times before, but the experience in Purim is different thanks to the holiday atmosphere in the streets: children are dressed in costumes of Queen Esther, Ahasuerus, The Great Priest, and many more characters that are hardly ever seen on the secular street. One of the houses hung the image of Haman from a rope, and on the streets people were walking with Mishloach Manot (sending of gifts), hurrying to the reading of the scroll. One of them beseeched us to join him, and others were dancing in the streets and singing “when Adar enters, we increase in joy”.
By Maayan Hess Ashkenazi