Tourists seek enlightenment (or Madonna) in Israel

Wed May 26, 2010 3:18pm EDT
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By Alastair Macdonald

SAFED, Israel (Reuters Life!) - In this hilltop town above the Sea of Galilee, black-clad Hassidic Jews throng stone alleys where sandal-shod New Agers offer biblical jewelry and organic hummus to tourists seeking enlightenment -- or Madonna.

Welcome to Safed -- also known as Tzfat -- where the tourism boom Israel is enjoying with a lull in violence comes with a spiritual twist, thanks in part to the interest the Queen of Pop takes in Jewish Kabbalah mysticism, which has roots in the town.

The American singer, whose devotion has been emulated by other non-Jewish celebrities and many less exalted folk, made a discreet visit last year, paying respects at the grave of the 16th-century rabbi revered as the founder of modern Kabbalah.

Not everyone sees paparazzi fascination with "the Madonna connection" as a blessing. For some, it clouds the profound religious sentiment among Orthodox Jews for what is one of their four holy cities, where many believe the Messiah will appear.

"Yes, she was here. She went to the cemetery," shrugged Laurie Rappeport, once of Detroit, who runs a visitor center among the many synagogues of Safed's ancient Jewish quarter.

"She herself may be very sincere. But she has turned Kabbalah into a joke, a cult," Rappeport added, while conceding the media fuss had brought many Jews to explore their own faith.

Others fear a celebrity circus breaching the tranquility of the pine-scented mountain air that wafts along the stairways and lanes of the town of 30,000. It perches 900 meters (3,000 feet) up on a rock once fortified by the biggest Crusader castle in the Holy Land, shielding the port of Acre from Muslim Damascus.

On a spring weekend, however, the main menace to quiet was the boisterous sound of Hassidic men at tuneful Sabbath prayer.   Continued...