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.
“Tzfat’s not only Kabbalah,” said tour guide Richard Woolf, who says it has much to offer the less religiously minded with a taste for history and nature. “Kabbalah’s been hyped up, by the Madonna connection and so on ... Much of it is Kabbalah-Lite.”
Spirituality and tradition are everywhere on Safed’s storefronts — “Natural face cream products based on ancient recipes”; “Bible and Mystical Art Center”; “Art & Soul.” Craft and art shops abound, though the town has lost the reputation it enjoyed in the 1960s as a home for Israel’s serious art world.
A mosque now used as a gallery is a reminder most residents of Safed were Arabs until 1948. Among that population, driven out by Jewish forces establishing the state of Israel, was a boy of 13 called Mahmoud Abbas. He is now Palestinian president.
Like other Israeli towns with large Orthodox communities, where children are many and men prefer Talmudic studies to paid employment, Safed as a whole is not wealthy. But business owners report brisk trade for hotels, gift shops and the like. Visitor numbers, hard to quantify locally, seem to be rising.
All Israel is seeing a tourist boom. Visits are up fourfold, at some 3 million a year, over 2002, during the Palestinian Intifada (Uprising). After a dip on last year’s global crunch, government figures show 2010 shaping up to break all records.
Woolf says the recovery for tour businesses since the Intifada was only briefly interrupted by the war of 2006, during which Hezbollah rockets landed from Lebanon, 12 km (7 miles) away. Another enemy, Syria lies 35 km (20 miles) to the west.
It might seem the last place to forget one’s cares. But that is just what Eyal Riess of kabbalahtour.com at the International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah recommends. Eighteen years after he traded in the secular life of metropolitan Tel Aviv, he believes even a short burst of Safed air and Kabbalah can work wonders.
Busy executives choppering in for a few hours of “Kabbalah Experience,” or the party of “Russian oligarchs” flying down specially from Moscow direct to Safed for three days are among 40,000 people who Rabbi Riess says visit his center every year.
One of his tour offerings is branded “A Spa for the Soul.”
“Kabbalah teaches the parallels of experience between the spiritual and physical,” Riess said, pointing from his rooftop terrace to the cemetery “where Madonna visited last year.”
“We find the code of the soul of a person, based on the letters of his name and the date of his birth.”
Next door, Algiers-born, Paris-raised Danielle Chouraqui, a self-taught painter, is painstakingly at work on her latest creation, designed to draw viewers into pondering the mystic links between the Hebrew alphabet and the secrets of the human body and soul — “22 letters, 22 chromosomes,” she says.
Her goal is “to get people to talk to their soul.”
Aharon Botzer also has grand designs. He founded Livnot U’Lehibanot (To Build and To Be Built) which aims to teach young American Jews about Israel and Judaism through hiking and work.
To expand, he is excavating and restoring homes, synagogues and other structures built when Jews expelled from Spain after 1492 came to Safed, bringing with them a revival in Kabbalah.
“We want to make Tzfat into the spiritual center of the world,” Botzer said. “Of the Jewish world, at least.”
Like the hundreds of thousands of Hassidic Jews who mass for a night each spring at the grave near Safed of the Roman-era author of Kabbalah’s core text, many visitors to the town have no need of celebrity endorsements to fall under its spell.
So just how often does tour guide Woolf get “the Madonna question?” “Every now and then people ask ‘Where did she go?’,” he conceded, before adding swiftly: “It’s a curiosity, that’s all. People here are not so interested.”
Editing by Paul Casciato