From the Tzefat Stories
Dedicated to Yaacov Kaszmacher z”l
I had first encountered the oud in Tzefat, as a student, on a walk through the old city of Tzefat with my classmates. I was in Israel studying at the yeshiva [house of study] in Jerusalem. It was my first trip to Israel. In the middle of the year, my classmates and I were led around Tzefat on a walking tour of the Old Jewish Quarter.
Tzefat was the center of a form of Jewish mysticism called Lurianic Kabbalah, based on the teachings of the great sixteenth century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria. It is now known also as an artists’ colony.
We passed through narrow streets, walkways paved with stone and in the middle of the stone an indentation for water to run off, metal shutters on both sides of the walkway opening on homes, studios, shops that face each other from each side of the walkway, the labyrinth of the middle eastern market adapted by the Spanish exiles who settled there in the sixteenth century and built their homes on the other side of the metal shutters around courtyards, in the Spanish style, from their root memory of the land from which they were exiled in 1492.
I stayed close to my group thinking I couldn’t possibly navigate those passageways by myself, it seemed like a great mystery to me, the labyrinth of passageways in the Old City of Tzefat. On one of those streets, we passed a store front, its metal shutters drawn back and I glanced in and noticed some sort of woodwork on the tables. I realized I was looking at musical instruments, a sensual Oriental shape, unfinished wood, shapes like the swirl of Arabic calligraphy given form in wood. It was an oud, I surmised, something I had heard of as a guitar player in the ancestral sense. That was all I knew about the oud, it was an oriental antecedent to the guitar.
I wondered what sort of sound came from such an instrument, how the physics and the senses coalesced to produce sound in such a body.
I walked into the shop, there was no one else present. I stared into the sublime Levantine femininity of the unfinished ouds languishing on the work tables of this workshop. There was no proprietor, this is the middle east and there was no one there. I had walked into the enchanted orchard of oud shapes.
I wandered out the door and read the hand-drawn sign hung above: Elias, 17 generations of oud makers, Tzefat, an address. Nice sign, I thought, small, elegant, unobtrusive, inconspicuous, untelling, drilled into the stone just above the metal shutters that were drawn across the store front to close.
I never did find Mr. Elias on that trip, but the shape and image of the oud had settled into my imagination and when I returned to the States, I found tapes of oud music, I acquired an oud made in Cairo on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and began to find with my hands the music I heard in my head.
Seventeen years later, my oud interest had inflated into an obsession, I found myself for only the second time in my life in Tzefat, on a different mission entirely than the first visit. I had come on a mission quite different from my first visit, my responsibilities on the second trip included only teaching the fellow travelers in our group the lore and history of Tzefat. I had even forgotten about the meeting in the oud workshop seventeen years earlier, although I had not forgotten the oud, I had misplaced my first encounter with it.
By the second time I visited Tzefat, in 1994, there lived in that small city a mystic, Shalom bar Natan, who was known to be a reader of hands. This is a technique that was practiced by the great mystic, the holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi himself, known by his acronym the Ari. “Ari” also means “lion” and he is one of the great heroes of Jewish mysticism. In the literature it says that the practice of reading hands had not been passed on.
I had never visited before or since anyone like a psychic, but there are powers in the world, and especially in places like Tzefat, and when you need them, I suppose, they find you. There are powers in the world lying deep within reality, a light that permeates within, as the Chassidim say.
I found Shalom bar Natan’s home and arranged a session with him late Saturday night. Eleven people from our tour chose to come with me. None of us discussed casually what happened that night, each experience was quite different it seemed, and I can only tell you about my own encounter.
I was next to last. At about 2:30 in the morning, Shalom invited me in his work room. His eyes were luminous and warm, shimmering coals out of thatch of thick, black beard. He looked first at my left hand, fingers under and on top, he examined the sides of my hands, fingers, between the fingers, then the other hand, the right hand. He concentrated on the right hand.
He began to talk to me, telling me what kind of work I have done in my life. He described my experience as a parent, it has been hard for you, he says. Your children — I see problems in the head and in the heart. He is entirely accurate, but I didn’t say anything. I listened.
One of your children was in danger but is OK now. He used the expression “OK.” You are strong, very strong, he tells me many times how strong I am. I wasn’t feeling so strong in those days but I didn’t say anything. He told me that my suffering has made me both strong and sensitive. He told me I have an unusual mix of logic and intuition, that I am creative and logical, both developed to a high degree, which is very good, he said. You should teach Kabbalah, he told me, Jewish mysticism, because of these qualities of head and heart.
He told me at what age I married, he was correct. He told me when my father died, he was correct. He told me when my mother died, he was correct. He described my brother to me. He told me a few things that no one knows, unless they have been reading my mail. I was ready to leave, he had told me enough, he had my attention, and I assumed that the session was over. Then he told me the purpose of my life.
I realized that all his prognostication was to attract my attention for the true message which was for him to articulate, at about 3 in the morning, in Tzefat, 1994, the purpose of my life. I was transfixed, paralyzed. Our session had nothing to do with fortune telling, that was for lesser imaginations, all the hocus pocus that passes for mysticism these days, but the true message of what I am supposed to do when I get up in the morning and put on my pants. This was much more wonderful, much more ordinary, much more mysterious, much more daily, much more exotic, much more common, than fortune telling. What I am supposed to do. Today. Every day. The purpose of my life.
We moved from fortune telling to the realm of the Chassidic encounter called yechidus, when you spend some time alone with the rebbe, he enters your world, he becomes your heart and you become his, and the rebbe gives you your charge, your purpose, he defines your life. He defines it from a place of knowing, of union, because for the time that you are together, he is your heart, and that is why this encounter is called yechidus, “becoming one.” Only from that perspective can you speak the true purpose, the definitive encounter that derives its truth from being there.
The Swami once told me a story. There are three butterflies. The first one goes out to investigate the fire. “What was it like?”
“It was hot.”
The second goes to investigate the fire. “What was it like?”
“It was hot.”
The third goes and does not return. It was consumed by the fire. That butterfly understands fire, because to know it is to become it.
When the Baal Shem Tov, the originator of Chassidus, was dying, he gathered all his disciples around him and told them, each one, the purpose of his life. I often imagine them, gathered around the Baal Shem Tov, receiving their purpose. This is yechidus, union, becoming one with the rebbe.
I told the story of my encounter with Shalom bar Natan to Sarika, my daughter. “So what did he tell you?” she asked. “What is the purpose of your life?” I told her that I couldn’t tell her, I would have to write it down, or maybe tell her in secret, in some sort of shared ceremony that we had not yet created. Or maybe write it between the lines of a story, in the white fire. But it was too holy to just say it.
There is a famous story in the Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b. Moses ascends to heaven, and he comes upon God, who, of all things, is attaching crowns to every letter of Torah. “Why are you busying yourself with such an activity?” Moses asks. “There will come a man in a couple of generations, Akiva ben Yosef, who will weave a hundred tales on each crown,” God says. “Show me,” says Moses. “Turn around,” God says, and Moses finds himself in the academy of the great Rabbi Akiva, in the eighth row, listening to his teaching.
Moses doesn’t understand a thing they are saying. He returns to the Holy One and says, “Master of the Universe, you have such a man as this and You give the Torah to me?” Moses is asking the same question, the answer to which was revealed to me, “what is my purpose?” God says, “be silent, let it rise before Me.” Sometimes this is read as “shut up,” but it isn’t shut up, it’s be silent. Find your silence, clear out the space, and your purpose, what you are seeking, will rise before you as it has risen before Me. But first, you must find your silence, God says, be silent and be found. You probably didn’t even know you were lost.
Later that night, after having heard my purpose articulated to me by Shalom bar Natan of Tzefat, I was the last to leave Shalom’s residence. It was about four AM by now. The lights in the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzefat had gone out entirely, the storefronts are so close to one another that they obstruct the sky, so at night, without lights, it was as dark as anywhere outside I have ever been. I couldn’t see a single thing, I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. So I placed my shoe in the indentation that runs down the middle of the stone pathway. Like a trolley car I made my way gingerly through the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzefat. I walked this way for what seemed to be fifty yards or so, I was wondering how much farther I had to walk until I would emerge from the density of the Old Jewish Quarter into the moonlight.
Then the street lights came on. I stood there under the lights of the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzefat adjusting my eyes as if I had crawled out of a cave into the sun. I stood there, for a moment, acclimating myself to my surroundings, wondering how far I was from the long stairs that run down the middle of Tzefat and once separated the Jewish from the Arab Quarters of town. I hadn’t yet moved from the spot where I stood, paralyzed since the lights had come on, stuck by my feet to the stone, and then I looked up. I was standing in front of a store front, like so many others with metal shutters drawn across the front, my eyes drifted upward, to a sign, hand lettered, drilled into the stone, which read, Elias, 18 generations of oud makers, Tzefat, an address.
It was the oud shop, the very same address where I first entered the world of the East, the deep world in the ground where I was now rooted and where seventeen years earlier I started to plant myself, tentatively inching into its soil and throwing a few tendrils and shoots. Except that this must have been his son, the eighteenth generation, one generation later than I had first encountered.
At once I was drawn back to that day in 1977 when I first entered that shop, where I met myself in this unexpected place, among the unfinished carcasses of the enchanted oud forest behind these very shutters.
The summer after my meeting with Shalom, I traveled to Tzefat again. On Shabbes, I went to the synagogue of the Holy Ari. I am always delighted to be there, to me it is extra holy to be praying in the same space as the great Ari. A man was sitting next to me, Eastern European, small cap on his head, rugged face, the hands of a working man. I mentioned to him how excited I was to be praying in the Ari’s synagogue. He shrugged. I pointed to the reader’s stand and said, the Holy Ari must have stood right there. He nodded. I’ve come a long way to pray here, I said. Where are you from? I asked. Czechoslovakia. Do you live here? Yes. It must be wonderful to pray here all the time, I said. It’s just a synagogue, he replied, like other synagogues, I happen to come to this one.
Suddenly the luster had diminished for me, I wandered out into the courtyard a few steps below where the Ari’s synagogue is built. The narrow passageways of the Old Jewish Quarter open into a small courtyard just below the synagogue of the Ari. On one side of the courtyard is a private residence where a family was sitting at a dining table talking and singing. On the other side of the courtyard I saw a plain stucco building with several windows and a sign over one of the windows that read, hand lettered in Hebrew, “Kossov.”
I recognized Kossov as a place name in Russia. I heard the sound of praying and singing coming from the windows of the building marked “Kossov” so I went over. I couldn’t see into the windows from ground level because the windows were too high off the ground. I managed to balance a garbage pail upside down and climbed up on my tiptoes to peer into the window.
Even with the pail and on my tiptoes, I was looking into the room at knee level, up through a density of legs, full of dark pants of the men’s section of a synagogue, some of the legs in motion, some dancing, some swaying, all moving because the atmosphere in the prayer space was electrifying, even from my angle. As I stared into the room, all of a sudden my eyes attached themselves to the eyes of someone else deep in the interior of the room, eyes light and blue like the sea, eyes like mine, staring at me from underneath a Chassidic flat hat called a shtreimel and from out of a wild unmanaged beard. Laughing eyes, full of mischief, joy, and hope, eyes that seemed to be staring into my heart. It seemed so unlikely to me, from that angle, from near floor level of the room, from outside a small window, that I should be seen at all. I glanced behind me and looked into the room around my window station to see if perhaps those eyes were looking at someone else. They were looking at me.
He was beautiful in his Chassidic fur hat, his knickers and long dark coat, sitting on a bench toward the other side of the large room which was the Kossov synagogue. He motioned me in, patted the bench next to him where there was just enough space for me to sit, and pointed out the window behind him into the darkness, mouthing something, smiling even broader. He did this several more times, pointing out the window behind him into the darkness at the other side of the room, saying something, smiling knowingly and shaking his head up and down, motioning for me to join him on the bench.
I climbed down off my pail and walked into the doorway to my right. I climbed five or six steps from the doorway up into the room. As I entered the room, dozens of laughing, dancing-eyed, praying faces turned to me as I walked through the synagogue. I felt as if I recognized ten faces as I made my way slowly to the bench on the other side, though I had never been there before. I nodded to faces that I was certain I knew, though I couldn’t imagine from where. When I reached the bench on the other side of the room, the beautiful Chassidic face with the laughing eyes patted the seat next to him and I sat down. He pointed out the window behind us and said, “Bar Yochai.” I looked out the window and realized that he was pointing at the mountain five kilometers northwest of Tzefat, a mountain that you could see from that window, where the paradigmatic hero of Jewish mysticism is buried, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He pointed out the window to Mt. Meron and said again “Bar Yochai.”
Later, we sat talking. My friend spoke French and Hebrew, and I told him that Bar Yochai was my hero. “Bien sur,” he said. I hadn’t spoken French in years, but we were chattering away in French and Hebrew and I hardly noticed the languages we were speaking in.
I asked him why this place was called “Kossov.” He told me that some Jews had settled in Tzefat from Kossov, that they had owned this building, and that only recently did the community who is now praying there clean it up and turn it into a shul. They found the sign “Kossov” inside the room somewhere as they cleaned it. They decided to honor their mysterious antecedents and kept the name Kossov as was the custom in Jewish prayer circles, to honor those who preceded you.
He asked me if I had ever been to Tzefat before. I told him the story of Shalom bar Natan and asked him if he knew him. He said he knew him, but that he had moved away and didn’t know to where. “Is there anyone else here who reads hands?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said laughing, “this is Tzefat — we all read hands!” And he threw his head back, parting his mighty beard with his laughter, and howled out the window like a lion toward Mt. Meron, silhouetted in the dark distance.