A cemetery in Tzfat where Rabbi Moshe Cordovero,  Rabbi Isaac Luria and other kabbalists are buried

A cemetery in Tzfat where Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Rabbi Isaac Luria and other kabbalists are buried

by Mikaela Gerwin

How do you equate the old with the new? The rocky hills that seem to have sprung up spontaneously form the pages of the Tanach. And on top of them lie army bases with antennas that blink through the night. So which image should I see? Past or present? In Tzfat, this dilemma comes to life. Because in Tzfat it’s impossible to ignore the history, the city is an echo of eternity with a little dirt mixed in.

Two hours before Shabbat, we wound our way through the movie set streets on a quest for questions. Stone houses with streaks of blue (to ward off the evil eye) and bony cats staring at us hungrily, our destination was the grave site of two Kabbalistic rabbis. As I know it, Kabbalah is the funky religion of Madonna and Ashton Kutcher who are definitely not Orthodox Jews. So I was surprised to see Haredim and a women’s “section” of the burial site. I spent a few minutes craning my head over the mechitza to try to see or maybe touch the graves. But when my efforts yielded just a nice view of some black hats, I decided to try something else.

Closing my eyes, I let the mountain wind tickle my arms until it felt like more than wind. I wanted to feel something, to connect the mystic Tzfat of old with the judgmental Tzfat of new. Sitting alone on that bench, I tried to be a bridge. But when I opened my eyes, I found myself staring into the disgusted face of a Haredi man who just couldn’t handle my shorts. He quickly turned and walked all the way around the graves just to avoid me. In that moment, I realized that I’m over feeling humiliated or ashamed or angry or even empowered. I’m over trying to excuse or attack the actions of these Jews who are so different than me. Because, you see, I’ve realized that in Israel, there is a meditation of sorts between grit and magic.

Now, thank to Bronfman, the fairy dust has rubbed off and I’m left staring the grit in the face. I’m not an American tourist who can love Israel for what it once was or even for what it stands for. I’m a teenager in limbo between two worlds. And I need to immerse myself in Israel’s dirt because only that way can I maybe get some of that magic back.

Mikaela Gerwin is a junior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.

cross-posted on the BYFI Fellowship blog