"Israel 2008" story # 9

Tzfat, Israel           September 7, 2008

In addition to a place to stay, among the other things I needed to make my stay in Israel good were friends.
     A tall guy named Daniel opened the door to his hostel room and instructed me where I could store my bags for the time-being. I'd just met two of young Daniel's acquaintances, an Australian Jew and a Canadian Jew, a boy and girl traveling in Israel. The four of us donned our nicest clothes and went to attend a religious "Carlbach Show," on a Friday evening in the mountain town of Tzfat.
     I'd come here this day from the Kibbutz Kfar-Mazarik, changing my scenery from non-religious to emphatically religious. And incidentally, I should say that it was due to Israel's unique religion that I decided to include a stay here in my world travels rather than one in nearby Lebanon. Religious beliefs really influence people's everyday thoughts and actions. I should learn a lot in Israel.
     In Tzfat, we walked up steps and through narrow alleys, in the "Old Town" for pedestrians. The streets and houses were made up of heavy cubes that hugged the hillside and its inhabitants like a king's castle. The blueish, white bricks seemed bluer next to night-lit street lamps.
     A packed street was the scene of the "Carlbach Show." I stood in my jeans, surrounded by men who wore untamed beards and suits and hats resembling condors' nests, and who carried Torah's. They welcomed the Jewish sabbath, "Shabbat," which had begun at sundown. We sang. "Lai-lai, lai-lai-lai, lai-lai lai-lai!" We held each other's shoulders and swayed. The Australian boy really got into it. Some men prayed, by bobbing their upper bodies up and down. Those who could penetrate the crowd entered the hosting synagogue.
     Above us on the street, a crowd of girls and mothers looked down and sang. Most wore their best skirt outfits and hand-knit hair bonnets and smiled with captured youths.
     Daniel, a Jew from Montreal, stood back, with his back against a building. His tiny head, in a handsomely-groomed beard and kippur hat, smiled in awe as if to say, "Man, I can't believe these absurd people love Judaism so much ..."

That night, the Australian boy and Canadian girl and I broke one of the rules of Shabbat by DRIVING for an hour to go camping. Actually, an Israeli named Asaf drove. He wasn't from Tzfat.
     We camped in an old, Cursaders' castle within sight of the first mountains of Lebanon. We made a fire and admired the castle's walls, which curved like parabola's up to wicked apexes. We ate pickles and hummous. We watched the Canadian's monstrous shadows, as she free-styled a tranquilizing hymn on her violin. We climbed a ladder down into a hidden well, wehre we could swim in a cave and make creative, echoing noises. Asaf, who works as an outdoor youth leader, named this castle as his favorite place in Israel.
     The conversation turned to Daniel. Asaf, a disciplined army veteran who'd go out of his way to help someone or have fun, had met Daniel. The Australian asked what he thought of him. Asaf said: "He seems ... confused."

The next day, Asaf dropped me off in Tzfat. The Canadian girl would soon fly home to study. The Australian would continue traveling, before flying home to begin his career as an architect.
     I was eating chocolate spread on bread in a park, when Daniel rode up on a new bike. The $300 bike folded up and weighed only thirty pounds, so Daniel thought he could carry it around Israel with him and to Europe.
     We had an unambitious conversation. Daniel said things like, "Man, dude, I'm so happy I bought this bike!" and then ten minutes later, (disappointed) "Yeah ... maybe I shouldn't have gotten the bike." He contradictorily talked about having to leave imminently to catch a Palestinian-Israeli Peace Festival, and about planning to do a bunch of relaxing things in Tzfat yet. He said he often pays for his first night in hostels, then just keeps staying in them. I told him I had only $15 and was living in a tent. He said, "Yeah, I'm spending too much money in Israel." He thanked me for a Justin's Chocolate Sandwich Special, and told me to stop by the hostel later.
     I wasn't that impressed.
     But, I got tired of looking for work around five p.m. I looked for Daniel. I found him on the street carrying his violin and its big seven-pound case.
     He introduced me to Ilana from his hostel. She was cute, with big eyes and an open slit between her front teeth. Daniel said, "She's studying in a seminary in Jerusalem." She frowned. She had a personality like her short, round body: happy and hard-to-budge. She'd frowned because Daniel had made her sound so religious. I was one of the only non-Jews in Tzfat, and Daniel was one of the Jews with the most negative attitudes toward Judaism. I told Ilana, from New York, that I'm a writer, and she said I'd have to tell some stories.
     We went to a thin plaza tucked away into the sloping town of Tzfat. On one side, we were walled in by rounded mortar painted light-purpleish. On the other side, stone rows provided spectator seating for me and Ilana. In the small, middle area, Daniel stood beneath the bright-green canopy of a tree that made the plaza motherly and light. He had on a light-cloth kippur hat, his folkloric beard, and a hemp shirt that was one of only two shirts he traveled with. He held his violin to his chin.
     He only played Jewish songs. His violin cried. It laughed. Small children at play stopped to listen, and Daniel leaned his chin down to their ears. The violin trembled. People came, entering the plaza beneath a light-blue Star of David. The fiddler paused to sing a few words like Figaro. The violin wanted a friend.
     Ilana smiled. "He says he has no spirituality. But, how can he play like that?"
     Daniel spoke proudly about his music with his newcoming fans.
     And I was impressed.

That night, Daniel treated me to a falafel sandwich. With Ilana, we ate on the steps leading down from Tzfat's high main road.
     Ilana befriended a happy Jewish mother and began talking in Hebrew to her and the little daughters. I'd already told Ilana about my anti-family beliefs.
     I remembered back to a couple with eight children who I'd seen in the park. I'd thought: religious people are so stupid to have such big families. They must feel trapped and fight all the time. ... But, then, I noticed the family was loving and happy. I began to think that if you're going to have a family, perhaps, a Jewish family is the happiest.
     Ilana explained that there's a Jewish rule that states married couples shouldn't touch while the woman is menstruating. This means, she said, that every month there's a large period in which the man's interest in his wife is refreshed.
     We walked to the park. Ilana said she loves swinging. Daniel said something negative about swinging. I bean, "I hate swinging ..." Ilana disapproved; she said, "You're getting more and more eccentric all the time." I'd meant to continue, "... but I'll always swing with someone who loves it." But, it was too late; Ilana wasn't listening anymore.

The next morning, when I got to the hostel, Daniel handed me some pudding.
     Ilana led us to a local, cheese-making home, where she'd allegedly once been given a taste-testing feast at no charge.
     Daniel treated us to cheese and olives and pita bread, not because he liked Ilana nor because she was poor, but because she was cheap. Twenty-four-year-old Daniel seemed more generous than many Jews, whose religion purportedly teaches good business sense. As Ilana comfortably chatted with the cheese-makers, it seemed evident to me that Tzfat was her "place".
     However, the two hostel-dwellers seemed less interested in me than they had been the day before. Although I considered them the talented type of people I'd make it a priority to hang out with, I wasn't going to push them if they weren't interested. I said good-bye. I wouldn't see them again in Tzfat.
     I figured Daniel probably just loses interest in new acquaintances quickly. I figured my mistake with Ilana had been not telling her one of my stories.

A few days later, I did some volunteer work in exchange for a free night in the hostel and a few meals. The hostel, a Jewish Study Center, was technically off-limits for a non-Jew. But, I hadn't known that when I'd done the volunteer work, so they let me stay one night.
     Inside, a friendly hand tapped me on my shoulder. It was Daniel! He still hadn't left!
     That night, he got out his violin. An Israeli named Ron got out his guitar. Daniel wanted accompaniment on percussion. I took the hostel's handheld drum.
     Ron played a slow, flamenco-complex solo that sounded like he was a quiet man with a lot to say. Daniel inserted short, shrieking notes. And I tapped my hands incessantly to push Ron's blues into becoming a more explosive, accoustic diary. It was the first time I'd ever been a part of music that made my blood fever with excitement. Daniel loved it.

The next day, he finally left Tzfat. He didn't make it to the Peace Festival.

- Modern Oddyseus

And thanks to Lohev, Chal, & Noama; Saloman; Vova; and Barry for rides!

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