A Visit to a Jewish Disneyland in Northern Israel

For two days I wandered the streets of the Old City of Safed, a place treated as a symbol of pureness and health and now the only place in the world focused solely on Jewish tourism

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Safed in northern Israel. Its Haredi community comprises up to 44 percent of the city’s total population.
Safed in northern Israel. Its Haredi community comprises up to 44 percent of the city’s total population.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

An elderly bearded gentleman wearing a white shirt and large black kippa is walking down Bar Yochai Street. He passes the narrow “Messiah alley” and raises his hands to the heavens. It is hard to tell if he is exercising or praying, but he has a wide smile on his face. A moment later I hear him conducting a lively conversation with himself regarding the coming of the Messiah.

Nearby, at the very top of the alley, is a sign telling of an old Safed woman named Yocheved Rosenthal who used to sit there every day for decades and wait for the Messiah. The way the man’s actions drew no attention made it clear that the northern city’s advertising slogan – “There’s no place like this in the whole world” – is accurate, for better or worse.

When I was a child, we used to travel to Safed during the summer months to visit the galleries and enjoy the invigorating air. The name of the nearby Mount Canaan resonated in our house just as much as “Mont Blanc.” It was a symbol of pureness, freshness, health. The painters of Safed were considered the elite of Israeli artists.

Curiosity to see what remains of those childhood memories drew me back to the city recently. I don’t know of many Israelis who come to visit here for vacations these days. Maybe they come for a short trip, but a vacation? I doubt it.

Tourists visit the Sarah's Tent Art Gallery in Safed.Credit: Gil Eliahu

And yet the city’s hotels are full and many visitors can be seen on its narrow streets. This is a different Safed, yet it is still charming.

Some of the people I met wanted to compare Safed to Jerusalem. But this isn’t quite accurate: Safed doesn’t have the ethnic, religious and human diversity that characterizes Jerusalem. You don’t come across any nuns and you don’t meet any Arabs on its streets.

Safed is probably the only place in the world right now that is focused solely on Jewish tourism: Judaica ceremonial art, Jewish music, Jewish ceremonies, Jewish folklore and heritage.

Several times during my visit I thought to myself that Safed has now become a Jewish Disneyland. And sometimes Disneyland is fun.

Safed made a big impression on me. I admired the beautiful houses, the architecture and the great views that surrounded me both day and night. Most of the time, I thought the alleys were clean and very well maintained; painted in shades of blue. Yet in other places, I was amazed by the piles of garbage I saw and the scrap dumped by the sides of the road. Many houses are now ruined and empty. Nevertheless, the city is still captivating.

In 1948, some 12,000 Arabs and 2,000 Jews lived in Safed. A few days prior to the declaration of independence of the State of Israel, the city was occupied by Palmach troops.

For two days I wandered the alleys and streets of the Old City – the two tourist districts of Safed: one is called Kiryat Ha’amanim (aka the Artists’ Quarter) and the other is the Jewish Quarter. Deliberately, I almost completely ignored the other, less visited parts of the city.

The two areas I walked through are very close to each other. The walk from the Red Khan, at the end of the Artists’ Quarter, to the northern end of the Jewish Quarter stretches for as little as 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). Safed has some 36,000 residents, of whom almost half are ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi). My – somewhat unscientific – feeling by the end of my visit, based on wandering the alleys, is that most of the residents and visitors I met were indeed ultra-Orthodox.

'There used to be a succession of galleries from here to the Red Khan. Only a few remain open, and they display mainly Jewish art'

A Haredi man walking the streets of Safed.Credit: Gil Eliahu

According to a study conducted by Dr. Eitan Regev and Gabriel Gordon from the Israel Democracy Institute in 2017, Safed’s Haredi community comprises up to 44 percent of the city’s total population. According to their study, its population at the time was 35,000, out of whom 16,000 residents defined themselves as ultra-Orthodox. The study also showed that among Israel’s northern cities, Safed is considered the preferred location for Haredi congregations.

The Artists’ Quarter

The impressive Red Khan, which serves today as a popular gathering hall located at the southern end of Tet Zayin Street, was originally built 600 years ago, after the Mamluk conquest of the city. It used to be a mosque but now only the wide courtyard and large hall, with its beautiful pillars and vaulted ceilings, attest to its glorious past.

During the 13th century, Safed became the center of Jewish life in the Galilee. The Mamluk Sultan Baybars conquered the city in 1266 and made it the capital of the province. Its status at the time surpassed even that of Jerusalem.

That was also the period when the red mosque and the synagogue of the Sephardi Isaac Luria were built. In the 16th century – the golden age of the Jews of Safed – the city’s population was 13,000, about half of them Jewish. The city was considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism (along with Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron).

The Abuhav synagogue in Safed.Credit: Israel_photo_gallery

Plagues and earthquakes destroyed parts of the city during the 18th century. Then there was a period of brief recovery, but further earthquakes, recurring plagues and riots among Arab residents led to the almost-complete annihilation of the city’s Jewish population.

By the end of the British Mandate era, things had changed. Safed had become a tourist destination and gained a reputation as a resort/spa city due to the fresh mountain air (it sits at an altitude of 900 meters, or about 2,950 feet). Though the city was far from most population hubs and transportation was highly problematic, and although the city was only hooked up to the electric grid in 1944, many convalescing people and visitors arrived during the summer months.

A sign of the city’s rising status can be found in the hit 1945 song by Shoshana Damari (with lyrics by Natan Alterman): “You may flee to the ocean and the desert / but me you will not forget / … Here such a nature / Such a setting / Yes, this is me, especially / I’m from Safed / And if in me you’re caught / there is no escape / I’m from Safed.”

In 1948, some 12,000 Arabs and 2,000 Jews lived in Safed. A few days prior to the declaration of independence of the State of Israel, the city was occupied by Palmach troops (the elite strike force of the Haganah). Its Arab residents were displaced or fled fearing for their lives. Two Arab districts were destroyed to prevent the return of their inhabitants and another – now known as the Artists’ Quarter – was preserved. The Great Market Mosque, built in 1902, used to stand at its very center. This beautiful structure is now a gallery, known as the General Exhibition of Safed. Empty Arab houses were given to artists, who came from all over the country and stayed in the city primarily during the summer months.

The entrance to the Red Khan in Safed.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The city is currently celebrating the 70th anniversary of the General Exhibition of Safed, which was founded as an artists’ cooperative. Of the 35 artists who currently belong to the cooperative, 20 live in Safed all year long. Famous alumni include Moshe Castel, Moshe Raviv, Josef Mitler, Arieh Merzer, Mordechai Avniel, Siona Tagger and Mordechai Levanon. The names of the artists exhibiting there today are less familiar (to me at least).

A pleasant café is located in the plaza by the gallery, along with several galleries of artists who live in the city. The holiness associated with Safed did not attract the masses 70 years ago. It was art that drew in the many visitors.

“The houses in Safed are much more beautiful than the houses in Tiberias,” says Prof. Mustafa Abbasi of Tel-Hai Academic College, who has published a book about Safed’s history during the time of the British Mandate from 1917 to 1948. “Big and rich families lived in the city.

Its inhabitants built beautiful houses with large yards. The Jewish Quarter was almost empty at that time. In the 1970s, the situation changed. The heirs of the artists sold the houses to investors and the population altered. Many of the purchasers were ultra-Orthodox Jews from the United States and South Africa. It’s a different population from that found in Jerusalem or the [largely Haredi] city of Bnei Brak. They created such a demand for property that apartment prices have risen throughout the Old City,” Abbasi says.

A man prays at the Yosef Caro synagogue in Safed.Credit: Gil Eliahu

During my visit, it was clear that the Artists’ Quarter is now much less popular than the Jewish one. It has fewer visitors and less traffic, and in the evening, as a trio of musicians played in front of the General Exhibition of Safed, only six spectators were counted listening to them. The General Exhibition is open seven days a week. The adjacent café is closed on Saturdays. The question of how the Sabbath is observed is a recurring thought everywhere here.

Artist Ludmila Feigin exhibits her beautiful works in a private gallery and at the General Exhibition gallery. Most of her paintings capture views of the city’s numerous alleyways and surrounding hillside. She has lived in Safed for the past 30 years and says the galleries used to attract many more visitors. “There used to be a succession of galleries from here to the Red Khan,” she recounts. “Only a few remain open, and they display mainly Jewish art.”

The problem is that many galleries are closed for the Sabbath, which is when secular tourists are most likely to visit. “Many artists don’t open their galleries during Shabbat because there aren’t enough visitors so it’s not worthwhile. It’s a shame because visitors from different cities are getting used to the fact that we’re mostly closed during Shabbat, so in the future they won’t come at all.”

A typical blue door facing a courtyard in Safed.Credit: Israel_photo_gallery

It was chilly during the evening hours when I was in Safed. The temperature dropped to 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) and some of the people outside wrapped themselves in warm clothes. During the inferno that is the Israeli summer, this fact should have turned the city into a major hit for tourists. Yet as I walked through these cool streets, I couldn’t spot any.

The Jewish Quarter

The synagogues in the Jewish Quarter are beautiful, but the big surprise during my visit was provided by the Livnot U’Lehibanot center, which is right near the kabbala center and the synagogue of Isaac Luria. For as little as 15 shekels ($4.35), we could walk into an underground tangle of caves and narrow passageways located beneath the Old City.

The tour took us through narrow spaces, small niches, wells and mikvehs (Jewish ritual purification baths) built during the city’s golden age in the 16th century. These are the ruins of the streets and houses that survived the many earthquakes and new layers that were built upon them.

A Haredi man enjoys the view next to the grave of Isaac Luria in Safed.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The tour ends with a visit to Beit Hakahal, an ancient Jewish neighborhood preserved in its 16th-century glory, which was only rediscovered in 2005. Like many other sites in Safed, this one is really interesting but isn’t presented well to visitors. It lacks the necessary explanations and signage, and a more user-friendly approach is needed (whether the visitors are from Israel or overseas). But with more care, this site could become a really captivating attraction.

It seems the Jewish Quarter is flourishing, anyway. I passed many visitors, including several groups of Jewish tourists speaking English and French. They swept through the galleries that sell Judaica ceremonial art, drank fresh pomegranate juice and bought Jewish souvenirs such as shofars, menorahs and mezuzahs. They carefully examined oil paintings at the local galleries and took photos at the entrances to the legendary synagogues of rabbis Isaac Aboab, Joseph Caro and Isaac Luria. Young women wearing skimpy clothing donned head scarves as they entered the synagogues.

The quarter looks similar to many “olde worlde” tourist hot spots around the world: that combination of narrow alleyways, stone houses, colorful flowerpots and stands trying to persuade visitors to part with their money. It’s all rather orderly, like you might find in Italy, Spain or France – and yet it was all a bit weird. I’m afraid we are just not used to seeing such vibrant Jewish tourism in Israel. A tourism that combines beauty and ugliness, kitsch and significance, all in one place. In Safed, they brazenly sell you “spirituality” with no apologies. Spirituality is just another commodity, and it seems the demand for it is high.

In Jerusalem – if we go back to our tried and trusted comparison – you must cross the Western Wall Plaza if you want to get to the marketplace where everything is sold, from crosses to tiny camels sculpted from olive trees. In Acre, they sell Christian souvenirs together with Jewish ones, and at the entrance you can even visit a beautiful mosque. In Tiberias and along the Sea of Galilee, you can purchase many souvenirs of important Christian holy sites. Yet in the marketplace in Safed, you can only buy Jewish souvenirs.

A Haredi man walks in Kiryat Ha’amanim (aka the Artists’ Quarter), next to the grave of Isaac Luria in Safed.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The tourists, Israelis and otherwise, are seemingly only interested in Jewish heritage. It’s a completely closed world that runs for several hundred meters. This is what makes it so fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

Poor but calm

To try and better understand things, I first talked to Zeev Pearl, who served as the city’s mayor for a decade some 40 years ago and is now a tour guide. He is ninth-generation Safedi. He points out that he was originally from a Hasidic family, but his parents abandoned the religious life when they were young. His family is in the hotel business and tourism, he says, is in his heart. He founded the city’s first klezmer festival while he was mayor in the ’80s (this year’s event will be the 35th, running from August 9-11). A few years ago, the Ladino Festival was added, with both festivals proving significant tourism drivers for the city.

Pearl clarifies that the Artists’ Quarter is in fact the Mamluk district, and suggests it is the “Talbieh” neighborhood of Safed. I presume he means by this that it’s an old neighborhood, full of beautiful Arab homes, that are now sold for millions, as in Jerusalem.

“The artists knew in ’48 that if it is freely given, then you should take it,” he says about the old Arab homes. “They had houses in Tel Aviv and they got a summerhouse in Safed. Not too bad, huh? Almost all the hotels were closed during the winter. Some of their heirs kept the houses so prices here remained very high.”

How has tourism changed in Safed?

“The ultra-Orthodox who came here understood that these houses are a great source of income. Also today, you cannot book a room here at the weekend. The experience of Shabbat in Safed is considered sacred. It’s part of the spirituality of this city. Kabbalat Shabbat [on Friday evenings] draws many visitors, religious and secular. It’s maybe a different kind of tourism to the one we thought about in the past, but it’s still tourism. As a tour guide, I do Shabbat tours that include six different synagogues, and you can see that all the visitors are deeply moved by this Jewish experience.

“It’s a significant experience for people who come from central Israel, and today it’s clear that there’s no Israeli culture without Judaism. For many of the people I guide, it’s often like visiting an ashram in the East. A glimpse into a fascinating culture.”

Did the hotels in the city change?

“Family hotels have completely vanished. Larger hotels were built and there are hundreds of rooms and guesthouses for visitors. The number of hotels has shrunk, but the number of available beds has risen considerably. [According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the city has six hotels, which offer 319 rooms in total. During our conversation, Pearl cited a much higher number.] The type of person who visits the city has changed. Many religious people come, and not necessarily ultra-Orthodox. We give the visitors some Yiddishkeit and the alleys. I don’t think anyone comes here to visit the big Crusader castle.”

A mosque in the old city of SafedCredit: Gil Eliahu

What should be developed in the city?

“We need more attractions like Livnot U’Lehibanot, culinary tours, wineries and more Jewish heritage attractions. No place can compete with us in Israel, except Jerusalem. In the meantime, there is no official visitor center and there are many arguments concerning building one. But these very streets are a kind of a living museum. The Fig Tree Courtyard on Alkabetz Street is a delight. You can weave a tallit together with everybody else and there’s also a lot of Judaica ceremonial art and a kabbala center.”

Can we preserve Safed as a city of art?

“It’s important to keep the free art alive. The current mayor also knows this. It’s hard today to promote the artists that live here, and we cannot order them to form a collective. Yet despite these difficulties, art remains a vibrant attraction for many visitors here who are not religious. The story of the Artists’ Quarter is amazing because it’s such a unique community that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”

Yosef Stepansky, a tour guide, archaeologist and Safed resident, laughs that it was the weather that influenced tourism in the city more than anything else. He says you can travel to Tiberias, go to the beach in the scorching heat, and then come back to the cool streets of Safed.

He then adds, more seriously: “We have the best-preserved Jewish quarter in the country, with many fascinating archeological discoveries. Safed never stopped being a favorite place for tourists – and in fact it’s a sort of tiny Jerusalem.

“I love Safed a lot,” he continues. “We’re not top of the socioeconomic ladder [the city is considered one of the poorest in Israel], but we’re chilled people. Don’t underestimate the weather. It keeps us calm!”

Shuki Ohana has been mayor of Safed since 2018 and says he is the 15th generation of his family to live here. He sounds energetic and not at all calm. Promoting tourism is very important to him, and he calls Safed “a thriving and flourishing tourist city.”

He lists several major tourism projects that City Hall is promoting: renovating the sidewalks near the municipality; promoting the local Crusader fortress as a tourist destination; and upgrading infrastructure, lighting, landscaping, and offering more cultural activities in the Old City alleyways. He also stresses the city’s unique art and the importance of the two festivals (Ladino and klezmer) as ways of further developing tourism.

“We encourage as much as possible the opening of galleries in the Old City. At the same time, we’re completing plans for the establishment of a large visitor center,” Ohana says. “We plan to open a music school and a museum in the Saraya building [which was built in Ottoman times].”

Can you successfully combine a large ultra-Orthodox population and tourism?

“The answer to that lies in the fact that the Dan Hotels chain expressed confidence in us when they bought the Rimonim Hotel [now called the Ruth Hotel] and Isrotel bought the Mitzpe Hayamim spa hotel. It’s important to remember that there is an ultra-Orthodox population in the city, but also traditional, secular and Arab. The fact is, we have 700 hotel rooms and they’re all full to capacity. Now we’re building another 160 rooms and in the next two years we will add 300 more. And, most importantly, you should tell everyone to come to the Klezmer festival” in August.

Late at night, as I sat on the patio surrounded by the stone walls of the hotel where I was staying, in an ancient Arab house near the Red Khan, and was curling up from the cold. I was sorry I did not bring something warmer to wear and promised myself to come back in August – but more because of the air than a love of music. I reflected that Natan Alterman was right when he wrote: “And if in me you’re caught / there is no escape.”

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