As the bus winds its way north through green valleys and steep mountain roads, the beauty of the Galil, Galilee, unfolds before my eyes. Onward we climb towards mystical Tzfat, the highest city in all of Eretz Yisrael and one of the four “holy cities” of the Land. Alighting at the central bus station, I am struck by the beauty of Tzfat and behold the stunningly lush landscape of its surroundings. Only a short distance away are the soothing blue waters of the Kinneret, visible from my lookout, as well as the camel-hump form of the mountain upon which Meron lies, just across the wadi (valley) from Tzfat. No wonder tourists are enraptured! How pleasant it is to mill about the quiet streets this slow-paced city that has no traffic lights. Many Israelis, including chashuve Torah personalities, vacation in Tzfat, whose climate, because of its altitude, is mild in the summer, albeit cold and snowy in the winter.
I walk along Rechov Yerushalayim, a narrow yet busy street in the middle of the mountain that Tzfat rests upon, teeming with small shops of every kind on either side. There’s abundance and variety enough to meet the tourist’s fancy; from Iraqi to Teimani eateries to cheap ice cream vendors and bakeries, and, of course, clothing.
Aside from Tzfat’s magnificent beauty, it is rich in history and Torah giants of bygone eras. High on top of the mountain is the Metsudah (Citadel), where one can climb up to the highest lookout point in Tzfat. This fortress with caves was used during the Roman conquest and later, by the Crusaders. In more modern times, it was a strategic point for the Israeli fighters during the battles for the Galilee in 1948.
The Kabbalah, which is widely learned in Tzfat today, has its roots in the 1500s, when a movement of Jewish settlers entered Tzfat after the Spanish Expulsion. The most famous kabbalist of this Jewish renaissance was Rav Yitzchok Luria, known as the Arizal, who made Kabbalah accessible and revealed the secrets of the Zohar that were otherwise unattainable. In the last two years of his life, his teachings were faithfully recorded by his foremost disciple, Rav Chaim Vital, in the Kitvei Ari.
Other famous personalities that shaped Tzfat in that period were Rav Moshe Cordevero, known as the Ramak, who wrote the Kabbalistic works, Pardes Rimonim and Tomer Devora, as well as Rav Moshe Alshich, who wrote a peirush on the Chumash. The rav of the city was Rav Yosef Karo, whose monumental halachic works were the Bet Yosef and Shulchan Aruch.
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I make my way by foot towards the home of city residents Rabbi Dovid Meir and Tamar Jacobs. The unaware tourist to Tzfat must often wander in search of their destination or ask helpful city residents on the street for directions, for the simple reason that street names and numbers are all too frequently not labeled clearly and hard to find in the maze of alleyways and streets. I am fortunate, however, that Tamar Jacobs waits for me on the street to bring me to her home, where she graciously allows me a glimpse into her aliyah journey and life in Tzfat.
Tamar is the eldest child of Rabbi Moshe and Barbara Perkal, longtime residents of Baltimore’s Fallstaff Road and one of the few chasidishe families in Baltimore at the time. When it came time for Tamar to start shidduchim, she realized that, with no sizeable chasidishe community in town, it wasn’t likely she would remain in Baltimore after marriage. While dating her husband, Dovid Meir Jacobs, a Klausenberger chasid from Boro Park, they discussed places to live and Tamar mentioned Eretz Yisrael. She had studied there in seminary, and was raised in a home where her parents expressed their wishes to move to Eretz Yisrael.
Dovid Meir then shared with Tamar his interest in moving to Tzfat, which initially she remembers thinking of as a “nutty” idea. The idea of Tzfat came from Dovid Meir’s experience learning in the Klausenberg yeshiva in Netanya, when he was invited to join a fledgling new kollel in Tzfat, which ended up suiting him very well. Tamar was hesitant about moving to Tzfat, but Dovid Meir reassured her that they would try it for three months and if she wasn’t happy, they could move anywhere else.
In 1986, a month after their wedding, the young Jacobs couple arrived in Tzfat. Tamar recalls that her landing was made easier since she had relied on her chassan to arrange the apartment. He also helped her adjust by introducing her to his American friends’ wives. “We came here for a few months,” Tamar laughs, “and we loved it.” She describes her initial impressions of the community: “It was much smaller than what it is today, and there weren’t as many stores. It has grown tremendously. The community was even closer then, which made it easier. People were friendly and helpful and happy about every new person moving in. This made our adjustment easier.”
Being a social, outgoing person, Tamar made friends with ease. “Still, there were challenges of being alone when it came to medical issues or simchos.” Dovid Meir had extended relatives but no immediate family in the country, and Tamar had one brother who moved to Eretz Yisrael when he got married a year after their own move. This brother moved to Ofakim, way down South. “We were at opposite ends of the country,” she says, “but at least I had him, and we could talk on the phone.”
It was seven years later when Tamar’s parents and siblings made aliyah. Their move made a very big difference for her. “It went from being a long distance phone call to a local phone call, from a thousands-of-dollars trip to an Egged bus ride, even if back then there was only one bus a day!” That year Tamar gave birth a week before Pesach and was able to spend Yom Tov with her parents. “It was the first year since I got married that I didn’t have to make my own Pesach,” she recalls.
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Shortly after moving into Tzfat, Tamar took a job working as a secretary for Ascent, a Chabad kiruv center, which helped ease her adjustment. Part of her responsibilities was to do the graphics for their newspaper, which she had learned from Avraham Cohen in Baltimore. He had taught her layout in the pre-computer days when things were laid out by hand on a light box.
Initially, the Jacobs did not make official aliyah because of family reasons. But their plans were to remain in Eretz Yisrael, and they kept one day of Yom Tov. They would say, “G-d knows we’re here, but the government doesn’t.” Seven years later, they were looking to buy an apartment and get their daughter into school. To make things easier, they crossed the divide and became Israeli citizens.
Since she came home late after work, Tamar would prepare supper as the main meal, “American style.” But after the children started school and came home for lunch break at 1:00, she switched gears and made lunch the main meal of the day, according to Israeli culture. After about five years of working in Ascent, Tamar gave up her job to become a full-time mother. They were able to continue kollel life by receiving some help from Rabbi Jacob’s parents in addition to his nice kollel salary and almost-rent-free kollel apartment. “In those days,” says Tamar, “they were trying to keep families in learning.”
Tamar shares her perspective about women working to support their husbands’ learning. “Stop a girl on the street and ask her, ‘What’s going to be your most important job after you get married?’ Nine times out of 10, the answer will be, ‘to support my husband in learning.’” Tamar says emphatically, “No, it should be to raise your kids! I realize that women have to work for parnassa, but they should know that this is a bedi’eved (secondary). And when they are home, they should be there for their kids.” Tamar absorbed this mindset from her chasidishe lifestyle, where it’s more customary for men to work to support their families.
Indeed, when Rabbi Jacobs was needed to bring in parnassa, after 13 years of full-time kollel, he started working as a mashgiach for the rabbanut kashrus. He also learns in Kollel Chatzos in Meron, a 10-minute car ride from Tzfat. “If you ever see the advertisements in the Mishpacha magazine about Kollel Chatzos,” Tamar quips, “it is for real!” I ask her how he keeps such a schedule. She answers that he learns in the kollel from 1:00 to 6:00 a.m., then does his mashgiach work, and afterwards sleeps a bit in the afternoon, catching a bit more sleep in the evening before going to kollel.
About 20 years ago, Tamar began taking on the role of tour guide in Tzfat. It started when someone asked her to show her around the city. “I discovered that I love Tzfat,” Tamar enthuses. “I breathe Tzfat and want to give it over to people. I love history, and I like to talk; I combine them all into a business.” She gives tours to many Israeli schools and to most of the American seminaries.
In addition to being a tour guide, Tamar is a volunteer in the International La Leche League, which assists women with nursing their babies. Tamar now serves as a local counselor, although in the past she was answering the country’s hotline. Another community activity that Tamar is involved with is organizing school transportation.
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Tamar reflects on the contrast between what Tzfat was like when she first moved in and how it has changed. Many children are marrying and remaining close to their parents, so there is more family life happening and less community give and take than in previous years. When she gave birth, years ago, all the neighbors would help out with cooking and preparations for the bris. “Today, they still make meals, but there is a little bit less of the we’re-one-big-family feeling,” Tamar explains. She also points out that when they first moved in, there was one community made up of all kinds of families of different backgrounds and outlooks. Nowadays, since the population has grown, there are many smaller communities that make up Tzfat, with their own shuls and schools. Yet compared to other cities, Tamar acknowledges that Tzfat is a united city and contains an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness.
When they first moved in, Tamar notes, there were many American families already living in Tzfat. Olim are still attracted to Tzfat due to its beautiful surroundings, cheaper housing, and welcoming, warm community. However, since many Yerushalmi families have moved in and created Israeli communities, olim prefer settling in American-style communities, such as Ramat Bet Shemesh. Although Tzfat has an English-language library and shiurim, an Anglo email group, and a small Carlebach-style English-speaking minyan on Shabbos, Americans living in Tzfat tend to become more Israeli, because there is no solid American enclave.
Nowadays, the small population of Tzfat is spread out geographically and comprises mainly Sefardim and chasidim, although there are some shuls and kollelim for the fewer Litvish families. The chiloni (secular) population is not as big as it used to be, and went from three schools to two. The original chiloni population was mesorati (traditional), and many were shomer Shabbos and kashrus. However, the Russian aliyah in the 1990s changed the demographics, because the thousands of Russian Jews who moved into Tzfat were, through no fault of their own, completely secular, lacking even basic Jewish knowledge. Still, there’s a general feeling of togetherness in Tzfat among the religious and secular segments, even though occasional conflicts emerge during elections or when deciding on things like allowing the swimming pool to be open on Shabbos.
On top of the mountain is Kiryat Chabad, where mostly Lubavitch chasidim live, and at the bottom of the mountain is the second-oldest frum neighborhood, Meor Chaim. Tzfat is home to many Sanzer and Breslover Chassidim, and the popular Breslov shul, known for its beautiful nigunim is found next to the ancient beit hakevarot (cemetery), which is on the slope of the mountain. The frum young couples moving into Tzfat today generally settle in the center of the mountain just below the Old City.
The Old City of Tzfat is a world unto itself. A walk through its alleyways conjures up a glimpse into previous generations. Cobblestone lanes, a colorful mini-market, and quiet courtyards where one can still sense an aura of kedusha (holiness) permeating the ancient shuls that the holy kabbalists would frequent. There are only about 200 families still living in the Old City since real estate prices have risen, resulting in people turning their apartments into tzimmers (vacation homes) that they rent out to the many tourists.
Adjacent to the Old City is the artist colony, which dates to the 1950s, when some of Israel’s top artists took up residence in Tzfat. This distinct neighborhood contains galleries of all sorts, with artwork appearing on the streets as well, lending an open flow of creativity and diversity to the city. A great number of hippies and artists set up home in Tzfat, feeling comfortable in its all-embracing vibes, and an annual klezmer festival takes place in Tzfat, with top musicians from around the world.
The noteworthy Livnot U'Lehibanot outreach program is also located in Tzfat. This program, which means “to build and to be built,” allows young secular adults to explore and study Judaism along with hiking and volunteering opportunities.
Currently, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, son of former Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, is the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat. Unlike in former times, when there was both a chief Ashkenazi and Sefardi rav in each city, a new law was passed that allows for only one chief rabbi per city. After studying in Yeshivas Mercaz Harav and serving in a combat unit in the IDF, Rav Eliyahu received semicha and is a very well respected leader of the dati leumi community in Tzfat, known for his anti-Arab views.
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Tamar describes her aliyah experience after years of life in Eretz Yisrael: “I was a bit naive when I first got here, but the truth is that marriage is a different experience anywhere you go. I was anyway going to be moving out of my home town, so it didn’t make such a big difference where I started off.” After only one year of living in Eretz Yisrael, her Hebrew picked up tremendously, which she attributes to the 12 years of studies at Bais Yaakov of Baltimore. “Those twelve years in Bais Yaakov were excellent; the dikduk and expressions we learned very much prepared me, but of course, until you’re living in it and using it, it’s not the same.
“You have to be prepared to be embarrassed when learning Hebrew,” says Tamar. “It is important to have Israeli friends and to practice speaking Hebrew in the playground, the makolet (grocery), or taxi. You break your teeth, but once you have kids, it gets easier; they teach you.” Tamar jokes about her own kids’ literacy in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. “As they say, my kids are illiterate in three languages!” Although the Jacobs spoke English to their older children when they were young, once they started attending school, Tamar didn’t want to stop the flow of the Hebrew they came home with. As in many American-Israeli families, the younger Jacobs kids speak even less English, as their older, married siblings have Israeli husbands and Hebrew became the dominant language in the house.
Tamar feels that an advantage of moving straight to Eretz Yisrael after getting married was that she didn’t have to first get used to a different married lifestyle. Being an easygoing person, Tamar was able to acclimate fast, even to smaller things like Israeli stoves and the different peanut butter.
Another benefit in moving to Israel as a young couple, according to Tamar, was that their children were all born in Eretz Yisrael and therefore didn’t need to adjust. Their first daughter went to a new Yiddish school, where she was part of the initial class. When she and her sisters reached high school age, they commuted to a Gerrer school 15 minutes out of Tzfat. The Jacobs boys went to a chasidishe school that spoke Yiddish and Hebrew but had Litvish students as well.
Currently, there are yeshivos for boys until the age of 16 or 17, but older bachurim have to leave for yeshiva gedola. New schools are constantly opening, and one of the Jacobs’ married daughters works in a new preschool that has 21 students. Tamar mentions that most schools don’t have parallel classes, which is a benefit for families who are looking for smaller class sizes and more individual attention.
The Jacobs are very satisfied with the schools and prefer the Israeli system in many ways. Tamar specifies: “Over here, things are clearer. You don’t have to spend time translating the pesukim in Chumash, so they can accomplish more. I like it that the kids live and breathe Yiddishkeit here. When a bus driver says, ‘Happy New Year,’ he means Rosh Hashana. And the kids feel it, too; they are so much a part of it.”
The Jacobs children range in age from 10 to 27, of whom four are married, two living in Tzfat, one in a new chasidishe community in Teveria, and one in Netanya. I share my wonder with Tamar that all their children have remained chasidish and are following the derech of their parents. “It’s all from Hashem, of course,” she responds, “but I think that living in Tzfat, where the community is so mixed and they get to see so many different things, has helped. I have tried to impart that there are various ways of avodas Hashem. Just because others are serving Hashem in a different way, we can respect them even though it’s not our way, as long (and this is the big caveat!) there is a da’as Torah. If they don’t have a da’as Torah, we do not accept that derech.” She adds, “I have also tried to impart in them: ‘Be proud of who you are.” If someone says to you, ‘Ugh, you’re a chasid,’ you say, ‘that’s right, I am. You should be just as proud to be who you are, and if you’re not, then you have the problem, not me.’”
Tamar shares another chinuch tip: “We also tried to make Yiddishkeit fun for the kids. An example is Pesach. It is hard to do it alone – cleaning the whole house, etc. – but it should also be enjoyable. Your kids should not hear just how much work there is to do. They should get an enthusiasm for doing mitzvos.”
Tamar mentions that, bechasdei Hashem, Tzfat is generally a quiet and safe city, with no Arab population. However, there was a major blow to the city during the Second Lebanese war, in 2006, when a barrage of rockets hit the city. Tamar remembers the fear on the Thursday it began. By Friday almost everyone had emptied out. The Jacobs left their home as well and stayed in Yerushalayim and then Beitar for a length of time. There were many near-misses as the rockets continued to fall, and much chesed took place. Tamar shares one account of an absolute miracle that happened. “That first Friday night after war broke out, a group of men tried forming a minyan in a shul without success. They relocated to the Ari shul in the Old City, and while they were davening, a rocket fell on the first shul. Because everyone had left in time, none of the men were injured.” Tamar notes that another miracle was that not a single rocket fell on the kivrei tzadikim (graves of the tzadikim).
Tamar emphasizes the kedusha of Tzfat. She says that on any given Shabbos, 50 percent of the people on the street are most likely tourists, not residents. She encourages the visitors she meets to enjoy the beauty and soak in the history and kedusha of Tzfat but to remember to “Be careful about your behavior and negative speech, especially about Eretz Yisrael. After all, this is the Holy Land.”
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Tamar Jacobs would be delighted to hear from any readers, to answer questions, or to find out more about her tours. She is reachable at email@example.com or 001-972-469-710-25.