TALES FROM THE TOMBS
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
It certainly was odd. An Israeli kindergarden teacher, who seemed sane and intelligent, looked me in the eyes as she explained how she met her husband. “I was forty years old, and I was just about to give up on meeting a mate. Then I prayed at the tomb of Jonathan ben Uziel, and two weeks later I met him. Eight months later we were married.”
I chalked it up to coincidence until I met an artist who was bubbly, upbeat and very credible. “My life has changed,” she said. “I was so lonely but thenI prayed at the tomb of Jonathan ben Uziel and met my soulmate.”
I was in the vicinity of the tomb and decided to check out the departed matchmaker. Armed with a healthy dose of skepticism, I entered the women’s side of the low, whitewashed building, called a tsyun, that is made of local rocks, cement, earth and stones, and which houses the remains of the famed lst century C.E. rabbi.
Inside, the sepulcher was draped in a dark velvet cloth. Women prayed earnestly from Hebrew prayer books and several deposited coins and bills into charity tins. I looked around the room at the prayer offerings women had left behind : brightly-colored cloth, silk and chiffon scarves, plastic hair ornaments and underpants. Underpants?!
I was in Israel on a personal mission. I was born and raised Jewish, but I was disaffected from institutional Judaism. Over the past few decades, I had bathed my soul in the spiritual waters of many different traditions, but, for me, the world of synagogues and formal prayer books was dry and uninspiring. I longed for deep connection; I wanted to be stirred, moved and transported to transcendent realms. It hadn’t happened for me in America, but maybe it would happen in Israel. Although, courtesy of the media, we are assaulted every day by images of Arabs and Jews attacking, shooting, and killing each other, I was determined to find out if there was anything spiritual, mystical, healing and holy in the Holy Land. My husband Paul agreed to photograph whatever I found, but he had little interest in religion, holiness or other affairs of the spirit.
That is what brought me to the town of Safed in the area known as the Gallilee, in the north of Israel. It is where legendary rabbis inspired the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. It is also where, in the medieval period, brilliant rabbis developed and disseminated the mystical Torah studies known as Kaballah. The hills around Safed are dotted with ancient tombs. To Jewish believers, these tombs of long-deceased tsaddikim, or holy men, are the meeting place between the living and the dead. People make pilgrimages to the burial places to ask for blessings, favors, surcease from suffering. They do not actually pray to the rabbis; rather, they pray that the departed tsaddikim will intercede on their behalf with God. And because God looks favorably upon holy men and the merit of their lives, he is more likely to grant a request.
I wanted the hills surrounding Safed to be a spiritual place for me, but at the tomb of rabbi Uziel I was interested and amused, not inspired. Paul came out of the men’s side (men and women are separated in orthodox Judaism) and when I asked him what had happened he tersely responded, “Nothing.”
I decided to visit one other grave in the small, ancient village of Meron
Paul and I climbed up the narrow main street of Meron to two stone archways with Hebrew inscriptions(one arch for men and one for women) that led to the whitewashed tzyun. Paul entered the men’s section, looked around, shot a few photos, shrugged and exited. But for me, on the women’s side, something very different and highly unexpected was going on. As soon as I entered the room, my body began to shake and I started to sob. I looked around, self-consciously. A few women sat on benches, and others stood facing the walls or the tomb itself, praying. No one was paying any attention to me as the front of my pale blue shirt was splattered by tears. I walked, no, I wove to the tomb, placed my head on the cool, white exterior, and prayed and cried for healing for my thinning bones. I felt as though–how can I describe this?
When I came out into the stark afternoon sun, Paul was waiting for me. I had been gone about twenty minutes. I told him what had happened, and he listened. He was surprised, but couldn’t really connect to what I was describing. For hours afterwards, tears welled up in my eyes. I knew that something had happened at the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai, but I didn’t know what it was.
Our next stop was at the tomb of Baba Sali in Netivot. Baba Sali was a Moroccon holy man who is credited with many miraculous healings. He died in 1984 and has a very large following in north Africa and Israel. I was turned off as soon as I arrived at the large and well-developed site with its multiple buildings because it felt very institutionalized. A well-dressed male employee spoke to visitors, droning on and on about buildings and books and the history of the place. There were glossy pamphlets and wall plaques and I wandered off to try to find a connection, a feeling, something personal and meaningful. When I looked up, a bus arrived, and a line of Yemenite women got out. I was immediately drawn to them, and started to talk to them in English, broken Hebrew, French and hand-signals. One of them, an older woman, grabbed my hand, and I followed her. She took me to a small booth where a man sold boxes of candles. I did as she did, and purchased one, for about two dollars. Then she led me to a large outdoor furnace, where a fire was burning. One by one, she removed each of the 12 candles from the box. Each one represented a family member or friend; she prayed over it and tossed it into the fire. I did as she did
A small group of tourists arrived in the room and they began to speak in English about the tomb. They said it was where the architect who had built the Baba Sali center was buried. I felt terrible for my new Yemenite friend. She was praying at the wrong tomb! I decided to tell her this wasn’t where her beloved Baba Sali was interred, so that she could re-direct her prayers. To my surprise, the news didn’t disturb her or her friends at all. If this was the architect, or someone else, it didn’t matter. It was a person associated with Baba Sali, and that was good enough for them. They continued to pray, and then they moved on to the actual tomb of Baba Sali, and prayed once more. At each spot, they wept and intoned until it was time for them to board the bus again. When my new friend hugged me good-bye, she put her hand over her heart and sighed. It was clear that she had gotten from Baba Sali what she came for.
I felt as though I was on the trail of something, but it was still vague. I began to ask Israelis I met about other tombs, and they all said that the major annual tomb event would be taking place in a few days at the gravesite of Shimon bar Yochai. It was important to go there before sunset. Great. I already knew where it was. I would go back there again. Paul agreed without much enthusiasm.
And so, on the holiday of Lag B’omer, in the merry month of May, we headed to Meron. Lag B’omer is a spring holiday that is associated with bringing barley offerings to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, more than two millennia ago. Over the centuries, several tragic events happened at this time of year, and it is a period of semi-mourning for observant Jews. But on Lag B’omer, there was surcease from suffering, miracles occurred, and the day is happy and celebratory.
When we arrived at Meron, the place was unrecognizable. Pilgrims had to park ten or even 20 minutes away because the roads were jammed with cars. The streets of the town were bursting with women, children and bearded men attired in traditional, orthodox black: well over a hundred thousand believers came from all over Israel to pay homage to Shimon bar Yochai, on the anniversary of his death. He was said to have been the most joyous of the rabbis, and on his deathbed he revealed the light of the Torah to his students. He asked that his death be marked with festivity, so his followers arrived in a state of celebratory exuberance.
On the main street, it was like a carnival. In makeshift booths, vendors sold crafts, religious objects, clothes, books, dates and nuts and soft drinks. Families were camped out in tents. Men in long beards asked for charity or offered blessings. According to tradition, if a man and woman are having fertility problems, the man gives out the contents of 18 bottles of wine on Lag B’Omer to cure the barrenness. As Paul and I walked through the street, young men pressed glasses of wine on us; we drank, of course, because it would be rude not to honor their desire for children.
As we advanced toward the tomb, there was loud Hebrew music blasting from loud speakers. On huge screens, there was a video of the much-admired Lubavitcher Rabbi and in the street, people gave out fliers and prayer cards which bore the name of Nachman of Bratslav, another famed rabbi. People were hawking wares and hanging out. Was this Meron or Woodstock?
The sun was going down in the west, and as soon as it disappeared, a great bonfire was prepared near the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai. It is said that when he revealed the Torah on his deathbed, there was a blazing light around him, and everyone saw it. To this day, he is associated with light, and fires are lit in his honor. It was very difficult to see what was going on because of the thousands and thousands of people gathered near the sepulcher. Paul held his camera over his head, clicking away. A rabbi poured olive oil and the bonfire blazed
The actual tomb was mobbed because, by tradition, men bring their young sons to get their first haircuts on this night. There were no women allowed, but Paul decided to elbow his way in so that he could get some photos. It took him about five minutes to work his way through the crowd. I expected him to stay for a minute or two and re-emerge, but he didn’t come out. Half an hour passed, and suddenly I saw Paul. His face was flushed. When I asked him what had happened, he said that he had been pulled into the dancing. He had put his arms around the shoulders of the men next to him, and kicked up his heels as they did. There were dozens and dozens of men in the dance. Even more suprising, Paul said he had found it oddly bonding, moving and meaningful.
I looked around me, and suddenly I understood. This was not the cerebral, institutionalized Judaism I had found so empty. It was an outpouring of joyful, crazy, irrational ecstasy. Whether I agreed with their brand of orthodox Judaism or not, it was undeniable that these men in black and their families were moved and transported and had faith.
Faith. Yes. That was the key to it all. It was faith that made women looking for their soulmates leave behind scarves and underpants at the tomb of Rabbi Uziel. It was faith that I felt when I entered the sepulchral building that housed Shimon bar Yochai. Faith that I could be healed. Over the years, millions of people had entered that same room, praying for success and for healing; they had left behind a palpable energy that emanated from their prayers and tears. It was faith that brought the Yemenite women to the tomb of Baba Sali, faith that he and everyone associated with him would help them to heal and find well-being. And it was faith in the streets of Meron on Lag B’omer. The belief that young couples could become fertile, that the spirit of Rabbi Shimon was hovering around, that humans could be blessed with prosperity and community and healing and well-being. That through the year-long study of Torah and mysticm, they could find union with human kind and with God.
And so I knew that through a brush with the dead, I was well on my way to experiencing what was holy, spiritual and sacred among the living. Even Paul had felt a stirring in his soul. Our trip to Israel was not in vain.
A spiritual trip to Israel can begin on El Al Airlines, where orthodox Jewish men, in traditional black garb, pray in the aisles and in the back of the planes. It is quite an experience! Although it takes a little searching, there are broad spiritual offerings in Israel<jewish, christian,=”” moslem,=”” new=”” age,=”” old=”” eastern,=”” bedouin.=”” this=”” list=”” will,=”” i=”” hope,=”” set=”” you=”” the=”” path.<=”” font=””>
The Ascent center in Safed. Orthodox Jews offer classes in Kabbalah and mysticism and spiritual tours of the area, including the tombs. Phone: 0-4-692-1364. e-mail: email@example.com internet: http://www.ascent.org.ilAddressL P.O.B. 296, Safed 13102, Israel Ezuz
Chef Ronen Bar-El and Genine, his wife, invite visitors to their 150-year-old stone house in Safed for kosher vegetarian lunches and dinners, accompanied or followed by discussions with kabbalah scholars, meetings with local artists and performances of klezmer music. The Ronens arrange spiritual tours of Safed. Their address is Rehov Yud Zayin 23, phone (04) 692-3661. (I have not personally experienced this.)
There is a booklet by Yadin Roman called Galilee: Land of Miracles published by Eretz magazine. Address: Eretz Group 5 Ma’avar Yabok Street 67440 Tel Aviv, Israel Boombamela Festival–four days of music, meditation, movement and spiritual replenishment at Nitzanim Beach, south of Ashdod at Passover time. HaMakom–a reatreat for secular Israelis 45 minutes outside of Jerusalem. Offers yoga, tai chi prayer and meditation lectures.
Sari Shoval: In the beautiful hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee, this sculptress does healings by using movement, painting, tarot cards and aura cleansings.
Sari Shoval 7 Hayarden St. Ramat Begin 13200 Safed, Israel 04 6922202 (Home) 04 6020206 (Gallery) 053 398729 (Mobile) firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also log onto the Israel Tourism Bd website: www.goisrael.com
PLEASE NOTE: Photos are available for all locations and articles listed in the “articles” section. Please contact us for samples and pricing
|AUTHOR CONTACT INFORMATION: