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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Israel: Visiting Graves, and Digging Your Own

This is Israel: Yesterday I was on a "nature trail," which, without doubt, is an Israeli euphemism for X-treme Sports. In Philadelphia, there was a nature trail that swept around a few meadows and groves of trees and dovetailed into a new housing development that had chopped away the rest of the forest. Here in the Golan, the phrase "nature trail" indicates a trail of barely-there rocks, the plurality of which are equal to or smaller than the width of your foot, jutting out of a cliff.

About an hour and a half in, without warning (and, certainly, without any semblance of sanity) the narrow trail of rocks which we've been precariously balancing ourselves upon gives out, replaced by a handful of metal rungs plopped into the side of the rock bed. Horizontal surfaces as we know them cease to exist, and there's a 20-foot drop into a steam that's 25 feet deep.

It's extreme, alright. But it’s also that particularly Israeli brand of springing total insanity upon you without warning, a reminder that for every anxiety-filled border crossing there's a mountain with a view that will knock the fear of God into you, and for every bomb around the corner, there's also a tiny 3000-year-old synagogue with immaculate stone buttresses around the next corner.

This afternoon we visited Tsfat. It was supposed to be a 30-minute drive, but we kept passing graves. There's a weird code to Israeli gravesites: many tzaddikim, or righteous people, are buried outside of cemeteries—in their own mini-graveyards, or in the middle of nature trails, or just on the side of the road. (One hopes that those ever-lovin' nature trails were not the cause of most of these tzaddikim being buried there, but since the stories about tzaddikim always seem to involve granting miracles, impossible journeys, and staring death right in the face, you have to allow for the possibility that, sometimes, death will not just stare idly back at them.) Some of the graves have domes over them, which indicates their more-exalted-than-normal status. Others, for a similar reason, are painted a turquoise shade of sea blue. I don't know if either or both of those things intimate something specific, or whether there’s a general hierarchy, but these are the things I’ve learned here in a very short time.

That, and that gravesites sometimes make the best concert venues.

We whizzed past a road sign, bleak and unadorned in the middle of a thousand Burma Shave-like advertisements. I only got a chance to glance at it before we’d passed it in the dust. “Hey,” I said, “that was Rebbe Elazar's grave. From the Talmud.”

“Oh!” Itta said. She is the vigilant one among us. She’s always keeping track of the religious stuff I’m supposed to do. “You should pray there.”

“But I’ll pray in Tzfat....”

“No, really. It’s good to pray here.” We passed a pair of other signs -- one for a rebbe buried next to his mother; the other for Rebbe Yossi Saragosi -- and Itta pulled over. “Get out.”


“Go on. It’ll be good for you.”

We were about 10 minutes shy of Tsfat. The kid was still asleep in the back. If I took 10 minutes at the grave, that would be another 10 minutes added on to her nap, an amount of time that would prove to be immeasurably valuable in the coming hours. “Fine,” I consented, giving it that condescending grumble that, if I played it right, I could sometimes manage to score some sympathy points that could get me the last French fry left at dinner, or excuse me from a diaper-changing later that night.

So I went. And it was painless. No, let me clarify: it was actually pretty awesome. The grave was about 500 feet into the woods, sloping down a hill. The only way you could tell the direction for sure was by way of the track marks. I climbed down, opening and then closing (for no clear reason) the type of gate one had around a cattle paddock, and soon coming to a small paved porch in the middle of a small grove. A few stairs descended to the main grave area. On it sat a bunch of Hasidic guys in black slacks and T-shirts, their tzitzit worn on top. Even their sidelocks hung free, frizzed-out. It was totally like a walking in on them backstage.

They grinned at me and said something in Hebrew, too quick for me to catch. I assumed it was a standard "hey, what’s up" and responded appropriately. Then I made my way to the tomb itself.

It stood maybe four feet off the ground, an impressive height, especially when you’re dead. It was the length of a body, although in Judaism bodies are always buried below the ground; it was probably all concrete. There was a laminated piece of paper on the side talking about the rabbi’s life, his deeds and his legacy. The simplicity of it -- you know, somewhere there’s probably someone writing up a new, updated sign and laminating it right now, if not for Rebbe Yossi, than for someone like him -- was both inspiring and heartbreaking.

And, off to the side, a baby cried. I took a peek. There was a posse of three or four women -- the wives of the guys with no shirts, most likely -- almost entirely surrounded by tapestries, babies in tow, hanging out, sheltered by the hillside and the stone walls of the gravesite. Is this what the rabbi would have wanted? Actually, probably, yeah. In a weird way, it’s like a New Orleans funeral, the kind with swing dancing and a raucous Dixie band—only, here, this kind of celebration lasts forever. Even if you didn’t know Rabbi Yossi in the first place. Even if you can’t read the Hebrew on the laminated sheet.

We made it, eventually, to Tsfat. My wife's old roommate told us about her new business venture: a gym and fitness center for Haredi women. The idea has been taking off, especially in a mountain town like Tsfat, where pretty much the only source of physical activity is climbing the narrow stairways of the streets. Meanwhile, I wandered out onto their balcony, a narrow stone stretch which, like every other balcony in Tzfat, looked out onto the cemetery. Right outside her window, but a mountain away, I was face to face with the grave of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal -- one of Judaism’s original spiritualists, and arguably the innovator of kabbalah. His grave, one of the most popular attractions in a cemetery teeming with famous tzaddikim (including but not limited to Hannah and her Seven Sons and Hosea the Prophet), always had a crowd. In fact, it routinely got so crowded that there were separate sections for men and women.

But just then, there was a dearth in foot traffic. For the moment, it was just me and the Ari, making a one-sided eye contact, both of us ground to a halt in our respective social scenes. It was a kind of nice moment. It reminded me, not of anything in particular -- that the real meaning of kabbalah is receiving? that even great rabbis had to go off and have some alone time to think once in a while? -- or maybe just that we all end up in the same place. No matter what color monument ends up on top of us.

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