Tzfat is one of those places that can’t seem to make up its mind. Over the centuries, the small Israeli city, perched high above the Sea of Galilee, has seesawed between the sacred and the profane. At various times, Tzfat has been a retreat for Tel Avivians seeking to escape the summer heat, a magnet for gamblers and prostitutes, an artists’ colony, a sleepy Arab village and a battlefield. Throughout it all, though, Tzfat has remained a “thin place”.
This Celtic term, invented to describe a place where the distance between Heaven and Earth is compressed, neatly captures a subtle quality that a few places possess. Heaven and Earth, the Celts believed, are often closer than we think. But in thin places, you can feel the divine.
Thin places are often relaxing, but not always. They might be enjoyable, or they might not. What they always possess, though, is the capacity to transform, to strip away the layers of falseness and striving that define so much of our lives, and to reveal something deeper, something more essential.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar, the heart of the Sikh religion, is a perfect example of a thin place. The marble flooring feels cool under your feet, and the compound, with its soothing waters and melodic music, quiets the mind, reorients it. You needn’t be a Sikh to feel something stir deep inside.
So, yes, thin places are spiritual, but not conventionally so. A forest can be a thin place, and so can a library. Even bars or shopping malls can be thin places, though admittedly it’s less likely. Similarly, not all “spiritual” places are thin. Jerusalem, the “city of peace”, fails to stir my soul.
Not so with Tzfat. Every time I visit the city (and city is a stretch; it’s more of a big town) I feel an unexpected calm descend. It may not be Heaven, not exactly, but the soft air and unhurried atmosphere lend a lightness to an otherwise heavy land. Tzfat is one of those places people visit for a few days, on a lark, and, next thing they know a lifetime has passed.
That’s what happened with Daniel Flatauer. Briton by birth, potter by training and Kabbalist by disposition. Some 40 years ago, he was on his way to Japan where he planned on studying pottery and mysticism. He stopped in Tzfat for a few days, and never left. He found what he was looking for here, he said.
Kabbalah, the mystical strain of Judaism, has flourished in Tzfat for centuries. When the Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492, some settled in Tzfat. Among them were scholars and mystics who had studied Kabbalah. They brought with them their passion for the subject, and soon several schools of Kabbalah took root. The spiritual practice might not have been born in Tzfat, but it came of age here, and acquired a vitality, a quirkiness, that persists to this day.
It lives in the Orthodox Jew conventionally attired in an ankle-length dress with a scarf-covered head – with a yoga mat slung over her shoulder. It lives in the Hasidic Jew wearing the traditional long black coat and hat – but riding a unicycle, like the kind you might see clowns atop at a circus. This is the essence of Tzfat, a place where the traditional and the zany coexist happily. Those who settle here are spiritual misfits who don’t feel at home in the straitjacket world of Orthodox Jerusalem or in the anything-goes world of secular Tel Aviv. In Tzfat, they feel no compunction to conform.
Tzfat attracts its share of travellers too, but doesn’t cater to them. Hotels are few, and hardly inspired. (Thankfully, a number of charming bed and breakfasts have stepped into that void.) The restaurants are, with very few exceptions, mediocre. Yes, there are plenty of art galleries but they are not Soho-chic. Tzfat, in other words, is scruffy, and therein lays its charm. Thin places have no need for adornment.
My favourite time in Tzfat is the Sabbath, what the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel called a “sanctuary in time”. That sanctuary, of course, exists anywhere the Sabbath is observed, but there’s something special about the way Tzfat residents honour the day with a combination of reverence and whimsy.
Ironically, the Friday evening hours are marked by frenetic activity, the storm before the calm. It’s like Washington DC before a snowstorm. Everyone is stocking up, feeling the press of a rapidly approaching deadline. Then, the siren sounds, signalling the beginning of the Sabbath, and it’s as if someone pressed a giant mute button. The only sounds are that of footsteps, as people head to the city’s many synagogues, tiny stone structures, or to the nearby fields to practice “Kabbala Shabbat”, greeting the Sabbath by immersing oneself in nature. Doing so, the artist David Freedman told me, “brings joy and inner meaning to every aspect of life”. It’s the sort of comment that would strike me as overwrought anyplace else. Not in Tzfat.
Tzfat taught me how to sit still. Here, unlike so many other places, I never feel like I am missing something, that there is something “better” out there. Tzfat made me realise that joy can be found in some unusual places. Even cemeteries. The one in Tzfat, spilling across a hillside, is filled with streams of families and pilgrims praying upon the graves of the giants of Kabbalah.
I’ve visited Tzfat several times. Each time, it gets better, thinner, or maybe I just appreciate its goodness more. I’m not sure. But I am sure of this: familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes it breeds affection.
Eric Weiner is a recovering malcontent and philosophical traveller. He is the author of, among other books, The Geography of Bliss and the forthcoming The Geography of Genius. Follow him on Twitter.