Last week I took a two-day trip to Safed, an ancient city in the northern Galilee. My main project at work is to spearhead the process of getting Safed's old city registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My organization wants to help the city achieve this goal in an effort to make Safed into a pilot for Israel, an example of economic growth, inclusivity, and focus on regional assets. Safed is a lovely little city with a rich history in Jewish and Islamic mysticism, but it is also one of the most racist cities in Israel. It is a highly religious and segregated city with complex social issues and economic stagnation (currently 40% of the city's residents are on welfare). It's a city with three absorption centers for African immigrants, is over 99% Jewish in the city center, has a large Palestinian presence in its excellent college and Faculty of Medicine, and includes in its municipality the little village of Achbara, completely cut off from the Safed center. It's a complicated project, to say the least.
I was generously offered lodging by Livnot Lehibanot, an organization that runs several programs with Birthright Israel programs, volunteer groups, and tourists. I was given my own room, which was charmingly outfitted like a 19th century Spanish orphanage, and spent a pleasant two days visiting the city's historic sites, pouring over the library's books, and attending classes at Ascent, one of the centers for Kabbalah in Safed. There is a restaurant that serves traditional Yemeni food, where I ate a kind of crepe made with handmade local goat and sheep's milk cheeses, Za'atar, vegetables, and a spicy mash of sesame and chilis. I interviewed several residents, and took a walk down the steep mountain into the graveyard where famous 16th century Kabbalists are buried, called "The Graves of the Righteous." The city also has the ruins of a crusader castle at the very top of it's mountain, where I hiked up one morning to watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee.
As much as I like this city, which is a welcome, fresh-air respite from the smog and humidity of Tel Aviv, I feel utterly like an outsider there. This isn't necessarily a bad feeling, but it makes me feel like I can't quite reach into the information I am collecting there. During my two days there, I met a little chocolate brown dog. He seemed to like me, and followed me around while I stayed there, even sleeping outside the gate of the hostel while I was in my room. He didn't belong to anybody in the city, and neither did I. It felt good to wander the place together.