During those two decades, Safed was quite different to the city of today and was also home to some of the country's best night clubs attracting important musicians and singers including Naomi Shemer who made her debut performance here! And at least one of my friends remembers going to some good parties there when she was just a little bit younger!
The city is somewhat different these days. The artists are still there and there are a number of small, excellent private galleries too, but the clubs and the parties are long gone as the city has become visibly more religious. The religiosity of the city is not new as many famous Rabbis lived and worked here, Safed is the home of the Kabbalah and there are some very old very beautiful synagogues here too - all worth a visit and many with some interesting stories! My favourite is the Yosef Caro synagogue located within the art market. It has a long and illustrious history including being destroyed in earthquakes in 1759 and 1837 but survived a katyusha rocket that arrived courtesy of Hizbollah in the 1980's, a piece which is on display. The synagogue also offers a terrific view across the Galilean hills - something we will come back too a little later, but here is a taster in the meantime (see picture below).
It is three years since I was last in Safed and one of the main reasons for my return was to visit the Yitzhak Frenkel Museum which had been closed last time I was there. Getting in to the museum was a bit of a challenge. The website says the museum is open all year - but it wasn't. However, I did manage to have what turned out to be a private view, courtesy of the extremely helpful, friendly and knowledgeable Yakov Hadad. Yakov has his own gallery almost next door to the museum and it is a must see for anyone visiting Safed. It is located in Moshe Castel's former home - which is attested by a notice on the outside of the building. Yakov has works by Frenkel and his pupil Shimshon Holzmann as well as some interesting Cameroonian works in wood. Yakov's gallery is easy to find at 148 Arlozorv Street in the Artists' Quarter. You will recognise it from its beautiful main door (pictured below).
But back to Frenkel who was born in Odessa in 1899 and came to Eretz Israel in 1919. In 1920 he established an artists' co-operative in Jaffa but a few years later returned to study in Europe, becoming one of the most important artists at the Ecole de Paris and a contemporary of Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani, Mane-Katz and others. Returning to Eretz Israel in 1925 he taught in Tel Aviv before settling in Safed in 1934, before the establishment of the artists colony.
The Frenkel museum is housed in what looks like a small cottage, but once inside it is almost labyrinthine with one room of artistic treasure leading to another. The collection includes self-portraits, Biblical scenes and family portraits. I loved the picture in the final room of the gallery which shows the Frenkel family group playing musical instruments. There are many images of his children and of their mother, Ilana and many scenes of Safed - clearly both major loves in Frenkel's life. I also liked Frenkel's unusual portrait of French mime artist Marcel Marceau - unusual in that Marceau appears more than once in the same picture perhaps indicating the different lives of a mime. Thank you very much Yakov for showing me around!
One of my first stops last time I was here was the General Exhibition - the central venue in the Artists' Quarter where the work of many of Safed's artists is exhibited and offered for sale. I remember being fascinated by the work of Miriam Mehadipur. Her work makes strong references to Persian as well as Jewish art and tradition and includes many geometric patterns and floral motifs. Her paintings often feature a male and female couple and are deeply romantic. Some of the figures are pictured in a womb like space, growing together and protecting each other (see below - Song of Songs). The paintings are large, with deep, thick colour and many are enhanced with the beautiful carved wooden frames - the work of her Persian Jewish husband, Menachem.
I was lucky enough to meet Miriam this time. She explained to me that although she is not religious, she is spiritual and that this is reflected in her work. She also told me that she had painted in this way before meeting her husband and that she was unsure where this link came from. Miriam has a small gallery in the Artists' Quarter where visitors can see and purchase her work - including small prints of some of the larger pictures. She is an extremely friendly and sympathetic person and I was lucky enough to share her husband's home cooking with her and another friend on the roof of the friend's house. Great food, great view, great art! You can see more of Miriam's pictures on google image. Miriam now has a new website with pictures of her work and her beautiful Safed home here.
Still on the subject of food, Safed is lacking in good quality restaurants. There is pizza and falafel aplenty, but for something different, try Ronen'sYemenite Food Bar in the old city (pictured below -with Ronen). The speciality is a Yemenite flat bread called lachuch, which is filled with the excellent local cheeses, tomatoes, onions, herbs and most importantly zatar. He also offers salads, dips and his flyer boasts a "rich wine cellar!" Together with my Persian treat this was easily the best food I had in Safed. You can also buy discs of spiritual music here as well as books and even the Yemenite headgear worn by some of Ronen's staff.
The Mikedem Fine Art Gallery is just a short step from the food bar. The gallery is filled with work by contemporary Israeli artists, currently including that of Leonid Balaklav. Balaklav is a religious Jew and emigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1990. His work is extremely moving. I was especially drawn to a family group with a mother nursing an infant whilst two older boys play chess. There is another boy, a little younger than the chess players, but with the most haunting expression. The gallery owner told me that Balaklav says that when he paints children, he is really painting himself. You can see a small version of this picture here. be prepared to have your heart broken with the boy's expression and your sense stunned by the Israeli light that Balaklav has captured.
You can also see some of the sculptures of Zvika Lachman in the gallery. Zvika is probably Israel's greatest living sculptor and is currently working on a project with the Mikedem Gallery to provide a number of sculptures for the Ghetto Fighters Museum at Kibbutz Lohammei HaGetaot. The Mikedem is another friendly place. I went in to make a cheeky request for help with a bus timetable (don't ask - long story!), got the help which was gladly given and then spent an hour chatting with the owner about Israeli art, the history of Safed, the music of Avishai Cohen and much more!
There are hundreds of small galleries on Safed and art is everywhere. That includes garage doors, external electrical supply cupboards and just about anything else you can paint or place a sculpture on. One of my favourites is below.
I came away from Safed having made some new friends, with a couple of prints in my bag (purchased of course!) and having sampled some great food. I promised earlier to return to the view of the Galilean hills. ell, I have to confess, that the view is probably my favourite piece of "art" in Safed and possibly in Israel. Those hills roll on and on to the horizon and as the sun begins to fall the changes in colour and light are breathtaking. Photography in fading light is not my forte, but I hope the picture below gives just a hint of how beautiful it is.