The who, where, and why of mystic meccas

When the Israel Museum put on an exhibition here last year exploring the renaissance of Jewish worship at tombs, it ran into a translation dilemma.

The exhibition's English title was "To the Tombs of the Righteous: Pilgrimage in Contemporary Israel." Curator Rivka Gonen originally wanted to translate the Hebrew word tsadik as saint, but stopped short of doing so because of the word's heavy Roman Catholic connotation.

" 'Righteous' doesn't include all the attributes of the tsadik," Dr. Gonen says. "We do have saints in Judaism. It's easier to talk to the tsadik, to go to these tombs and tell them your problems, because they're holier than most people. They're closer to God and can relay the message."

Among these spiritual emissaries, many are sought out for their specialties. Barren women go to Rachel's Tomb, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, in search of fertility because, the Bible says, she wept for her children. Men pray at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, also in the West Bank, to ask for success and happiness.

Each year on the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, about 200,000 people camp out for several days around the Tomb of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, making it the largest religious gathering in Israel. Bar Yochai, a 3rd-century Talmudist whose ideas are the subject of the main book of Kabala called "The Zohar" ("The Book of Splendor"), is revered for revealing secrets of the universe to his students.

As such, his hillula - the day of commemoration marking the anniversary of a holy man or prophet's passing - is marked with huge bonfires around his resting place on Mt. Meron, near Safed in Israel. This year's festivities, which happened to fall two weeks before election day, were attended by candidates from the major political parties, including outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Safed and Netivot are two of the better-known mystic meccas, says Yoram Bilu, a Hebrew University psychologist and anthropologist, but there are several other small cities in remote areas of Israel where this trend has taken root. The Negev desert city of Beersheba, for example, has its own patron saint: Haim Houri, a Tunisian-born rabbi who died here in 1959.

"You see the flourishing of this phenomenon in the urban periphery. You don't see new saints or sanctuaries in Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem," Professor Bilu says, who also organized the Israel Museum exhibition. "This is the folk strata of Jewish religion."

Bilu attributes much of the revival of this culture to the reclamation of traditions developed by Jews in Morocco, who immigrated to Israel en masse in the late 1940s and early '50s. Their traditions, he explains in a soon-to-be published book under the same title as the Israel Museum exhibition, were heavily influenced by Moroccan Islam.

But there are deeper roots in Israel itself. After rising anti-Semitism spurred the expulsion of Jews in European cities - most notably from Spain in 1492 - many began to express a longing for the redemption of Israel foretold by the biblical prophets. Some of the exiles came here and, as theologian Karen Armstrong explains in her 1993 book, "A History of God," sought a new spirituality that had resonance with Jewish communities abroad.

"People longed for a more direct experience of God," Ms. Armstrong writes. "Kabbalists used to wander through the hills of Palestine and lie on the graves of the great Talmudists, seeking, as it were, to absorb their vision into their own troubled lives."

In the 16th century, Bilu points out, Jewish mysticism again began to experience a sort of renaissance, when travelers to the Holy Land discovered graves of great sages and biblical patriarchs. They also became symbols of national revival, he says, sometimes overriding their religious significance.

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