They reached Wadi Eshcol and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes - it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them - and some pomegranates and figs... At the end of forty days... they made their report to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. -Numbers 13:23, 25, 26
Since 1992, our seminar center has provided educational tours for many North American tour groups, to various sites around the Galilee. One of the "must-sees" of course, is Safed, the city perched in the mountains, which was, for barely a century, a major center of Jewish religious creativity: refugees from the Spanish expulsion of 1492 settled there and made it a hub of kabbalistic thought and literature. Among the well-known products of 16th century Safed are the Kabbalat Shabbat service and the hymn L'chah Dodi, and the major law code, the Shulchan Aruch. Later, Safed's economic and political fortunes declined, and it was destroyed by earthquakes in 1759 and 1837; in 1948 it was an Arab town with a small Jewish community, mostly ultra-Orthodox. The Arabs fled in the War of Independence, and new neighborhoods were built for new immigrants. For years Safed was a summer resort destination because of its mountainous location, but with the spread of air conditioning it was eclipsed by Tiberias, which, while hot and sticky, offers a waterfront. An artists' colony developed in the old city, which helped keep the town on the tourism map, but it has remained a "must see" that almost no one stays in for more than the two hours it takes to do a standard tour.
In the 90s, week after week in July and August, I found myself trying to lead a busload of sweating American teenagers through the alleys of the old city (which can be romantic or squalid depending on your mood), waiting in line to get into old synagogues while trying to explain the significance of Lurianic Kabbalah and why these synagogues are important. This was frustrating, and so I decided to try a different approach, a self-guided tour in small groups, based on a mystery plot and short text readings. The game was pretty successful, and we still provide it now and then, especially for groups of families. Last week, I facilitated the game for a Reform synagogue group, on a day when the old city was flooded with tour groups, mostly birthright. The main alleyway through the art/souvenir market was total pedestrian gridlock - so much so that even in small groups it was hard to get around and enjoy the activity. The congestion occurs primarily along the main artery, Alkabetz Street, a narrow pedestrian alley lined with souvenir stalls alternating with higher-class art and/or craft shops.
It turns out that history is OK, mysticism can be interesting, the mountain view is nice, but shopping is compelling. Bringing back souvenirs from Israel has a long history (see above), and while I have fumed as an educator at tour leaders who happily sacrifice important historical sites to leave time for a certain sandal factory outlet store, I think that the desire to bring back mementoes of a trip - for oneself and for friends and relatives - is natural and appropriate. Perhaps we educators need to see shopping as an opportunity, not as a necessary evil. Maybe we need to give thought to helping people choose gifts and souvenirs that will contribute to their religious lives back home - or will remind them of important experiences they had here. I figure if a teenager is so busy choosing a havdalah candle to bring home that she can't really take in the history of L'chah Dodi, that's OK in the long run. And if adult tourists skip the text discussion to choose a biblical microcalligraphic painting for their living room, well, it's not a total loss. Generally, we assume that "we are what we buy" is a negative statement; but I think we need to recognize that choosing what pieces of Israel to possess and bring home can be an important part of the Israel experience.