Shabbat In Yafo

February 9, 2018

Yafo (Jaffa, Israel). Really? Does Shabbat come to Yafo? Most of us are used to descriptions of Shabbat in Jerusalem (and I’ll add another one next week when I, in fact, spend Shabbat in Jerusalem with our staff delegation from the JCC. However, this Shabbat, I’ll be spending it in Yafo with my friends Rabbi Levi and Paula Weiman Kelman. Levi recently retired as founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem, and is spending his first year as Rabbi Emeritus in Yafo, returning to Jerusalem in the summer. It’s my first Shabbat EVER in Yafo, and the concept intrigues me.

Yafo is an ancient city, tracing its founding to 7500 BCE! It’s a natural harbor and has been thriving for millennia. According to the Bible, it is the port from which the Prophet Jonah fled God’s commandment. Greek Mythology recognizes it as the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean where Perseus rescued Andromeda from a sea monster. Christian legend identifies it as the location of St. George’s famous slaying of the dragon. Alexander the Great, the Greek historian Flavius Josephus, St. Peter, Richard the Lionhearted, numerous Ottoman Sultans, and Napoleon all visited Yafo. It was the major point of entry for the Holy Land, and Jews, both tourists and pioneers arrived by sea to Yafo . . . some continuing to Jerusalem by train, or northward by cart or on foot. It was the only city along that part of the Mediterranean coast until the Jewish Pioneers founded Tel Aviv on the sand dunes directly North of the port city in 1909.

And . . . here is one of the most significant parts of the reality of Yafo: It has always been a city of mixed populations with Jews, Muslims, and European Christians living side by side in this small city. In 1922, the city consisted of 21,000 Muslims, 20,000 Jews, and 7,000 Christians. Today, the overall population is about the same, with about 30,000 Jews, and 16,000 Muslim & Christian Arabs. It’s neighboring city, Tel Aviv has a population of 430,000. (Actually Tel Aviv and Yafo are combined to create the municipality of “Tel Aviv – Yafo.) Other cities like Jerusalem, Beersheba, and Haifa certainly have mixed populations; however, the diverse communities live largely in separate neighborhoods.

So, unlike other cities in Israel, Shabbat is celebrated by Jews in and around their non-Jewish neighbors, much like we do here in Milwaukee! Yafo is definitely part of the sacred “Land of Israel” according to our Jewish tradition (it IS mentioned in the Bible, after all), so it is part of the holiness of the land. But Shabbat there has a feeling all its own.