During the Middle Ages, the majority of the Jews living in the Land of Israel lived in Tzfat. During the 16th and 17th centuries A.D., Tzfat was a comfortable and inviting habitat for Jews. There were economic opportunities for people living in Tzfat, and Torah study was flourishing. Tzfat was also developing as the world center of Kabbalah study, and during this time, some of Judaism's biggest rabbis and scholars came to live, study and work in Tzfat.
As time went by it became increasingly difficult for residents of Tzfat. Earthquakes leveled the city twice, and attacks by neighboring Arabs created panic. By the early part of the 20th century, the population had diminished considerably, and the famine caused by the Turks before and during World War I made the situation in Tzfat intolerable - the majority of the population left Tzfat, and by 1920, there were former-Tzfat families who had emigrated to every corner of the world.
Today, descendents of these families come back to Tzfat to visit from such far-flung places as Brazil, Australia, South Africa and Canada. They know almost nothing about their families' history in Tzfat other than a few names and the fact that their ancestors had once lived in Tzfat. They are all curious about these ancestors and look for information that may help them put their genealogical puzzles together.
Mapping The Cemetery
Several resources exist for such researchers. One resource is a unique tour guide, David Amiel , who has extensively studied Tzfat's history. David is interested in the people who lived in Tzfat, and his vast knowledge has made him a valued resource for many researchers who have contacted him - he graciously shares whatever he knows about each family, which is generally extensive and detailed....who married who, where they lived, what they did, and most importantly, what has happened to the various family members. David has helped many families reunite with cousins from throughout the world. David can be contacted at [email protected]
Tzfat's second resource for genealogy researchers is another well-known tour guide, Haim Sidor, who has embarked on a remarkable project of mapping the Tzfat cemetery. With little support or funding, Haim has, for many years, been quietly visiting the Old Tzfat cemetery several times each month, walking through the weeds which cover the tombstones to try to decipher the names, birthdates, parents' names, and any other information which can be found on these tombstones. Genealogists see cemeteries as gold mines for finding information about ancestors, and this is doubly true in Jewish cemeteries where the names of the deceased are often written together with the names of the deceased's parents.
Haim is a known figure in Tzfat - he is one of Tzfat's most popular and knowledgeable tour guides. His work in mapping the cemetery is a labor of love, as he believes that remembering the names and histories of the people who build Tzfat and filled her streets with Torah and Judaism is the ultimate respect that can be shown. Haim can be contacted at [email protected]
Finally, the Tsfat Roots Online Resource is a website created to enable researchers to look for historical and genealogical information from one centralized site. Haim Sidor's cemetery mapping is here, as are a number of historical documents, including burial and population records, passport registration records, a list from the Tzfat Old Age Home, and a membership list from the 1912 Kollel (Study House). The lists can be accessed at http://www.tsfat.com/projects/tsfatroots/tsfatroots.htm