Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Sephardic Golden Path


I was raised in a home where terms like “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Haredi, Secular Zionist” or the like were not a part of our vocabulary. Jews were Jews. In our home, we observed and respected our traditions, including Shabbatot, holidays and synagogue life. We may not have been considered “religious enough” by certain people’s standards, but we were unapologetic about who we were. We did not live our Jewish practices to conform to somebody else’s opinion, nor did we change our way of life because a rabbi wrote an article deciding to impose new strictures on the community. We celebrated Judaism with a deep sense of commitment to our heritage, and to the traditions of our family’s ancestors. We observed Judaism with warmth and beauty. Shabbat and holiday tables had a sense of artistic grandeur and culinary magic. We delighted in our foods, our tunes, and our stories. We didn’t spend much time talking about our “philosophy or ideology.” We ate, we sang, told and listened to stories, and we celebrated. Conversations about “Haredim on the right” or “Secularists on the left” were not a part of our Shabbat tables. Classic “Divrei Torah” (words of Torah) were not always shared at the table, but if they were, they were void of so-called “Jewish politics”. Our Shabbat tables – and our Jewish lives in general – were void of denominational ideologies or affiliations. Some may view this as naïve or simplistic. I view it as an “undeclared ideology,” one that was not born in conferences or conventions, but was naturally lived by thousands of Sephardic families, and was the mode of teaching by Sephardic rabbis and sages. This became known as the “Sephardic Way of Life” – tradition, celebration, tolerance, and non-extremism. Life lived in the cherished and golden “middle path,” as Maimonides called it.


When I identify myself as a “Sephardic Jew” today, it is these very values handed to me by my parents that serve as my frame of reference. For me, “Sephardic” means much more than my ethnic background, my cuisine, or my particular set of customs and traditions. It is a Jewish way of life that looks at Judaism without labels, places the unity of the Jewish people above any one particular denomination or ideology, and understands that Jewish tradition – primarily halakha – will only survive and thrive if rabbis are endowed with the creative license and authority (as they were in the past) to facilitate Jewish life within the modern world that we live in.

Until very recently, when Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodoxy came to influence certain sectors of Sephardic rabbinic leadership, the classic position of Sephardic rabbis was always one that balanced tradition and modernity, and reflected a tolerant and moderate approach to halakha. Sephardic rabbis always understood that it does not take a great Talmid Haham (Rabbinic Scholar) to be strict. Anyone knows how to say “no,” and a ruling of “it’s absolutely prohibited” usually reflects ignorance of halakha and of the halakhic system. On the other hand, a freewheeling, irreverent, “do whatever feels right” approach to halakha is also at odds with Jewish tradition. It’s a lot easier to be extreme to either side, but seeking the balanced middle ground takes knowledge, understanding, sensitivity to the circumstances…and creativity.

In an article titled “The Leadership and Tradition of Sephardic Sages in the Modern Era,” Rabbi Yitschak Shuraki of Jerusalem’s Memizrach Shemesh writes:

 What characterizes the rabbinic methods of the Sephardic sages? Between the strict and the liberal positions, the Sephardic Sages established a third path in which their great humility before God and their commitment to serve God and the community brought them to adopt original halakhic stances in order to deal with new situations, without fearing lenient decisions, rulings and originality.

While not a denomination or movement, Sephardic Judaism – with it’s creative and unique blend of tradition, modernity, tolerance, spirituality and culture – indeed embodies a distinct philosophy and approach to Judaism. Like all other philosophies and ideologies of Judaism, Sephardic Judaism is open to Jews of any background who find the “Golden Path” of Sephardic Judaism appealing and spiritually meaningful. Sephardic Judaism is beautiful, and when practiced properly, it has the spiritual power to bring tremendous meaning to Jewish life.

If you are a Sephardic Jew, it is in your hands to help preserve and promote Sephardic Judaism as a living tradition. Commit yourselves to keeping the Sephardic way alive, so that future generations of Jews will benefit from our cherished Sephardic golden path.





Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Sephardic S.Y. Agnon


(published in the Jewish Journal/April 18, 2013)



In current discourses on modern Israeli literature, the names Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman typically dominate the discussion. But how often do we hear the name Haim Sabato? Who is Sabato, and why is his writing often compared to Nobel Prize-winning Israeli author S.Y. Agnon?

When I first met Sabato, the setting was not the typical book-lined study or corner table at the literary cafe. Instead, it was the beit midrash of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim, where he lives, studies, teaches Talmud — and writes novels.
Born in Egypt and descended from a long line of rabbis from Aleppo, Syria, Sabato is one of the most unique voices in modern Israeli literature. His writing is inspired by Agnon, whose stories he read as a child, and the similarities between the two are striking: Both are religiously observant, both employ a linguistic style that draws heavily from biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, and both tell their stories through a narrator who has a striking resemblance to the author.
But there are major differences, and Sabato pointed them out in — of all places — Beit Agnon (Agnon’s House), where he delivered the annual “Agnon Memorial Lecture” a few years ago. 
“I followed in Agnon’s footsteps in immersing my stories in the traditional sources … but I felt a few layers were completely missing from his language. I wondered, where are the wordplays of the Sephardic kabbalists, what about the homiletics of the Aleppo scholars, the halachic terminology of Moroccan rabbis, the Aramaic translations of Yemenite Jews, and the Ladino scholars of Jerusalem who mix Midrash and Bible, dip it in Rashi, and create Ladino idioms? I was zealous for them, so their language not be forsaken and lost. Who will sketch their profiles, in their language?”
Sabato’s literary journey began with “Aleppo Tales” and, most recently, “From the Four Winds.”
But his second and third books are what distinguish Sabato as a great novelist. In these novels, he writes from a uniquely Sephardic perspective. He tells Israel’s Sephardic story, of immigrants and of scholars. He seeks to demonstrate how Sephardic Jews interacted with and ultimately integrated into the predominant Ashkenazic culture of Israeli society, all the while struggling to maintain their distinct culture and heritage.

“Adjusting Sights” is a classic Yom Kippur War novel; based on Sabato’s own experiences, the narrator — Haim — tells the story of what happened to him and his childhood friend, Dov (a real childhood friend of Sabato’s), during that war. But beyond the powerful narrative of friendship, faith and the turmoil of the Yom Kippur War, Sabato’s story has a deeper message. In the beginning, Haim recounts his childhood as an immigrant from Egypt who now lives in the impoverished neighborhood of Beit Mazmil, just outside of Jerusalem (true to Sabato’s own story — which he returns to and expands in his fourth novel, “From the Four Winds). Haim’s cousin, Shabtai, takes him out to play, and as the two sit on the side of the soccer field talking, they are suddenly surrounded by a group of boys from the neighborhood who shout, “Arabs! Arabs!” Haim bursts into tears, and it is a tough Sephardic boy — Momo and his “gang” — who rescues Haim and Shabtai. 
“These kids aren’t Arabs. They’re talking Arabic because they’re new … no one touches them.”  But as much as Momo is Haim’s protector and he felt a kinship toward him, their life journeys are different. Momo, a Moroccan “tough guy” who knows how to pray and recites Psalms by heart, is thrown out of school for misconduct and resorts to the streets, the fate of many Sephardic immigrants in Israel. Haim is a young Torah scholar who befriends Dov, an Ashkenazi immigrant from Romania. The two go on to yeshiva high school and hesder yeshiva together. Although Haim bumps into Momo (now an officer) during the Yom Kippur War, it is with Dov that Haim shares a tank and fights the war. “Adjusting Sightsis a Yom Kippur War story, but beneath its layers lies the story of a Sephardic immigrant whose blending into mainstream Israeli society came during one of Israel’s most defining moments.


“The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale” is Sabato’s ode to Sephardic rabbis and poets (something he began in “Aleppo Tales). Set in the heavily Sephardic Jerusalem neighborhoods of Nahalaot and Mahane Yehuda, this novel features rabbis named Pinto, Hadad and Ventura, and characters named Tawil, Antebi and Mizrahi. But the novel’s main character is a laundry presser named Ezra Siman Tov, whose initials  —  E.S.T.  —  “could also be read as Ezra Sephardi Tahor — Ezra, a pure Sephardi.” Ezra is a Sephardic storyteller who becomes Sabato’s voice to the Ashkenazi world, including to Agnon: “There was once a great writer in Jerusalem. All Jerusalem took pride in him, both during his life and after his death. His fame extended throughout the world. At times, on his walks … he noticed a man with a shining face in the alley near the entrance to the synagogue. The man stood encircled by a group of people who were listening to him and were rapt with attention. The writer too began to listen and his eyes lit up … that storyteller was Ezra Siman Tov.” The irony is that in this scene, Siman Tov tells a Chasidic tale! This is Sabato’s brilliant way of telling Agnon, “I know your stories, but do you know mine?” Siman Tov and “the great writer” ultimately develop a relationship, a reflection of Sabato’s interaction with Agnon’s writings, or of the Sephardic writer who seeks to interface with Israel’s continuously Ashkenazic narrative.
The greatest difference between Agnon and Sabato is not only their ethnic backgrounds, but also their strikingly different outlook on life. Agnon’s novels are filled with cynicism and bitterness. Sabato’s novels are — in his own words — “filled with sparks of light, and instead of the bitter drop of fate [in Agnon’s stories], a hopeful dose of faith.”
Perhaps it’s time for Israeli society to re-evaluate its narrative … and its narrator. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Rav Uziel's Overture to Muslim Leaders





During our Sephardic Film Festival this past week, we screened a film telling the intriguing and inspirational life story of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Rabbi Uziel’s motto was “Loving Truth and Peace.” We also screened a film about Muslims saving Jews during the Holocaust, and another film reflecting co-existence and friendship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. In the very spirit of these films, a delegation of 19 Muslim leaders from France visited Israel this week, for the specific purpose of improving relations between Jews and Muslims in France. During their visit to Yad Vashem, delegation leader Imam Hassen Chalgoumi said this trip reinforced the importance of combatting Islamic fundamentalism and Holocaust denial. “Life is more important than holy books,” Chalgoumi said in a speech outside Yad Vashem.

All of this, while the Hamas terrorist organization and other Islamic extremists launch deadly rockets on civilian populations in Israel, and the IDF enters a potentially protracted military operation in yet another attempt to destroy the terrorist cells in Gaza.

In the spirit of the films we screened this week, and with the visit of the French Imams to Israel – I offer you my translation of of a letter co-authored by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uziel and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Herzog. It was written in 1947, during the Hebrew month of Kislev – the same month we started today.

Here is the text of their letter:

21 Kislev, 5708

“A Call to the Leaders of Islam for Peace and Brotherhood.”

            To the Heads of The Islamic Religion in the Land of Israel and throughout the Arab lands near and far, Shalom U’Vracha:

            Brothers, at this hour, as the Jewish people have returned to its land and state, per the word of God and the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and in accordance with the decision of the United Nations, we approach you in peace and brotherhood, in the name of God’s Torah and the Holy Scriptures, and we say to you:

            Please remember the peaceful and friendly relations that existed between us when we lived together in Arab lands and under Islamic Rulers during the Golden Age, when together we developed brilliant intellectual insights of wisdom and science for all of humanity’s benefit. Please remember the sacred words of the prophet Malachi, who said: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10).

            We were brothers, and we shall once again be brothers, working together in cordial and neighborly relations in this Holy Land, so that we will build it and make it flourish, for the benefit of all of its inhabitants, without discrimination against anyone. We shall do so in faithful and calm collaboration, so that we may all merit God’s blessing on His land, from which there shall radiate the light of peace to the entire world.

Signed,

              Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel                              
         Yitschak Isaac Ha-Levi Herzog



64 years later, as we begin this year’s Month of Kislev with Israelis under siege from the rockets of Muslim extremists, it is very sad that the Muslim leaders in 1948 never responded to the beautiful overture to peace from the Chief Rabbis. Just imagine what Israel, the Middle East, the Arab World, and the entire world would have looked like this past 64 years had they answered in kind to the above letter.

In the meanwhile, all we can do is defend ourselves, all the while praying and continuing to hope that some day – for the sake of Israeli children, Arab children, and all children – that Muslim leaders might wake up and respond to this letter, or to the many other peaceful overtures of Israeli governments and leaders.

If that would happen, then relations between Jews and Muslims would no longer be characterized as “cool topics” for feature and documentary films, and Imams would not need to visit Yad Vashem to shock themselves into cordial relations with Jews. Rabbi Uziel and Rabbi Herzog’s grand vision would not feel so prophetic, but would be – as they said – the way we lived once upon a time.

Until then, we pray for peace and God’s protection.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Rav Uziel Renaissance




Ever since his death in 1953, most Israelis had never heard of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Israel’s first Rishon Le-Zion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi). One of the 20th century’s most prolific rabbinic scholars, and a prominent rabbinic and civic leader throughout the formative years of Zionism, Rav Uziel belonged to a different generation, and is thus an unknown figure to most modern Israelis. Every major city in Israel has a “Rechov Ha-Rav Uziel” (Rav Uziel street), but most who walk or drive that street do not know who Rav Uziel is. Thankfully, that is starting to change.

This week I met with Mr. Ezra Barnea, the Director of The Institute for the Publication of Rav Uziel’s Writings. A native and long time resident of Jerusalem, Ezra studied in the Sephardic Talmud Torah in the Old City, in the same buildings that now house our Sephardic Educational Center. An expert in Sephardic manuscripts, music and hazzanut, Ezra sits in a very small office in the Heichal Shlomo building in Jerusalem. His office may be small, but his work is larger than life. With no staff (except his adorable grandson who was in the office that day helping him out), a small advisory board, some dedicated volunteers, a few generous donors, and an old school work ethic combined with a pleasant personality that always greets you with a warm smile, Ezra Barnea has taken it upon himself to edit and publish the massive and precious treasure chest of manuscripts left behind by Rav Uziel. Sitting in Ezra’s office is a true inspiration. Surrounded by books, manuscripts, and a glass case containing Rav Uziel’s beautifully embroidered robe traditionally worn by Sephardic Chief Rabbis, Ezra has singlehandedly created a “Rav Uziel Renaissance” here in Israel.

In just under fifteen years, Ezra has edited and brought to publication 28 volumes of Rav Uziel’s writings…including two new volumes that just came out this week. These beautifully bound and well laid out books include 9 volumes of Rav Uziel’s halakhic responsa (Mishpetei Uziel) dealing with matters of Jewish ritual and civil life, his spiritual writings addressing questions of faith (Hegyonei Uziel), and his commentaries on the Talmud, Maimonides and Pirkei Avot. There are also special volumes addressing specific halakhic issues such as the function of rabbinic courts, the special laws relating to orphans and widows, and the complex laws governing the sabbatical year in Israel. A true treasure are the six volumes that collect all of Rav Uziel’s major speeches, addresses and letters, giving the reader an in depth look into the world of the formative years of the pre-state Zionist Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, and of Rav Uziel’s active leadership during that period. The two volumes that came out this week are a beautiful collection of all of Rav Uziel’s writings on the topics of Shabbat and all of the Jewish holidays. These books are sold in Judaica bookstores throughout Israel, and now form an integral part of the libraries and Batei Midrash (Study Halls) of many Yeshivot and Jewish Institutions of Higher Learning. They are available to rabbinic judges, yeshiva students, or the educated lay person who is intrigued by the ever relevant classic Sephardic approach of a balanced and moderate approach to halakha, Jewish thought, Zionism, tradition and modernity, written by one of the 20th century’s greatest rabbinic leaders.



As if publishing these books was not enough, Ezra has also seen to it that Rav Uziel’s story be told on film. The result is a beautifully and professionally produced documentary that chronicles the personal life, leadership career and unique rabbinic approach of Rav Uziel – all in 85 minutes. Watching this film is a journey through several worlds: the Old Sephardic Yishuv in Jerusalem, the pre-State Zionist movement in Eretz Yisrael and the brilliant mind and kind heart of Rav Uziel. Photos, audio and video clips and interviews from family members, rabbis, students and even the entertainer Yehoram Gaon, all speak glowingly of a man who was a defender of tradition in a secular Zionist world, an ardent and pro-active Zionist who believed that the emerging State of Israel was clearly the hand of God, a rabbinic leader who embraced all facets of modern life, and a rabbinic scholar who combined intellect, knowledge, passion and compassion in every halakhic decision that he made. The film was screened on television in Israel, and met with glowing reviews. (I was so moved by the film that I have obtained the rights from Mr. Barnea to screen it at the SEC’s upcoming Sephardic Film Festival in Los Angeles this coming November. The film is currently being subtitled in English, and we are planning a special evening the night it will be screened at the festival. We are proud that our screening will mark the U.S. Premiere of this important film).

Books and films are powerful ways of reaching wide audiences, but if you want an educational message to become part of a society, you have to find a way of reaching students in established schools. I was so excited to learn that after much lobbying by Mr. Barnea, this past school year marked the launching in the Israeli school system of a new “Rav Uziel Curriculum,” officially produced by The State of Israel’s Ministry of Education. The curriculum includes an educational book and DVD with texts, photos, and educational exercises, all relating to the life and teachings of Rav Uziel. The book was produced in a way that it can be used for a variety of age groups. As such, you will find activities for first graders alongside suggested activities for high school students. This efficient system made it possible to introduce this curriculum throughout the Israeli school system, now making it a fixture in Israel’s required Judaic subjects.



Conversion to Judaism is arguably Israel’s most controversial internal issue today. “Who Is A Jew?” and “Who Is A Rabbi” are core questions that stand at the center of Israeli society’s identity crisis as a “Jewish State.” Long before these became politicized matters between rival rabbinic factions in Israel, Rav Uziel dealt with these questions for the emerging Jewish state. Jews were coming to Eretz Yisrael from all over the world, and, as reflected in Rav Uziel’s halakhic responsa, intermarriage is nothing new in the Jewish world. As such, the halakhic questions of conversions and Jewish identity, the status of children from mixed marriages, and the halakhic requirements for conversions by rabbinic courts were all matters that Rav Uziel dealt with extensively during his career.

Because of this current crisis plaguing Israeli society (and Jews everywhere), Ezra has commissioned Israeli scholar Zvi Zohar to write a special book dealing with Rav Uziel’s halakhic approach to conversion. An expert in Sephardic Halakhic responsa (and a friend and lecturer at the SEC in Jerusalem and Los Angeles), Professor Zohar’s book will certainly present today’s rabbinic leaders with a challenge that – if accepted – will transform the world of conversion to something much less complicated, and virtually free of controversy. In his desire to foster a Judaism that was inclusive and welcoming, Rav Uziel legislated halakhic rulings that made converting to Judaism a positive and inspirational experience, without compromising halakhic matters. Rav Uziel’s approach was inspired by this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, where we are taught that God “Loves the Stranger (Ger),” and that we “Shall love the stranger (ger).” The Hebrew word for stranger (ger) is the same word used by halakha for converts.  I look forward to Professor Zohar’s book, and the positive impact it will hopefully make for the Jewish people.



When I was with Mr. Barnea this week, I discussed with him my possibly undertaking the translation of selections of Rav Uziel’s works into English. One of my projects with the Sephardic Educational Center is to spread the good word of Classic Sephardic Judaism to as wide an audience as possible, and I feel that Rav Uziel’s works are the best place to begin. We spoke about creating an anthology reflecting a cross section of Rav Uziel’s halakhic responsa, his Jewish thought articles, and some of his speeches and letters. This would be a “Rav Uziel Reader,” and the goal would be to introduce Rav Uziel’s writings to the general Jewish public in the U.S., and to hopefully integrate his teachings into Jewish schools. Mr. Barnea was very supportive of this idea. To date, the only book about Rav Uziel available in English is an excellent biography written by my colleague Rabbi Marc Angel. Titled “Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel,” it is a book I strongly recommend. The creation of this anthology/reader would complement Rabbi Angel’s book, giving students the opportunity to read actual texts by Rav Uziel.

In the spirit of my suggestion to Ezra Barnea, and in the spirit of this week’s haftarah that deals with comforting the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem, I will now translate a selection from the new volume on the Jewish holidays. Rav Uziel wrote these comforting and inspirational words after Tisha B’Av, 1933:

            We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel” unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them. Such unity, of spiritual leaders working together, unifying our people as one, will serve as our greatest source of comfort and strength, especially during these times when the waves of evil are spreading over all Jews -- (1933 – The Rise of the Nazis).

Quite a grand vision – rabbis working together, leading to the unification of the Jewish people. Indeed sounds messianic (especially the part about rabbis working together), but were he alive today, with the “waves of evil” once again threatening to spread over Jews, Rav Uziel would speak the exact same message.

This past week, I had three separate meetings in Jerusalem with potential partners who are all interested in my biggest dream for the SEC, and for the Jewish world – the creation of a new rabbinical training program that will train rabbis in the classic Sephardic mode of Rav Uziel. With the publication of his books by Ezra Barnea, the inclusion of his teachings into the Israeli educational system, Zvi Zohar’s upcoming book on conversion, the screening of the film at our festival, and the possible creation of a new English anthology/reader, this current “Rav Uziel Renaissance” will reach higher heights if and when we have a new generation of rabbis and educators who can teach and spread Rav Uziel’s teachings to a new generation of Jews all over the world.

In the spirit of comforting messages after Tisha B’Av, it’s good to see the Classic Sephardic mode of Judaism – especially through the figure of Rav Uziel -- enjoying a renaissance, slowly but surely making it’s way back into Israeli society and the Jewish world.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Lost In Translation





“Our Passover Seder is translated into Arabic,” I used to tell my friends in school. “Arabic?” they responded in bewilderment, “that’s so weird! How could you translate a Seder into Arabic? Isn’t Arabic the language of the enemy?”

Growing up in a French speaking Sephardic-Moroccan home in Los Angeles, my sisters and I were never taught that Arabic was the “language of the enemy.” That is, unless we considered our parents “the enemy,” who spoke it amongst themselves when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. I have vivid memories of Judeo-Arabic being spoken in my home. It was a “private” language for my parents, as well as a form of cultural communication for my parents and their friends. In fact, there are several jokes for which to this day, I don’t know the punch line, as they started out in French, and just when the suspense was it its peak, the punch line rolled out in Judeo-Arabic. When my sisters and I would beg my father to translate, the answer always was “I could translate, but it won’t be the same.”

I have come to understand my father’s principle of “I could translate, but it won’t be the same” to also mean that there are times when linguistic expression is often more powerful than the actual translation itself. Throughout my upbringing, the first chant at the Passover Seder that really made it feel like Pesach for all of us around the table sounded like this:

Haq’da Qssam L’lah lb’har âla tnass l’treq ‘hin khrzeu
zdoud’na min massar, âla yed sid’na oun’bina moussa ben amram haq’da n’khrzeu min had l’galouth amen ken yehi ratson.

My father chanted this during Yahatz, as he split the middle matzah. It was not a formal part of the Haggadah. It was a text that stood by itself, and although none of us understood a word of what was being said, we all chimed in, and we all had our own images and perceptions of how this moment was speaking to us.

For me, in the truest spirit of Passover, this Judeo-Arabic chant represented a journey through my roots. In a language whose words I did not understand, but whose tone and music evoked deep emotions within me, this chant helped tell me the story of Jewish life in Morocco. On the night where we are mandated to “tell the story,” here came a chant in a language I did not speak, yet told me the story of my Moroccan Jewish heritage more vividly than any history book ever could. It evoked images in my mind of my great-grandfather Rabbi Yosef Pinto, sitting at his Seder in Marrakesch dressed in a Jalabiya with a scarf on his head, breaking the middle matzah and recounting the exodus to his family in the same Judeo-Arabic. It transposed me back to the Moroccan Mellah (Jewish Ghetto), a place I’ve only been to in my mind, but a place that I nonetheless could hear, feel and even smell, especially at that moment. Haq’da Qssam L’lah even reminded me – because it was in Arabic – that Moroccan Jewry once had positive and cordial relations with their Muslim neighbors, something we’ve painfully lost today.


As the Seder journeyed on, it was peppered with other Judeo-Arabic chants. Examples include Had taam d’eef kleu zdoud’na fi ardi massar (Ha Lahma Anya – This is the Bread of Poverty) or Fkhrouz Israel mn masar (B’Tset Yisrael Mimitzrayim – When Israel Left Egypt – Psalm 114). These were the sounds at my Seder – raw, unfiltered and deeply authentic. Hearing the Haggadah in Arabic took us away from our first generation American milieu, and transposed us back to a place where Judaism thrived in a deeply spiritual fashion, enriched by a rich cultural world that enjoyed an intimate bond with the cuisine, spices, music and language of North African Arab culture.



With my parents no longer alive, my family continues our Judeo-Arabic chanting at the Seder. These chants continue to tell the story of Pesach – my Moroccan ancestor’s Pesach – to my children, in the original language of their ancestors. Pirkei Avot teaches us to “know from whence we come.” This is as important a story on the night of Pesach as is the master story in the Haggadah.

I am proud to raise my children to understand that, despite the ugly extremism of jihadists and fundamentalists, Arabic is still not the “language of the enemy,” and that Jews have a long-standing relationship with Arabic language and culture. It reminds my children that Jewish works of outstanding spiritual and intellectual stature, such as Judah Halevi’s Kuzari or Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, were written in Arabic, and that nobody accused these great minds of writing in the “language of the enemy.”

After my father’s passing a few years ago, I found the translation of the text we read while breaking the middle Matzah: This is how the Holy One Blessed be He split the sea into twelve separate paths, when our ancestors left Egypt, through the leadership of our master and prophet, Moses son of Amram, of blessed memory. Just like God redeemed them and saved them from harsh labors and brought them to freedom, so, too, may the Holy One Blessed be He, redeem us for the sake of His great name, and let us say, Amen.

Sounds – and feels -- so much better in the original.


(originally published in The Jewish Journal 4/4/12)