Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has marked the 200-year old anniversary of the passing of a great Moroccan rabbi with a call for Israeli society to embrace the traditions of the Jews from Arab and Islamic lands.
Speaking on Hoshana Rabbah, at the end of the Succot holiday, President Herzog declared: “We must all, as a nation and as a state, lovingly embrace the roots of the tradition of the Jews from Arab and Islamic lands, those known as Mizrahi Jews, and make it a significant and influential element of our conduct and lifestyles—as a society, as individuals, and most importantly—to discover, to learn, and to know.”
President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog hosted a study session at the President’s Residence in honor of the Jewish holiday of Hoshana Rabbah. The event was held to mark 200 years since the passing of Rabbi Raphael Berdugo, one of the great sages of Moroccan Jewry. The event was attended by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar; the president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher; Rabbi David Berdugo, a sixth-generation descendant of Rabbi Raphael Berdugo; and other rabbis, scholars, and descendants of the Moroccan sage.
Rabbi Raphael Berdugo (“the Angel Berdugo”) passed away 200 years ago on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Hoshana Rabbah. He was one of the greatest rabbis of Moroccan Jewry and left a tremendous mark on the history of Middle Eastern Jewry, leaving behind a glorious legacy. This special study session in his honor was the initiative of the Israel Prize laureate Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, the president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.
The Ten Penitential Days are about to reach their climax with Yom Kippur, which starts this evening.
To quote the Masorti website, Adon HaSelichot is one of the oldest known piyutim, liturgical poems, in the canon of High Holiday prayers.
In Sephardic communities, the piyut is at the center of the Selichot service, recited daily, besides Shabbat, from the 2nd day of Elul until after Yom Kippur.
The piyut has become well known across the Jewish communities of Israel, and is sung in most synagogues, with melodies coming from Turkey, Morocco, and Ottoman-era Palestine, among others. The poem, written in acrostic form, focuses on God’s omniscience and awareness of the sins and failings of every human. Despite this, we ask for God to have mercy on us, despite our various shortcomings.
Here is a spirited rendering of Adon Haselichot on the Shofar, the ram’s horn, by the Israel Sosna band. The audience of Sephardi Yeshiva boys supplies the chorus.
Wishing all those who are marking Yom Kippur an easy fast and all good wishes for 5782.
Israeli television’s latest hit, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, may be accused of cultural appropriation. It is also ‘ahistorical, politically biased’ and fails to challenge common myths about Israel. Michael Oren pens this trenchant critique in The Tablet:
Based on a bestselling novel by Sharit Yishai-Levi, the series follows the vicissitudes of the Ermozas, an upscale Sephardi family in pre-state Jerusalem. Clumsily toggling between the early 1920s and late ’30s, the drama focuses on the materfamilias, Merkada, and her sybaritic son, Gabriel. The owner of a store that appears to sell only halvah, Gabriel falls in love with a working-class Ashkenazi woman but is forced by Merkada to marry an even lower-class Sephardi woman, their illiterate housekeeper, Rosa. Played by the alpaca-eyed Hila Saada, Rosa inundates the show with a stream of tears that stretches across all 16 of its first-season episodes. And there are the Ermoza daughters—Rachelika and Luna, with the latter growing up to become the eponymous beauty queen. Their loves and disasters, longings and disappointments take place against the backdrop of Palestine from the end of the Ottoman Empire and throughout the British Mandate. (…)
Unsurprisingly, the only villains in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem are Jews. And not just any Jews, but the right-wing Revisionists of the Irgun and the Lehi. A ruthless bunch, including Rosa’s brother, Ephraim, they blow up a British officers club in 1937, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and assassinate innocent Arabs. “First we get rid of the English,” the ringleader declares. “Then we get rid of the Arabs, and then we get rid of the Mapainikim.” That third target—a reference to members of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai (the Land of Israel Workers Party)—is the most abhorred by the terrorists. For that is how they are portrayed, as bloodthirsty and treasonous.
These villains are also decontextualized. Like the Haganah, the Irgun was founded in reaction to the Arab revolts, as a means of protecting Jewish settlements and neighborhoods from terrorism. Attacks on the British began only in 1939, after the issuance of the white paper. But since none of this background is supplied or even alluded to in the show, the Revisionists appear motivated by bloodlust alone. “When did it happen to us?” a despondent Gabriel Ermoza asks. “When did it happen that we kill a man just because he’s an Arab?” Ultimately, in fact, Jews did kill Jews, in June 1948, when Israeli forces led by Ben-Gurion opened fire on the Revisionist arms ship, Altalena.
Ahistoricism and heavy-handed politicization are not, unfortunately, the program’s only flaws. Produced by the makers of Fauda, Shtisel, and Tehran, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is certainly destined for the American market. And yet by casting Ashkenazi actors—Michael Aloni as Gabriel, and Irit Kaplan as his mother—in its lead Sephardic roles, the series is liable to receive allegations of cultural appropriation. It might lend credence to the widespread American view of Israel as a majority-white country. American viewers are also likely to take umbrage at the series’ depiction of Arabs, all of whom are docile or decadent stereotypes.
But Americans, especially those unfamiliar with the seminal events in Israel’s history, will probably not resent—or even notice—the absence of any mention of the Mufti, the Arab Revolts, or Nazism. This is the series’ tragedy. Rather than reminding American audiences that the conflict did not begin in 1967 or even in 1948, but in the 1920s and ’30s when the Arabs attacked all Jews, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, the series lets the distortion stand. Instead of showing how the Arab resistance movement was riddled with religious fanaticism and hatred, the program ascribes precisely those attributes to Jews. And though Zionists spearheaded one of the earliest and most successful campaigns against colonialism, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, transforms freedom fighters into psychopaths and the imperialists into victims. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees flooded Palestine during this period and showing them, or even alluding to their presence, would have recalled the need for a secure Jewish state, but The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem fails to present the most basic context to the story it purports to tell.
These and other missed opportunities mar the series far more than its soap opera-ish characters and lugubrious pacing. Most distressing, though. is the producers’ assumption that Israelis would watch the show and not find anything amiss. Forgetfulness might be unfortunate for Americans, but for Israelis it is dangerous. After all, why defend a country whose founders fought against a perfectly peaceful mandate and willfully killed Arabs? Why remain in a state whose very foundations are steeped in ethnic and religious strife? And how beautiful can any queen really be if her realm is built on myths?
There are rumblings of discontent with Benjamin Netanyahu within the Likud senior party leadership. Miri Regev, herself of Moroccan origin, tells Arutz Sheva that it is time that the party reflected its Sephardi/ Mizrahi rank-and-file support – and had a Sephardi Prime Minister. (With thanks: Michelle)
“In the year 2021, there are hardly any Sephardic Jews in senior positions,” she noted, “and the country has never had a Sephardic Prime Minister. Something is very wrong here, and it’s the Likud that’s going to correct the situation – only the Likud,” she insisted.
Regev expressed her frustration with the fact that most of the senior members of her own party are Jews of Ashkenazi origin. “The Likud is a party that relies on Sephardic voters, voters whose parents came from Middle-Eastern countries, voters who live in peripheral communities far from the center of the country, and it’s time that we produced a different type of leadership.”
Describing her plans to lead a new type of elite that she wants to see emerge from Sephardic ranks, Regev expressed her optimism that changes would begin to be felt as early as next year.
“We should call this the ‘Golden Revolution,’” she said. “I would like to be heading an alliance of leading Sephardic Jews by 2022 or 2023. The Likud has to change the balance of power between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Likud members should be selecting people from their own circles to represent them. Because – and listen carefully to what I’m saying – if the Likud continues to opt for people with white DNA, a different type of Likud is liable to appear on the scene, a genuine Sephardic Likud that will give voice to Sephardic views, views that haven’t been expressed by anyone in the past, and this has to change.”
“I think that there are excellent Sephardic Jews already within the Likud who are capable of leading the party,” she added. “When we have a Sephardic Prime Minister, that will be a sign that real change has finally occurred.”
Nowadays, Israel’s movers and shakers are not kibbutzniks, but have pictures of Moroccan rabbis on their walls. In this Tablet piece, Matti Friedman continues to reveal the real face of Israel today – the Mizrahim and Russians who are developing and populating the desert capital of the Negev, Beersheva.
As you drive down the main drag into the city you’ll see a name atop a few of the new apartment towers—AVISROR—and then on buildings all over town, so I decided to start my investigation by understanding what that meant. AVISROR seemed like it could be some kind of conglomerate: Israelis in construction, maybe some blurry Putin money or a multinational connecting the Negev with Hungary and the Punjab. It turned out to be the name of a local Beersheba patriot, formerly a peddler of dates and arak from the hinterland outside Agadir, Morocco.
The Zionist heroes that Ben-Gurion thought would make the Negev bloom were probably suntanned kibbutz socialists and not Moshe Avisror, who appears in one picture with a white suit, matching fedora, prayer shawl, and sunglasses. Moshe and his sons aren’t kibbutznik socialists. Neither are they American-style developers with business-school degrees. Their walls feature paintings of North African rabbis, like the cloaked miracle worker Baba Sali. These are the people who built Beersheba, and who are now knocking parts of it down to build it higher.
Moshe Avisror was a young father in January 1963, when he and his wife, Esther, (whom he married when he was 13 and she 12) took their four kids and left Morocco, sneaking past government spies and police, trying not to attract attention on the bus to Casablanca before sitting amid cargo crates on a transport ship to Marseilles. At the French transit camp Avisror’s kids saw snow for the first time. They didn’t have much time to enjoy it, though, before they sailed to Haifa, then drove overland at night into the desert to a place called Yeruham, which turned out, when the sun rose, to be a dusty cluster of tents. Zion!
Moshe spoke only Moroccan Arabic and had no formal education, just Torah and years of living by his wits in the marketplaces around Agadir. It was enough. He got a job hauling cement blocks, then building a kindergarten and then a few rooms at a school. Then he built a whole school.
In 1973 Moshe bought land for a home down the road in Beersheba, which the government had started calling the “capital of the Negev.” The name was aspirational. The city was a backwater of apartment blocks thrown up quickly to house immigrants, grouped in neighborhoods that weren’t even known by names, just letters of the alphabet. The old part of town, where the Arabs had fled the Jews in 1948 and were replaced by Jews who’d fled other Arabs, was a slum.
In the early days, Avisror’s construction workers were Moroccans, including Moshe’s own sons. One of them is Eli Avisror, the current CEO, a gravelly character in jeans and a white polo shirt; another is Jacky, Eli’s deputy, a more fashionable type in tortoiseshell glasses whom I bumped into at the Roasters in one of the Avisror condo developments. (The paterfamilias himself is ailing, and unavailable for interviews.) After a while, the Jews didn’t want to be workers anymore. They wanted to be managers, and now, Eli growled, “Everyone thinks they’re a developer.” These days, the company’s working hands belong mostly to men who come from China or from Palestinian towns in the West Bank.
The turning point for the family business, and for the city, Eli told me, came in the early 1990s with the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. This human movement that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet empire was perhaps the biggest stroke of luck in Israel’s history, proof that God gives this country what it needs (though not necessarily what it wants). This time, His gift came in the form of a million Jewish atheists.
The Russians needed homes and Beersheba needed people. Today a quarter of the people who live here were born in the Soviet Union. In a closely related piece of trivia, Beersheba has more chess masters per capita than anywhere else in Israel.
By 1997 the Avisrors had raised a building that was seven stories tall, towering over most of downtown—Avisror House, with the company offices on the top floor. Seven stories now seems quaint in light of the company’s new cluster of 30-story towers, the city’s tallest.
Real estate prices in central Israel are so hot that they’ll probably go up 5% before I finish writing this sentence, but here they’re flat. The most recent numbers from the Central Bureau of Statistics, from 2019, show more people leaving the city than coming, a net loss of 1,114—while Netanya, which is the same size and at roughly the same midpoint in Israel’s socioeconomic rankings, but closer to Tel Aviv, gained 2,298 new residents. New housing units are going up in Beersheba anyway, more every year—910 in 2017, more than double that the following year, and inching upward since then—rising next to the new malls and next to the city’s great hope, the hi-tech park.
The collapse of the Soviet empire was the biggest stroke of luck in Israel’s history, proof that God gives this country what it needs (though not necessarily what it wants). This time, His gift came in the form of a million Jewish atheists.
The success of the hi-tech park could propel the city closer to what it wants to be. The army is supposed to transfer its main technology units here from bases around Tel Aviv, but the move has been delayed because the kind of Israeli who serves in tech units in Tel Aviv isn’t the kind who wants to live in Beersheba.
Then there’s the university. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a world-class institution with, by all accounts, the best student life in Israel. The social buzz on campus, the hangouts under the rosewood trees on Ringelblum Street, the first-rate veggie Indian restaurant—you’re unlikely to meet anyone who studied here and didn’t love it, or to meet anyone who studied here and stayed. The jobs just aren’t here. Beersheba produces more engineers than any other Israeli city, but the economy that needs them is around Tel Aviv, which over the past 20 years also happens to have become—to Israel’s fortune, and the misfortune of every other city in the country—one of the coolest places in the world. How can other cities compete? So the students come to Beersheba and have a great time, they study and snooze on the grass and fall in love on the campus, which was built by some incomprehensible logic as a concrete castle fortified against the native peasantry. The students don’t mix much with the locals, and once they get those degrees they’re gone.
Real Beershebans are used to people leaving. It stings, but you don’t live here if you don’t have thick skin. The city’s secret weapon is its fierce local patriotism, a force not entirely intelligible to an outsider, but which is one of the most compelling aspects of the place. Eli Avisror is a wealthy guy, he owns apartments in Tel Aviv, but wouldn’t dream of living anywhere but Beersheba. His four kids and 10 grandkids all live here. Why? Southerners are warm, he said. The city is like a family, and whether you’re celebrating or mourning, no one’s door is ever closed.
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