Friday, May 23, 2014

Dispatch from Israel: Maccabi's Championship, Bloomberg's Million...

My journey to Israel this week started off with an experience that could only happen on El Al. It was Sunday morning, May 18. While we were busy checking in and boarding, 5-time European Basketball Champions Maccabi Tel Aviv were playing against Real Madrid in the Euroleague finals, in a quest for a sixth Euroleague title. Over 10,000 Israeli Maccabi fans travelled to Milano, Italy where the game was being played, turning the arena into a Maccabi “home away from home.” 

Being a big Maccabi fan, the timing for me couldn’t have been worse. On the one hand, I’m excited about going to Israel, but at the same time…why now? I was missing the championship game that I could have been watching at home, and I felt so removed from it all. I called my dear friend Shlomo Mussali in Israel, and he told me he would provide play-by-play updates. Indeed, by the time I was about to board the plane, I must have had over 50 text messages from him! I arrive to the door of the El Al plane, and a little “happening” is taking place. There are a few Israelis – including some flight attendants – who stood at the door, all standing around someone’s phone, trying to watch a live stream of the game. There were five minutes left in a very close game. I joined them, and when their live stream went dead, I called Shlomo. He started announcing the game to me, play-by-play, and I announced it to everyone else. The rest of the passengers are sitting in the plane, when suddenly I announce: “Tell the pilot we’re not leaving yet --- overtime!” More flight attendants come out, and one goes back to tell the pilot! We’re told to board the plane so they could close the doors, but we were promised that the plane would not take off until the game was over. The live stream resumed, and I stayed on the phone with Shlomo. 

With great anticipation, everyone was waiting for the final results. I suddenly announce to the passengers – “Maccabi are the champions of Europe!!” As I announce this, everybody cheers and applauds, and a flight attendant pops open a bottle of champagne, passes cups around to everyone, and the party begins! All of this, and we haven’t taken off for Israel yet. Only on El Al!!! Thank you Shlomo, thank you Maccabi, and thank you El Al. It all came together so beautifully, and looking back, this little experience was even better than watching the game itself.

Last night, I was privileged to attend a unique event at the Jerusalem Theater. The Genesis Philanthropy Group, one of the Jewish world’s most prestigious philanthropic foundations, awarded its inaugural “Genesis Prize” to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The who’s who at this gala included Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and a host of Knesset members, Israeli celebrities and Israeli business tycoons. Our MC for the evening was Jay Leno, who said, “The Genesis Prize is being billed as the Jewish Nobel Prize. Funny, I always thought the Nobel Prize was a Jewish prize…who else wins that thing?” Leno also took some jabs at politicians: “President Obama recently spoke of the unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States. The president knows first hand how unbreakable a bond this is, for he has been trying – unsuccessfully – to break it for the last five years!” It was then Israel’s turn: “You know, I heard there are so many Israeli politicians doing jail time, that when you speak to an Israeli politician and ask them for their cell number, it really changes the meaning of the question.” When Bloomberg was presented the prize – a check for one million dollars – Leno remarked, “I bet all of the Israeli Members of Knesset here tonight are saying ‘I didn’t know that you could get that kind of money legally – amazing!’”

So, what does a man worth 27 billion dollars do with a million dollar prize? He is using it to encourage young Jews to create and innovate, and is launching a worldwide contest where the top ten most creative and innovative “start-up” ideas from young Jews will each be awarded a $100,000 prize. It was a beautiful evening celebrating Israeli culture, innovation and progress. There was music, short films, dance…and lots of great humor from Jay Leno.

Meanwhile at the SEC, I am sitting here in a gorgeous new guest room with a breathtaking view of Jerusalem. Our campus is looking so beautiful, and I am proud and inspired to be working here everyday. My week has been busy with meetings, amongst them the exciting meetings I have had solidifying our plans to establish and launch our new full time Sephardic rabbinical program opening in the very near future. Talk about innovative ideas – this is one that’s long overdue.

If all of this was not enough for fun and inspiration, I am now off to prepare for Shabbat here at the SEC, where we are hosting the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy’s 8th grade class Israel trip group, along with their partner school students from Tel Aviv’s Zeitlin School. I am always excited to host groups here, but this one is a bit special, as it includes my son Ilan!

From another European Basketball Championship to billionaires helping to build and assure the Jewish future, this week brings me a lot of hope. In case the naysayers and prophets of doom try to deter us from continuing to believe in and support Israel, I look back on this week and say to them what Tal Brody -- the captain and star of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first European Champion team in 1977 – said after Israel’s historic victory: “Now we are on the map, and we are staying on the map – in sports, and in everything!”

37 years later, Brody’s declaration still stands…as do Israel and the Jewish people.  

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.