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Haifa, a Taste of Moroccan Jewry, and Religious Pluralism

This past Shabbat I traveled north to Haifa for the Bar Mitzvah of Moshe, a cousin of Shiri (Ezra’s wife). Shiri’s Moroccan family is warm and gracious, eager to host and include us.

Shiri is from Kiryat Sh’muel, a suburb of Haifa. Haifa lies on Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast (noticeable on a map of Israel -- its bump), about an hour drive north of Tel Aviv. On the way we pass Herzliya and Cesaria, and Israel’s northern coastal cities like Netanya, noted for its beach and its French and Russian Jewish populations. Once past Netanya, the Mediterranean Sea comes into view and remains visible on my left all the way to the high hills of Haifa. (North of Haifa are more coastal cities -- Nahariah and Acco.)

(Last year, on the drive north to Haifa for Ezra and Shiri’s wedding, I remember seeing so much modernity -- construction of new high-rises, highway strip malls, familiar American and European large companies, and the widening of highways.)

Shiri’s Moroccan family welcomes us with customary kisses on both cheeks. The flow of food is non-stop; Sarah, Shiri’s grandmother, never thinks anyone has had enough to eat (in this way she reminds me of one of my grandmothers, perhaps one of yours as well.) Shmuel, Shiri’s grandfather always makes sure I am taken care of, that I have a place next to him. The same love is no less exhibited by the rest of the women, who joyously serve course after course.

Following davening and kiddush and challah, Friday night dinner began with a dozen or so Israeli salads, then delicious spicy fish, followed by chicken and meat; Shabbat lunch featured more salads, then cholent, schnitzel, and chicken. There was, of course, also liquor -- and I even joined in with a small dose of Arak, a potent, clear licorice-tasting drink.

These Bar Mitzvah meals were prepared by a caterer. However, for dessert, Sarah herself made dozens of different kinds of fancy cookies, perhaps as many as 500 in total, all set out tastefully on trays. And other women, including Shiri and her aunts, made other cakes and desserts. Amidst all the eating and drinking, the entire group sings and sings some more. While I know many of the songs by their words, the Moroccan melodies are totally unfamiliar.

Moroccan services are a subset of Sephardic worship. At Kabbalat Shabbat services everyone chants each and every word aloud, without haste, in addition to similarly chanting all eight chapters of Shir ha-Shirim -- every Friday night. Services therefore last about a half hour longer. On Shabbat morning, again, every psalm is chanted aloud, taking 40 minutes for what Ashkenazim do in 20. And because it was the Shabbat before Purim, a special 10-minute piyyut was added. The rest of the service is much like ours (except for the melodies), and in keeping with Sephardic tradition, the Sifrei Torah are placed in a hard silver “case” and are read while vertical (see photo above from a Sephardic shul in Efrat on Purim morning). The Haftarah is also chanted from an encased scroll.

The Moroccan style reflects another Israeli phenomenon: Minhag, or religious pluralism. Non-Orthodoxy in Israel, i.e., Conservative and Reform, is largely an American import. There have been news reports of the challenges that they face. They have made some progress over the years, but not nearly as much as their proponents and supporters would want.

But within Orthodoxy, pluralism exists in many forms. On one end of the ideological spectrum, there are considerable numbers of Ashkenazic Charedim, and they are growing. And there are parallels in the Sephardic world. There are also strong enclaves of Dati-Leumi, National-Religious Jews, such as in Efrat and the yeshivah where I study. To illustrate: Dati-Leumi Jews serve in the Israeli armed forces, work, and participate in the general culture; Charedim generally do not.

Pluralism is found in the religious-cultural sphere. In addition to Moroccan minhagim, there are significant numbers of Sephardim from Syria and Iraq and Iran, among others, with their own customs, including variations at services. But one of the most distinctive religious groups are the Yemenites. In Elkanah, where Ezra and Shiri live, the building where they daven houses two minyanim -- a Dati-Leumi Ashkenazi service, comprised mostly of Israeli-born and Anglo-born Jews; and a Yemenite service. The Yemenite service is so different, that Shiri, a second-generation, Israeli-born Moroccan Sepharadit, once attended--and could not understand what they were saying!

This brings me to one final note on Israeli pluralism. Even in the neighborhood shul where I daven, an Ashkenazic one, there is pluralism. Israel generally has three “rites” -- Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and something called Nusach Sepharad, which is essentially Ashkenazic with a few changes in prayers and their order, plus some additions. So which Ashkenazic rite do we follow? It depends on who leads the service. And that means you have to wait until the service begins to find out. So, there is often enough a surprise -- at least for me.

Finally, while this does not fall in the category of pluralism, the one who steps up to lead can affect my davening, beyond Ashkenazic and Nusach Sepharad rites. Some daveners are very fast -- most of the congregation has not come close to finishing the three paragraphs of the Sh’ma or the Amidah when the leader decides to move on. Other daveners are slow, so we wait and wait. Some can be heard well, while others lead so softly that it is hard to follow. You never know.

Forrest Gump, you may remember, compared life to a box of chocolates: "You never know what you're gonna get." Such is Israel: full of surprises.

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