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Understanding Israel
by Judy Lash Balint
January 26, 2004

What do Jamaica Kincaid and the Baba Sali have in common? Well, the acclaimed Antiguan-born author and the revered Moroccan –born kabbalist rabbi were both part of Israel's cultural scene last night.

Kincaid read from her work at Tel Aviv University, that bastion of secular Israel, and the life of the Baba Sali was celebrated at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, a grand symbol of the orthodox religious establishment. Both events are key to understanding Israel in 2004.

The Hebrew date of the 4th of Shvat is the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Yisrael Abuchatzeira, a charismatic scion of a line of kabbalist rabbis who died in 1984. Abuchatzeira acquired the name Baba Sali (Arabic for "our praying father") while still a young man.

In Morocco, Jews would flock to the rabbi to get a blessing from the holy man. Stories abound of the Baba Sali's extraordinary powers. Eventually the Baba Sali made aliya with tens of thousands of his fellow Jews in 1964. Instead of settling in Jerusalem and establishing a grandiose rabbinic court, as did many of the remnants of eastern European Hasidism, the Baba Sali quietly took himself off to the fledgling development town of Netivot, deep in the western Negev, situated right between Gaza and Beersheva.

There he made a name for the town and kept alive the spirit of the immigrants from North Africa who struggled to rebuild their lives. Even today, Sephardic politicians will visit the tomb of the Baba Sali in search of a blessing for their election night success.

Every year on the anniversary of his death thousands make the pilgrimage to his tomb in Netivot to honor the man and also to use his merit to pray for a solution to their own personal problems. One of the customs of the pilgrimage is to light and throw candles into an incinerator in the courtyard of the low stone building built to surround the tomb.

The Jerusalem event on the eve of the 4th of Shvat isn't quite so dramatic—but it has its moments. Billed as a hiloula, a prayer festival, with the names of several famous Sephardic rabbis on the poster, the evening is sponsored by the welfare organization Netivim.

Several hundred people paid 30 NIS (about $6.50) to get in. Large round tables face the stage, with tall potted plants and room dividers segregating men and women. The crowd is diverse in age, but less so in dress. Almost all the men are wearing black velvet kippot, and many sport beards and even payot (sidelocks). The few men wearing knitted kippot stand out in the sea of black. The late teens and twenty-something guys have a rakish look about them. Many are snazzily dressed and stand about smoking, their eyes darting over the crowd to recognize friends.

Next to me at one of the ladies tables, is a group of older women with thick Arabic accents. They all have their hair covered in the traditional mode of observant married women, but most of them wear small hats close to their heads, rather than the brimmed versions favored by their Ashkenazic sisters.

Heavy make-up and flashy jewelry are very much the order of the day—but so is friendly banter and sharing of bags of nuts brought in to supplement the soft drinks and burekas being served.

The evening kicks off about 45 minutes late with the introduction of the star act—Chazan Yechiel Nahari, a Moroccan cantor currently serving a congregation in New Jersey. Nahari is a slight but handsome man in his late forties. Smooth grey hair and classic Moroccan Jewish features complement his powerful voice.

Nahari is accompanied by Walid, a classical Arab-style violinist, who is obviously enjoying his gig with the cantor. The numbers are long and lively. None of the Oy, Oy Oy style of chazanut so familiar to Ashkenazic Jews. Nahari belts out several table-thumping songs in Hebrew and Arabic, and the audience claps along.

After his set, the MC announces the arrival of Rabbi Moshe Pinto, who makes a dramatic entrance, descending into the male throng from the stairway at the back of the hall. When the rabbi is seated, the MC tells a story about the miraculous powers of the Baba Sali, and then shushes the audience for a dramatic announcement.

Holding up a glass vase filled with water and topped with oil, he announces that for a donation of 520 NIS ($120) with installment payments accepted, those who wish may light a candle to float in the vase and receive a blessing from Rabbi Pinto. In the space of 15 minutes, ten people come forward, and the rabbi pronounces a blessing for each individual case.

At this point, I expect that the rabbi would speak—to give a few words of encouragement to the faithful. But the next musical act is called up. Mike Karouchi, a young singer with a less traditional style than Nahari gives an enjoyable performance of some lively songs that has some in the audience waving their arms in the air to the beat.

Another story from the MC follows Karouchi, and I turn to ask my tablemates when the rabbis will speak. The ladies can hardly disguise their amusement. "No speeches tonight. This is all entertainment," says one to my right. "I only came for Nahari," says the one to my left.

So much for inspiration.

Over at Tel Aviv University, just a few hours earlier, a tall Caribbean American author did indeed inspire a hundred students and assorted Anglophiles at a reading of her work.

Jamaica Kincaid is spending a few weeks in Israel as Writer in Residence at Tel Aviv U and consented to two public events.

In a bare, brightly lit lecture hall, Kincaid starts off her reading by telling us that she's happy she trusted her instincts to come to Israel. But before she says how much she's enjoyed a trip to Haifa and the Negev, she comes out with a startlingly gratuitous and incongruous comment. "I never have anything good to say about my government," she declares as the audience titters sympathetically. (One has the impression that many in the audience might have nothing good to say about their country either).

She goes on to thank US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer and his wife for their kindness, but then adds, " It's the only nice thing I can say about my country."

The country that she arrived to at the age of 17 to take up a job as an au pair. The country that offered her the opportunity, without any formal training, to start writing for The New Yorker and eventually marry the editor's son before becoming a prize-winning author.

After that, it's a little hard to focus on the mellifluous slightly singsong voice reading parts of her book about the death of her brother from AIDS.

Still, the women in the row behind me whisper, :Oh, isn't she just darling," as Kincaid makes a few self-deprecating comments between pages.

She switches between Mr. Potter, a book about her biological father that has just been translated into Hebrew, and My Brother, a non-fiction work about her brother's death. The juxtaposition is fascinating as her distinctive, deceptively simplistic writing style pervades both books.

In the Q & A, Israeli professorial types ask her questions in English, and she answers graciously and honestly, even admitting that she only enjoys doing readings because she gets paid for them.

Two events, just 40 miles apart. Two personalities honored in one evening. Who's to say which one reflects the real Israel?

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