The Makings of a Mission
I grew up the son of Moroccan immigrants in Toronto’s small, tight-knit Moroccan Jewish community, in a traditional Sephardic home. My childhood was steeped in the sights, sounds and smells integral to Sephardic cultural life: the chant of study at the Sephardic day school and yeshivot I attended, the pungent aromas of the traditional cuisine served at the Hillulot (annual rituals for rabbis), the deep crimson dye and sweet-scented rose water at Hennot (traditional premarital ritual of Middle Eastern & North African Jews) to mention but a few. It was from these traditional and cultural moments of my youth that my passion and pride for my Sephardic heritage emerged.
Even before I hit 20, I already knew that my life mission would be to preserve this threatened heritage of mine. In 2006, a mere 19 year old, I approached a well-known rabbi in New York and confided that I wished to begin writing books on Sephardic topics. He waved me off as “a dreamer.”
Never easily deterred, the following year, while studying at Yeshivat Mikdash Melech in Israel, I approached the famed sage Hacham Ovadia Yosef a”h to share my vision and seek direction. He gave me his blessing that I merit playing a meaningful role in the preservation of the Sephardic heritage for the sake of the entire Jewish people, and that I write dozens of books. He advised me to ignore the New York rabbi who clearly lacked vision, adding, “Our nation needs people like you.” His encouraging words resonated with me for years and fueled my ambition.
I returned to the States the next year to study at Beth Medrash Govoah of Lakewood, NJ. The Ashkenazi yeshiva world was a far cry from my natural habitat: I had never had any prior contact with the “yeshivish” community, and in my wildest dreams, had never expected to end up in this setting. I felt like an alien, completely out of place among the thousands of Lakewood yeshiva students. The boys did not speak my language, and our ideologies differed too. More than anything, I craved a sense of belonging, of being among my own. I joined a Sephardic chabura (learning group) in an attempt to assuage the pangs of culture shock, and it was shortly thereafter that my mission took off.
“You can count the number of Sephardic gedolim in the past century on one hand.”
This was an offhand remark, naively uttered by a student at Lakewood’s BMG over a decade ago. But it changed my life forever.
My initial shock at this comment quickly morphed into annoyance and ultimately faded into a sense of dull pain. I was struck by how tragic it really was. It wasn’t made out of hatred or spite. The speaker wasn’t a bigot or racist, he was simply ignorant – ignorant of Sephardic Judaism’s untold story. It suddenly hit home that thousands of Jews, including countless ones themselves scions to Sephardic Jewry, knew nothing of the illustriousness of their Sephardic heritage or of the Sephardic world’s contribution to Jewish history.
I turned to the student and flatly countered that there were hundreds of Sephardic rabbinical scholars.
“Prove it,” he challenged.
It was now or never. The time had come, and there was not a moment to waste.
A famous story tells of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter walking down the street late one evening, and noticing a shoemaker working by the light of a dying candle. “Why are you still working?” he wondered aloud. “It is very late and that candle will burn out shortly.” The shoemaker promptly replied: “As long as the candle is still burning, it is possible to accomplish and to mend.” This inspiring line struck a chord in the rabbi, and he spent the rest of the night excitedly pacing his room and rhythmically repeating it: “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend… make every minute count.”
Time was everything, and I knew it was essential that I make every minute count. It was now a race against time to capture the past and preserve it for all future generations.
And so I came to find myself trotting across the Tri State to dozens of public libraries, personal libraries, archives and Judaica stores. For months on end, I combed countless bookshelves in search of organized written documentation of Sephardic history. Yet the coveted treasure was teasingly elusive. In fact, it was nowhere to be found.
The frustration of this futile quest lent momentum to my mission and propelled me to found the Sephardic Legacy Series – Institute for Preserving Sephardic Heritage.
A Gaping Void
My fruitless search for Sephardic-related socio-historical matter opened my eyes to the gaping void in literature pertaining to the social scientific study of ethnic minorities such as Jews. And although the Sephardic segment was the most notable victim of this omission, the lapse effectively impacted the broader picture of Jewish history as a whole. The Jewish people are all one; we share a heart and soul. The untold story of the Sephardic heritage is the missing link in the narrative of the Jewish people.
Sephardic Jewry has a flavor all its own. In my eyes, its uniqueness lies in the open-minded approach of its rabbis and leaders which enabled it to develop in a natural homogenous fashion, without diverging into multiple streams. The Sephardic rabbinical style is remarkably well rounded, boasting singular creativity and openness to change. It was the Sephardic rabbis with their broad-minded erudition in both Jewish and secular disciplines, their humanistic approach sensitive both to Jewish law and the changing realities of life, and their aversion to superfluous stringencies, that kept their communities from developing the rifts so ubiquitous in the larger Jewish community. It is fascinating to note the Sephardic community’s imperviousness to religious distinctions such as Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist etc. A Sephardic Jew is a Sephardic Jew period, sans the disabling labels. This unparalleled reality is the upshot of Sephardic Judaism’s fine balance of holiness and mundane, of spiritual and physical, inspiring to Jews and non-Jews alike.
To leave a history like this untold would be nothing short of crime.
From the start, it was clear that my journey would be no easy joyride; mountainous challenges towered ahead. I would have to traverse uncharted terrain in a tedious search for accurate information, surmount societal stereotypes, norms, and skepticism, and bravely keep up the march even when fatigue began to set in and results appeared nowhere on the horizon. But by far more intimidating than anything else was confronting that old demon of my elementary schooldays: my reading struggle. The intensive research my mission required was made all the more difficult by this longtime literacy challenge of mine. But despite it all, I knew there was no yielding to the blips and hurdles. Because although I was aware of my challenge, I also knew I had a gift: the gift of writing. The fusion of my natural passion and my proclivity for original ideas translates easily into a compelling turn of phrase.
I was no stranger to the power of words, and keenly aware of the intrinsic relationship between writing and impact. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik eloquently puts it, “No matter how fine, noble, and gifted one may be, he cannot command respect or be appreciated by others if he has not succeeded in realizing his talents and communicating his message to society through the medium of the creative majestic gesture.”
Someone once said that “a man’s pen is the mirror of his soul.” I knew that my soul was connected to the old Sephardic world, and I saw it as my privilege and duty to bridge that old world with the new one through exertion of my pen and passion.
Backed by my parents’ unflagging support and dedication to my cause, I fought my way through the daily labyrinths of obstacles and emerged triumphant. Fast-forwarding many years later, I have now humbly authored five books, and published over 40 articles, with many more exciting projects currently under way.
The Institute shares a warm relationship with Israel Bookshop Publications, our exclusive publisher. With accomplished Sephardic scholars and educators now on board, we aim to become the future home of extensive publications, networking, lecture series, articles, documentary films, and other programs for English speaking Sephardic communities across the world. The ultimate goal of all this is to empower Sephardic Jews to preserve their heritage, tradition and culture for future generations.
In 2011, I launched Sephardic Tours, in the context of which I travel to various Sephardic and non-Sephardic communities, as well as university campuses worldwide, to present on various topics. My tours have included speeches and lectures, Shabbaton presentations, and even brief stints as scholar in residence. To date, I have visited over a dozen cities across North America to present to audiences anxious to learn more about the legacy of Sephardic Jewry.
Forever thinking bigger, we do not limit our efforts to the realm of education; the Institute’s purview includes political activism as well, and our Sephardic delegations have already attended multiple political events around the world. Among these was the Inaugural Tribute Luncheon Honoring Sephardic Jewry in U.S. Congress in Washington, a political event in Ottawa’s Canadian Parliament, and a North American Conference of Moroccan Jewry in May 2016. We have fought to push bills in the Knesset, and lobbied in US Congress for Iraqi Jewish archives, but this is merely the beginning. With the help and support of the Institute’s many friends and proponents around the world, we aim to be present and proactive at every relevant political juncture. Wherever we perceive an opportunity, our delegation will be there fighting and campaigning for our exclusive cause – the preservation of Sephardic Judaism.
The popular truism has it that “the grass is always greener on the other side.”
Thanks to the vagaries of the human psyche, we tend to view others’ lives with a sense of envy, convinced that they have it better than us, that if we could only cross to the other side then we’d finally be set.
The reality, of course, is that every person’s unique life circumstances take the form of a package deal with its own fair blend of sweet and sour. We must learn to recognize and appreciate the unique good apportioned to us.
One of the challenges I contend with in my fight to preserve Sephardic tradition is the Sephardic Jews’ mass attendance of non-Sephardic synagogue services despite the considerable prevalence of Sephardic batei knesset. I certainly have nothing against Ashkenzi houses of prayer, and yet, if every Sephardic Jew frequents their local Ashkanzi synagogue in utter oblivion to the cultural wealth of their own tradition, then Sephardic Jewry is doomed.
Even more troubling than the synagogue trend is today’s widespread ideological “assimilation.” The numbers of Sephardim now trading in their traditions for those of the Yeshiva world, Lubavtich, Breslov, and other denominations, is alarming. Of course, there is wisdom to be gleaned from every Jewish sect; each has practices and customs resplendent with their own unique beauty. But a clear distinction must be made between learning from others and shedding one’s personal identity; between adopting inspiring aspects of another culture and downright acculturation. How can a self-respecting individual be so indifferent to their own heritage as to simply discard it? How does this reflect on their sense of identity? On their appreciation of their own God-given uniqueness?
Yet even as we witness this dwindling adherence to Sephardic tradition, there is another, more promising side to the story: the contemporary surge in Sephardic pride. With countless works about the great Sephardic luminaries of old coming to light at a breakneck pace, it would seem that we Sephardim are on the cusp of a new era in the celebration of our heritage. Within our own community, scores of dedicated individuals have undertaken the task of recording and disseminating the rich historical account of our ancestors through print, the web, and multimedia. I am immensely fortunate to be part of this Jewish cultural evolution.
I am acutely grateful for the gift of having been raised in a home steeped in authentic Sephardic tradition, and I see it as my duty to impart my appreciation of my heritage to Sephardim the world over. I aspire to cultivate in Sephardic Jews everywhere a pride in their heritage and intensified faith in Hashem. Either we maintain our mesorah for our future generations, or risk its utter extinction. This is it, this is the last calling.
From our past, our present emerges. Without a solid understanding of our history, our future will have no roots. Yet the future races towards us at a dizzying pace. And there is yet so much to accomplish.
As the clock ticks on, indefatigable, I dare not tarry a moment. After all, it’s my heritage at stake here. Nothing less.
The Lonely Man of Faith (p.24-25), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik