As we mark the 3rd of Cheshvan, the day Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away, Jews worldwide will be remembering his outstanding scholarship, leadership, compassion, and knowledge. Yet from a general Jewish perspective, the Jewish community as a whole is blind to Chacham Ovadia’s most important role he must be acknowledged for. Even the most secular Ashkenazi Jews have great respect for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum of Satmar, Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz— the Chozaon Ish, and others for their historic role in re-igniting the flame of faith, scholarship, and community which almost went extinct during the Holocaust. To many Mizrachi Jews displaced from their homes and communities from Yemen to Morocco, from Afghanistan and Persia to Ethiopia, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the only one they saw rebuilding the homes they had lost.
In the past few years, we have seen an increased awareness of Iraq’s Farhud—violent pogroms—which led to the displacement of many thousands of Jews. We have seen an increased awareness of the forced expulsion and fleeing of almost one million Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews during the ’40s and ’50s. And yet, somehow, while many Ashkenazi Jews, and even general culture, have the ability to appreciate also the religious and cultural longing to the Shtetel, Europe, our communities of origin, and everything that we have lost.
Following the Holocaust, even the most secular—and even atheist—Jews supported Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman’s efforts to rebuild Torah institutions lost in the war, naming them with the same names of the towns lost. That is how the Ponivezh Yeshiva was founded, as well as many Hassidic communities such as Szanz, Belz, Satmar, Gur, and many other beautiful communities that sought to revive even some of the magnitude of what we have lost during the Holocaust.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the one to think in those terms about Sephardic Jewry.
While the painful displacement of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews left so much to struggle for, discrimination to confront, and lives to build, Rabbi Ovadia was thinking beyond the here and now. Looking at the many Ashkenazi Yeshivot with no Mizrachi Jews, Rabbi Ovadia lamented and asked who would be the leaders and Rabbis of the next generation if there were no Sephardic Yeshivot or if young Mizrachi Jews are not being accepted into prominent Ashkenazi Yeshivot.
Some took offense to the sharpness with which Rabbi Ovadia spoke of Ashkenazi customs or even rabbis, without looking at the broader context. Rabbi Ovadia was speaking to Sephardic communities that have been displaced, impoverished, sometimes treated as second-class citizens, and whose customs and culture was either mocked to treated as non-existent.
He went to kindle those spirits of his Sephardic Jewry wherever he could. Despite being Chief Rabbi, he did what others did not and spoke on Israeli radio, television, newspapers, neighborhood classes, places that were considered to be impoverished and working-class; wherever there were those who would hear him, he would go.
The impact could not be more profound.
He raised the pride and spirit of people who needed him more than ever and loved him back for all the love that he showered on them. He helped build hundreds of synagogues, schools, Yeshivot, and beautiful communities. He gave pride to people who were told they should just assimilate into the Ashkenazi culture and forget about where they came from. He kept contact with leaders of Arab countries, which did not have great meaning to Jews whose families came from Europe, but it meant a great deal to those whose families came from those countries. He revived the spirit not only of half of our nation, but he also brought back into existence customs, traditions, lost communities and voices, of some of the oldest and most important Jewish communities.
I vividly remember going as a teenager to hear the classes he gave in the Yazdim synagogue in Jerusalem. The room was filled to capacity and beyond. Yet far more than that, it was packed with love and admiration I had never seen anywhere else. The joy, love, and pride that reverberated through the room when he came in were indescribable. It was not just his scholarship, love, and recognition that earned him that boundless love; it was his ability to help recreate a world too precious for anyone to lose.
As an unparalleled 800,000 Jews attended his funeral, they all either referred to him as “Abba,” our father, or “Maran,” our rabbi—a term previously assumed to be referring only to Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef came to represent so much more than just himself, and even more, than his scholarship and leadership, he represented restoring the crown of glory of Sephardic Jewry, traditions, memory, and community. It did not matter if you were Iraqi, Ethiopian, Egyptian, or Algerian; he helped restore a bit of who you were.
As we mark eight years to this giant’s passing, it is time for the general Jewish population to study and recognize the seismic impact he has had on the Sephardic and Mizrachi communities, on Jews in general, and on who we are as a nation.