The prayer Kobi Oz sings to his grandfather is a prayer for Israel
Written, composed, performed by Koby Oz
* * *
It is three in the morning on Shavuot, 2019. Emily and I are on the roof of Alma, the Tel Aviv secular yeshiva, leaning into pillows on wood picket chairs, watching Kobi Oz sing.
Oz is all in holiday white, with a trilby hat with a narrow brim and thick tortoise-shell glasses and big sideburns. He is 49, and for 35 of those years, Oz has been on stage. Now we think of him as the leader of a band called Teapacks, one of the most popular groups ever here; fifteen years ago, they were Israel’s entry in the Eurovision song contest. But Koby Oz has been a star ever since joining at 14, in his hometown of Sderot, a group called Sefatayim, maybe the country’s first great Moroccan band. Sefatayim started off doing weddings, playing dance music for the young people and out-of-the-old-country Moroccan music for their parents and grandparents until, over time, the line between the two kinds of music blurred. Oz said:
The band decided to do something entirely mad: to play our grandparents’ music, music that made people shut their windows in embarrassment. There was a whole generation who did not do their weddings in the Moroccan style. They were all in wedding halls, playing disco, and Sefatayim decided to bring electric guitars, drums and bass to make the music of their grandfathers and grandmothers pulse with the energy of American and Israeli rock’n’roll, with wild energy. … It was amazing. That’s how I found myself at 14 and a half playing in weddings. And lots of young people bought the records of Sefatayim; they brought respect to Moroccan music.
Oz’s “old country” was not Morocco; his grandparents were from Tunisia. They fled to Palestine in 1942, after the Nazi Afrika Korps occupied the country under Vichy rule. Oz’s grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Mesika, was a rabbi, a paytan, a religious poet, a cantor, a slaughterer and a mohel. When Oz was born in 1969, it was Rav Mesika who did the circumcision.
Oz said that night on the rooftop that it was Rav Nissim Mesika’s ambition to save the traditions of Tunisian Jewish poetry, liturgy and song. He had a dream, Oz said, “of having a radio show that would preserve Tunisian piyyut – poetic, religious song – on one of the two government radio stations. Over and over, he proposed hosting such a show, but it didn’t help. Radio air time is [too] precious.” The men who ran the radio back then saw Sefaradi music as primitive stuff, especially the songs sung for generations in the synagogues of North Africa. To their way of seeing things, Rav Nissim Mesika was a man who did not much matter, trying to keep alive music that did not much matter. So Rav Nissim Mesika traveled from small synagogue to small synagogue, in Sderot, in Beer Sheva, Ofakim, Yeruham, Kiryat Malachi, and Kiryat Gat, singing and teaching his songs.
Oz said how before his bar mitzvah, his grandfather made tapes of piyutim for the boy to learn, and a tape of his haftorah, that the two – grandson and grandfather — would chant together. Oz said:
But I grew up an ‘enlightened’ secular kid. All I cared about was MTV. So I didn’t listen to the tapes. Walking to the synagogue on the day of my bar mitzvah, my grandfather asked if I was ready. I told him that I wasn’t. I didn’t learn the tapes. He did not get angry. He did not say a word. We walked to the synagogue in silence. This is my biggest regret, that I refused to sing the haftarah with him on my bar mitzvah. He died about two years after that.
Twenty-five years later, Oz found the tape his grandfather made for him to learn his haftorah, and some piyyutim besides.
Oz said that night in Tel Aviv:
This became part of my repentance. I took one of his piyyutim and made a song that is our prayer together. Here we are, together again.
Next, we hear a hoarse and tremulous voice pronouncing: “With God’s help and salvation.” On the screen behind Oz is a movie of his grandfather in a blue suit, white shirt and dark tie, in a trilby hat with a narrow brim and thick tortoise-shell glasses. Yes, that hat, those glasses…that face! Rav Mesika is singing a Tunisian piyyut: “You are the Lord my God, You are the Lord my God, You are the Lord who gathers the remnants of Israel, my God, who gathers the remnants of Israel from the four corners of the earth.” On the screen, R. Nissim Mesika walks up to Oz, 13, all in white, standing between his mother and his father, who died a year before the night on the roof. Oz, swivels on his chair in front of the screen, his head bobbing to his grandfather’s singing, raising his arms to the audience, saying without saying, “Do you feel this, too?”
And then Kobi Oz is singing, in front of us, but with his grandfather. His eyes are closed, the mic in both his hands, and he is singing to God, because the song is a prayer:
I have so many things to tell you, but you already know everything. I have so many requests to request from you, but you are already looking out for me, so I give you a little smile for everything beautiful that I see.
The Kabbalists in 16th century Tzfat used to drink pitchers of coffee and go out into the hills and lie on their backs under the open sky, because in the bleary light of the moon, boundaries become indistinct, between waking and dreaming, between Hasidim lying side by side, between sacred and profane, between you and a gazelle or a golem or, maybe if you’re lucky, between you and God. On that night, we are under that moon, watching thirty-five years melt into themselves, and Kobi Oz is singing with his grandfather, and with his father and his mother, and most all of us on that rooftop under that Shavuot moon feel it, I think.
I look around me, and people’s cheeks are damp with tears. It hits us in different ways. I am thinking that, back when Koby Oz was disappointing his grandfather, Emily and I lived one dorm door away from each other, at a time when everything was new. Since then, God knows we have disappointed each other over and over, over the long years, and still, here she is, under this moon, and a conversation started back in Wharton Hall on the edge of the Crum is still going, a lifetime and a world away. Now, it is sanctified by time itself.
The song ends – Elohai, it’s called: My God – and Koby Oz hangs his head. For a second, it is dead quiet. Someone claps. Then we all do.
* * *
Repentance is always a personal thing, but it is never just a personal thing. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu we say on Yom Kippur: We are at fault, we have been unfaithful, we have taken what does not belong to us. It was Koby Oz who left his grandfather’s tapes untouched, but where he got the idea, way back then, that his grandfather’s tapes weren’t worth listening to – that was from all of us. All that is on my mind, too, on that rooftop in Tel Aviv, and it’s mostly stayed there, ever since.
Lately, with all the protests, I go back to the song, over and over, especially to the last verse:
My God, if you hear my prayer
Maybe you can say hello for me to my grandfather
Tell him that the Sefaradi mild gentility that he believed in
Has been replaced by zealousness, extremism.
But despite all that, the tolerance is there under the surface,
You see people slowly coming out of the tension.
All they want, after all, is to live together.
in this big synagogue called the Land of Israel
Here, everyone is invited to look to the heavens.
To pray for rain, to fear the rockets.
This essay is part of ‘That Song,’ a collection of writings about that one Israeli song that rocked someone’s world. Click here to find more ‘That Song’ essays.
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