This motzai Shabbat, and Sunday until sundown, is the hilulah of both Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, the grandfather of the famed Baba Sali, and the Rambam (Maimonides). A hilulah is the Sephardi way of saying yartziet, the marking of the date of one’s passing from this world. So, 132 years ago (in 1880), Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzeira, also known as the Abir Yaacov, passed away. To this date, congregations the world over celebrate his life and hold feasts in honour of his name. And yes, the bet knesset (synagogue) next to my house held a feast as well, but on Thursday night for convenience sake.
Bet knesset Eli Cohen, the synagogue next to my house, was built in the late 60s by the Moroccan immigrants who founded Ma’alot in the 1950s. The name Eli Cohen is a famous one in Israel as he was a spy legend. Eli Cohen worked his way into the upper echelons of the Syrian government and military and gave them bad advice to provide an edge for the Israeli soldiers during wartime. One of the notable tricks he played on the Syrians was convincing them to plant trees next to every bunker they had in the Golan area and in Syria itself. By planting trees under the ruse of provide shade for the Syrian soldiers, Eli Cohen had marked the Syrian defence for every Israeli soldier. He ended up getting caught, quite accidently by the KGB, and was hanged by the Syrian government in 1965. More can be read here: http://www.saveisrael.com/martyred/elicohen.htm
So it was in the large room that was added on to the original building that was the location of the feast. Photos and drawings of Rabbis from both the “old country” and of Israel itself line the walls and the mood is set for a glimpse back to the past. I had left the house, along with my little brother Nissim, thinking I was late, but I wasn’t. I stopped along the way to help my neighbor Guy bring speakers to the bet knesset and when we got there the event hadn’t even started. But when it did start, and the people – many of them new friends of mine – gathered in from the torrential rain outside to eat large triangles of lechem beit (“house bread” made at local bakeries and pizzerias) with salads from roasted eggplant to matboucha, this is what it looked like:
It would be wrong to leave out two of the Moroccan staples that adorn every feast of festivity, the Moroccan fish and the bottle of arak. When the Moroccan fish was brought out I was eager to take a picture of it but, alas, mine wasn’t so aestetically pleasing so I snapped a shot of Yehuda Uzan’s fish across from me:
And of course, the numerous bottles of arak – an anise-flavoured liquor famous in the Middle East but virtually unknown to many Americans. I actually snatched this bottle of arak from a neighbouring table as our bottle’s label had gotten ripped:
And of course, no feast in honour or in memory of someone can be held without some words being said. At this particular event, HaRav Meir Sayag and Rav Gil Ben Shoshan, an previous neighbor of ours, graced our meal with stories about Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzeira. After the speeches we continued the meal with rice, potatoes, meat, chicken and schnitzel, sipping down arak, beer, soda, water and cheap whiskey. As we ate, members of the bet knesset auctioned off various Judaica objects “in the merit of” the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzeira and the Rambam. When that was finished, Shimon Cohen, one of the backbones of the bet knesset, handed out candles to all, for us to light in our own houses in merit of Rabbi Yaacov Abuhatzeira and the Rambam.
While we listened to the mixture of ethnic Israeli music and Moroccan Arabic songs about the Baba Sali and hilulahs in general I felt saddened that sharing this experience will be sans audio so I switched my camera over to video mode and took a little 180 degree spin, capturing a fraction more of the event. And here it is, hosted by YouTube, for all to see and to be a part of:
Next year I look forward to attending this hilulah again, maybe in Nahariya where the Abir Yaacov’s illustrious descendants carry on the family heritage, but, until then, I have a candle to light this Motzai Shabbat.