Life, Love, and Laffa in the Holy Land

A Home for the Holidays

The seeds of a pomegranate, one of the traditional foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah.

I. Cleaning

Of the many things I have looked forward to in Israel, spending the holidays with my family has been among the most anticipated. The last time I was home for the holidays was 2001. I was six and honestly, I can’t remember anything. As a result, I committed to making Aliyah before Rosh Hashanah, 5780, the turn of the Jewish New Year.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my Abba, brother, and I went to my grandparents’ house in the neighborhood of Canaan in Tzfat to clean. In a few days, fifteen people would descend onto this house to celebrate together. In the synagogue above the house, “Beit Knesset Beit Elokim,” which my Sabba Moshe had maintained with his brother Yisrael for decades, neighbors, many from the same village in Morocco, would come to pray in the same style as their fathers and grandfathers had. There was plenty to do.

Since I had last been in the house in Canaan, our lives changed completely. With the death of my Savta earlier this year, the pictures on the wall began to collect dust and the house waited, silently preserving memories. The soul that once animated the boisterous center of our familial life had, in the absence of my grandparents, gone dormant, rendering the structure still. The new year presented us with the chance to revive it.

As I walked through the house, sweeping up dust and debris into little piles, I had a few moments to think. I was still in the US when my Savta died. When it happened, I hadn’t seen her in nearly three years, and even then, she had long since lost much of her memory. The last time we said goodbye, in the hope of not confusing my Savta further, I told her that I was going home for the night and I would see her again tomorrow. Three years later, sweeping the same floors she swept, I felt I finally had a chance to say goodbye to my Savta Chana whose love transcended distance, time, and even death.

Gripping the same broom she had used a thousand times, I thought of the little woman I was lucky enough to call my Savta. She was tiny, barely five feet off the ground, but an absolute force. Her hair was a henna-dyed fiery orange that conveyed her ferocious vitality even after her body began to weaken in her old age. My Savtah’s hands were simultaneously the tools of a skilled artist when she cooked or baked for her eight children and twenty-four grandchildren, and lethal weapons when she pinched your cheeks, accompanied by a Kappara Aleicha or Nabibashk, terms of endearment for those she loved.

There is an inherent magic that places possess in their ability to connect us to each other. It’s why we return to the site of a first date to propose, or why we avoid that same place after a bad breakup. It’s why tourists flock in the millions to national monuments, and devoted widows bring flowers to their late partner’s grave. Places lock away vivid memories for safekeeping, until we return to explore and reminisce and laugh and cry at all of the wondrous moments we’d nearly forgotten.

II. The Brown Paper Bag

In the synagogue above the house, I followed along in the Siddur, trying to sing unfamiliar melodies. I’ve always thought the synagogue itself was beautiful. At its entrance, a staircase of more than a dozen steps leads worshippers into the center of a simple room. Red benches line the walls allowing those present to see each other, although few raise their eyes from their prayers, except to look longingly towards heaven. At the front of the room stands the ark. Behind its red curtain rest six ornately decorated Torah scrolls.

The story behind the synagogue’s founding is a rather incredible one. In the 20th century, nearly 250,000 Moroccan Jews came to Israel. Their arrival was a combination of persecution and ideology. Among these new Israelis was Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeria, more commonly known as the Baba Sali. The Baba Sali was a master Kabbalist and Torah scholar of the highest order. Within the Sephardi community, stories of the mystic’s seemingly supernatural gifts are ubiquitous. One such story took place in that same house in Canaan.

After settling in Netivot, the Baba Sali set out to visit the members of his community throughout the country. Tzfat was home to significant Moroccan community, including my Sabba Moshe and his brother, Yisrael, who knew the Abuhatzeria family in Morocco. When the sage came to Tzfat, he always stayed with the two brothers. What are today separate homes were, at the time,  little more than two rooms, separated by a curtain.

On the first such occasion, the pair rushed to prepare the space for the Baba Sali. Yisrael, who owned a corner store in the neighborhood, brought dozens of bottles of Arak, a fennel-based liquor, to the house. The Baba Sali was known to give his blessings by pouring a small shot of Arak for each of his devotees. Thousands of people came to seek out his spiritual advice and so, logically, a lot of the drink was needed.

The wall of the room in which the holy man would receive his visitors was lined with bottles of the Middle Eastern alcohol. As the story goes, upon entering the room, the Baba Sali did something peculiar. He took a single bottle of Arak, opened it, and placed it in a brown paper bag. He handed the bottle to his assistant and instructed him not to put the bottle down until the last person had been in to see him. As the pilgrims entered the room, the bottle continued to yield, pour after pour. It was miraculous. The bottle seemed to never run dry. Finally, when the last person had seen the mystic, he instructed his assistant to remove the brown bag and set the bottle down. When he revealed the bottle, it was empty.

These visits happened nearly a dozen times over the course of twenty years. It was on one such occasion that the Baba Sali instructed Sabba Moshe and Yisrael to build a synagogue above their joined houses. 

It was in this synagogue that I sat alone on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. While the other worshipers had gone home to eat and rest, I slipped away from my family for a few moments of privacy with my thoughts. As I sat, I spent little time thinking about the miraculous story of the Baba Sali. Instead, I thought about Sabba Moshe. I stared at the spot in the synagogue where he always sat. I thought about his absence and I cried. I cried because of the loss I felt—that my family felt. I cried because of how unfairly suffering seems to be distributed. I remembered him making silly faces at me during Shabbat prayers and squeezing my hand like a lemon when I went to shake his and I laughed. I scanned the room for a brown paper bag, that I might place these memories into it and make them infinite.

III. Time Travel

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my family gathered around the table as they had so many times before. I was grateful to be there. We made blessings over pomegranates, apples dipped in honey, and dates. We ate salads and fish and chicken and lamb, all the while laughing at each other’s little jokes and jabs.

After the meal, the cousins decided it was time to go on the walk that we’d always take around the neighborhood to help us burn off some of the excess food and stretch our legs. For some odd reason, we made a left turn instead of a right one. This was strange because, as far back as I can remember, we had always turned right.

As the walk went on, I couldn’t let go of our left turn. Had things changed so much that we had forgotten which way to turn? Why were we walking backwards?

I think now, that we walked backwards because we’d hoped to unwind time and return to the days where our memories were made. The mystics and cooking and handshakes and meals together have combined to elevate this home to a place of holiness. At times, such a special place with such treasured memories makes moving forward feel impossible. How could we ever leave those things behind? 

The most obvious lesson of Rosh Hashanah is that time, no matter the circumstances, presses forward. My hope is that the future holds as many memories as the past. I hope that this house can always be a meeting place for my family in times of celebration, and a place of comfort in times of grief. I hope that this house is always our home, and I hope that one day our children know that when they go for a walk in the neighborhood, they should always turn right.

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