It must have been quite a scene, and quite a neighborhood. Boys as young as 3 waking up at 5 a.m. with their fathers and brothers and walking to their shuls for the morning prayers. Hundreds of men — grandfathers, fathers, teenagers, little boys — going to meet God when the sun came up.
This was 40 years ago in a Tel Aviv neighborhood called Tikvah (Hope). One 3-year-old was a boy named Yaacov (“Kobi”) Hamami, the youngest of seven brothers, all of whom joined him on the morning trek.
According to Kobi, a Yemenite Jew, this scene harks back not just to the 1960s but to the time of King Solomon, in little villages and towns all over Yemen. For more than 2,500 years, Yemenite fathers have taught their sons the Yemenite traditions they learned from their own fathers.
Now, in the land of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, Kobi Hamami, father of four, is doing what he can to continue the tradition, right here in Pico-Robertson.
Good luck finding his shul. It’s got no sign and no front door. You have to go through a back alley and a high chain-link fence. It’s like those underground nightclubs downtown that have no addresses, and probably no permits. You have to know someone who knows someone.
Well, I knew someone who knew someone, and on a recent Shabbat, I checked out Kobi’s Shabazi shul, which turned out to be inside a Chabad all-girls’ school.
Now, they didn’t have musical recordings during the time of King Solomon, so we have no way of knowing if this is how Kobi’s ancestors prayed.
But if gut instinct is worth anything, I think I’ve discovered a touch of biblical-era davening right here in the hood.
The Shema prayer alone is worth the trek. It’s not a melody. It’s a tribal chant. You feel like you’re walking through the desert, exhausted, and you’re pleading with God to give you strength. The chanting seems to get louder and louder. The kids are chanting, too. It’s anything but smooth and pretty. This davening is Turkish coffee, extra thick, no sugar.
Even the Hebrew sounds different: emet is pronounced amat, kadosh is gothosh, chalom is cholem, and so on. When they read from the Torah, they do a duet with an Aramaic translation.
Imagine this: foreign on top of foreign. Their Hebrew already sounds different, and it’s layered with an ancient Aramaic lingo that has its own melody. So when I tell you I felt a biblical frisson in the Shabazi shul, I’m not exaggerating.
But none of this blew me away as much as the footstool.
Go to any small shul anywhere in the world, look under the bimah, and you’ll probably find the same kind of things: tallit, prayer books, maybe a shofar or two. One thing you probably won’t find is a footstool.
But here, in the Shabazi shul, the footstool is a big deal. It’s where little boys climb up, so their little chins can reach up and they can read directly from the Torah. When I was there, Kobi’s 6-year-old son, Ari, was the first kid to get what they call the “sixth aliyah,” the special Torah readings they reserve for the kids.
This is what Kobi did with his father when he was 3 — and it’s what Kobi’s father did with his own father back in Yemen.
Yemenite fathers don’t wait for their sons to become bar mitzvahs to teach them to read from the Torah and to pray the Yemenite way. They can’t afford to. Their ways are too singular, too complex. Since it’s rare to find a Yemenite school, fathers need to supplement what their kids learn in mainstream Hebrew schools. Kobi’s father took him to pray at 5 a.m., and arranged for daily lessons after school. Today, Kobi invites all the kids of his tiny community to his house after the Shabbat service, so he can teach them the intricate rituals he hopes they will teach their own children.
In this community of maybe 20 or 30 families, there’s another father who’s been doing a lot of teaching and helping kids stand up on footstools. His name is Eliezer, and he’s a former Christian pastor. When his soul called him to the Jewish faith many years ago, he searched for the deepest expression of that faith he could find. This led him on a long journey through the shtetls of the holy land and finally to this little Yemenite enclave in the hood. His son Yishai is a beautiful blond kid who belts out Aramaic chants with the confidence of a Chasidic kid speaking Yiddish.
As I reflected later on my Yemenite moment in time, I couldn’t help but think of all the traditions that so many Jewish communities throughout the world are fighting to maintain. There are countless variations of Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions that have their own melodies, their own chants, their own ways. We all read the same words, but after that, we’re allowed to tweak. It’s as if God gave us the consonants, and then said: “Have fun with the vowels.”
While it’s nice to say that Jews are all one family, and we all read from the same book, it’s also true that the intense attachment to different traditions has helped fuel the passion that made the whole survive.
But lest you think that Kobi’s Shabazi shul is a little too different for your taste, you’ll be happy to know that it was born 9 months ago in a way that every Jew in the world will relate to.
It broke away from another Yemenite shul — which also had a footstool.