Lebhar’s Dream

If you wanted to start a worldwide revival of Moroccan Jewish customs, where would you base your operations? Probably where there’s already a high concentration of Moroccan Jews, like, say, Israel, Montreal or France. But right in the heart of trendy Westwood?

Maybe there’s a disconnect there, but don’t say that to Rabbi Mordechai Lebhar. He’s very happy in Westwood.

For one thing, he’s happy wherever his books are. On a recent Sunday afternoon in his cozy Westwood apartment, he showed me some of these books, arranged in high piles on his dining room table. He picked up each one like a watchmaker with a fragile watch. The books contain teachings of the great Moroccan sages going back several centuries.

They are rare books seen by few people, fragile and precious.

But there’s one book in those piles that is not so rare. This is a book the rabbi himself wrote three years ago, “Magen Avot” (“Shield of our Fathers”). The book distilled many of the Moroccan customs discussed by the sages, and it has caused a mini-stir in Moroccan circles around the world because it challenges Moroccan Jews everywhere to reclaim their long-forgotten traditions.

Lebhar’s got this mad love affair with tradition. At one point, he choked up as he spoke of a certain Moroccan custom which I also recall from childhood: Before the final evening prayers of Shabbat, and in front of the congregation, the best voices of the shul would sing these beautiful Tehilim melodies. Why did they do that?

Our Moroccan ancestors, the rabbi explained, were Torah romantics. They were so in love with Shabbat that they didn’t want it to end. So they sang these soulful melodies at the twilight of the holy day, as a way of soaking up and deepening the Shabbat experience, longing against all odds that it would never end.

The rabbi thinks that if Moroccan Jews would become more aware of the reasons behind their traditions, they would be more likely to honor them.

And those reasons are not always romantic. For example, at Shabbat meals, Moroccans have a tradition of saying certain brachas over food, between the Kiddush and the blessing on the bread. Why? Not because our salads are so amazing that we can’t stand to wait another minute, but because Torah-observant Jews have an obligation to recite 100 brachas a day. Since Shabbat prayers have fewer brachas than weekday prayers, our ancestors used the Shabbat meal to help them fulfill that obligation.

Lebhar’s got hundreds of those customs. He can go on for hours on even silly customs, like, say, why Moroccan Jews kiss each other in shul. A few years ago, the great Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who hails from Iraq and often makes rulings that differ from Moroccan customs, ruled that kissing was not allowed in synagogue. He interpreted a talmudic teaching differently than the Moroccan sages, who allowed this traditional greeting between men, based on their own talmudic interpretation.

The point that Lebhar keeps making is that all those Moroccan traditions, silly or not, have good reasons behind them, many of them talmudic reasons driven by a deep respect for Jewish law.

“A lot of Moroccans treat these customs like grandmothers’ folktales,” he told me. “They don’t take them seriously. But you can’t just throw 500 years out the window.”

Since he published his book, he says he’s been getting calls from Moroccan Jews around the world who are gaining a new appreciation for their own customs. That’s why he’s planning to write three more volumes.

Still, for someone so obsessed with reviving his ancestors’ customs, Lebhar has some explaining to do.

Like, for starters, why did he leave his Moroccan community in Montreal when he was in his early 20s to study for more than 10 years in some of the world’s most hard-core Lithuanian yeshivas? And then become fluent in Yiddish?

And why did he become a key player in a whole other Torah revival, one run by Ashkenazi Jews out of Westwood Kehilla, where Lebhar heads a busy outreach kollel?

He doesn’t get defensive when I confront him with these contradictions. He wanted to learn in the best yeshivas, he says, and immerse himself in Talmud. As far as his role with Westwood Kehilla and their program LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel), he loves that they’re creating another “Torah hood” on the Westside.

The person who brought him out here a few years ago, Rabbi Asher Brander, who runs Westwood Kehilla and LINK, has built a portable center of Torah outreach where, Lebhar says, “there’s always serious learning going on.”

That’s the word, I think, that might explain Lebhar’s seeming contradictions: Serious. He takes his Torah seriously, and so do the rabbis and students at Westwood Kehilla and LINK. Lebhar’s a funny guy, but get him going on a piece of Talmud, and he’s in another world.

Seriousness might also explain the bond he feels with his Moroccan ancestors those holy men of Fez, Meknes, Marakkesh and Casablanca who took their traditions very seriously, and whose words live on in the books on Lebhar’s dining room table.

When I asked him what compels him to continue working on this dream of a Sephardi Moroccan revival while immersed in an Ashkenazi community he told me that when he lived in Jerusalem, and studied at the Litvish Yeshiva, he would visit this holy man every week.

The man was the former chief rabbi of Morocco, Rabbi Chalom Essas. After a few years, Lebhar was so impressed with the chief rabbi’s knowledge of Moroccan tradition that he suggested to Rabbi Essas that he should write a book on the subject.

In true Jewish fashion, the chief rabbi, probably having no clue that Lebhar would soon be living in trendy Westwood, replied: “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do it?”

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Happy Minyan Hits a Sour Note

I am sorry. Davening just isn’t what it use to be.

This past Shabbat, I wandered into a well-respected, modern Orthodox institution for Shabbat morning services. Because it was late, I wandered into a small room where the so called "happy minyan" was in progress. I was greeted warmly and invited in.

For the uninitiated, the happy minyan is a fairly recent American phenomenon, in which the melodies of Reb Shlomo Carlbach of blessed memory are infused into the davening.

Well, it used to be true that the melodies were infused into the davening. Now the davening is virtually one long Reb Shlomo-fest.

I realize that happy minyanim are found among all denominations that have adopted the practice to meet each group’s particular needs. My issue is with the way these minyanim are held in Orthodox synagogues.

We have a concept related to tefilah (prayer) called nusach. This word has been roughly translated as rite, such as the Sephardic rite, the Ashkenazic rite, etc.

Nusach involves the particular order of the prayers, as well as the way in which prayers vary by punctuation, phrasing and melodic pattern. By melodic pattern, think of something similar to a blues pattern.

A typical 12-bar blues progression allows the musician playing the melodic lead to dissect the notes that make up the chords. Nusach acts pretty much the same way.

Those leading the prayer service create intricate combinations of notes within the patterns or modes of the nusach but are bound by the chords that make up these patterns. In addition, certain prayers are open to innovation outside the nusach.

For example, there is a long-standing tradition of making the El Adon prayer in the Sabbath morning services a kind of dealer’s choice. There are also places where innovation is limited or prohibited outright. In the Ashkenazic rite, for example, the "Kaddish" said before the Shabbat Musaf prayer is a melodic constant.

Unfortunately, the man leading this happy minyan prayer service apparently had no real concept of nusach. In addition, he mispronounced many of the words. Clearly he was warm and engaging, but that does not in and of itself qualify someone for leading congregational prayer.

Just one week earlier, I was in another local modern Orthodox synagogue, where a guest of some musical renown was invited to lead the congregation in prayers. He, too, did not know the nusach and believed that spirited and catchy melodies were a fair substitute for proper davening.

I was privileged to know Reb Shlomo Carlbach, although I will not say I was close to him. (I wasn’t at Woodstock either.) I brought groceries for his mother of blessed memory and ate at his table while 2-year-old Neshomole was munching on cucumber salad. I tuned his guitars at a concert on the beach at Bat Yom in the summer of 1971.

This much I know: Reb Shlomo knew how to daven He knew the nusach and respected it!

Innovation serves a wonderful place in Jewish life. That being said, we cannot play fast and loose with the tradition.

Picasso’s abstract art was respected precisely because he had the technical skill of a classically trained artist. He did not paint abstract images because he didn’t know how to paint realistic ones.

Before those leading prayers innovate, they should understand the rules of nusach. They should have the skill and, yes, the humility to realize that the clapping and the warmth and spontaneity you can set your watch by must take a back seat to the integrity of public prayer.

I would love to hear the rabbis of these synagogues address the question of Jewish law and respect for nusach. It can be argued that a discernible unity in selected parts of the prayer service gives us a spiritual continuity we so desperately need in these difficult times. Our enemies are, after all, pretty good at prayer.

This does not detract from the sincerity and the warmth of the people I met in the happy minyan.

Rafael Guber is founder of the Sepia Guild and a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors.”