From L.A. to Casablanca and back again


On May 16, 2003, a series of suicide bombings struck Casablanca. The target: Jews. Luckily, the suicide bombers were not particularly savvy, and the Jewish targets they struck were empty for Shabbat. Although no Jews were killed, nearly 30 Muslims died as a result of the blasts. In response to the bombings, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI staged a rally to demonstrate his support for the Jewish community; this was right in the middle of the Second Intifada. That’s Morocco for you — a country that in turn enchants and surprises, according to the Jewish-American singer Vanessa Paloma. When Paloma visits Los Angeles this week to perform with Noreen Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, she’ll be bringing a musical taste of the country she loves and now calls home.

“I moved to Morocco in 2007,” Paloma said, speaking on the phone while sitting under a tree on the campus of Indiana University, her alma mater, on a warm spring day. Paloma, who’d just finished performing, recounted the journey that took her from a mostly secular life in the United States to an observant Jewish one in Morocco. 

The impetus for her journey, she said, was the time she spent in Los Angeles after college, when she founded a musical group, Flor de Serena (Siren’s Flower), which performed Sephardic music. As she dug deeper into the music, she started to see that “maybe there’s actually something a lot deeper going on here.” After spending some time in Israel, she said, she decided it was time “to make my life more whole, to practice what I was singing, in a way.” And so she applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship and headed off to Morocco.

The first thing you have to understand about Casablanca, she said, is that “it’s a huge city. Casablanca is really a metropolis. … There are about 7 million people.” And sprinkled among those millions of Moroccans is a small but thriving community of Jews. “It’s a city that has kosher restaurants, many synagogues, three Jewish clubs and four Jewish schools,” she said.

Nevertheless, Paloma soon found that integrating herself into the Jewish community was harder than she expected. “It’s a pretty insular community,” she said. “Fifty or 60 years ago, there were 350,000 Jews in Morocco, and they existed on all different levels of the society.” Today, the community numbers one-hundredth of that.

Paloma found it easier to be accepted outside the Jewish community. “I have a project that I’ve been doing with a Moroccan woman singer and with a Spanish woman; we do the three … women and three religions, and we’ve performed that all over Morocco. … It’s actually been easier for me to have friendships in the Muslim community and in the foreign community,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. As a feminist, it was hard for her to deal with the fact that “all the communal organizations are completely run by men,” she said, but she soon learned that the women of Morocco held a hidden power. “The women might not have a lot of formal power, but they have a significant amount of informal power. … Many times people try to get to a decision-maker through the female side of [their] family.”

The songs of these Moroccan-Jewish women particularly appealed to Paloma. They apparently had also appealed to the 19th century painter Eugene Delacroix. “Delacroix … stayed in a Jewish house in Tangiers when he came to Morocco,” said Paloma. “He has a very famous painting of a Jewish mother and daughter in Tangiers, it’s this family Ben Shimon, who were a very prominent family.”

Paloma also learned to love her new country despite the difficulties. She told one tale of having to communicate with a blind oud player who only spoke Arabic, and how they eventually learned to make music together. “Even when you have seemingly nothing that can connect you to somebody else, you can actually really communicate in a very beautiful and powerful way.”

Noreen Green, artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and music director of Valley Beth Shalom, plans to put Paloma’s talents and Spanish skills to use during her March 31 performance with the symphony. “We use Sephardic music as a bridge between the Latino population and the Jewish population,” Green said. The concert Paloma will be performing in kicks off a celebration of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s 18th anniversary. 

“We’ve really made a mark on L.A. in the last 18 years, and it’s a wonderful celebration,” said Green. “We’re doing other Mizrahi songs, I have a Persian woman singing some Persian songs and the choir singing some Ladino songs.”

Paloma will also perform a piece about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. “It turns out that the show is on … the anniversary of the signing of the edict of expulsion from Spain,” said Paloma. When Paloma realized the significance of the date, she asked her friend, composer Michelle Green Willner to compose a piece, which will be premiered that night.

Paloma married a Moroccan Jew, and their child attends a Jewish academy in Casablanca. She’s also busy at work trying to build a Jewish music legacy in her new home. “I’m actually in the process of founding a Moroccan-Jewish sound archive in Morocco, because I feel like its very important for Moroccans to have access to these memories, the music and also the oral histories,” said Paloma, who’s simultaneously doing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne.

“I really feel that Morocco can be a very important example for the whole world, not just toward the Arabs, but toward the West to show a different way of understanding Jewish-Muslim relations,” Paloma said. “Any relationship has moments of tension, so I think that realizing that there is a place today where people still live in this coexistence that we always look back to” — the Golden Age of Spain — “we’re still living it in Morocco.”

Seders: Not Just for Pesach Anymore


Every holiday has its aura. Pesach has a scrubbed cleanliness; Purim, a cookie-dough indulgence, Sukkot, a back-to-nature thankfulness. Rosh Hashanah has its aura, too. For most of us, it’s one that begins a season of awe, judgment and repentance.

For me, the start of a new year is a time of blessing and renewal, a different focus than what often feels like a lofty liturgical solemnity. I’m not suggesting party hats and confetti, just a little more optimism and joyfulness. Except for dipping apples in honey and sharing a holiday dinner, home rituals that create memory are largely missing from Rosh Hashanah.

In this respect, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a seder yehi ratzon (may it be God’s will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed.

The Talmudic origins of the seder dates back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.

So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops), and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It’s an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.

The foods become vessels for meaning, effective because of their tangibility.

“The physicality of the seder is what makes it special,” says Rabbi Karyn Kedar, author of “Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives” (Jewish Lights, 2001), who has adopted the practice through her Sephardic husband. “It’s not just cerebral. It’s ‘getting dirty’ with Judaism. It starts with cutting onions in the kitchen and ends with blessing. Both converge in being Jewish.”

We begin the seder itself with a series of biblical verses that carry mystical significance, followed by a declaration that always sends shivers down my spine: Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the year begin and all its blessings!

Then come the blessings: First, the dates. “May it be your will, God, that all enmity will end. May we date this new year with peace and happiness. (The word for end, yitamu, sounds like tamar, the Hebrew word for date.)

Second, the pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

Apples: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey.

String beans (rubia or lubia): May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits. (The word for increase, irbu, resembles the word rubia, bean.)

Pumpkin or gourd (k’ra): As we eat this gourd, may it be your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against as our merits are called before you. (K’ra resembles the words “tear” and “called.”)

Spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us. (Selek resembles the word for banish, yistalku.)

Leeks or scallions (karti): May it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies. (karti resembles yikartu, the word for “cut off.”)

Originally, the seder called for a fish head to represent fertility, and a sheep’s head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails — leaders, not stragglers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life. We recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In my family, we discontinued using these last two items: the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d’agah; the sheep’s head, for obvious reasons.

What does it mean to ask for a good, sweet year? What constitutes sweetness? What shapes goodness?

I think it’s harmony and wholeness we are asking for — the ability to take the parts of our lives that may satisfy us disparately and put them together so that they create contentment. Through these simple foods, we ask for the ability to appreciate the basic goodness of our lives.

Rabbi Kedar, who lived in Israel for 10 years, recalls that after a terrorist attack, mothers who picked their children up from school let them pick any candy or ice cream they wanted from the corner grocery store.

“We wanted to bring sweetness and comfort to their lives in the guise of chocolate,” she said. “Blessings, like chocolate, sometimes seem like a luxury.”

Because the seder doesn’t focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It’s not just honeyed dates, it’s also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.

After I take the tiniest bit of scallion possible for the blessing, I wash away the unpleasant taste with sweet apples and dates. Maybe it’s just my aversion to scallions, but through this small act, I can increase the positive while asking to be shielded from the negative.

Finding direction and beauty in our lives through the basic fruits of the earth allows us to push aside the chaos that clutters our days and uncover the goodness and sweetness of time. Often, said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, we use up so much energy deflecting the onslaught of the world that we become numb to its beauty.

“It’s like being in a bakery too long,” Cardin explains in her book, “The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events” (Behrman House, 2000). “The smell is still there, but we no longer notice.”

She recommends trying to move through our days as if we always had a 5-year-old at our sides to point out all the important things we usually miss: the bugs on the sidewalk, whose turn it is to sit in the front seat, the color of the M&M that tastes best.

The seder points to a specific direction by which to achieve sweetness: the blessing of the pomegranate asks that our lives be filled with mitzvot. Some mitzvot — like lighting Shabbat candles and blowing the shofar — are a language of action that marks us as Jews, Cardin writes. A second type of mitzvah includes acts of fairness, justice and lovingkindness that we do for each other, from honoring parents to visiting the sick. “Our lives are lived in the details of the everyday,” she says. “Taking a co-worker to lunch for a job well done, writing to praise a company for its stance on the environment, thanking a teacher for an inspiring lecture, showing good humor and patience with those around us while waiting in line — each of these brings a bit more goodness into the world. They are the keys to the storehouse of holiness. It is in the performance of these humble deeds that we become more.”

While it is up to each of us to take responsibility to “become more,” we ask for God’s partnership in the process. That’s how our Rosh Hashanah blessings differ from secular New Year’s resolutions. God’s guidance enables us to rely on our own strengths.

“The Jewish new year isn’t about losing 10 pounds or quitting smoking,” Kedar said. “Nor does ‘shanah tovah’ translate as ‘Happy New Year.’ The word ‘tov’ — good — is not ‘Was the movie good?’ It resonates back to Rosh Hashanah as the time God created the world and saw that it was good. Shanah tovah means that we hope the foundations of our lives should have a goodness to them.”

Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its goodness and all its blessings.

Rahel Musleah wrote “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah” (Lerner/Kar-Ben, 2004). Her Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.

 

Mizrahi Music Travels West


Eitan Salman is at the far end of his store, leaning against a shelf lined with the new CD by Sarit Hadad, one of Israel’s more popular Mizrahi, or Eastern, singers.

Business at Salman’s music store has fallen 80 percent over the last decade, but it’s not altogether a bad thing: Mizrahi music has grown so popular in Israel that it no longer is the exclusive domain of mom-and-pop shops like Salman’s but is sold even at Israel’s Tower Records outlets.

"Mizrahi music is now available across the country, in all the stores," laments Salman, whose shop is located across the street from where Tel Aviv’s old central bus station used to stand.

Indeed, with the superstar status of singers like Hadad, Zahava Ben and Moshik Afia, Mizrahi music now tops the charts in Israel and its popularity crosses ethnic lines.

Salman and neighboring store owners remember the "cassette music" heyday, a time when Mizrahi music was the exclusive domain of Mizrahi-run stores like Salman’s, near bus stations and in souks.

"In the 1980s, Mizrahi music was not sold in record stores," explained Barak Itzkovitz, musical editor of Galgalatz, Israel’s popular army music radio station. "Today, there is a lot of consciousness about this music, and it’s one of the most popular musical genres."

The roots of Mizrahi music in Israel date back to the 1950s and the mass influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Every community arrived with its distinct religious music, commonly known as piyutim, as well as its favorite Arabic music.

As Iraqis, Moroccans, Egyptians and Persians mixed, they exchanged musical sounds as well.

"They found out they had commonalities in their music," said Shoshana Gabay, co-creator of "Yam Shel Dmaot," or "Sea of Tears," a 1998 documentary on the development of Mizrahi music in Israel.

Children born in Israel in the 1950s grew up with other influences as well: American rock music, Indian movie music, French and Italian pop music and Russian-inspired Israeli music. The result was fusion music far ahead of its time.

"Years later there was this world music combination in other countries," Gabay said. "But in Israel it started very early, with the Asian Jews."

By the 1960s, Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter was home to a brand new sound.

"They had all these parties, and at those parties they took what they had learned in school — Russian-inspired Israeli songs, some Chasidic songs — and made them Oriental sounding," Gabay said. "They blended these songs with popular Arabic songs and traditional Yemenite songs and made a mix out of them. They were making an interpretation, their own interpretation."

Musicians blended not only musical styles but instruments: electric guitar and oud, synthesizer and kanoun — a classical string instrument from the Middle East and North Africa — drum kits and darbuka, a Middle Eastern and North African hand drum.

Despite the ingenuity of this new groove, Israeli fusion music stayed in Mizrahi neighborhoods until the invention of the cassette recorder, when recording suddenly became economically viable to a community with meager financial resources.

The first Mizrahi music became available on cassette in 1974, and the hit bands Lahakat Haoud and Lahakat Tslelei Hakerem couldn’t produce recordings fast enough. Tapes flew off the shelves and into the hands of Mizrahi Israelis hungry for more.

But mainstream Israeli radio stations played few Mizrahi songs.

"The people in radio were mostly from Europe," said Yoni Rohe, author of the newly published "Silsul Yisrael," which documents the development of Mizrahi music in Israel over the past 50 years. "They didn’t like the Mizrahi sound. It was not easy for them to relate to."

"The popularity of Mizrahi music was a process that happened over 15 years," Itzkovitz said. "Like hip-hop in the United States, it came from the hood, from the bottom up. It just couldn’t be stopped."

Following the success of the first recorded Mizrahi music bands, Mizrahi pop stars suddenly began to appear around the country: Avner Gadasi of Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood, Shimmy Tavori from Rishon Le-Zion, Nissim Sarousi from Ramle.

Despite the dearth of Mizrahi music on mainstream radio stations, the Mizrahi music industry blossomed.

Zohar Argov, the poster boy for Mizrahi music, came onto the scene in 1978. Argov created Israeli country music, Ron Cahlili, film director of "Yam Shel Dmaot," told the Jerusalem Post in 1998.

"His subjects were the pain of love, betrayal, loss and sorrow," Cahlili said. "Argov was hard core, unafraid to sing about his reality and his life as he saw it."

At times compared to Elvis Presley, Argov lived on the edge: He died at 33 from a drug overdose. His albums continue to be best-sellers, however.

"Nancy Brandes did production for Zohar Argov," Rohe recounted. "Brandes came from Romania, and his connection with Zohar Argov made a new blend of music — a blend of big band and Mizrahi. This was a historical turning point. From there, in the 1980s, Mediterranean Israeli music went professional."

Meanwhile, other Mizrahi musicians developed new fusion sounds.

Ahouva Ozeri, a Yemenite-Ethiopian Israeli singer who became popular in the 1970s, mastered an Indian string instrument called bulbul tarang and gained a reputation as a world beat musician. She also helped pave the way for women in Mizrahi music.

Machismo was not the only obstacle to female Mizrahi musicians: In traditional Mizrahi households, a music career was equated with prostitution, and many families forbade their daughters from performing.

Hadad’s defiance of her parents is legendary in Israel. As a girl, she would climb out of her window at night to perform at local clubs. Her father, who died in 1997, refused to attend even a single concert of his superstar daughter.

Gabay and Rohe say the turning point for Mizrahi music was the development of commercial television and radio in the 1990s, which opened up new avenues for national broadcast of Mizrahi music, as well as other alternative sounds.

Today, Itzkovitz said, Hadad is hands-down the most popular Mizrahi musician in Israel. Afia and Itzik Kala are runners-up, and each puts out at least one platinum album per year.

"Mizrahi music is very, very popular on Israeli radio today," Itzkovitz said. "On major stations like Galgalatz, we pick only the songs that sell the best, the most popular ones that people love. Today, about 40 percent of what we play is straight-up Mizrahi music."

In addition, Itzkovitz noted, Mizrahi music has influenced musicians closely associated with the Ashkenazi kibbutznik movement. Among them is David Broza, who combines his style with the Mizrahi genre, and bands like Ethnix and Tea Packs, which combine rock and Mizrahi music.

Today’s hottest new sound is the fusion of Mizrahi music and hip-hop, Itzkovitz said. Indeed, Mizrahi musicians have blazed the trail for Israeli hip-hop, and children of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen are at the cutting edge of Israeli music today.

Somehow, it seems, the music of the streets has became the music of choice.

"In the last years," Rohe said, "this mix of the new generations, the blend of music that came from Ashkenazi and Mizrahi homes, has brought a new sound to the ear that is as Israeli as you can get."

Article reprinted courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Loolwa Khazzoom (

Celebrating Mizrahi Culture


The Jews actually originated in the Middle East, as Abraham is thought to have ventured forth from ancient Ur or Sumeria – today’s Iraq. Jewish communities remained in the Middle East from the time of Babylon and Persia right up to the contemporary period.

Fittingly, this Sunday, Aug. 6, the Skirball Cultural Center will celebrate the Jewish cultures of the Middle East with the first Mizrahi Festival in Los Angeles.

Mizrahi Jews migrated to the countries bordering Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the First and Second Temples. These communities established synagogues, schools, prosperous businesses and cultural centers and maintained a strong Jewish identity in the region for hundreds of years. Mizrahi Jewish traditions were also influenced by later migrations of Sephardic Jews to the Middle East; thus, the terms Sephardic and Mizrahi are often used interchangeably.

Enticed by the prospects of religious freedom and financial prosperity in countries like the United States and Israel, many Mizrahi Jews left the Middle East during the 20th century, taking with them a very unique and vibrant Jewish culture that emerged as an eclectic mix of diverse traditions. Today, Mizrahi arts and cultures are flourishing in international cities across the globe.

The Skirball festival features the desert traditions of composer, violinist and oud player Yair Dalal. He will perform with the AL OL Ensemble in a piece inspired by the Judeo-Arabic musical tradition of Babylonia and with the Tarab Ensemble, Bedouin musicians from the Azazme tribe of the Negev desert. Other festival activities include a dance and music performance as well as storytelling and family art projects. At least 2,000 people are expected, festival organizers say.

Among the local Mizrahi cultural organizations present at Sunday’s festival will be the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, Ivri-NASAWI, New Association of Sephardic and Mizrahi Artists and Writers International, the International Judea Foundation, and Sephardic Tradition and Recreation. Each organization representing diverse communities will be available to answer questions about Mizrahi culture and other Mizrahi events taking place throughout Los Angeles.

Sun., Aug. 6, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. $8 (general admission); $6 (students/seniors); free for children under 12 and members. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (323) 655-8587 for advance tickets..