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.

Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill


 

When my friend, Debra, learned that a young man she knew had been in a tragic accident and was comatose, she went to the hospital to visit him every day for three months. No one knew if the man would emerge from his deep, distant sleep, but Debra believed that he would.

During her daily visits, she recited Tehillim (psalms) aloud to him. She believed, as nearly all religious Jews do, in the spiritual and healing power inherent in these psalms, compiled by King David more than 2,000 years ago.

Eventually, Debra’s prayers were answered, and the man awoke from his coma. When he first saw Debra, he told her that he had heard every one of the Tehillim she had recited, and that it had helped him recover.

This man had been beyond the reach of medical technology, but he had not been beyond the reach of a spiritual connection made by a loving friend. She knew that even a person who is severely ill, perhaps irreversibly, has a nefesh, a living soul. Who can judge what meaning and fulfillment that soul receives from hearing the voice, feeling the touch or receiving the heartfelt prayers of those around them?

Most people believe that while there’s life, there’s hope. But in a frightening trend, lawmakers and “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have decided to eliminate both possibilities for the dramatically ill or infirm. Three years ago, the Dutch Parliament officially legalized euthanasia for adults who requested it, and it is legal in the state of Oregon.

But Groningen University Hospital in The Netherlands has taken the horrifying step in recent months of allowing its doctors to euthanize children under the age of 12 if doctors believe their suffering is “intolerable” or if they have an incurable illness. Legal investigations have determined the medical decisions were appropriate. While this had already been common practice for many years in The Netherlands, giving it legal sanction is chilling.

When a society condones killing patients whose medical cases are deemed hopeless, it discounts the value and the purpose of the soul, and negates the guiding hand of Hashem in our lives. It expresses a belief that people are valued only in utilitarian terms: Once they become too much of a drag on resources or create hardship for family members, it’s time to give them a lethal injection.

This idea is not unique to Europe. Peter Singer, head of Princeton University’s ironically named Center for Human Values, has long advocated the disposability of disabled or unwanted babies. People like Singer and the bureaucrats from Groningen University Hospital see no transcendent spark, nothing of the divine, in the human being. They see no reason to put up with the mess, expense and emotional havoc wrought by an inconveniently ill relative.

Judaism teaches that every second of a person’s life is precious, filled with potential, even for the severely ill. Each time Debra recited psalms for that comatose man, his spirit revived, and eventually his body followed suit.

Even when a person’s medical situation is hopeless, the energy, love and prayers given to that person by family, friends and caregivers has enormous spiritual value. Three years ago, I watched in agony as my mother lay dying from cancer. Barring an open miracle, her situation was irreversible.

But when she could do nothing for herself any longer, she still revealed a spiritual awareness, even calling out to my father to tell him she was coming to him soon. He had died years earlier.

And what about the value of my sitting at her bedside, tending to her needs with the bottomless love and tenderness that I felt for her? At that point, with my mother’s pain palliated, the most intense pain belonged to my sister and me — the people who loved her most in this world. I believe there was enormous value in the circle of giving that took place in my mother’s dying days, and I believe that at some level her spirit benefited from our ministrations.

Many people in similar circumstances have found that the expressions of love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and faith that are shared during these painful times often become some of the most meaningful and defining moments of a lifetime.

As a result of the Gronigen protocols, countless Dutch citizens will no longer have the opportunity for these transcendent moments. The seriously ill or infirm will not have the chance to benefit from a potential medical breakthrough, a miracle or even the love of those closest to them.

Isn’t it obvious that, sooner or later, others who are a little too disabled or imperfect will also be deemed disposable? In this awful, cruel and brave new world, only the fittest will survive. For the sake of our humanity, we must fight to protect the sanctity of the living.

Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of two humor books. Her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.

 

Catharsis Found in Haggadah Artwork


While Israeli artist Avner Moriah was creating “Haggadat
Moriah” (Moriah Haggadah), his wife, Andy, was undergoing chemotherapy
treatments for leukemia.

“I sat next to her when the chemicals were dripping in,”
said the 50-year-old artist, in Los Angeles this week for an exhibit opening of
his work at the University of Judaism. “In Israel everyone davens and says
‘Tehillim’ when someone is sick, but I came up with images for the haggadah.
When I started, the images were really small but as she got healthier, they
became more colorful and more lively. When I finished [and Andy recovered] I
realized that I had painted my own journey from Egypt.”

Those hospital-bed images are bright, watercolor roundels —
circular panels — that interweave the ancient Israelites’ journey to freedom
with ruminations on modern-day “slavery” (e.g., being a slave to the office)
representing the cyclical repetition of Jewish history and life; panels that
illustrate the story of the text and add different interpretations that Moriah
found in his research; and a few full-page calming celestial paintings. The
illustrations manage to pay homage to the ancient text and make the story of
the exodus from Egypt a personal one that has as many modern understandings as
it does ancient ones.

Moriah paired his art with Hebrew calligraphy by Izzy
Pludwinski to create a limited-edition leather-bound illuminated haggadah that
Moriah is selling to collectors for $4,000.

Moriah’s new project also helped him turn away from painting
Israeli landscapes, a project made difficult by the intifada. For 30 years,
Moriah had been a landscape painter in Israel, capturing on canvas the vistas
of unique light that filtered through the Judean hills, and the vast changes of
terrain that roll through Israel, from the desert to the savannah areas. To
paint these works, Moriah would stand on hills with his huge canvases weighted
down with rocks.

“Wherever I painted in Israel, Arabs would always find me,
because they were always in the fields,” he said. “They would be curious and
they would come to look at my work, and offer me tea and coffee. But I wouldn’t
sit on the hills today by myself. It has changed that much in the last three
years. People are getting killed left and right, and I felt more secure to work
in my studio.”

In creating the haggadah, Moriah drew inspiration from
religious and artistic sources. He worked with Rabbi Shlomo Fox, a Conservative
rabbi and an old army buddy of Moriah’s (they were both officers together in
the Yom Kippur War) to study the text to get ideas on developing biblical
themes. He also looked at illuminated haggadot of old, as well as the Egyptian
and Assyrian wall paintings, reliefs and drawings of human and animal figurines
from the Bronze and Iron ages, the period when the Israelites settled in
Israel. While the haggadah has a definite modern feel to it — the bright reds,
blues and greens jump off the page — the figures in the illustrations are
elongated stick figures, much like the ones in ancient art.

“We are not religious,” Moriah said, “and this was one of
the reasons why I worked with Shlomo, to make sure that my ideas made sense and
that I was finding a visual way to come up with interpretations. In Israel,
most people who aren’t religious are anti-religious. I myself don’t practice
it, but I think there is a tremendous amount of beauty and culture in Judaism.
There is really no need to look for it anywhere else.”

As an Israeli artist, Moriah has spent much of his career
finding the beauty and culture of Judaism, and the horrors and meaning of
Jewish history. In addition to his landscapes, he did series on the expulsion
of the Jews from the Spain, the Holocaust and Middle East violence.

“I painted the intifada before it happened,” he said,
referring to his 1981-87 “Soldiers Series,” that, depicts in an Edward
Hopper-ish way, how violence in Israel insidiously infiltrates the domestic
culture.

He also painted two murals at the Jewish Theological
Seminary of New York, which explored biblical themes: “Gathering at Mount
Sinai” and “Women’s Zodiac.” Next up is a 45-foot-long illuminated Megillat
Esther, which will be painted on parchment so that it can be a kosher megillah.

Moriah is dyslexic, so it is through images that he
understands the world.

“Lots of artists are dyslexic,” he said. “The way our
electricity is connected is different. We don’t see things in a regimented,
organized way like most people. I hate reading and writing — and I respond to
images, not words. I barely know the words to ‘Hatikvah.’ I created the
haggadah for the dyslexic. I wanted the whole story told in a visual way.”

For more information about Avner Moriah, go to
www.artworksisrael.com.

“The Moriah Haggadah: The Creation of a Contemporary
Illuminated Manuscript” is now showing through May 23 at the University of
Judaism’s Platt and Borstein Galleries, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Los Angeles.
Exhibition hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call
(310) 476-9777 ext. 201.