Thursday, February 25, 2021

Rabbi Uziel’s Jerusalem: A Yearning to Return Home

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It was April 1949, and the residents of Jerusalem were in the midst of the first Passover being celebrated in the still young State of Israel. Rabbi Benzion Meir Hai Uziel, Israel’s first modern-day Sephardic Chief Rabbi, addressed a gathering of Jews, reminding them what life was like during Passover of 1948: “Just a year ago on Passover,” he told them, “under extreme conditions, we prepared and celebrated the seder. By the same merit that our ancestors were redeemed in Egypt, we, the people of Jerusalem, were also redeemed. So here we are today, one year later, celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, this time with joy and happiness.”

A native-born child of the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Uziel was well aware of the paradox of his celebratory words. He knew that he was addressing a crowd of people who, just a year earlier, were living in Jerusalem’s Old City, a place where his family and Sephardic community had lived for centuries. He knew that the crowd he was speaking to — a multitude of families, rabbis and Jewish leaders — were forced out of their homes by the Jordanians and forced to abandon their belongings and holy sites.

So, Rabbi Uziel knew that his celebratory words were bittersweet: “Our joy is tempered by the fact that Jerusalem ‘within the walls’ (the Old City) lies in ruins, emptied of her Jewish people, with the Kotel standing alone. This breaks our hearts, and we will never feel comforted until the day comes when we merit to return to the sacred Old City, which is the eternal capital of the State of Israel.”

I have read Rabbi Uziel’s moving words several times around my Passover tables, but last week, as the president of the United States formally declared Jerusalem as the State of Israel’s official capital, I found myself re-reading Rabbi Uziel’s remarks away from my seder, in a totally new light. As I heard President Donald Trump say, “I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” it brought me back to Rabbi Uziel’s speech, when, standing in a physically divided Jerusalem, he nonetheless declared Jerusalem’s Old City “the eternal capital of the State of Israel.”

I re-read Rabbi Uziel’s entire address, wondering what was going through his mind as he made this declaration. Was it politics? Knowing Rabbi Uziel’s illustrious career as a public leader, one might be tempted to think so. Born in 1880 in Jerusalem, Rabbi Uziel is the only chief rabbi — Sephardic or Ashkenazic — to have held official positions of rabbinic leadership under three political administrations in the Land of Israel. In 1911, he left his native Jerusalem to become the Chief Rabbi (Haham Bashi) of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, under the Ottoman Empire. In 1939, he returned home to Jerusalem, where he was unanimously appointed the Sephardic Chief Rabbi (Rishon L’Zion) under British Rule. On May 14, 1948, he stood behind David Ben-Gurion and heard him declare the State of Israel, then serving as Chief Rabbi of Israel until his death in 1953.

Embedded within Rabbi Uziel’s words were his childhood memories from “within the walls,” when the languages spoken in the Jewish Quarter included Ladino and Arabic.

As an official leader under three distinctly different governments, he probably had more political experience than most politicians.

And yet, from studying Rabbi Uziel’s life story, I have no doubt that that his remarks went far deeper than politics. Embedded within Rabbi Uziel’s words were his childhood memories from “within the walls,” when the languages spoken in the Jewish Quarter included Ladino and Arabic. He spoke as the descendant of the Hazan and Uziel families, two Sephardic families who, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, made their way to Jerusalem and settled in the Old City.

As he spoke about Jerusalem, he could still hear the prayers from the complex known as the “Four Sephardic Synagogues,” where the tunes included the sounds of Istanbul, Holland, Iraq, Syria and Morocco, blending together to become “Yerushalmi.” As he looked out into his audience, he must have seen some of the widows and orphans he visited every day in the Spanish courtyard building, the same ancient building where he studied in the famous Sephardic Talmud Torah as a child. He could probably hear the echoes of his teacher’s soft-spoken voice teaching him Torah with love, much like he could hear the sweet voices of mothers singing Ladino lullabies to their children, all in the Old City.

Just one year before his speech, when the Old City was under siege in 1948, a group of yeshiva students approached Rabbi Uziel to ask for exemptions from military service so they could continue to study Torah. He denied their requests and told them that were it not for his age, he would proudly pick up a rifle and defend the Old City of Jerusalem where he was born and raised. Indeed, Rabbi Uziel volunteered for the Civil Guard in Jerusalem, and when he issued halachic permission to dig trenches on Shabbat for safety purposes, he himself participated in the digging.

Rabbi Uziel lived with the pain of having lost his home and community in the Old City, but he nonetheless remained an optimist:

“Despite this,” he said, “we nevertheless rejoice in the establishment of the ‘New Jerusalem’ that we currently live in by the good grace of God, secure from the threat of the enemy.”

He never lived to see the reunified Jerusalem, but on that Passover day in Jerusalem in 1949, after declaring Jerusalem’s Old City “the eternal capital of the State of Israel,” he concluded his speech with this prayer: “As we celebrate Passover this year in our newly liberated City of Jerusalem, next year, and for many years to come, may we merit celebrating Passover in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, with great joy, happiness and songs of praise to God. Amen.”

A prayer from a Chief Rabbi of Israel, but, more than that, a prayer from a child who yearned to return home.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem and executive offices in Los Angeles. He also is an instructor of Talmud at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

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