Monday, 19 February 2018

Little Marrakesh on the Upper West Side

On a recent Saturday night, I sat in my Upper West Side Sephardic synagogue watching my French cousin and the ensemble that he founded sing the traditional Baqashot, to the beat of North African drums.  In doing so, they not only perpetuated but also transported a centuries-old tradition.  The Baqashot, literally “supplications,” are songs and chanted poems on themes related to the week’s Parsha.  They were sung in winter nights in Morocco, Syria, and other Sephardic communities.  On Saturday night, when Shabbat ended early, the community would prolong its spirit with an evening of music and spirituality.

New York Hevrat Baqashot,  

My cousin founded the New York Hevrat Habaqashot, the New York Baqashot Ensemble, when he immigrated from France.  The Hevra’s members, all young professionals by day, research text, compose musical accompaniment, rehearse tirelessly, and have revived the custom in New York City.  This was their sixth annual performance.  They delighted the audience, Ashkenazic as well as Sephardic, and as I watched my cousin lead the group it occurred to me that our common ancestors shared the same experience in Marrakesh for centuries, until the Moroccan Jews started leaving about 60 years ago.

That got me thinking about the resilience and portability of Jewish culture and life through our successive Exiles. I grew up in Paris, France, a few miles away from my cousin’s community.  Our synagogues were made up primarily of North African Jews, who left Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia after the establishment of the State of Israel and the independence from France. It is not easy to be an easily identifiable Jew in Paris these days. The kippa goes off or is hidden under a hat, and we do not readily advertise who we are.

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Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Shemot’s Rebels with a Cause: What Makes Might?

The Book of Exodus starts with contrasting narratives of fear-mongering and cruelty, and courageous acts of compassion.  A new Pharaoh rises to rule Egypt.  He chooses to ignore that Yosef the Hebrew turned Egypt into the world’s sole superpower.  Instead, Pharaoh convenes the Wannsee Conference of the day, to plot the annihilation of the Children of Israel.  Pharaoh’s indictment of Israel contains no accusations of misconduct, only the fear that “they could multiply and join with our enemies in case of war.”  From there, enslavement and true ethnic cleansing, the killing of baby boys at birth, ensues.

The first recorded acts of rebellion come from resisting midwives refusing to kill newborns and then from Batya, Pharaoh’s own daughter.  Seeing Moshe in the Nile, the text tells us, Batya immediately realizes that he is a Hebrew child and “has compassion for him.”   She not only saves Moshe but sends him back to his mother among the Hebrews to be nursed.  When he grows up and is brought to Pharaoh’s palace, Batya names him Moshe because “I brought him out of the water.”  The very name Batya gives him connotes her continued defiance of the Pharaonic policies.
The Midrash, enamored with Batya, tells us that she went on to marry a Hebrew man named “Mered,” or “Revolt,” who was in fact Caleb ben Yefuneh.  Caleb was of course, along with Yehoshua, one of the dissenters from the ill-fated mission and fear-based report of the 12 Spies.  Both Batya and Mered are rebels, the Midrash says.  They had the courage to stand up to the prevailing beliefs in their society, and therefore deserved each other.

Owing his life to an Egyptian rebel, Moshe embodies his adoptive mother’s courage and compassion, on behalf of his own people as well as strangers.  Instead of living a comfortable princely life, Moshe rebels and kills the Egyptian taskmaster savagely beating a Hebrew slave.  And as he runs away from Pharaoh’s wrath, alone in a foreign land, Moshe’s first act is to come to the rescue of Yitro’s daughters, harassed by hostile shepherds.

It is no coincidence that the Book of Exodus opens with stories of cruelty and compassion.  The Book will then move on to a long narrative dominated by themes of power and conflict, pitting Pharaoh, the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful army, and the unleashed might of G-d coming to the rescue of the oppressed. The powerful Egyptian armies wind up drowned in the Red Sea as the Empire falls. The lessons are clear:  Might is not enough.  It must have as its basis a foundation of compassion in order to endure and prevail. One rebellious act of compassion has set in motion a great historical movement of liberation, whereas policies devoid of humanity triggered self-destruction — even for the mightiest in the world.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Out of the clouds, into hope

Tomorrow, we will exit the Clouds of Glory that the huts of Sukkot symbolize.  For eight days, we have been asked to re-experience the Divine protection that shrouded our ancestors as they left the narrow straits of Egypt’s slavery.  Into the clouds through the desert we went with them, sustained by the spirit of G-d rather than the earthly walls of our houses, businesses, and material belongings.

Now we fall out of the Clouds into Simchat Torah, and in the classical Jewish tradition our holiday joy is mixed with a sprinkle of sadness.  We conclude the annual Torah cycle with the poignant death of Moses on the edge of the Promised Land. “And there never arose again in Israel a Prophet like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face,” the Torah concludes, adding in its very last verse a nostalgic reference to “all the mighty hand and all the awesome fear that Moses executed before the eyes of all of Israel.” 

The proximity between our exit from the Clouds and the harsh wake-up call of Moses’ death, has profound national significance for the Jewish people.  Rashi and our Sages ask what exactly did Moses do “before the eyes of all Israel” that merits being mentioned in the final words of the Torah.  Answer: the Golden Calf episode, when Moses was stirred into breaking the Tablets before the Israelites’ eyes, after he returned from 40 days and 40 nights working with G-d only to find his wayward people in the throes of idolatry.

By reminding us now of the Golden Calf story of ultimate betrayal, unconditional love, and radical forgiveness, the Torah is telling us that its divine spirit is certainly on top of Sinai, in the divine clouds, but that it must be lived and experienced in the material world of the people.  And that as a people we must understand that if we reject the Torah ideals, and betray its commitment to the poor, the stranger, social justice, and integrity, the Torah might as well be shattered.
As we exit the clouds and return to our material world, the Torah is insisting that, like Moses, we the people must have unconditional love for one another. This extends even to those who, like the Golden Calf conspirators, reject our most fundamental beliefs at the worst of time.  We must always forgive one another for the sake of a higher national mission — that expressed in the Torah’s ideals.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Moving Forward After Nationalist and Populist Movements

Research by two Rutgers Law School professors traces the economic and cultural roots of populist and nationalist movements in the United States and Europe, including the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote to withdraw from the European Union, the rise of the extreme-right parties in France and Germany, and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Ari Afilalo and Dennis Patterson suggest that throughout the Western world, and especially in the United States, people are angry that they haven’t benefited from globalization.

In the United States and other Western countries, Afilalo and Patterson say there has emerged what they call a “chronically excluded class” that has lost the economic security that it enjoyed in the 20th century. Afilalo and Patterson say the “chronically excluded” have reached the boiling point, and they’re angry because there are currently no opportunities to regain economic security.

“People have a right to be angry because they have not benefited from globalization in a way that the top tier of society has,” says Patterson, the Board of Governors Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School’s Camden location.

Afilalo and Patterson say the U.S. government is failing to provide its people with social and economic security because it uses obsolete policy tools from the 20th century. They cite the federal government’s policies after World War II, when the government delivered economic security by relying and legislating around a base of corporate employers providing a massive supply of stable careers in manufacturing, services, and other jobs.

“It used to be that you go to work for a corporation and you were a loyal employee for your whole life, you got a pension and you were good. That paradigm is gone and it’s not coming back,” says Patterson. He says part-time work, platform economy, and moving from one job to another will replace the old workplace model. Patterson says the federal government should be working on a plan to create security for people in that environment.

According to Afilalo and Patterson, the Western nation-state is in crisis because manufacturing and retail jobs were traded away to emerging economies. They also point to other changes, such as automation and the platform "gig" economy eroding the career-based model of work, the skills gap between the new type of jobs created in large quantities and the declining middle-class workforce, and the fact that more than 90 percent of new entrants in the global middle class come from Asia and other emerging markets.

Afilalo says half of the world is now middle class. “If I am in Indonesia, I’m happy to become a member of the middle class. I get my basic goods that I did not have before. If I am the same person in Appalachia, then I am going down,” says Afilalo. “They are going from manufacturing to the retail services industry, which is being devastated with the advent of technology.”

Afilalo’s and Patterson’s findings are a part of a decade-long research project on the role of a nation-state as the provider of economic security and opportunity in globalized markets.

They say the U.S. government needs to revamp the way economic policy is structured. They want a government that enables economic opportunity for the chronically excluded and provides social protection that is not dependent on a career-type, long-term job. Examples include a portable social account that would be a vehicle to enable business in the gig economy, and public-private partnerships to create jobs programs that train and link the chronically excluded to the skilled job openings that abound in the United States.

Patterson and Afilalo say that some reforms to the trade system are necessary, but that a return to protectionism would harm U.S. interest. “If President Trump has his way, the economy will be far worse off than it is now,” says Patterson. “Protectionism has never resulted in economic growth.”

The results of their research will be included in a book by the Rutgers–Camden scholars that’s scheduled for release in the fall of 2018.

Patterson is teaching a course on contracts this semester. In the spring, he’s teaching a seminar with former Rutgers Law School Dean Ray Solomon on the changing nature of work and regulation, which will cover globalization.

Afilalo teaches a contracts course this semester, and will teach a globalization-heavy course in international trade and business transactions in the spring that covers the international trade system, international financial and investment rules, and the private law of cross-border transactions.

For students interested in international law, Patterson suggests that they study economics and political theory, and to travel widely. Patterson spent the last eight years living in Italy while he was on leave from Rutgers Law School and learned more about Europe and the European Union. Afilao recommends that students learn one foreign language. “Spanish and French are obvious candidates,” says Afilalo, “But I also think that to the extent practicable a student should strive to speak any language used in the Arab or Asian markets; that would give her or him a great comparative advantage.”

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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Parshat Shelah: The Power of Words

Is the adage that “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” really true?  In the Hebrew language, the verb “to speak”(ledaber), has the same root as the noun “thing” (davar). As this week’s parsha illustrates, this connotes the fundamental Jewish belief that words have power.  Words can change the material world.  They can lead a people to found a State, or to go back to slavery.  And they can lead a person to accomplish his or her potential, or to wither away.

This week’s parsha, Shelah, recounts the story of the twelve princes of Israel on a reconnaissance spying mission to the Land of Israel.  Ten of the twelve Spies returned with frightening stories of giants, superior armies, fortified cities, and descendants of super-natural beings who fell off of the sky in the early days of humankind.  Their negative reports so frightened the Israelites that they decided to rebel (one more time) against G-d and Moshe, and to appoint a new leader to take them back to Egypt. 

The parsha teaches that words can be the link between negative inner emotions and self-destructive action.  “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and thus also in their eyes,” recount the spies when describing some inhabitants of the Land.  Their lack of self-confidence and security diminished the princes of Israel in the eyes of their beholders.  Their words conveyed fear and powerlessness.  And they paralyzed the people and led them to regress into the false security of slave life.

But the Torah also teaches us that words can transcend fear and other emotions and lead to positive action, which itself can lead to a transformation of the emotional make-up of the speaker.  Back in parshat Beshalah’, a newly appointed Moshe already had to deal with a rebelling people so paralyzed by fear that they longed to return to Egyptian slavery. That time, they were landlocked between the Red Sea and the attacking Egyptian army, and they blamed Moshe for taking them out of Egypt only to die in the desert.

When Moshe cried out to G-d, the answer was:  “Why are you crying to me?  Speak (daber) to the people, and they will go forth.”  There ensued the speech that I believe launched Moshe as a leader and resonated deeply with the fearful, newly-freed slaves:  “Do not fear, stand up and witness G-d’s salvation that He will do for you today, for you will never again see the Egyptians the way you saw them today.  G-d will fight on your behalf, and you will stay quiet.”

This was exactly what the Israelites needed to hear.  Just freed from slavery, it was unthinkable for them to take on their masters and their military machine.  Conditioned to be dominated, they forgot the Ten Plagues and the miracles that G-d had just brought upon Egypt to crush it.  As Rashi wrote, G-d asked Moshe not only to speak to the people but “to speak to their hearts.”  With a few powerful, simple words, Moshe reminded the Israelites that they were on G-d’s journey and they would not be asked to take on more than they could handle.

The rest is history. The Red Sea swallowed the Egyptians and allowed the Israelites to traverse. And no sooner were the Israelites on the other bank that they “acquired faith in G-d and his servant Moshe” and broke into the Shira, a confident song of gratitude.  Moshe’s words transcended his own self-doubt and the Israelites’ fear. They grounded his leadership and propelled his people towards Sinai and freedom, away from slavery.

Joshua and Caleb, the two lone princes of Israel who stood for Moshe, followed his example and reignited the people’s faith. “Have no fear of the people of the Land,” they dissented. “They will be our bread [as in, we will eat them for breakfast], their protection has left them, and G-d is with us, fear not!”  Both Joshua and Caleb went on to enter the Promised Land, the former as Moshe’s successor.  The ten princes’ disempowering words, on the other hand,  led to their untimely death in the desert.
Today the news are flooded with words of verbal abuse, divisiveness, and even incitement.  Words have power.  Let us be mindful of how we use them, in both our public and private lives.

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Monday, 10 July 2017

Get To Know About The Important Facts About Latino Jews

Ari Afilalo is a professional who has every minute detail about the Sephardic community. Once you go through the writing of Afilalo, you will come to know about the cultural values of the Sephardic people. Latino Jews used to call with different names such as:

  • Sephardic Jews
  • Spanish Jews
  • Arab Jews

A Glimpse Of Light On The Identity Of Latino Jews
When we discuss about the Latino Jews, they were basically the descendants of those people who practiced Jewish religion in Iberia for a very long time and now the below mentioned regions:

  • Spain
  • Portugal
  • North Africa

All About The Religious Practice Of Hispanics
They were blindly following Jewish traditions without knowing even the ABC of it. There was a Jewish association in New Mexico that pointed out the following practices majorly disconnected from consciousness of a Jewish past:

  • Candle Lightening on Friday night
  • Observing the Sabbath on Saturday
  • No To Eat Pork

There is a lot to know about this enriching heritage of Sephardic people. Once you start learning about Sephardic culture, you will be anxious to know more and more.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A Brief Introduction To Sephardic Community- Ari Afilalo

Know More About Sephardic Community
The Sephardim are those who left Spain or Portugal after the 1492 expulsion. There are said to be the descendants of Jews. The term Sephardim comes from the Hebrew word Sepharad.

Use Of The Word Sephardim In Different Countries

  • North Africa
  • Iraq
  • Syria
  • Greece
  • Turkey

Cultural Impact Of Language
The language of a country exhibits the cultural value of the people living there. Sephardi Jews are known for preserving their special language, spoken by many Sephardic communities in various countries such as:

  • Greece
  • Turkey
  • Bulgaria
  • Rumania
  • France
  • Latin America

About The Author
Ari Afilalo is the one who has expresses his views about Sephardic Community in a very effective way. His excellent work is really appreciable. He has kept his close eyes on every minute detail about sephardic community.