essays kaddish in two-part harmony the rebbe's queer daughters

sephardi pride, ashkenazi arrogance 1.1.9

“Peasants!” the rebbe would mutter under his breath, when his wife Sarah’s customs went too far for his Ashkenazi sensibilities.

But of course, her people were not peasants. They were proud of a long and sanctified lineage.  Proud of the language they had retained since the 15th century.  Proud of those they claimed as their own—from Maimonedes to Reb Chaim Pinto, the magic worker of Mogadir, and of course proud of Solika the sainted martyr of Fes, whose shrine, like Reb Pinto’s granted the petitions of sufferers.

Always to the honorable forefathers Sarah’s pride would reach, tzaddikim all.  But truth be told, she herself could neither read nor write. She blamed it on that infernal move from the heart of Sephardi culture to the backwaters of Maghrebi mountains. It wasn’t her fault. It infuriated her, her upbringing.

Such a lineage she possessed, but not a stitch of learning. Where she’d been raised, it was her beauty that had been cultivated.  She was a prize. A prize for the prize student. And that was Avram.

Chaval m’od.

She could not win a single argument, unless it was through silence, or the refusal of her favors.

 “A degenerated people,” Reb Avram would mutter cheerfully at such times, “who have fallen away from reason.”  And he would give a chuckle at their folly.

“Miracle workers, indeed!”

For surely it could not be Reb Pinto himself who (as was believed by those Sephardi mountain folk) roused the Prince of the Sea in the depths of his kiddish cup to return a treasure lost at sea!  This was the work of the Almighty alone.  And the Almighty requires no such pomp and silliness. His brow furrowed. If it was a miracle, it belonged to the Divine. Give credit where credit is due.

If it had been the Ba’al Shem Tov, he would have understood. This. This was just folklore, wasn’t it?

But Sarah was a firm believer in the miracles of her Reb Pinto, and she kept a copy of a painting of him in the dresser drawer next to her side of the bed that she shared with the tzaddik she had married.

Sarah knew for certain that Reb Pinto had retrieved the treasure lost while sitting at his Sabbath table, for when she looked in his eyes, she saw her own father staring back at her, with kindness and justice and quiet honor.  The little picture made her terribly homesick, even after all these decades, for Reb Pinto was always and forever standing in the same place, in the center of a medina square that looked so much like home.

Sarah long had felt that if her husband, the modern tzaddik who was thought to know so very much, if he,  ba’al ha-bayit, her current master, had allowed her to return to her home country many decades ago, she could have prayed at the tomb of the renowned saint Reb Pinto. And she could have left her offerings to him upon her pilgrimage. And, surely, she would have born her children in her prime and not her dotage.  For this failing, she never forgave her husband.

Oh. And the saint could have made her learned and wise, while he was at it. She would have wanted maybe to read back then. But now, too late, for sure.

 “She,” her husband would whisper to their daughters in conspiratorial rebuttal, “she must be forgiven the enchantments of her people,” with one apologetic eyebrow rising, a wink in his sweet paternal eye, and the cock to the right of his benevolent head.

 “Eh?” he would say, expecting confirmation from his growing girls. “Eh?” he would say louder.

His eyes would grow wide, and twinkle just the way a father’s eyes must do.  He was patient, kind, and tolerant of his wife’s quaint rantings, which by now he did best to ignore.  But he would not himself bend his will to hers.  Nor did he wish his daughters unduly exposed to Sephardi nonsense.  Cooking, fine—let Sarah teach them good Sephardi cooking—but not the superstitions of her people.

Nevertheless, Sarah’s habits never could he break, and so at last (without even noticing), he tuned them out, or tried.

Suffer,” his generosity told us.  “Suffer her her ignorance.” It did not occur to him  to seek her knowledge to increase, nor did he aid her in the acquisition of the language of this new and western land to which he had brought her.

Instead, he protected her from exposure. Here, in this cottage on the hill. Overlooking the western sea.

“If we could only isolate her from ridicule.  Dayenu.”

“Indulge her her anachronisms. Dayenu.”

“Live by the rules of her imaginary reckoning.  Dayenu.”

So sage was the rebbe that that one raised eyebrow could communicate all this to his girls and more.  With such an eyebrow, no need had one for many words in this or any other regard.

Sarah’s tolerated habits included an impressive display of distinctive manners of spitting for selected, well-calculated occasions.

Her protections were ceaseless, intended as they were to promote the auspicious, and ward off the inauspicious.  So adept was she that a single act of expectoration was equivalent to a declarative paragraph of censure so profound that none could withstand it.  Her position on a given matter was in this way made abundantly clear without benefit of the language of her adopted country. On these occasions, not even the tzaddik himself would dare rebut or intervene.  She had that much charisma and command.

The rebbe’s personal favorite of her quaint expectorant rites, (at least from a distance), was the one specified for the occasion of the unwanted suitor—particularly important to a wary mother in a household full of daughters.

But she had other tricks learned at her own mother’s knee and from the elder women of the Atlas who had gathered in her mother’s courtyard.  She had an array of warding hand motions and incantations, herbs and spices—both curative and the reverse—in a multitude of combinations, not to mention recipes for dire and specialized circumstance.

Magical ‘cooking lessons’ indeed she taught all of her daughters, and Malkah she initiated into the tending of the Uriel Tree and goats. But it was the comida and the kitchen, and the gateau used as a weapon, and borekas for good fortune that Reb Avram relished more.

What a tasteless tasty culture, what a rich mine of folklore!

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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