A story about the Chazan-Cantor Yaakov Avitan
At the small, but rapidly growing, synagogue where I often attend Shabbat and High Holidays services, Ashkenazi and Sephardic worshippers pray together in unity.
However, every year, during the High Holidays services, upon the request of the Sephardic members wishing to continue their ancient tradition of preserve their rich and unique customs, the rabbi has allowed the members to split into two praying groups, Sephardic and Ashkenazi.
For the High Holidays this year the Sephardic members “imported” a Chazan-Cantor from Israel. His name is Yaakov Avitan. I did not hear Yaakov chanting the prayers as I attended services at the Ashkenazi section. However, I was told I missed on a real chazzanut treat.
On the last day of Sukkot, when the congregation sat in the Sukkah to have the traditional meal, I sat next to Yaakov Avitan and his family. Not knowing or seeing Yaakov before, we opened a “get to know you” conversation. Yaakov told me bits and pieces about his interesting life story that is parallel to so many other members of the Jewish tribe.
What fascinated me about the story you are about to read is the cycle of life Jews so often go through.
“I am first generation Jew from Casablanca, Morocco,” Yaakov began his story. “My parents came to Casablanca from the Atlas Mountains.” Only few years ago he visited the village his parents left behind for the “big city.” He was told that his ancestors left the land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. They were Priests who served at the Temple but over the centuries the family lost the priesthood title.
In the late 1950s-to-1960s there was a massive Jewish immigration to Israel from the North African countries; his parents arrived to Israel in 1963 when he was eight years old.
Yaakov served in the Israeli military and fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In 1981, while working as a security guard in Eilat, he met his future wife Barbara, an American who was holidaying in Israel. He followed her to the US and they got married in 1982.
He made an early career in catering and then, later on, as an electrician. Yaakov was a secular Jew who, from a young age, had the love and talent for singing. Seventeen years ago, he began a slow journey from secularism to religious life and with that he changed his hobby of singing secular music to chanting Jewish Cantorial music. He was one of a few individuals who established the Bar Yohai Sephardic Minyan, in Sunnyvale, located in the Silicon Valley, in northern California. Yaakov lived and raised his family in the Bay Area, for almost 25 years, until he decided to return to Israel. This was his second ascend- Aliyah to the Jewish homeland.
Yaakov, his wife Barbara and their three sons, all, individually, returned to religious Judaism; however, their decision to make their home in Israel was an ongoing process. Two of Yaakov’s sons went to Israel to study in a yeshiva. One of these sons is currently serving as a rabbi, working with Jewish students at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison; the other son is studying at Ateret Yisrael Yeshiva, in Jerusalem and Yaakov’s third son who resides in Los Angeles and is a member of the congregation mentioned here, works in Finance at a local Hedge Fund.
Why did you want to go live in Israel, I asked Yaakov. “The truth is that I wanted to make the move years ago; however, my wife simply feared the move. After all she did not speak Hebrew and the differences in mentalities scared her.”
Overcoming or setting all fears aside, in August 2007 the Avitans’ made the move and immigrated; as they call it in Israel, they made Aliyah.
How did you acclimate, I asked Yaakov the proverbial question. “Bureaucracy is a difficult hurdle to cross in Israel. What should have taken a short while to achieve took forever. For instance, my electrician license took five years to be issued! That hampered my ability to make a living and I often thought of packing up and returning to the US. We also had problems with obtaining mortgage and buying an apartment.”
“But,” he says, that “the love for Israel costs money; the love for Israel is bought with suffering,” and they sure got their share of suffering. Yaakov believes that in order to live in Israel one has to accept suffering with love.
Today he live in Har Homa, a thriving neighborhood in Jerusalem of post 1967 war. There he serves as permanent cantor.
Now we got into the essence of the issue, which is life in Israel as seen by someone who was absent for 27 years. “Living in Israel gives you a sense of security,” says Yaakov. “For a Jew, there is no better place than Israel.”
So how do you prepare for Aliyah in 2012? I asked?
“You have to be financially secure to make a smooth as possible transition, to acclimate and adjust and enjoy the life style and standard of living Israel offers,” he says. “You have to have a strategy of how to survive, meaning, have a profession or a trade license that will allow you to make a decent living.”
“The bitter aspect, it is difficult to adjust to life in Israel because the cost of living is very high and it is rather hard to survive. The sweet aspect, there is a great feeling in Israel; it is our land, our military, our holidays, our tradition and culture, our food, our music and we have our Jerusalem, the holiest real estate on earth.”
“In closing statement,” Yaakov says, “every Jew who lives outside Israel must take into account that he or she must have an ultimate home and that can only be in Israel. For 2000 years we waited to return to our ancient homeland and in 64 years we have re-built it, achieving a magnificent democratic country of a society that is nationally united but sadly split spiritually. I see it clearly as I have been a member of both sides – secular and religious – of the Jewish society spectrum. The solution will come when secularism will meet religion with respect and vice versa. And then there will be unity and it will attract more Jews, secular and religious alike, to make their ultimate home in Israel.”
My conversation with Yaakov brought to my mind thoughts I have carried with me for a long while.
Jews have always been persecuted. From her inception, Israel has always been under siege, but the internal problems, the rift between the secular and the religious Jews are still a bothersome and very visible.
So let us get it straight. Though Israel proclaims itself to be a secular, democratic and Jewish state, Israel cannot exist as an unJewish state. Such concept is oxymoronic per se. Israel is meant to be a Jewish State and nothing else will do. Jews are formed around their Torah, their Bible.
The philosopher Zarathustra, the Stoic philosopher Aristo of Chios, the Greek philosopher Plato, the Chinese politician and philosopher Confucius, King Arthur and his Knights Round Table, the preeminent leader of Indian Nationalism Mahatma Gandhi, the French Revolution Charter, US Declaration of Independence or Constitution, Communism, to name some, have never been, nor will ever be the columns upon which a Jewish State and the Jewish people can rest.
Judaism equals Torah. Some members of the tribe will make it their way of life, and others will be following with less participation; but certainly one cannot be Jewish and at the same time act like other religions, be it Christian, Moslem or any other religion or philosophical concept.
Just as the universal system of Greece, Rome, Germany, or Russia came to an end, today the EU and the USA are well on their way on the very same end game road. Sadly in Israel the “enemy from within” has always been allied with foreigners and partially listed foreign ideologies, as their ways and means to harm Israel. They are the unJews, renegades, some call themselves secular, abortionists, deviants, treacherous to one and all.
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the secular Tel Avivians were having caffe latte and steak in their bistros while their fellow citizens were fighting Hezbollah. It was as if they were guests in their own country.
For the sake of the survival of the Jewish nation, that unity Yaakov spoke about with great hope must be achieved.
There is a saying, “when the Messiah arrives…,” however, we do not need to wait until then to join in unity. We are one nation, one people!