My Rabbi Ovadia


Rabbi Ovadia YosefShortly after the recent passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on October 7, articles began cropping up in the Israeli press with the titles “רב עובדיה שלי” – “My Rabbi Ovadia.” (See The Jewish Voice, Oct. 25. “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef dies at 93”) They were in essence personal essays by individuals who felt their private lives had been meaningfully impacted by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

My memories of Rav Ovadia are intimately related to my identity as a Mizrahi Jew – more specifically, a Babylonian (Iraqi) Jew. The grief I feel over Rav Ovadia’s passing is related to my perception of the man as the chief representative and embodiment of the contemporary tradition of Babylonian Jewry, even if he did not hesitate to break with Babylonian tradition when it did not align with his outlook on halakhah (Jewish law)

Having been raised in Rhode Island’s overwhelmingly Ashkenazi environment, it was not until I moved to Israel in 1995 that I began to cultivate a genuine appreciation for my Babylonian heritage. This appreciation was born of frequent visits to my father’s moshav (village) in an area of the country’s south, populated predominantly by families with roots in North Africa and the Middle East.

Living in the Greater Tel Aviv area at the time, the visits to the moshav were, for me, a journey to an otherworldly culture, with different physical features, accents, clothing, food, esthetics, family values and religious traditions.

For Tel Aviv itself, with its cosmopolitan bearing, has, in certain ways, become a homogeneous pot into which diverse Jewish identities have melted to form the mainstream Israeli persona. But Israelis refer to Greater Tel Aviv as the State of Tel Aviv, indicating how different it is from the rest of the country.

The secular Tel Aviv milieu regarded Rav Ovadia with an attitude of condescension, at times even mocking him as a caricature of religious primitivism. He dressed, spoke and wrote in ways to which they could scarcely relate from their narrowed vantage point.

Yet outside that world was a country that saw in Rav Ovadia a spiritual father figure and cultural torchbearer.

The implication of Rav Ovadia’s passing vis-a-vis me and my descendants may be that the rich culture of my father’s and grandparents’ generations will now dissolve that much more easily into the pot than it would have had there continued to be a figure for us to identify with and draw inspiration from, as there was with Rav Ovadia

Amir Afsai ( moved from Providence to Israel in 1995 and now teaches lan-guages at the Hebrew University and at the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter.