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Bringing back bakashot: Young Sephardic Jews embrace an old musical tradition

Singers (from left) Joachim Nahmani, Sacha Ouazana, Haim Fedida and Mony Abergel chant bakashot, a type of Sephardic religious poetry, at an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on March 29, 2014. (Talia Bloch)

Singers (from left) Joachim Nahmani, Sacha Ouazana, Haim Fedida and Mony Abergel chant bakashot, a type of Sephardic religious poetry, at an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on March 29, 2014. (Talia Bloch)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The group of young Jewish professionals had gathered to participate in the revival of a Sephardic tradition hearkening back to the days of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Arriving at an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they greeted each other in French and settled in around a dining table laid out with snacks and bottles of arak.

They had come to listen to the chanting of bakashot, a class of traditional Sephardic liturgical poems praising and petitioning God. The singing of bakashot, which literally means “requests,” was once common practice among Sephardic Jews across the Middle East and North Africa, but it has waned in many communities over the past two generations.

Sung to classical Sephardic musical modes, bakashot were traditionally performed in synagogues during the pre-dawn hours before Sabbath morning services in the months between Sukkot and Passover.

“Ninety percent of the classic tunes sung in the synagogue are based on bakashot,” said Mony Abergel, who grew up in Casablanca, Morocco. “Every Moroccan, even if he does not know the bakashot, knows the tunes.”

Abergel was one of the gathering’s four singers, men in their mid-20s to early 30s from Moroccan Jewish families who meet every week to learn and rehearse bakashot.

The men sang in unison, breaking out occasionally into solos. One of them, the group’s founder Sacha Ouazana, also played a drum called a darbouka. The music was of a piece with classic Sephardic liturgical chanting, but with a supplicatory yet insistent quality.

Most of those at the March 29 gathering were members of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue. The synagogue is the spiritual home for a growing community of young Jews of North African heritage, many of whom grew up in France and have immigrated to New York over the past decade. Ouazana, for example, grew up outside Paris and now serves as the synagogue’s cantor.

Ouazana said he began his cantorial training at the age of 5 but discovered bakashot only when he went to study in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg in his late teens. Before starting the bakashot group in 2011, he spent 10 years gathering and studying materials.

“My goal was first to learn the bakashot and then to perpetuate this tradition, especially in the U.S.,” Ouazana said.

Bakashot draw heavily on Hebrew piyutim — or Jewish liturgical poems — from the Spanish Golden Age. Popular wisdom has it that the bakashot tradition originated then, but many scholars disagree.

Ethnomusicologist and musician Samuel Thomas said that the tradition’s real roots lie in the kabbalism of 16th- and 17th-century Safed in Israel. The works of the kabbalistic poet Israel Najara, who figured prominently during that period, are also heavily represented among the bakashot.

“It basically comes from the Lurianic kabbalist tradition that looks to inspire a mystical brotherhood and tries to force the hand of God through mystical practice,” said Thomas, a scholar of Sephardic musical traditions who composes new settings for piyutim for his musical ensemble Asefa. “A major theme of the bakashot is asking for redemption. They are indelibly marked by the tragedy of the Spanish expulsion — and by the urgency that ‘this has got to be the time’ of redemption.”

The tradition spread throughout the Sephardic world with each community developing its own repertoire over the ensuing centuries. Among Syrian Jews, for example, there is a set group of 66 bakashot that are recited completely or in part each week. In the Moroccan tradition, by contrast, the bakashot change from Sabbath to Sabbath based on the weekly Torah portion. The communities with the most codified traditions, said Thomas, were in Morocco, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Jerusalem.

On this Saturday evening, the performers sang the bakashot that in the Moroccan tradition would normally be sung on the Sabbath preceding Purim, although that Sabbath had been several weeks prior. The melodic mode used for this particular group, said Abergel, was one heavily influenced by classical Andalusian tunes.

Both Ouazana and Abergel emphasized the difficulty of learning bakashot.

“Bakashot are very complex, and if you don’t have someone to teach you, they are very difficult to transmit,” Abergel said.

The difficulty of the music is one reason, experts said, the bakashot practice waned.

“It’s a tradition that really requires devoted and dedicated people,” said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center in Los Angeles. “Like many other aspects of Sephardic life in the U.S., a lot was lost. For a long time the narrative was that we were ‘the other.’ So we assimilated into Ashkenazi Jewry or assimilated out of Judaism altogether.”

The general decline in religious observance during the 20th century and the great disruption to Sephardic communities that was brought about when they left homelands in which they had been rooted for centuries were also contributing factors to the decline in the practice.

Today, in the United States, “it’s a matter of small pockets here and there that are bringing it back,” Bouskila said. “It’s a slow surge rather than a major revolution.”

Morocccan Jews in Toronto chant bakashot:

Bouskila points to several Sephardic synagogues in Los Angeles that have occasional performances and one that goes through the entire traditional Moroccan cycle of bakashot, but on Monday evenings.

Thomas, who for two years has helped organize bakashot classes among Brooklyn’s Moroccan Jews, says that bakashot have also experienced a resurgence in the local Syrian community.

The renewed interest in bakashot can in part be attributed to increased religious observance, experts said, but it also takes its impetus from two phenomena spilling over from Israel. The first, said Thomas, is a surge in interest in piyutim across both secular and religious Israeli society. The second is the tremendous reawakening of Sephardic pride and culture in Israel that began in the 1970s and which recent immigrants to the U.S. have brought with them.

In Israel, the bakashot tradition has experienced a much more vigorous revival, even reaching into popular music.

“We are recapturing our identity,” Bouskila said. “Bakashot is part of the package.”

Brigitte Dayan, who hosted the gathering with her husband in their apartment, called the evening “incredibly moving.”

“What I was seeing in front of my eyes in the modern day and in a modern way was the perpetuation of our tradition,” she said. “It is what my husband and I want to transmit to our children.”

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