Thursday, April 12, 2007

New book on Mizrahi life cycle rituals

The latest volume of Haim Saadoun's important historical series on Jewish Mizrahi communities, The Life Cycle, edited by Shalom Sabar, explores Jewish rites of passage, from birth to death, in Islamic countries and the Balkans. Review by Yali Hashash in Haaretz:

"The contributors have managed to avoid many of the methodological pitfalls that stood in their way. These rituals, for example, are not portrayed as hailing from some static past that is over and gone, and hence observed from a very distant vantage point. In addition, the East is not portrayed as a homogeneous entity but rather as a variety of communities, each with their own, sometimes widely different, customs. The authors seem to be aware that the West and Zionism have illuminated the rituals described here in an unflattering light, causing them to be perceived as vestiges of a diaspora life that was backward and primitive. In consequence, the first thing that captures the eyes in this book is its beauty.

"The Life Cycle" is overflowing with material meticulously gathered from oral testimonies and a large array of first-hand sources. The data is organized in five chapters written by different authors: Pregnancy, Birth and the Early Years (Shalom Sabar); Childhood: Traditional Education (Ella Arazi); Bar Mitzvah (Roni Weinstein and Shalom Sabar); Marriage (Shalom Sabar); and Death, Burial and Mourning (Avriel Bar-Levav). A glossary is appended at the back of the book. (...)

"The book contains descriptions of familiar rites of passage, like bar mitzvahs and weddings, but also some that are less familiar, like the ceremony in which cloth is cut up for diapers. Through these rituals, we see the diversity of Mizrahi Jewish culture. In modern times, the Jews of Algeria made a point of celebrating a boy's bar mitzvah on his exact birth date. That was the day on which he put on phylacteries for the first time. Among the Jews of Morocco, 8- to 12-year-olds put on phylacteries, in keeping with the Talmudic principle of " lzrizin makdimine mitzvot" ("the diligent fulfill mitzvot at the earliest opportunity"). The Jews of Afghanistan ascribed no importance to the age of 13. A boy's bar mitzvah was determined by when he reached puberty and when he was capable of reading the Torah and Haftorah portions. In certain parts of Ethiopia, women performed the circumcision ceremonies. And the list goes on and on, with rites differing from place to place and from one chronological period to the next."

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