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Saying chazak chazak v’nitchzek

05/16/2017 10:37:56 AM


May 16, 2017
by Nancy Sheftel-Gomes

And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them to destroy them utterly and to break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. (Vayikra 26:44)

Ashkenazi and Sefardi customs (Minhagim) are often different, but when it comes to the saying of “chazak” in the context of Keriot Ha'Torah (public reading of Torah) both have the same custom. They differ in that the Sefardic custom is to say “chazak” at the end of every reading and the Ashkenazi custom is to say it after completing a book of the Torah.

I spent the past two weeks seeking my Sefardi Jewish roots as I trekked through former Jewish communities in Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, Toledo, Zaragoza, Girona and Barcelona with my brother. We are both students of family history and wanted to at least stand in a place that our forefathers did. Besides written history we recently found our family names on the list—‘Listadeo de nombres Sefaradies’—that supposedly opens the door to Spanish right of return after 500 years, our family name Benveniste certified by two of the three scholars who compiled the list.

Spain in the late Middle Ages was an emerging country, resulting from a series of conquests and re-conquests by the Moors and Christian rulers that culminated with the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469. Their illustrious reign united the Iberian Peninsula and expanded their territory through wars and treaties. It also simultaneously created the Inquisition and funded Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World in the name of Spain and all that came after that, for Spain and for the Jewish world that ceased to exist in Spain.

As I read this week’s double Parshat, B’har-B’chucotai, I wondered what the people living in the Call—the narrow alleyway sections of medieval Spanish towns where Jews were allowed to dwell- felt when they heard these words of admonition, rebuke, threats and blame in the weekly reading while they existed under the looming deadline just week’s away from the decree date of expulsion, which created the third great diaspora for Jews.

A century before the final expulsion, in the Call in Girona, a town on four rivers, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (The Ramban, Nachmanides) lived. The Ramban fled to Acre in Eretz Yisrael after the humiliation of a forced debate with a Converso (a Jew who converted to Catholicism, rather than leave Spain.)

In a famous letter to his son (Iggeres HaRamban), which he instructed to be read every week to his grandchildren, the Ramban’s words echo this week’s Parshat assuring his son that if he follow the Torah’s instructions and sought to put the teachings into practice, like this week’s Torah portion he could be assured all the gifts of God.

Beginning with—‘If you follow my laws and faithfully obey my commandments,’ the Ramban’s carefully worded letter like much else Sefardi from that time conceals the layers of oppression, the need to be careful about what one says or does and the instructions to be gentle, humble and slow to anger sound more like not to make waves, not to draw attention to yourself, and most of all to be careful.

Today in Girona, the old city and the Call have been restored and The Nachmanides Institute for Jewish Studies is housed in an old synagogue and the Museum of Jewish History. The Museum is a gem of context and history and of artifacts of Jewish life before the Inquisition. Hundreds of tourists walk through with docent tours in almost every language; the day I was there I heard Japanese, Chinese, German, Dutch and Hebrew. As I listened to tour guides explaining who the Jews were, what their lives were I felt a great sadness.

Everything ended in 1492 with the Inquisition persecuting New Christians until 1832. Our Jewish guide in Barcelona reported that games are still quietly being played as she recounted the story of the steps to preserve the Jewish cemetery in Barcelona. Until recently a child had to be Catholic to go to public school. Jewish communities (approx. 40,000 Jews in Spain) are only slowly being reestablished. What motivation is there for a multicultural Jewish Spaniard to choose to identify as a Jew?

Sitting in Starbucks in Madrid one afternoon I struck up a conversation with a young woman. Not surprisingly her family were Converso who lived in Malaga. Their name was Pineda (Jewish names were of trees, animals, flowers) and as Nuria pointed out to me quite proudly so are their noses. So what is it that makes something or someone Jewish? I do know that as I stood in the museum in Girona, the only Jewish person in the room I wanted to open the neck of my shirt and expose my Magan David to the tourists and shout out look at me, I am what a Jew looks like, I wanted them to see a living Jew in the room.  

How did that happen that 500 years after my ancestors left Spain that my brother and I stood on that historic ground?

The answer lies in ‘chazak chazak,’ whether we say it every time we read Torah or every time we finish a book of Torah. We say those words when we read Torah publically, we say them among a gathered community, they bind us together—past, present, and future, they bind us to all other Jewish communities reading Torah; and they bind our personal prayers to our communal prayer- be strong, be strong, have courage.

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, April 21 2018 6 Iyar 5778