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Fifty shades of black: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s funeral

For a secular Jewish woman in Jerusalem, the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef presented an opportunity to cross one of the city’s strongest yet invisible boundaries – entering the bowels of the ultra-Orthodox world.

By Michelle Bubis

Mourners wail at the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, October 7, 2013 (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

When you belong to the dwindling minority of secular Jewish progressives in Jerusalem, it’s hard to sustain more than the standard rant against religious oppression. But while flatly opposing the politics of faith that run this place may be the way to go pragmatically, it runs the risk of throwing out the human interest with the bathwater. On a day when a sheer surge of humanity brings your city to a standstill, as well over half a million people flock to mourn the passing of a hero, writing the traffic jams off as annoying is simply a bore. So instead of joining in the camaraderie of secular complaints, I decide on the spur of the moment to cross the lines – and see what I can find.

Mourners at the Jerusalem funeral for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, October 7, 2013 (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Finding the spot itself isn’t hard. I simply follow the men in black hats streaming from every corner. I didn’t come prepared, so I’m concerned that the tights I’m wearing will draw unpleasant comments or even objections to my presence. Luckily, I have a scarf to cover any errant bits of torso.

The streets leading towards the main yeshiva where the funeral procession is concentrated are packed with men. I’m relieved to spot a young girl in religious seminary uniform, holding a child by each hand and looking like she’s debating which direction to take. She happily agrees for me to join her, and we head down one of the streets together. Her name is Naomi, she’s 18, and beneath her docile demeanour I quickly discover a sharp, opinionated mind.

It turns out that we didn’t have to worry about which way to go, because all roads lead to Rome and in this case, to the mind-boggling mass of people we join. Bodies pressing us from every direction, we remain in the same spot for the next three hours.

The event consists of eulogies being read out – or, more precisely, wailed – into a microphone that relays them to the surrounding streets through several ill-adjusted loudspeakers. The prevailing feeling is one of slight frustration, as everyone strains to make sense of the largely unintelligible sounds. Quite a few bright souls brought earphones and are listening to radio broadcasts of the event through their cellphones.

Mourners at the Jerusalem funeral for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, October 7, 2013 (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

In general, cellphones play a surprisingly dominant role in the scene. They glow everywhere in the dusk, as people whisper instructions to friends on the phone, send flurries of texts, and ostensibly listen to the broadcast (although I’m pretty sure the cherubic-looking yeshiva boy staring dreamily ahead is listening to something more earthy). The girl pressed up against my elbow is fervently reading Tehilim (Psalms) by the light of her phone.

The crowd is disappointingly placid. I had expected tears, pulling of hair, visible grief. But people, at least where I stand, seem to be largely there as a sign of respect, rather than using the opportunity to mourn personally. I suspect that at least some are there for the epic thrill, like me.

Mourners at the Jerusalem funeral for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, October 7, 2013 (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Naomi and I are soon joined in conversation by a man from Beitar Illit (a settlement south of Jerusalem) eager to share his admiration for the rabbi with me. The two of them exemplify the diversity I see all around me: although my field of vision is dominated by the predictable black hats and suits of ultra-Orthodox men, the variety of yarmulkes and attires that I see attest to the rabbi’s importance to vastly different Jewish religious groups. Naomi came to pay her respects to a great spiritual leader, even though she has no affiliation with the Sephardic Shas party that he led. Sporting all the symbols of the “national-religious” stream, the man who joined us most likely served in the army and believes in the expansionist version of Zionism. Therefore, I assume, he is politically at odds with his wispy-bearded ultra-Orthodox peers surrounding us.

Everyone I talk to repeats that the rabbi’s devout scholarship and practice of halakha (Jewish law) bridged these gaps and led the collective to a higher spirituality. He used to wash those who came to him for help with his tears, they tell me with shining eyes; he could quote you the page number of any reference you needed. His library reached the ceiling.

Still, one gap that isn’t bridged is the one separating men from women where I stand. Although everyone is jostling together at first, the crowd quickly and seemingly organically splits, so that the men – the vast majority – take up the road while women are crammed onto the narrow sidewalk. Naomi explains that many of her girlfriends didn’t come because they felt it would be immodest.

A man yells at the crowd to make room for the women so that the men don’t have to touch them, while inadvertently digging his elbow into my breast. I don’t bother to point out the irony. I am, however, quietly pleased to note that the women on the side actually have a better vantage point for spotting the hearse, the centrepiece of the event, as it drives by. Using the advantages of the margins, as always.

Naomi and another teenage friend excitedly exchange celebrity spottings, and it takes me a second to realize that they’re talking about rabbis. I can’t help noticing that they sound exactly like the last time I heard a 14-year-old go gaga about One Direction. When Naomi’s friend tells me that some girls at her seminary fainted when they heard the news of Rabbi Ovadia’s death, I’m not surprised.

I am surprised, however, when our new acquaintance from Beitar Illit explains to me that the rabbi did not die of illness or of old age, but because of our sins. I pause over being automatically included in the “we” that encompasses anyone Jewish and so blatantly, although implicitly, excludes anyone else. But mostly, I’m taken aback by the martyrdom angle. When I ask what “we” can do so that no other spiritual leaders have to sacrifice themselves for our sins, he has no answers.

I nod silently.

Born and bred in Jerusalem, Michelle Bubis is a translator and human rights activist. She is currently pursuing a research degree in educational psychology.

When the Rabbi said “plague” he meant “peace.” Duh.
Sephardic spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passes away at 93 
Shas spiritual leader may have paved way for attack on Iran

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    1. aristeides

      Interesting. I commented in the other thread about the makeup of the crowds, that seemed in the photos to be 100% male and overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, with the black hats and sidecurls. Or have the Sefardim in Israel Ashkenazized that far?

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Although the photos posted in this article show a different population.

        And that, too, raises a question.

        Reply to Comment
      • walt kovacs

        more sephardim have peyot than ashkenazim

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          Thanks, Walt. I can’t always identify the members of various sects from their appearance, but it would seem odd to me that hordes of hasidim, for instance, would mob Yosef’s funeral.

          Or maybe they did.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            He was considered a great Torah scholar among all the streams of Judaism. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that all streams will show up to pay respects at his funeral.

            Reply to Comment
      • Rivka

        I was there, and there were plenty of women, also men of all different streams – from hassidic to Sephardic to modern orthodox to secular. Where I was there were probably more Ashkenazim that Sephardim, but not by much.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      I’m not one to be happy about a person’s passing, but I’ll see this about the venerable rabbi: Good riddance!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Nikki

      Well they say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, however, I say good riddance to bad rubbish. This man was a racist, despicable and vile, not worthy of being called human being. Everything about him was divisive and ungodly. If I were to strain my brain I couldn’t possibly come up with one redeeming thing about Ovadia Yosef. I wish there were a hell for him to rot in, eternally.

      Reply to Comment
      • Such wishes are what make hell be.

        Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        “This man was a racist”

        Reading that on a site where the Jewish, race-agnostic return to the Land of Israel is recast as a “white colonialist enterprise oppressing the indigenous brown people”… Both staff and commentariat of 972mag are pathologically irony-impaired.

        Reply to Comment
      • Nathan Gold

        Nikki, do you expect to have 800,000 people attend your funeral? Or even 80?

        Reply to Comment
    4. Khaled Khalid

      He died because of “Our Sins?”
      That’s plagiarizing Jesus Christ, isn’t it?

      Rabbi Ovedia is take on an awful lot on himself to voluntarily die at 93 for other people’s sins. Talk about Guilt Trips.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        No, it’s a perennial strain in Judaism. “The children of Israel did what was displeasing in the sight of the Lord.” And disaster follows.

        If you follow the pronouncements of Yosef, you see any notable disaster attributed to the sins of someone or other. He blamed hurricane Katrina on George Bush’s failure to prevent the evacuation of Gush Khatif.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Jan

      I suppose that it was not noted at the funeral of this vile old racist rabbi that a few years ago he intoned that the only function of the goyim was to serve the Jews. While two Jewish organizations in the US condemned Ovadia for his racism and hubris, he was not removed as the rabbi of the Shas party nor did anyone in the Netanyahu regime condemn this man.

      Maybe the goyim who believe that God gave Israel to the Jews should know what this disgusting man thought of them.

      Reply to Comment

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