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Rabbi Ilan Acoca Launches “The Sephardic Book of Why”

“The Sephardic Book of Why,” by Rabbi Ilan Acoca (2016), paperback, 128 pages, Hadassa World Press, ISBN-10: 3639794850

 

According to Rabbi Ilan Acoca, who assumed the position as rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation in Fort Lee this past August, while also becoming Rabbi-in-Residence at Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef, “Sephardic customs are rich and extremely diverse. The purpose of my book ‘The Sephardic Book of Why’ is to give the reader a general idea about Sephardic customs with a little taste of specific practices.”

Three years in the making, Acoca’s book is the culmination of many of his personal life experiences. Born in Bat Yam, Israel, to Moroccan parents whose ancestry dates back to Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Acoca grew up in a traditional Sephardic home practicing the rites and rituals of Sephardic tradition. He moved with his family to Montreal at the age of 1 and was educated in an Ashkenazi educational system through his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva Gedola Mercaz Hatorah Teiferet Mordechai Beth Hamidrash L’Horaah Institute in Montreal. His smicha fulfilled the wish of his paternal grandfather, Rabbi Ayad Acoca, to continue the rabbinic line of the family.

Acoca and wife Dina set out to Vancouver, British Columbia, on a mission to bring Jews from far afield closer to their heritage. For 17 years, the Acocas joyously and successfully led and oversaw the growth of the Sephardic Congregation Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver, the only Sephardic congregation west of Toronto. Their home remained a bastion of Sephardic culture for their six growing children. One of Rabbi Acoca’s proudest moments is when he hosted the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper.

Throughout his career, Acoca has been queried as to why the Sephardic practices differ from those of Ashkenazi. Three years ago, motivated by his friend David Litvak, and at the invitation of Hadassa Press, whose editors had seen some of his online classes and were interested in following up with a book, Acoca enthusiastically embarked upon his project. In the foreword to his book, Acoca cites the well-known response of Rabbi Elie Abadie, MD, Rabbi of New York City’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue and the Director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, to the query, “Why do Sephardim do it that way?” According to Rabbi Dr. Abadie, “In the overwhelming majority of minhagim (traditions), the ‘Sephardi way’ was the ‘original and standard way’ of fulfilling a commandment and the Ashkenazi community throughout the ages veered from the original minhagim and traditions given the geographic region that they lived in and the circumstances that surrounded them.”

That is not to say that the Sephardic community is monolithic either. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal in 1497, thousands moved to Turkey, the Balkan Countries, North Africa and the Middle East. Some settled in Christian countries in places like Amsterdam and Bordeaux. Thus, two distinct communities were created: the Western or European Sephardim and the Muslim or Eastern Sephardim. Naturally, they too incorporated customs from their geographic settings.

Acoca divided his book into five distinct areas of Jewish life: daily rituals, Shabbat and holidays, life cycle events, Sephardic culture and finally a chapter of selected presentations he has made over the years entitled Rabbi’s Musings. Throughout the first four chapters, he addresses questions that have come to his desk over the years. While not exhaustive, they give understanding and insight into many customs.

To share a few, in answer to the question as to why Sephardim begin their morning prayer with Tefillat Hannah taken from Sefer Shmuel, Acoca responds, “According to kabbalah, this prayer cuts away all the foreign energies that want to stop the prayer from attending God.” Further, the Gemara in Brachot teaches that many laws of the silent prayer, which is the central prayer of every service, are learned from Hannah’s prayer.”

Also, have you ever seen a tefilla in a Sephardic Siddur recorded in picture form? In fact, Tehillim 67, recited in the morning service, appears in the Sephardic Siddur in the shape of a menorah. The Abudraham explains that this psalm contains seven verses representing the seven menorah lamps. The psalm has 49 words representing the 22 cups, 11 buttons, 9 flowers and 7 lamps that made up the menorah. Therefore, the psalm was recorded in the shape of a menorah.

In another well-explained answer, we have admired Sephardic Sifrei Torah in ornate cases. According to Acoca, the origin of the case is that some Sephardic countries were very hot and their Torah scrolls had to be protected from the humidity that could dull the letters, making it unusable. Hence, the circular case was used to enclose it protectively.

The book, whose cover features the interior of the magnificent Lazama synagogue in Marrakesh, is concise while being comprehensive. Acoca’s goal in publishing his first book is quite simple. “In defining our differences we are actually uniting with each other by being understanding and respectful. In order to move forward, we have to find points in common. There are so many things that unite us but we too often concentrate on what divides us.”

Acoca has found his new community in Fort Lee to be very warm and welcoming. His growing congregation includes older couples as well as young families, teens and young adults attending Yeshiva University.

“The Sephardic Book of Why” will be launched in Montreal, Seattle and Vancouver before its two launches in New Jersey. On Saturday night, December 17, the launch will be combined with Rabbi Acoca’s formal installation as Rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee. The community is invited to attend the program, to be held at the congregation on 313 Tim Hunter Road, Fort Lee at 8 p.m., with the participation of Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie and Rabbi Moshe Tessone, Director of Sephardic Community Programs at YU,, who will address the crowd. On Tuesday, January 3, at 8 p.m., Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef at 243 Frisch Court in Paramus will host the final launch. “The Sephardic Book of Why” is available through amazon.com.

By Pearl Markovitz

 

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