Even as temperatures plummeted to record lows in the Chicago area, 200 people packed Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, in Skokie, Ill., to feast on Moroccan delicacies, dance to a dizzying hybrid of Sephardic and Chassidic music, and hear words of inspiration from Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, the “Rishon Lezion.”
They were there for a hillula celebration, marking 30 years since the passing of the famed Moroccan-born Torah sage Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, of righteous memory, more commonly known as the Baba Sali, or “praying father” in Arabic.
Baba Sali was born in 1889 in Tafilalt, Morrocco, the scion of a family of rabbis, mystics and miracle workers. In 1964, he moved to Israel and eventually settled in the city of Netivot in the country’s south.
Throughout the years, thousands of people streamed to his humble home seeking blessings, advice and miracles. When he passed away in 1984, an estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral.
Held at Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, the hillula is the product of cooperation between a number of Chicago-area congregations, spearheaded by Rabbis Yosef and Yochanan Posner of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie and Rabbi Daniel J. Raccah, rabbi of the Ohel Shalom Torah Center in Chicago. It’s the fourth year it’s been held in such a grand way.
Chef Elly Mamalya flew in from Israel to prepare a full-course dinner of traditional Moroccan fish, lamb and other delicacies, served on elegant flatware on artfully chosen linen.
Zeesy Posner of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie says that the hillula—a rarity in the Midwest—always draws a sell-out crowd of 200. In fact, as the snow kept piling up and people called in to cancel, their seats were immediately snapped up by others eager to gain entry.
Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar and Rabbi Daniel J. Raccah
With the help of a simultaneous translator, Rabbi Amar—who attended together with his wife, Rabbanit Mazal—shared personal memories of Baba Sali’s legendary life of piety.
“Yet,” says Yossi Azaraf, who attends the event every year, “he also spoke about the basics: learning Torah, keeping Shabbat, and doing more mitzvahs. He discussed delicate things, but in such a masterful way that I am sure people will make real positive changes in their lives as a result. He was not telling people what to do. It was his soul speaking directly to our souls about what it means to be a Jew.”
Also present was Rabbi Yona Matusof, Chabad shaliach to Madison, Wis., who was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where his late father, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, ran the Oholei Yosef Yitzchak schools. He took the opportunity to present Rabbi Amar—an alumnus of the school—with a book penned by his father, who was a close friend of Baba Sali, and often served as a liaison between him and the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—with whom the Baba Sali enjoyed a special relationship despite having never met in person.
A Life Devoted to Torah
The main speaker was Rabbi Raccah, who stressed that Baba Sali was more than a miracle worker; he was a person who lived a life devoted to Torah. He related that Baba Sali once arrived at the Chabad Yeshivah in Brunoy, France, after an exhausting 10-hour trip from Morocco. After he settled into his room for the night, the students peeked through the keyhole to observe what the legendary man would do. They saw him unroll a mat, sit down and begin studying. The students became tired and dropped off to sleep, but the elderly rabbi kept going until daybreak, when was ready to start the day as if he had slept the night.
Women from the Sephardic and Chabad communities together at the Moroccan feast.
A large portion of the evening was devoted to music produced by Moroccan-French singer and drummer Isaac Bitton, who belted out a stream of prayers in Hebrew peppered with Arabic, in addition to original compositions and adaptations of Chassidic music.
As the evening drew to a close, both men and women, divided by a mechitza (partition), sang and danced to Bitton’s lively beats.
“Baba Sali would be very proud,” observes Azaraf, “to see the various communities coming together to make a better, unified whole.”