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Awake and Praise!

Yisroel Besser

The winter nights may be long and cold, but in this little corner of Jerusalem Jewish hearts are on fire. Welcome to the Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community, where the centuries-old custom of Shirat HaBakashot is still very much alive.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The light spills out from the large windows, not only illuminating but also inviting. Just ahead of me walks a father with two young children who are gripping his hands. They turn into the courtyard at the corner of Beersheva and Shilo Streets, toward the Ades Shul, or as the letters across the facade announce, “The Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community, Est. 1901.”

Here 1901 is alive and well, even though the people are very 2012.

Each Friday night, from Shabbos Bereishis until Shabbos HaGadol, a small crowd gathers at three o’clock in the morning — mainly Halabim (Syrians), but also assorted Persians, Tunisians, and Moroccans — for the weekly minhag of Shirat HaBakashot, singing supplications until dawn. They sing, according to the custom, out of a special book comprised of the liturgy and poetry of the great paytanim, including the Ibn Ezra, Rav Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Rav Elazar Ezkari, Rav Yehuda HaLevi, Rav Yisrael Najara, and others.

When I was first told of the minhag, I imagined it was kept, like so many other customs, out of respect for the past, a sense of obligation. But upon entering the warm room, I step back and wipe the last traces of sleep from my eyes: the place is bursting with energy and life.

Brilliant chandeliers and lamps cast a warm glow from the high ceiling; rather than seats, there are benches that are covered with colorful fabrics. The spectacular aron kodesh, stretching across the entire front wall, was brought, I learn, by donkey from its original home in Aleppo.

And the people …

Along the front wall sit the older men, singing word for word without looking into the books before them. There are plenty of young people, too, well-coiffed and immaculately dressed, reading through fashionable eyeglasses, their song throaty and full as that of their grandfathers. There are children scattered around the periphery, some sleeping endearingly across their father's laps, others bright-eyed and awake, heads tilted back as they strain to keep pace.

Each piyut is started by someone else; even the children get the honor. After a sweet boy hits a high note, his father proudly accepts handshakes and back-slaps from his neighbors.

The faces …

There is the serious, intense lines and focused gaze of the Torah scholar; the jocular unpretentiousness of the barber and falafel store proprietor; and the sharp-eyed, darting glance of the street vendor. Whatever they do on the other six days of the week, on the seventh they all meet here.

Near the door stands a gray-haired man with a youthful air about him, beaming at me as if it’s high noon. He is Shmuel Abdan, the shamash, himself son of a legendary shamash, Eliyahu Abdan. He leads me to a seat on one of the couch-benches and asks me with the easy familiarity of a regular host if I take sugar. That’s it. Not if I want a drink, or if I prefer coffee or tea. Just if I take sugar.

He returns to his corner, where a massive urn gleams, decides (correctly) that I’m a tea drinker, and brings me a steaming paper cup. Then he moves on to serve his next customer.

All around me are swirls of song, the eternal ode of the Jewish soul singing to its Creator.


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