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Yisroel Besser

When Aryeh Deri was incarcerated in 2000, the Shas Party was left in the capable caretaker hands of Eli Yishai, then considered Deri’s straight man. But although Yishai might not have had Deri’s flair and panache, he has emerged as a leader in his own right. Quiet and thoughtful, Yishai has kept the party on strong middle ground, earning the loyalty of the people and especially, the trust and love of Rav Ovadiah Yosef.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013


At the top ofJerusalem’s Rechov Ezras Torah, a bus driver throws his arms up in frustration as a small white Mazda negotiates an impossible parking space, blocking traffic up the hill and around the landscaped circle. Cars are parked on both sides, making passage difficult, the light rain not making matters any easier. There are several television vans parked near the doorway to the Beis Yisrael Hall and the requisite crowd — the mass of people that seems to appear at any commotion in theHolyCity— jamming the entrance.

Inside the banquet hall, a political rally is taking place, but that really isn’t the story. There is a large blue sign draped behind the dais that reads “Es Achai Anochi Mevakesh,” the motto of the Shas political party; party representatives and leadership line the long head table, smiling into a crowd largely composed of yeshivah bochurim. From behind the microphone, exuberant speakers boast of the party’s accomplishments in the areas of housing, communications, and of course, in “returning the crown to its rightful place,” restoring the traditional pride of Sephardic Jewry.

Around the periphery of the room, Shas activists — young, sharply dressed, breezy — circulate with cell phones, sometimes two, pressed to their ears. Every few minutes, a high-ranking politician or prominent rav is ushered through, but the attention of the crowd, the eyes of people, are locked on two figures sitting mid-dais. Both wear wide-brimmed black hats, conservative suits and ties, and have short, graying beards. Both wear wide smiles, clasping hands when they stand up to dance.

When Eli Yishai rises to speak, there is applause — but also a pocket of resistance, a group of bochurim shouting “Ar-yeh De-ri, Ar-yeh De-ri,” proclaiming their allegiance to another. Their heckling is cut short by none other than Deri himself, who stands and stares them down, his usually placid demeanor turned furious. “Stop it now,” he hisses, “or I’m leaving.” They stop.

The two men represent the main characters in one of the most dramatic and compelling sagas in the Sephardic community, one that would take a creative fiction writer to conceive.


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