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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

Tower of Babel (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, November 18, 1998).

An Unlucky Place (Katherine Guckenberger, Ireland, November 4, 1998).

The Wonder in the Bog (Allan Reeder, Ireland, October 15, 1998).

The Hills of Sighisoara (Akash Kapur, Romania, October 1, 1998).

Dionysus and the Virgin (Wen Stephenson, Greece, September 16, 1998).

Never on Sunday (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, September 16, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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A Saturday at the Auction

August 4, 1999

It is a sunny summer Saturday, and the ceiling fans are churning over the women's balcony of a working-class Jerusalem synagogue. From that vantage point I am looking down into the main section, the men's section, as the sparsely attended afternoon prayers inch by. I am familiar with the brisk, efficient services held by most Ashkenazim, or Jews of Eastern-European ancestry. The congregants know that on any given Saturday afternoon, the service will take about twenty minutes, and there will be little room for spontaneity. But the synagogue I am visiting today is attended by Sephardic Jews -- those from Morocco, Syria, and Yemen -- who have done things differently for generations. The polished, Europeanized Jews who flocked to Palestine during the British Mandate regarded their counterparts from Arab lands as coarse at best and primitive at worst. The elites were appalled by such practices as polygamy and teenage marriage, but also by the fact that the Sephardic Jews had no legacy of secular or cultural Judaism. Unlike secular Ashkenazim, who adopted the literature and philosophy of the Western societies in which they lived, the Sephardic Jews retained Jewish religion and culture as their essential points of reference.

Practically, this modus vivendi enabled Sephardic Jews to avoid the cultural schism that divided the religiously observant from the secular groups of Ashkenazic Jews in Israel. Not everybody in the Sephardic community observed the law to the same degree, but everybody was still considered part of the same religious community. This meant that many Sephardic Jews who did not observe other Jewish precepts (such as refraining from work on the Sabbath or praying three times daily) would still participate in punctiliously traditional prayer services on the Sabbath. And they would do so with gusto.

Today the Sephardic-Ashkenazic divide has been blurred, but only slightly. Non-observant Ashkenazic youth skip services and go out with their friends on Friday nights. Non-observant Sephardic youth go to synagogue with their friends on Friday nights, eat a traditional family dinner of kubbe (Iraqi sausages) or dajaaj al riz (Syrian chicken with rice), and then go out on the town. Last night, for instance, girls showed up to this synagogue in halter tops and tight pants, boys in black jeans with hair gelled back, yet they bobbed and swayed through the prayers, easily fitting in with peers wearing more austere suits and black hats, women in long skirts and headscarves, and old men in plaid shirts and satin skullcaps. The building fairly burst with the throng and the refrains of traditional melodies, shouted in unison. On their way out, the sleek, swarthy boys were not too cool to clamor for bunches of myrtle, say the benediction over their scent, and inhale deeply their sweetness. Nor were they too modern to kiss the hand of the wizened old man who distributed the myrtle branches. Minutes later, they were flirting shamelessly with a pack of girls, who had come down from the balcony.

This afternoon's crowd is mostly an older one, though their age does not mean an increase in decorum. If anything, the atmosphere is less formal, more clubby. The preliminary psalms have been said, and it is time for the brief Torah reading, a Saturday afternoon preview of the coming week's portion. It is hot up in the balcony; I calculate that the service will last another fifteen minutes. I wait for someone to open the Ark where the Torah scroll is kept and for the "gabbai," or sexton, to call the first man up to read from it. But I wait in vain. Being asked to ascend to the platform for the Torah reading is considered an honor, and it is customary among Sephardic Jews to auction off that honor for the benefit of the synagogue fund or charity. I had read of this practice but never witnessed it. Ashkenazic congregations would be unlikely to engage in a ritual auction, both because it offers for money what they believe should be bestowed as a sign of communal respect and because it is too potentially disorderly for their more decorous prayer services.

Fascinated, I watch the gabbai turn from business-like functionary to jovial auctioneer. Three men must be called to the Torah: the honors will go to the highest bidders. As the bidding begins, the crowd becomes more spirited. Somebody throws out a first low bid. Another man counterbids. Friends begin to egg them on. The amounts are small, beginning at about $2.50 and going up to $5. As soon as the gabbai accepts a given bid, the "honoree" cracks a broad grin. Men in neighboring seats thump him on the back or shake his hand approvingly. Then the gabbai starts up an impromptu snatch of some song in his honor that quickly grows robust and then dies out. This is repeated for each of the other two men who are called to the Torah, and then for the man who will lift the scroll aloft for all to see. When the auction is complete, the gabbai marches all the "winners" up the steps to the Ark, where they kiss the embroidered velvet cloth that holds the congregation's Torah scrolls.

Meanwhile, another woman joins me in the balcony, smiling benignly on the proceedings below. As the Torah reading begins, about fifteen minutes later than I expected, I notice that her eyes are glued to a bespectacled teenager chanting aloud from the scroll. She is bubbling over with pride: she must be his mother. His cantillation is good but imperfect, and every man takes such a paternal interest in correcting his errors that it's impossible to say which one is the actual father. After the Torah reading, the Sephardic prayers proceed very much like the Ashkenazic ones. Fifty minutes after it began, the afternoon service shouts its way to a close with the mourners' prayer.

The men amble over to the waiting refreshments. The boys tear out of the sanctuary at a madcap pace. I saunter down the stairs, just in time to see the boy who had read from the Torah intercepted by his mother. Patiently, he suffers her to kiss both his cheeks.

Miriam Udel Lambert is a former Atlantic Unbound intern now studying in Israel. This is her fourth Atlantic Abroad dispatch.

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