They Remember Wazana
My arrival at the moshav is greeted by the usual silence. Summer mornings are generally marked by a stillness that lies heavy over the small, lopsided houses on the stony Judean plain. The men and children are usually working in the green-brown fields, and so the silence over the sun-baked roofs is broken only by the sound of women’s voices, the drone of a distant tractor, or some squawking hens. But, on this particular morning the silence remained intact. Even the old men in the synagogue, and the women who normally chatted outside the store had disappeared. “Where is everybody?” I ask old Sa’ada outside the moshav clinic. “There,” she says, waving her hand in an arc through the hot air in the direction of the west. My gaze follows her movement to the last of the houses beside the reed-covered wadi, then up the hillside to a dark knot of figures beside a fence. I see several white dots shimmering in the sunlight. Sa’ada’s explanation is wasted on me since she only speaks Moroccan Arabic, and so it is a while before I realize she is talking about a funeral.
Curiosity overcomes my misgivings about the heat and I go marching off across the hot, dusty wadi toward the cemetery where the entire male population of the moshav sits waiting in the shadows of the fence and the oak trees. They are seated in groups, chatting amongst themselves to pass the time. As I stride up to them, my friend and mentor, Yosef Abutbul, rises to greet me. Old Meir Yifraḥ died in a distant hospital and everyone is waiting for the body to come. Attaching myself to one of the groups, I try to follow the conversation, which is in Hebrew interspersed with Arabic. They gradually turn to reminiscing about life in the old days, back in Morocco: miraculous feats of tsaddiqim (saints), and exotically named native settings like Ait Bouli and Ait Abas, Netifa and Demante, Beni-Mellal and Taroudant. The same names over and over: Rabbi David u-Moshe, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Leḥans, Rabbi David Dra HaLevi, Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan. All of a sudden Yosef Knafo stands up and stares beyond the circle, his eyes bright with excitement. He motions the others to be silent: “They may be righteous, holy men, but still, nobody was like Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana in all Morocco.” With this he proceeds to rattle off a string of tales, which flows like a rising stream, evoking the magic of the famed healer who performed exorcisms, removed spells, brought the dying to life, and made lost objects materialize from thin air. Though most of the people seem familiar with the stories, they nevertheless listen spellbound, interjecting his narratives with expressions of wonder and surprise.
My research on Jewish Moroccan ethnopsychiatry led me to moshav Kinus in 1974, and there my attention was first drawn to Wazana’s existence. Some early misgivings with regard to my visit gradually faded when I returned to the moshav, and even stayed a few weeks at a time. I found many of the people I spoke to unusually frank on the subject of their life problems and experiences with healers. Their stories, and those of the rabbi-healers whom I interviewed later, provided me with sufficient material to build a detailed picture of the traditional healing system they had brought with them from Morocco to Israel (see Bilu 1978, 1985a).
While many of my interviewees spoke often of life in Morocco, they rarely touched on Wazana, and I realized slowly that very few had known him personally. Yosef Knafo, from Ouarzazate, who praised Wazana in the cemetery, was one such acquaintance, as was Yosef Abutbul, my agreeable host in Kinus. The Abutbul family had originally lived in Mezguemnat, Wanzurt, and Tezort—a cluster of tiny villages, home of the Berber tribes-people in the Tifnoute region of the Western High Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. I discovered that Wazana was born near them in the village of Assarag, and that he lived most his life in that remote, alpine region. Yosef Abutbul, who came to Israel as a boy, often mentioned the way Wazana had treated his family, noting particularly the fact that the great healer had saved his mother during the near fatal birth of her first child. Abutbul was the first to mention the circumstances of Rabbi Ya’aqov’s death, and I later learned he had written down this and other stories about Wazana, and sent them to the Israel Folktale Archive based at Haifa University.1
A few people in Kinus suggested I should visit Atseret, a moshav perched atop an isolated hill in the Adulam region. They pointed out that the people in Atseret had retained their traditional healing practices to an unparalleled degree. They were right. The rich data on traditional healers furnished by the interviewees from Atseret allowed me at last to finish the study I had begun in Kinus. While assembling data on traditional healing practices in Atseret, I was struck by the regularity with which Wazana’s name cropped up. People in Atseret who had known Wazana in Morocco all came from the neighboring villages of Agouim and Imini on the mountain road leading from Marrakech south to Ouarzazate. They recounted that, at the height of his fame, Wazana abandoned his home in Tifnoute, and moved eastward to Agouim, where he lived until his death. Because the interviewees from Kinus and Atseret knew Wazana at different periods of his life, I found that by stringing their stories together, I could obtain a more coherent picture of Wazana’s life story. Some interviewees regarded themselves as close friends of the healer, and their accounts indicated that their relationship extended beyond his role as a healer. They treasured recollections of social gatherings in which laughter and alcohol played a large part; they referred to trips to other villages on which Wazana had accompanied them. I learned that the Ben-Ḥamo family had been especially close to Wazana. The five Ben-Ḥamo brothers, now living in Atseret, informed me that their friend, the healer, often stayed in their father’s house in Agouim. Rabbi Shalom Ben-Ḥamo, a shoḥet (ritual slaughterer) and part-time healer, thinks of himself as Wazana’s disciple. His older brother David, claims Wazana is a savior who tended his family whenever need arose. David conscientiously commemorates the anniversary of Wazana’s death with a family se’udah (festive meal).
At Atseret I came across Rabbi Yitzḥak Peḥima, the one-time shoḥet and teacher from Imini, now living in the town of Kiryat Gat. Peḥima often comes to visit his former neighbors from Morocco. Like Rabbi Shalom Ben-Ḥamo, he spent many hours in Wazana’s company and the latter had acquainted him with the esoteric healing arts. Once we were standing near a pool that overlooked the village, high above the straggling houses and the chicken houses whose sounds and smells permeated the moshav. He leaned over to me, whispering gently: “Atseret and Agouim, they’re the same.” I immediately knew he was not just referring to the makeup of the population, but to the geographical similarity between the two locations. Atseret in Israel and Agouim in Morocco were both hilly and remote and the moshav possessed a combination of plant life and smells that reminded him of the life he had left behind. At events I attended in Atseret, I too felt that strange sensation of frozen time. An example of this was the hillula (memorial celebration)2 in Atseret commemorating the death anniversary of the illustrious tsaddiq Rabbi David u-Moshe, whose shrine lies near Agouim.3 I recall that an elderly man began singing a Berber tune in a cracked, worn-out voice, an elderly woman accompanying him in a croaky duet; around us zagarit ululations soared through the night air as a chorus of female voices joined the old-timers. At these gatherings, it was inevitable that everyone settled back to listen and tell their colorfully dramatic stories about Wazana.
I too was enchanted with Wazana. If I doubted his existence that day in the cemetery because the quality of the tales was so legendary in texture, subsequent interviews with the residents of Kinus and Atseret clarified that Wazana was indeed real—and had been the healer and close friend of many individuals I had come to know.
The former residents of Agouim and Imini now living in Atseret referred me to their network of friends and family outside the moshav. These contacts in turn supplied me with names of others associated with the healer. Over a two-year period, beginning summer of 1986, I managed to trace and interview more than thirty men and women scattered throughout Israel’s cities, towns, development towns, and moshavim. Sometimes I would be accompanied by my assistant, Matan, who conducted some of the interviews in Moroccan Arabic. We were welcomed with the traditionally warm hospitality that marks this community. Everyone seemed happy to speak to us, and without exception tried to cooperate and supply information.
27 November 1986
Ramle, home to Masoud and Tamu Tubul, whose address was supplied by Rabbi Yitzḥak Peḥima, Tamu’s son-in-law from Kiryat Gat. The Tubul family lives in a spruced up multi-entrance apartment block, recently renovated by a neighborhood rehabilitation project. Urban scenery such as this, characterized by shabby complexes, the outgrowth of an accelerated building boom in the 1950s and 1960s, became a familiar backdrop for the interviews. The elderly couple’s home was simple and modestly furnished. We were ushered into a guest room with sofas draped in colored sheets to protect them. A plain wooden closet stood against a wall, and there were pictures everywhere: Moroccan tsaddiqim, Israel’s third president, Zalman Shazar, and of course family snapshots. A carpet, no doubt lovingly transported all the way from Morocco, adorned one wall. As we entered, Masoud Tubul, an old man with glasses and a white beard was lying down with a handkerchief over his face. He had a cap on and wore a robe of heavy, black material. His age was evident from his blurred speech and hazy memory. He constantly digressed, unaware that he was doing so. His wife Tamu, on the other hand, was alert, lucid, and high spirited despite her eighty years. She sometimes silenced her husband in mid-speech and assumed the narration herself, excusing this on the grounds that his memory was not what it was. They squabbled incessantly, it was hard to tell whether in anger or jest. Neither was comfortable speaking Hebrew and so they quickly reverted to Arabic.
Tamu had important information concerning Rabbi Ya’aqov’s father, Rabbi Avraham, who had died in her first husband’s house in the village of Amassine. On marrying Masoud, her second husband, they went to live in his village, Assarag—Wazana’s home before he moved. These were the first people we met who had lived near Rabbi Ya’aqov before he left Assarag to live in Agouim. Masoud recounted that he had gone to search for the healer on his donkey to break the grim news of Wazana’s father’s death.
After the interview, Masoud walked us to the car, and posed for a photograph outside his newly refurbished home. I have him on film, stiff and erect, back straight, his arms by his sides, wholly unperturbed by the neighborhood children watching the proceedings and finding it all rather amusing.
23 April 1987
We left early for Atlit for a meeting with Makhluf Ben-Ḥayim. I already knew that it was in Makhluf’s home in Agouim that Rabbi Ya’aqov had died. Makhluf lives in a rectangular block near the railway tracks in the southern part of town. We found this short, wizened old man with his bushy beard, shaved head, and black beret eagerly awaiting our arrival. His wife, Aisha, served us snacks of mint tea, cold drinks, buns left over from the Mimuna,4 and some dried fruit. She seated herself a short distance from us, and, apart from a few comments, made no attempt to interrupt.
Makhluf had been the blacksmith in Agouim. Other informants mentioned that no one could shoe a Muslim horse better than Makhluf. In Israel he worked for a national construction company until retirement. He explained that the relationship between his family and Wazana predates his own birth. He is assured that all his children, three boys (one named after Rabbi Ya’aqov) and four girls, owe their lives to the healer who cured their mother of a demonic sickness which produced recurrent miscarriages. Makhluf provided important details concerning Wazana’s death. Like David Ben-Ḥamo, his former neighbor from Agouim, whom I knew from Atseret, he holds a feast each year in Wazana’s honor.
I had further proof of this man’s staunch loyalty to Rabbi Ya’aqov on another occasion. Annually, on the fifth of Adar, a celebratory hillula is held in honor of Rabbi Yosef Abu-Ḥatsera. The late Rabbi Yosef, a descendent of the revered Moroccan Abu-Ḥatsera family,5 had a large following of former residents of Ouarzazate, Telouet, and Tazenakht in southern Morocco. In Israel, many of these families settled in Atlit, where Rabbi Yosef visited them regularly. Rabbi Yosef himself had taken up residence in France. On his last trip to Israel, during which he died, the much venerated rabbi paid his accustomed visit to Atlit which, incidentally, now boasts a monument in his memory. One year I attended the billula organized by the mayor of Atlit, himself from the village of Imini. In a banquet hall, on a platform which faced three rows of tables, sat a row of VIPs: Knesset (Israeli parliament) members, guest rabbis from other cities, members of the Abu-Ḥatsera family, and Rabbi Yosef’s sons—French speakers in conspicuously well-tailored suits. Speeches extolling the tsaddiq and his family preceded the meal which was accompanied by songs performed by local artists praising the rabbi and his righteous ancestors. As the evening wore on, the festivities rose to ecstatic heights as dancing celebrants, swaying in time to the rhythmic drums, bore the tsaddiq’s sons around the hall on their shoulders. The sons kept showering the crowd with arak (alcoholic beverage) and handing out small pictures of their father as they moved around the hall. Meanwhile the jubilant crowd jigged in circles, kissing their hands as they whirled by.
Makhluf and Aisha Ben-Ḥayim
It was against this heady background of elation that Makhluf chose his moment for a skirmish with one of Rabbi Yosef’s most ardent admirers—the mayor’s father. Makhluf meant to be provocative, and he was: “Maybe you think ait Abu-Ḥatsera is such a big deal,” he declared archly, “but that’s because you didn’t know ait Wazana …”6 This was Makhluf’s way of making it clear that in his opinion, the Wazana family deserved no less respect and adoration than the Abu-Ḥatseras. The fact that he picked a quarrel with the Abu-Ḥatsera dynasty in their stronghold surely reflects considerable acrimony at the irreverence shown the Wazana family. The magnitude of the discrepancy in status of the two families is underscored by the fact that few who had attended the Abu-Ḥatsera billula chose to take part in the modest feast prepared by Makhluf in Wazana’s name. This corroborates informants’ testimony bearing on the disparity between the two dynasties which in fact operated in the same area of the Atlas Mountains. I shall be referring later to accounts pointing out the hostility and condemnation displayed by Rabbi Yosef Abu-Ḥatsera toward Rabbi Ya’aqov.
Having taken leave of Atlit, we drove to Givat Ada via the hamlet of Binyamina, across some undulating agricultural hill country speckled with vineyards, fields, and orchards. Here, single-story houses surrounded by a natural oak forest form a marked contrast to the urban scenery so far encountered on our travels. Despite the pleasant route, our destination is again a working-class neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Givat Ada, known locally as Yoseftal. We are looking for Rabbi Azar Gabai, whose address was provided by his sister in Atseret. Rabbi Gabai was waiting in an armchair in the hallway outside his apartment. One of his hands and both his legs were badly crippled by chronic arthritis, but apart from that, his appearance was similar to the now familiar southern Moroccan mountain Jew: thin and dark in appearance, with angular features, a white beard, and wearing the apparently standard black beret. Rabbi Gabai had presence, and an aura of serenity and self-possession radiated from him. Despite his handicap, he looked younger than his seventy years. Azar Gabai comes from Amassine, where Wazana’s father died. Although he was trained as a shoḥet, he had prospered in Morocco as a businessman. In Israel, he supported himself with savings at first, but when his funds ran out, he settled for a job in a local canning factory. He has come to terms with his decline in fortune and health, and at this point in his life obtains great pleasure in his ten children and twenty-five grandchildren. He only met Wazana briefly as a young man while studying the laws of ritual slaughter. Nevertheless, Rabbi Gabai was able to provide vital and in fact exclusive information concerning the healer’s training.
The day, which began in Atlit, ended in the town of Hadera where we went in search of Rabbi Moshe Tubul. Lacking a precise address, we had no alternative but to ask around at different apartment blocks bordering on the Sela and Rasko neighborhoods in the west of the city until we found him. Seventy-eight-year-old Rabbi Moshe was a stout, vital man with a beard and a black hat. He suffers from asthma, and his breath came in a whistle as he spoke. My first glimpse of him found him sitting on his porch, absorbed in copying a Torah Book onto parchment. In Morocco he lived in Tezort, but his travels as a shoḥet and mohel (ritual circumciser) brought him to the same localities as Rabbi Ya’aqov. He related that he had spent considerable time in the vicinity of Amassine, Agouim, and Imini. His job had been to slaughter animals for hillulot (pl. of hillula) held at the tomb of Rabbi David u-Moshe. Since retirement, he has taken up writing Torah scrolls and amulets and serves as shoḥet for the community whenever needed.
This interviewee had tacit reservations regarding Wazana, whom he seems to have known well. While referring to the healer as “the one who used the outsiders” [evil spirits], Tubul nevertheless refrained from disparaging Wazana outright, and carefully avoided saying anything derogatory. He told me that, when his first wife experienced hemorrhaging which prevented her from conceiving, he had no qualms about turning to the healer for help. Despite the fact that the treatment was successful, and his wife gave birth, sadly she and the child died. Rabbi Moshe subsequently remarried a woman twenty years his junior, and fathered eight children. The child of his old age, an adolescent daughter, was born when he was over sixty.
Rabbi Azar Gabai
Without waiting for us to leave, Rabbi Moshe resumed his work. I paused at the threshold to look back, and saw him for the last time, bowed over his parchment, quill in hand, deeply absorbed in his task once more.
4 May 1988
A cool, sharp wind carrying the scent of spring blossoms greeted our entry to moshav Makor on the Lebanese border. The northern mountain scenery was breathtaking, and the pastoral setting that met our eyes, the white houses stark against the lush green woods, were a marked contrast to the security fence and army outpost with its Israeli flag billowing in the breeze. The population of Makor is mainly made up of Iranian and Moroccan Jews. It was the most northern of our destinations. Hardly any of the square, red-roofed houses still have their original facade: most have been renovated, or demolished and rebuilt with luxurious extensions that seem frivolous considering the financial straits the moshav is in. In a file of modestly restored houses on a short stretch of road tucked away from the main road lives an extended family from Amassine affectionately known to the rest of the residents as the Gabai “clan.” Again we find the familiar-looking Moroccan mountain Jews: the men mostly lean, the usual beret, the women fuller figured, affable, smiling. Matan and I went to different houses, delivering greetings from the Gabais’ relatives in Givat Ada, Yavneh, and Atseret. Food appeared on the table wherever we went and naturally we partook—it would have been considered discourteous not to. There was no shortage of Wazana stories, and there were many who seemed well acquainted with him. It was a brief visit since other plans forced us to cut the round of interviews short. It was the Lag Ba’Omer eve, and we had decided to drive to the hillula at Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yoḥai’s shrine not far away, in Meron.7 With a few of the Gabais leading us in their cars, we headed toward Meron.
Rabbi Moshe Tubul
The hillula was in full swing when we reached the place. Just before the main gates we met a congested muddle of pilgrims all moving slowly up the hill toward the sages’ shrine. There were literally thousands of families forcing their way through a sea of tents, cars, and stands stocked with goods of every description, representing the temporal as well as the spiritual worlds. We merged into the crowd and jostled our way through an improvised amusement park, lottery booths, pony rides, and exhibition tents, past a police recruitment stand on the hood of a jeep, the Lubavitch “mitzva tank,” and a stall with Druse ornaments that also sold extrathin pita bread and local cheese. Nearer the shrine, the more “frivolous” merchandise began to give way to the spiritual. There were candles, oil, and pictures of tsaddiqim heaped on stalls everywhere you looked, with the frowning visage of Israel’s national saint for the 1980s, Rabbi Yisrael Abu-Ḥatsera (affectionately known as Baba Sali), another scion of the holy family, glowering down from most stalls. It was pandemonium as fundraisers and representatives of religious organizations shouted competitively for donations from passersby.
Gabai family in Makor
We could see the shrine, lit from afar by two massive torches whose guttering flames cast a pink shadow over the white stucco building encasing the shrine. There was an indescribable crush inside as hundreds of people crowded around the tombs of Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar his son. Everyone was trying to touch the railings surrounding the pair of graves, which were buried under a mountain of candles, head-scarves, and currency thrown by the celebrants. The murmur of prayer, and the incessant sound of weeping permeated the site, and, from the corners of the chamber, women’s voices steadily intoned the Maghrebi healing song, “Ha wa za idawina” (“Here he comes to heal us”), accompanying their supplication rhythmically on tambourines. Some managed to wade through the crowd with trays of food, offering the other pilgrims a taste of their thanksgiving offerings. On the roof of the shrine, Hasidim dressed in their black garb, twirled in circles of ecstasy, each man clutching the waist of the person in front, all united in a hopping, jerking, sweating human chain. A rabbi with a long beard, waving a handkerchief, led the rest of the dancers in song, mangling the syllables of a hymn of praise to the tsaddiq. The dancers chanted after him in a hypnotic monotone: “Our Master Bar-Yoḥai, Bar-Yoḥai our Master.”
Hasidim dancing in the hillula of Rabbi Shimon in Meron. Note the three-year-old boys, brought to Meron for their first haircuts, on their fathers’ shoulders. Mothers and daughters are peeping through the railing separating the men and the women.
The next morning, we ascended to the ruined ancient synagogue of Meron, and stood a while, observing the melee of people, tents, and cars far below. I asked myself how many of the celebrants, many of them Moroccans, knew Wazana. On the way back from the synagogue, Matan and I agreed to split up and search among the tents for people who might have known Wazana. We found each other an hour or so later, with nothing to show for our efforts. It was not only disappointing, but increasingly clear that Wazana was a distinctly localized hero, known only in a small area of southern Morocco. His acquaintances, who nowadays were scattered throughout Israel, represented but a tiny minority among the huge Israeli Moroccan community.
As we slowly homed in on the inner circle of “Wazana’s people,” we learned that the healer had been celibate throughout his life, and that he died childless, a long way from his native village. All efforts to locate Wazana’s close family through the phone book had been in vain, and my attention therefore focused on his former friends and neighbors from the Western High Atlas. We returned to Atseret several times more to interview people from Agouim and Imini who had been unavailable during the first round of interviews. On one such visit we were introduced to David Samuel, the only non-Moroccan resident. David joined the moshav upon marrying an Imini woman. Originally from Iraq, David had never met Wazana, but nevertheless was sufficiently well informed to suggest we speak to Rabbi Ya’aqov’s blind kinsman, Shaul Wazana, who lived in the Mediterranean resort town of Natanya. I knew Shaul by sight, having spotted him at several Maghrebi hillulot. He was a fattish man, invariably dressed in a brown jellaba (hooded robe) and black fez, who always sat at the hub of the action, telling jokes and receiving cash donations in exchange for his blessings. Shaul is a prominent figure within the community, and reputedly possesses an extraordinary memory: it is rumored that once he hears a name, he never forgets it. We were fortunate to have met David since before he linked Shaul to the healer, I had not associated him with our quest.
As we stood talking to David, wondering what to do next, his eyes suddenly gaped in amazement. He was staring at a large man in the company of a young girl, who was approaching where we stood, tapping his white cane as he went. It was uncanny to find ourselves in the presence of Shaul Wazana, robed, as usual, in a brown jellaba and black fez. Shaul explained that he had come to the moshav to buy chickens. We greeted him with enthusiasm, delighted that fate had intervened in this way on our behalf. Shaul confirmed his kinship to Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana and, after some hesitation, agreed to meet us once he had completed his purchases and visited some friends in the village. We tensely awaited his reappearance, wondering whether he would keep his promise. When he finally arrived, he invited us to enter the home of the girl we had seen with him in the street. Matan conducted the interview in Moroccan Arabic, which I do not understand, so I sat to one side, relishing the blind man’s lilting intonation and observing his rich body language. It occurred to me that because of his blindness, Shaul had not pushed himself to integrate into present-day Israeli society. He has maintained the same lifestyle and routine that he pursued in Morocco, traveling among the communities he feels comfortable with, wearing his traditional garb, exchanging blessings for donations, never missing a hillula celebration.
Shaul had little to say on the subject of Rabbi Ya’aqov, although he had known the healer well. He did recall however that he had met him at the tomb of Rabbi David u-Moshe, shortly before Rabbi Ya’aqov’s death. However, he was happy to discuss other members of the family, whom he described as “glorious tsaddiqim.” Our fortuitous encounter with Shaul did not allow us to complete Wazana’s family tree. Nevertheless, it did assist us in clarifying the impressive lineage and entailed privileges enjoyed by Rabbi Ya’aqov in the past, and Shaul in the present. Shaul succeeded in clarifying another point for us: for him at least, Rabbi Ya’aqov could claim the dubious privilege of being one of the least illustrious members of the family.
Slowly we traced other members of the family. The first of these I met in “Rabbi David u-Moshe’s house” in Safed. In 1973, the venerated tsaddiq from Morocco, Rabbi David, had appeared to forestry worker Avraham Ben-Ḥayim in a dream, declaring his wish to live in the home of Ben-Ḥayim in the Canaan neighborhood (Ben-Ami 1981; Bilu 1987). The latter obediently allocated the saint a room in his apartment, and informed all his followers in writing that the saint had appeared to him in a dream. He invited everyone to attend a hillula whose attendance far exceeded expectations. Henceforth, each year on the new moon of Ḥeshvan, thousands of pilgrims flock to this shabby Safed neighborhood, to pour over gardens and sidewalks and squeeze into the tiny, specially adorned room in Avraham’s apartment. Unlike the pilgrimage to Meron, this celebration is exclusively for people of North African extraction.
From information I had received, I knew that Wazana had lived quite close to Rabbi David u-Moshe’s tomb, and that he had often visited the tsaddiq’s grave. I therefore decided to travel to Ben-Ḥayim’s home in Safed in the hope of meeting people who might have known the healer. In Safed, I fell into conversation with a bearded man dressed in black and wearing a homburg who responded with alacrity to my questions. I discovered that one of his kinsmen had married Rabbi Ya’aqov’s only sister, and that as a young boy, his job had been to attend Wazana’s father, Rabbi Avraham. Our conversation was brief and ended all too soon. My new acquaintance was in a hurry to return home, and I decided to accompany him, down the hill leading out of the Canaan suburb, and recorded his account of the Wazana family as I went. Before disappearing down a narrow alley, he gave me a list of Wazana’s family now living in Be’er Sheva.
On the way to the house of Rabbi David u-Moshe, Safed
I drove south to Be’er Sheva and wandered around for some hours before finding Masouda Buskila, whose home was predictably situated in a sprawl of long multi-entrance concrete slabs: part of the so-called D neighborhood. My target is married to Moshe, son of Esther Oḥana, Rabbi Ya’aqov’s sister. Masouda’s Hebrew was far from fluent, but her manner was spirited and bright, and punctuated with dashes of humor. It was this meeting which finally rewarded my patient survey with the long awaited entry to Wazana’s native village and the heart of his family. Her refrain, “I grew up in his house,” was her way of emphasizing how close she had been to the healer. Both Masouda and her sister-in-law, Ḥana Buskila, venerate Wazana as their family tsaddiq, and their families look to Wazana for help when bad health or misfortune strike. They light candles to his memory daily and hold commemorative feasts to mark his hillula.
Interior of the house of Rabbi David u-Moshe; the inscription reads, “This place was consecrated to the great rabbi, the miracle maker, Rabbi David u-Moshe”
In contrast to the passionate, but rather inarticulate Buskila sisters-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Suissa, Wazana’s distant relative from Be’er Sheva, was polished, ceremonious, and slightly pompous. He is a teacher and author of religious textbooks. Of all the people I had interviewed, Suissa came across as the best educated. He is from Idirghan, a small village in the Sous region, and his first meeting with Wazana took place when the healer came to treat his family. Suissa told us that he had spent many years in Casablanca where he finalized his religious education and went on to teach in a Jewish school.
On arriving at Suissa’s apartment, I was led through a living room whose walls were lined with book shelves and portraits of distinguished rabbis before being shown into the bedroom where Rabbi Shmuel, who is crippled in one leg, lay, the lower half of his body covered in a sheet. His face was youthful, his eyes slightly slanted, and his head shaven. He seemed delighted to be given an opportunity to talk about himself: the books he has written, his Jewish and secular knowledge, his eloquent sermons, his talent for enthusing people with religion, the melody of his voice in synagogue. In the midst of recounting Wazana’s exploits, he even managed to introduce Spinoza, Heine, Ben Gurion, and Bialik (Israel’s national poet) into the conversation. Suddenly the conversation turned to a seance he had performed, in which he had summoned the spirits of Ben Gurion and Bialik. At this point I had the sense of drawing a step closer to his kinsman, the extraordinary healer. Thus, with his eyes tensing in recaptured horror, he leaned over conspiratorially, lowered his voice and whispered to me that after death, these two great historical figures were sentenced to the tortures of hell—for their sins of irreligiousness.
The Itung neighborhood, a miserable spot on the western outskirts of Pardes Ḥana, is home to the eldest living member of the Wazana family, a man sharing the name Ya’aqov with the object of our quest. It is no surprise that the neighborhood is another jungle of multi-entrance apartment complexes with a few dingy shops, a bomb shelter, and a large concrete yard lined with clotheslines weighted down with laundry. Our target, Ya’aqov Wazana, is blind and lives with his widowed daughter and her children. Their apartment somehow manages to combine a mixture of refinement—its walls overlaid with fine wood—and dilapidation—the floor tiles are crooked and wobble when walked upon. Kitschy pastoral scenes and the ubiquitous portraits of tsaddiqim abound. Rabbi Ya’aqov waited for us in his living room and struggled to sit up as we entered. He was very old indeed—over ninety—and his white, hooded jellaba and snow-white beard carried the air of a far off time and place. Fortunately, Rabbi Ya’aqov was lucid and focused. His brother Avraham, who later joined us, was also blind, just like the third brother, Shaul from Natanya, whom we had already met. The old man’s patient delineation of his family tree was frequently interrupted by praise for ait Wazana’s celebrated tsaddiqim. His nephew and namesake, the subject of our inquiry, was conspicuously absent from this litany of praise; in fact our informant seemed to relate to him with a modicum of contempt. It was evident that he did not regard him as a worthy inheritor of the family blessing and privilege.
As old Ya’aqov plumbed his memories, around us the household was making ready for the wedding of one of his grandsons. Toward the end of the interview, we were joined by yet another grandson in jeans and an undershirt, and sporting a heavy gold chain. He asked his grandfather to talk to us about the friction between the Wazana and Abu-Ḥatsera families but the old man was averse to developing this theme. It was clearly a delicate subject. All he said was that a dispute on a point of religion had arisen, a religious dispute, nothing more. After the interview, he motioned to Matan and I to approach, and resting his hands gently upon our heads, he blessed us.
Thus, with the blessing of an old man in a white jellaba echoing in our ears, we took our farewell of the Wazana family in Israel.
Old Ya’aqov Wazana (namesake and cousin of Rabbi Ya’aqov)