People in Israel are talking about Rav Haim Sabato. In a variation on the old joke he is either the greatest novelist who is also a rosh mesivta or the greatest rosh mesivta who is also a novelist. He is a brilliant writer who like Agnon writes about what is up to the minute through a prism of Hebrew that evokes Jewish history and tradition.
If you would like to rise to a spiritual high; if you wish to rejoice in being Jewish; if you are a member of the Syrian community who desires to share your rich tradition with your cousins from other countries – treat yourself to Haim Sabato’s books. The Israeli author Ayal Meged says that reading Sabato is a profound religious experience that touches the root of the soul. The foreground in his novels is modern life; the background is Torah; the combination transforms you and heightens your appreciation of every biblical quotation you encounter – which means that your praying will change too.
To understand who this author is we have to bring back a term from earlier periods of Jewish history: safra v’sayafah scholar and warrior. Rav Haim Sabato is a member of the Israeli Army tank corps who served in the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and a founder and rosh mesivta of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim.
His grandparents members of a distinguished Syrian Jewish family moved from Aleppo to Egypt toward the end of the nineteenth century (the opening of the Suez Canal had reduced Aleppo’s importance as a major trading center although it is still the second largest city in Syria with more than a half-million inhabitants).
He was born in Egypt but moved with his family to the Bayit Ve’gan neighborhood of Jerusalem when he was a youngster. He attended Yeshivat Netiv Meir where as he mentioned in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post he met the educated Zionist-religious elite. When his tank was hit during the war in Lebanon he vowed to himself that if he survived the war he would found a yeshiva. The school in Maaleh Adumim is the result of that vow.
Rav Sabato is also the author of two prize-winning books Aleppo Tales (1997) and Adjusting Sights (1999) and has just published a third novel Ke-afapei Shahar.
Aleppo Tales (Emet Mei’eretz Titzmach in Hebrew) is an account of how truth springs forth from the earth in the intertwining lives of several families presented in three tales first in Aleppo then in Paris and finally in Jerusalem. The saga is entrancing as actions whose significance we do not initially appreciate play out generations later. We do not understand the meaning of a poem a wax seal and an antique ten-branched menorah in the first story. The wheel turns full circle (the title of the middle novella) to a revelation that springs forth mei’ eretz from the land of Israel in the third story.
My son found most touching the account in the third story Broken Tablets of sages who having achieved wide recognition and deep respect in their native countries come to an immigrant camp in Israel where no one knows who they are or were. When one of the learned old men hears children speaking Hebrew he is thrilled; he asks a child to repeat what he said but the youngster retorts What’s that to you? Because he is a scholar and an educator he smiles. The reader feels the pain.
Rav Sabato conveys the enormous respect Syrian Jews have for Torah scholars and for older people their distaste for idle chatter and their love of pizmonim their richly allusive poems. Words matter; blessings and their opposite color the history of several families over more than a century.