A printed sheet of paper that I discovered folded in an old Sephardic prayer book tells the tale of an age-old custom of Syrian Jews and of a moving song written by one of Syria’s greatest cantors.
The sheet, dated 1933, contains a pizmon titled “Yehidah Hitna’ari,” composed by Hazzan Hakham Moshe Ashear. Born in 1877 in Syria, Ashear became a chazzan while still a young man and led the prayers in Knis Kebirah in Aleppo until 1913 when he moved to New York, where he continued to serve the Aleppo Jewish community until his passing in 1940.
A widespread custom at the time among Syrian Jews was to have a pizmon written and composed in honor of major life-style occasions such as bar mitzvahs and wedding celebrations. Many songs popular in the community today were composed for such occasions. This particular song was composed by Ashear in honor of the bar mitzvah of Yosef Ezras Safdieh (Joseph Saff).
The bar mitzvah boy’s father, who was a friend of Ashear, had passed away, leaving his wife a widow with young children. His mother took the death very hard and mourned excessively. While some Syrian Jews wore black and covered their sofas and chairs for the first few months of mourning, this widow continued to do so for 10 years, until 1937. She also refused to leave her home for many years.
“Yehidah Hitna’ari” was written by Ashear to both commemorate the bar mitzvah and to comfort the mother and convince her to abandon her mourning. In a poetic form, the words encourage her to put an end to her misery, wear clothing of happiness, and enjoy the sweetness of life.
Generally, the songs composed by the chazzanim for such occasions were sung to popular contemporary Arabic melodies, and this one used the tune of a simple Arabic folk song.