Bakashot Makes Unlikely Comeback as Sephardic Jews Explore Traditions

Posted By on May 7, 2014

Chanting Liturgical Poems Washed Down With Arak By Talia Bloch

Published May 06, 2014.

(JTA) The group of young Jewish professionals had gathered to participate in the revival of a Sephardic tradition hearkening back to the days of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Arriving at an apartment on Manhattans Upper West Side, they greeted each other in French and settled in around a dining table laid out with snacks and bottles of arak.

They had come to listen to the chanting of bakashot, a class of traditional Sephardic liturgical poems praising and petitioning God. The singing of bakashot, which literally means requests, was once common practice among Sephardic Jews across the Middle East and North Africa, but it has waned in many communities over the past two generations.

Sung to classical Sephardic musical modes, bakashot were traditionally performed in synagogues during the pre-dawn hours before Sabbath morning services in the months between Sukkot and Passover.

Ninety percent of the classic tunes sung in the synagogue are based on bakashot, said Mony Abergel, who grew up in Casablanca, Morocco. Every Moroccan, even if he does not know the bakashot, knows the tunes.

Abergel was one of the gatherings four singers, men in their mid-20s to early 30s from Moroccan Jewish families who meet every week to learn and rehearse bakashot.

The men sang in unison, breaking out occasionally into solos. One of them, the groups founder Sacha Ouazana, also played a drum called a darbouka. The music was of a piece with classic Sephardic liturgical chanting, but with a supplicatory yet insistent quality.

Most of those at the March 29 gathering were members of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue. The synagogue is the spiritual home for a growing community of young Jews of North African heritage, many of whom grew up in France and have immigrated to New York over the past decade. Ouazana, for example, grew up outside Paris and now serves as the synagogues cantor.

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Bakashot Makes Unlikely Comeback as Sephardic Jews Explore Traditions

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