Thursday, October 24, 2002

Chesed from Yemen

The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies hosted its fourth annual “Day Away” fundraiser last week. The theme this year was “Jewels of Yemen” and it focused on the traditions and culture of Yemen, with a special focus on the late Yemenite scholar Rav Yosef Kapach and his wife Rabbanit Bracha Kapach, widely known for her many acts of chesed (kindness).

For Jody and me, it was also a chance to return to the place where we first met and fell in love.

17 years ago, the Pardes Institute was a small rabble-rousing school that bucked the establishment and allowed men and women to study Torah together. Even more radically, the course structure proudly mixed modern thinking with traditional texts. The Institute’s spokespeople were not shy in declaring that a Gemara class was likely to include liberal mixes of Shakespeare, Freud and Woody Allen along the more expected Rashi and Tosefot.

Located in a run-down building next to Jerusalem’s Ulpan Etzion, with no discernible heat to speak of in the winter, Pardes allowed Jody & I to study together in “chevruta”. We met in 1985; by 1988 we had gone from study-partners to life-partners.

Flash forward to 2002: Pardes has grown up (and so have we). The school has moved to more well-appointed digs in the Talpiot Industrial Zone, complete with heat and air-conditioning, and sponsors elegant fundraisers like last week’s Day Away. Taking place in Nachlaot’s Ma’ayanot Synagogue, the event mixed lectures, a return to chavruta study, and more experiential activities.

The latter included pita making in a traditional taboon (a black cauldron where the dough is thrown on the side and then scraped off after has cooked to an appropriate crispness), and a full-on Yemenite henna ceremony with the bride-to-be in elaborate dress and globs of mashed henna passed around and spread on the hands of all who wanted. Jody took a little; it had the consistency of playdough and the smell of spinach. She ground the henna round and round in her palm, then scraped it off, leaving only a faint residue on her palm. She held back the temptation to whisper “I’ll never wash this hand again…”

There was also a traditional Yemenite meal held outdoors in the courtyard of the B’Sograim Restaurant and catered by Moshe Sasson of Eucalyptus, one of our Jerusalem favorite eateries. The lunch featured Mehawaj, a codfish appetizer, Ma’aluta, a thick meat soup, and a wheat dish with the odd name of Harris.

There were also a variety of Yemenite breads served throughout the day: Lahuh, a soft flat bread which has the texture of a sponge and looks like a waffle; Saluf, a particularly thick and chewy pita; a sweet fried bread whose name has escaped me but that is meant to be dipped in a mixture of halva and caramel; and Kubana., a tall bread, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, that reminded me of the Sourdough bread from back home.

But the highlight of the day clearly was the appearance of Rabbanit Kapach herself, who spoke eloquently of her life of service through chesed. Married at age 11 in Yemen to her cousin (in order to keep him from being drafted into the Yemeni army), they made their way to Israel in 1943. Rabbanit Kapach quickly established herself as “the woman who helps the elderly, the poor and the frail.” Today, she heads Keren Segulat Naomi (named after her mother), a charity organization that provides, among other things, basic staples to over 5,000 elderly and needy individuals each Pesach.

As I listened to Rabbanit Kapach, her actions seemed so genuine, so pure, it’s no wonder that both she and her husband have both won the Israel Prize for Life Achievement. As I thought about my own life, what few acts of true chesed I might have done over the years seemed paltry and insignificant in comparison.

Even worse, whereas Rabbanit Kapach’s work is a true paradigm of the selfless act, I would be insincere in claiming that my thoughts have been as pure. Or pure at all. Can I say that I have never thought: ‘maybe I will receive something in return for this action? Maybe there will be a payback for this chesed?’ Can any of us claim to never have entertained such self-serving musings?

But then, there is Midrash Zuta which we studied during the day. In the Midrash, Elijah the Prophet appears before a poor but pious man. Elijah says to the man, “You are granted seven good years; when do you want them, now or at the end of your life?” After modestly refusing Elijah twice, the man finally replies that he must consult with his wife. He does, and she says to him “Bring them (the seven good years) today.”

Immediately, their poverty evaporates. His wife then says, “Let us engage in acts of kindness. Perhaps God will add even more (good years).”

Such a calculating approach, such blatantly impure thoughts… certainly this should result in a negative outcome at the end of the seven good years But no, according to the Midrash, God looked at their acts of kindness and “extended his goodness.” How can this be?

How could it not be? This is, of course, a large part of what attracted me to traditional Jewish practice, and to Pardes itself, in the first place: the emphasis on action and not words. You can be the biggest shmuck, think the worst thoughts, but as long as your actions are in the right direction (and you keep your words to yourself since words can hurt with the same intensity as action), your acts of kindness are worthy. Even mine.

As Jody and I talked this through in our chevruta, I realized that the entire Day Away had, ironically (or intentionally?) been transformed into its own personal chesed from Yemen: a thought-provoking opportunity that got the two of us back together as study partners for the first time in so long.

The entire event was coordinated by “A Day Away Productions,” a family venture of our neighbors Elyssa Rabinowitz and her father David Moss. If you’re interested in having them plan a similar event for your organization, you can contact them at:

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