Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
– Carl Sagan
Sinan Reis (c. 1492-1546) was born to a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain during the Expulsion of 1492 and settled in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. At the time, many Jews became pirates, attacking Spanish vessels both for revenge and to reclaim some of their confiscated wealth. Sinan joined the Barbary corsair pirates that sailed under the Ottoman flag. He became the right-hand man of the well-known pirate and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The two fought and won many battles against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous was the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Barbarossa took Sinan’s military advice, leading to a magnificent Ottoman victory. Two years later, Sinan’s young son was captured at sea and forcibly baptized. The Christians refused to release him to the “infidels”, so Barbarossa led a fleet to bombard the Italian city of Piombino until Sinan’s son was finally freed. Barbarossa later dedicated his memoirs to Sinan, who was often referred to as Sinan Reis or Rayyis, Arabic for “chief”. Historical records from England describe him as “the famous Jewish pirate”, while the governor of Portuguese India at the time called him “the Great Jew”. Sinan went on to become Supreme Naval Commander of the Ottoman fleet.
Scholars believe Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ is a portrait of Samuel Pallache.
Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1615) was also born to a Sephardic family, one that had fled Spain long before the Expulsion and settled in Morocco. His father and uncle were renowned rabbis, and Pallache became a rabbi, too. He also engaged heavily in commerce, and often took his merchant ships to the Netherlands, where other members of the Pallache family lived. When the Dutch made an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish in 1608, the Moroccan sultan appointed Pallache as his envoy to the Dutch. Two years later, Pallache negotiated a free trade agreement between the Dutch and the Moroccans, possibly the first such treaty ever made between a European and non-European state. Around the same time, the Dutch prince Maurice made Pallache a privateer (a pirate for hire). Pallache’s merchant fleet became a pirate fleet, and for the next several years his job was to capture Spanish and Portuguese vessels. In 1614, a storm diverted his ship to England, where he was arrested at the request of the Spanish. Prince Maurice got him released, and Pallache returned to Amsterdam where he lived out the rest of his life. Records show that he was a co-founder of Amsterdam’s illustrious Jewish community. His son was one of Amsterdam’s greatest rabbis, and a teacher of (former Jews of the Week) Menashe ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Another descendant is the renowned Rabbi Haim Palachi.
Words of the Week
I like the impossible because there’s less competition. – Walt Disney
Dalya Attar (b. 1990) was born in Baltimore to a religious Sephardic family of Iranian and Moroccan heritage. She studied at a Bais Yaakov school, and always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Among her inspirations are Joe Lieberman and Sarah Schenirer. Attar studied criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, then moved on the University of Maryland School of Law (during which time she married and had two kids). After passing the bar, she worked in the office of Baltimore’s State Attorney, first as a juvenile prosecutor and then as a narcotics and firearms prosecutor. She was asked by Baltimore’s Jewish community to run for the state legislature, and realized she could make a bigger impact if she had a seat in government. Despite having no experience or connections in politics, and running against twelve other candidates in a district that is only 5% Jewish, Attar won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. She assumed office in January of 2019, becoming the highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish women in American history. Attar has used her position to help all communities in her district. She has co-sponsored and voted for legislation to reduce crime in Baltimore (which has among the highest crime rates in America), and sits on the House Opioid Workgroup to put an end to the opioid crisis. This year she introduced legislation to help Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces. She is also working towards opening up job opportunities for people coming out of prison, and to get landlords to reduce the risk of lead poisoning. Attar has campaigned for more funding for religious schools, better pay for teachers, and voted against granting people the right to suicide. In her book, “morals and ethics come first”.
He who looks at things objectively, with an open mind, will see and recognize truth and understand the proper meaning of the Torah. The narrow-minded person, stubborn in his prejudiced self-righteousness, will see no more than what he wants to see. – Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet