Tag Archives: Sephardic Jews

Jew of the Week: Grace Aguilar

Defender of Judaism

Grace Aguilar (1816-1847) was born in London to descendants of Sephardic Jewish refugees who fled the Portuguese Inquisition. Her parents were active leaders of London’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. Grace was a sickly child, and seldom left her home for the first eight years of her life. During this time, she learned dance, piano and harp, and was tutored in Jewish studies and classical literature. She started writing at this time, too. As a teenager, her father taught her Hebrew and more advanced Jewish studies while she took care of him during a long bout with tuberculosis. She then took care of her ill mother, before being plagued with a serious case of measles starting at age 19. With her brothers away at boarding school, she bore the burden of caring for her parents and taking care of the family home. To raise more money, Aguilar strove to become a professional writer. Her first book, a collection of riddle-poems called The Magic Wreath of Hidden Flowers, was a huge success and launched her writing career. She then published a translation and explanation of an earlier Spanish work called Israel Defended, written to prevent Jews from converting to Christianity. Aguilar became good friends with future British prime minister (and former Jew of the WeekBenjamin Disraeli who helped her spread her writings. She soon convinced Isaac Leeser, editor of the popular Jewish magazine, The Occident, to publish her new book, The Spirit of Judaism, in 1842. The book was very popular both in America and England. Aguilar continued to write poetry, fiction, and treatises on Judaism. While she had become a bestseller, she still did not earn enough to care for her family, and had to work as a director of a Hebrew school. In 1845, Aguilar published Women of Israel, describing the lives of great Jewish women in history, and serving as an inspiration for countless Jewish women at the time. Some consider this to be her masterpiece. She followed that up with The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope, explaining the value and beauty of Judaism. Two years later, Aguilar was struck with spinal paralysis. She had already planned to set out on a trip to Europe, and refused to cancel it. She died in Frankfurt, and was buried in its Jewish cemetery. Her tombstone fittingly has verses from Eshet Chayil (“Woman of Valour”, from King Solomon’ Proverbs, chapter 31). Many more of Aguilar’s incredible works were published after her death, including collections of Jewish stories, novels for women, proto-Zionist writings, and works on Sephardic Jewish and English Jewish history. Her novel Home Influence, which had its first print just as Aguilar was dying, went on to sell out thirty editions. Her works were used as textbooks in some of the first American Hebrew schools. Although she was only 31 years old when she died, Aguilar is credited with being one of the most important Jewish educators and writers of her time, and playing a tremendous role in preventing Jews from assimilating and converting. Today, there is a public library named after her in New York City. Aguilar Point in British Columbia is named after her brother, who was an officer in the British Royal Navy. At her death, she was called “the moral governess of the Hebrew family”.

Words of the Week

There are rabbis who are so great that they can revive the dead. But reviving the dead is God’s business. A rabbi needs to be able to revive the living.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzkthe Kotzker Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Baba Sali

A Modern Miracle Worker

Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (1889-1984) was born on Rosh Hashanah in Tafilalt, Morocco to a long line of Sephardic rabbis and miracle-workers. (His grandfather was the famed Abir Yakov, who was himself a grandson of Rabbi Shmuel Abuhatzeira, who had studied with Rabbi Chaim Vital, a disciple of the great Arizal.) The young Israel grew up on an estate that included a yeshiva and a beit din (the local Jewish courthouse), surrounded by wise scholars, judges, and mystics. By the age of 12, Israel was recognized as a child prodigy, and already began living the life of a mystic – fasting regularly, rising at midnight to pray and meditate – while hiding it all from his parents. He married at 16. After his father passed away and his older brother was murdered, the community begged him to take over as the town rabbi. Although only 22 years old, and exceedingly humble and modest, he eventually accepted. Within a decade, he was famous across Morocco, and as far as Israel, as a wise rabbi, a saint and a miracle-worker. On his first trip to the Holy Land, it is said that he reopened the Arizal’s ancient synagogue, which had been sealed off for years due to an apparent curse. Though he wished to stay in the Holy Land, Rabbi Abuhatzeira returned to Morocco to take care of his community. When the conditions for Jews in Morocco deteriorated even further after the founding of the State of Israel, Rabbi Abuhatzeira took it upon himself to facilitate Moroccan Jewry’s migration back to their Promised Land. He made the move himself in 1950. By then, he carried a new title: Because his prayers and blessings were known to always came true, he was referred to as Baba Sali, the “Praying Father”. The main possessions that he brought over from Morocco were 30 crates of books and manuscripts, together with thousands of pages of his own holy writings. He is considered one of the greatest kabbalists and holiest rabbis of recent decades. He was sought after not only by Jews, but by Arabs as well, and stories of his miracles abound. He took ill several months after his 94th birthday, and passed away soon after. The Baba Sali’s funeral was attended by over 100,000 people, and his grave in the town of Netivot is now a popular pilgrimage site. His yahrzeit begins tonight.

24 Amazing Torah Prophecies That Came True

Words of the Week

A man’s kind deeds are used by God as seeds for the planting of trees in the Garden of Eden; thus, each man creates his own Paradise. The reverse is true when he commits transgressions.
– Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch