S.F. Sephardi mark Lag BOmer with dining, dancing, ululations

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Celebrating Lag B'Omer with a five-course dinner and a four-piece band, Congregation Anshey Sfard members voiced jubilation with the high-pitched "lulululu" yodel characteristic of Morocco.

"The spirit of Rabbi Shimone [Bar Yohai] is here," said Aliza Benchlouch, wife of the San Francisco congregation's Rabbi Maklouf Benchlouch.

Rabbi Shimone is credited with developing the Zohar, the sacred book of the Kabbalah or Jewish mystical tradition, during a 12-year retreat while escaping Roman persecution. He is believed to have died on Lag B'Omer, leaving instructions that instead of mourning, people should celebrate his passing as a new beginning with God.

"The day Rabbi Shimone died, he left a will saying that instead of crying, he wanted the Jewish nation to be happy that he was in heaven and was praying for the Jewish nation to get out of exile and for the Messiah to come," said Maklouf Benchlouch. "The promise he made for Lag B'Omer is that every Jew who celebrates the holiday with happiness will have a special year ahead, filled with happiness, health and peace."

The 150 or so guests at the Lag B'Omer dinner on Wednesday of last week were determined to celebrate. Festivities included a meal featuring ground salmon and artichoke cutlets and sumptuous roasted chicken platters, and a band whose Israeli, Moroccan, French and Middle Eastern music inspired men and women to dance in the aisles.

Lag B'Omer (lag means "33" in Hebrew) is the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer during the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. It marks a daylong cessation of a period of quasi-mourning. Among traditional Jews, it is a popular wedding day.

Lag B'Omer also marks the day of the final death from a mysterious epidemic that killed 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the second century.

In Israel, observant families let male children's hair grow until they are 3 years old. Many then cut the hair on Lag B'Omer in a ceremony at the tomb of Rabbi Shimone, near Tiberias.

The haircut signifies a new beginning for the child as a member of the family, Maklouf Benchlouch said. Before the haircut, the child still belongs to the "High Holy Ones."

Another Lag B'Omer tradition with a "new beginning" theme is more familiar to American Jews — that of planting trees in Israel.

Moroccan Jews at home and in enclaves abroad celebrate Lag B'Omer with a festival akin to the Fourth of July or Mardi Gras, said Jacques Amiel, Anshey Sfard's president.

"It's called the Hellulah, or a celebration and remembering, and it's a time of miracles," he said. Many El Al flights travel between Tel Aviv and Casablanca at this time, transporting former Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel back to their native land for the holiday.

While Morocco had as many as 600,000 Jews at the time of Israel's creation, today it has only about 5,000. Although many have immigrated to Israel, a great many moved to Montreal because they spoke French.

In addition to honoring Rabbi Shimone, Moroccan Jews on Lag B'Omer celebrate at the tombs of other revered rabbis — a different one for each region, said Charles Levy, a member of Anshey Sfard's board of trustees. He witnessed a miracle in his own family when his mother, distraught over his sister's five miscarriages and stillbirths, went to pray on Lag B'Omer at the tomb of Rabbi Nissim Ben Nissim in Mogador in southern Morocco. When she opened her purse to leave a monetary offering at the tomb, a butterfly flew out. Soon after that, Levy's sister became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

At last week's celebration, Levy auctioned off large candles that were said to be blessed with the spirit of each of the rabbis. The candle for Rabbi Nissim Ben Nissim sold for $800. Smaller candles were auctioned off so that everyone could enjoy the blessings of the holiday.

Adding to the celebration, Maklouf Benchlouch also incorporated the observance of Israel's 50th anniversary into the occasion.

Leaders of the congregation hope the gathering will spark enthusiasm for an enhanced Sephardic presence in San Francisco. The 250-member congregation, one of two Sephardic synagogues in the city, would like to expand onto land it owns next to its current building on Clement Street and create a Sephardic center for the entire Bay Area. However, the congregation lacks capital for new construction, Amiel said. Still, hope prevails, especially on Lag B'Omer.

"I really feel that my mission is to bring more families to a foundation in Judaism," said Aliza Benchlouch, who also teaches Hebrew school and Jewish studies at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El. "I'm worried about the next generation."