By Rav Haim Sabato
Jewish Action is pleased to present “Rescued by the Tufts of Their Hair,” a story by rosh yeshivah/novelist Rav Haim Sabato, which centers on the holiday of Yom Kippur and on Rav Moshe Zvi Neria, one of the most important figures in forming the Religious Zionist movement in Eretz Yisrael. Appearing in English for the first time, this short story, which was translated for Jewish Action, was published in Hebrew in Rav Sabato’s latest work of prose entitled B’Shafrir Chevyon (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Books, 2014). The translation is by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.
Tzion, one of the hesder soldiers in my tank crew, was a great storyteller. He also knew how to appreciate a good story. When they used to hold tank practice for us in the sands by Bir Gafrafa, I was the gunner of the tank crew, and he was the loader and radio-operator. Sometimes we would be waiting on the turret for the battalion’s exercise to begin. They would wake us up two hours before the exercise was to start, lest some polished high-ranking commander would come early and find a tank crew that was dawdling.
We finished preparing the tank and sat down on the top of the turret at two in the morning to wait. The Sinai Desert air was cool and the sky was sprinkled with stars. I had never seen so many stars in the heavens at night as I did then. Together we sipped bitter Turkish coffee that Tzion had prepared when the tank transmission was running; he laced it with the Yemenite spice called heyl. That’s when he would tell me about the arduous journey that his grandfather had made to Eretz Yisrael from Yemen, via Aden, and about his childhood as an orphan in the Hatikvah Quarter, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. I would tell him about my grandfather from Aleppo, about my childhood in Cairo and then in the immigrant enclave of Beit Mazmil in Jerusalem, and about my pals Harush and Kessalsi. That’s how we passed the time, sitting and talking about our past, until the tank motors roared and the communications equipment started jingling. Once he recounted how he came to study in the pioneering Bnei Akiva yeshivah near Netanya:
“How in the world did I, a poor orphan from the Hatikvah Quarter, get to the yeshivah in Kfar Haroeh? My mother, may she rest in peace, passed away when I was four, and my grandmother raised me. My Savta had ridden on a donkey from the Yemen capital of San’a to the British protectorate of Aden, on the shores of the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, in order to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. She survived a number of hazardous incidents, but was left penniless. Savta worked for three years in Aden in various odd jobs in order to save money for a ship that would bring her to the port of Tel Aviv. After a few months in the Yemenite Quarter of Tel Aviv, Saba and Savta got a place to live in the Hatikvah Quarter. My father inherited his love of Eretz Yisrael from his parents, and this in turn kindled my attachment to the Land. I loved to read stories, and I escaped the daily grind of our poor neighborhood and buried myself in books. I read everything that came to hand—poems, short stories, lengthy books, short works. In sixth grade we received a reader called ‘Footsteps,’ an anthology of classic and contemporary stories and essays. I sat myself down on a stone fence in a corner of the neighborhood and swallowed the book whole. There was one essay in particular that captured my imagination. It was an article written by Rav Moshe Zvi Neria in which he described the youth in his yeshivah celebrating the Shavuot holiday on the hilltop in Kfar Haroeh.
“The description emitted the wonderful aroma of oranges, the smell of the brown earth in the Hefer Valley, and the boisterousness of boys dancing the hora in circles and studying about the first fruits in the mishnayot of the Tractate Bikkurim. I read the essay over and over, maybe a hundred times, and I said to myself: I want to study in that yeshivah. For three years I dreamed about the yeshivah with the dome, sitting on a hilltop. When we got to eighth grade, most of my friends from the neighborhood went on to become apprentices in car repair shops. The more talented ones went to learn to be lowly diamond polishers in the Issachar Diamond Works in order to help supplement the meager income of their families. I went and sent a postcard to Rav Neria and I asked him to accept me into his yeshivah. A few weeks later, the answer arrived. On the envelope was a drawing of the yeshivah and its dome crowning a hilltop. It was addressed to me on the front, and the name Moshe Zvi Neria was written on the back flap. I was so excited I turned the envelope over again and again. Inside was a letter. Rav Neria warmly invited me to spend a Shabbat with him in the yeshivah. And he closed by saying: ‘I eagerly look forward to seeing you in our home.’ I couldn’t believe it—he is eagerly looking forward to seeing me? Me—Tzion! There on the hilltop!
“I came by bus and climbed from the bus stop up the hill. I found the house and I waited at the doorstep, hesitantly. Rav Neria opened the door wide, and invited me with a grand gesture of his arm to enter. He welcomed me with a strong handshake. ‘Welcome, Mr. Tzion Tzadok. I have been waiting for you.’ He rebuked me lightly for my limp handshake; ‘Sabras have to have a firm handshake. Like this!’
“Shabbat descended on the yeshivah and the moshav. The beauty of the twilight hovered over everything. I could see rows and rows of handsome youths, each with a blorit, a shock of hair combed over his forehead. They were clad in white shirts and khaki slacks, and sang in unison, ‘If I only had the power/I would proclaim from a tower/ Stop all the mayhem/ Today’s Shabbat for Hashem.’ I was moved, I was transported to another world, pristine and pure. Suddenly the singing came to a halt, and there was total silence. Rav Neria arose to give a derashah. Now I had been used to the derashot of Rav Tzubari in our neighborhood; my father was a great admirer of our local scholar. But Rav Neria spoke in a completely different manner; he used another vocabulary altogether, with words that were new to me, that I had never heard before: Being true to your ‘inner self,’ ‘baseless love,’ ‘the morals of spiritual communion,’ ‘natural ethics,’ ‘the first flowering of our redemption.’
“After Maariv, one of the boys pulled me into the circle of the Hora dancers, and I was carried away. After that, Rav Neria and I left the beit midrash and the two of us walked along the narrow path. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Do you see the wonderful moon of Eretz Yisrael? Can you imbibe the delicate scent of the orchards?’ And here was I, an orphan from the slums of the Hatikvah Quarter. No one had ever spoken to me like that.”
Tzion continued recounting his stay in Kfar Haroeh.
“In describing the youths in Kfar Haroeh I mentioned the impressive blorit sported by the boys, a mop of hair, or a forelock, dangling down their foreheads. Once a highly respected Rebbe visited Kfar Haroeh. Rav Neria saw the frown on the Rebbe’s face. To the surprise of Rav Neria, the Rebbe articulated a reproof, ‘The blorit I see on the boys—how do you dare let them go around like that?’
“Rav Neria’s rejoinder came swiftly, ‘By grasping the blorit, I am holding on to the boys, rescuing them from being washed away by the strong currents today.’”
After this digression, Tzion resumed his narration. “Let me now describe my first High Holidays in the yeshivah’s beit midrash which served as a beit knesset in Kfar Haroeh. Everything was different from the synagogue I was used to at home. Here I was a teenager from the Hatikvah Quarter, used to going to a minyan at the break of dawn, as the Yemenites are wont to do. Not so in Kfar Haroeh. Rav Neria tried to convince me that for the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I should stay in the yeshivah. I argued that a person prays best where he has emotional ties to his own family’s tradition. But Rav Neria was adamant and in no uncertain terms said, ‘Stay and pray with us.’ All the arguments and proofs that I offered were in vain. I could not refuse him. After that, I continued going to Kfar Haroeh year after year for the High Holidays.
“As I stood under the dome of the roof of the beit midrash during the tefillah for Rosh Hashanah I gazed up at the azure-colored ceiling, inlaid with white tiles.
“The dome was in the center of the ceiling of the beit midrash, decorated with orange-colored drawings of Biblical animals and musical instruments surrounding the words to Psalm 150, ‘Praise Hashem in His sanctuary, praise Him in the heavens . . . Praise Him with the blast of the horn, with the psaltery and harp, with the timbrel and dance, with stringed instruments, and cymbals. Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord, Halleluyah.’ All around the dome swirled Hebrew letters that combined into words, the words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook about Torah and Eretz Yisrael: ‘The Holy Presence rests only on a people who have courage, abundance, and an upright stature.’ Kfar Haroeh had been named after Rav Kook; the initials of the Hebrew HaRav Avraham HaCohen combined to spell Haroeh. It was a double entendre, for haroeh also means ‘the shepherd.’ Rav Neria was a follower of Rav Kook.”
Tzion then explained how Rav Neria saved a generation from “being washed away by strong currents.”
“During the Mussaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah, Rav Neria led the prayers, standing before the Ark, his head and whole being covered by his tallit. His face was aglow, and he was chanting the tefillah and singing the piyutim in his pleasant voice, to the traditional niggunim and melodies hallowed by generations of Jews. Among them were the tunes he had heard from the chazzan during the few holidays he spent in the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania in the 1920s before its destruction.
“He reached the verses of the Zichronot: ‘You remember the deeds done in the universe and You recall all the creatures fashioned since earliest times.’ Suddenly Rav Neria stopped. He paused for a second. He changed the tune which had been used for generations. He choked up and quivered with tears. I sensed he was reciting the verses to a melody familiar to me. It was the melody of one of the popular Israeli hymns for a fallen soldier, ‘B’arvot haNegev, ish magen nafal . . .’ ‘On the plains of the Negev a defender has fallen, the lad is not breathing, his heart has stopped, the wind strokes the blorit on his forehead.’ The beit midrash resounded with the words to the Zichronot, set to the melody of B’arvot haNegev. ‘Before You all hidden things are revealed and the multitude of mysteries since the beginning of Creation . . . it is said on this day, who is destined for the sword and who for peace, who for hunger, and who for abundance, and creatures are recalled on this day to remember them for life or death.’ But in my ears it was as if the words to the song reverberated, ‘Stricken with sadness and a dreadful grief/An old mother stands and says her piece/the tears pour from your mother’s eyes/A bullet of lead came and pierced your heart.’ We all knew the lyrics to the song, and what was behind them. The Rav let the tears fall, and we cried along with him . . . until it seemed to me that the composers of the prayer wrote the words especially for the Palmach poet who is mourning the defender who fell. The following year I heard Rav Neria sing the piyut ‘V’chol Ma’aminim’ to the melody of the refrain of the pre-State march, ‘Anu, anu haPalmach.’ During those moments in Kfar Haroeh the words to the spiritual piyutim became intertwined with the melodies of the Land of Israel and its pioneers and defenders; the love of Israel merged with the fear of Hashem. They all became as one in my eyes. And here I was only a teenager.”
Tzion then went on to describe the eve of Yom Kippur. “A half hour before the start of Kol Nidre the huge beit midrash was already full with worshippers. The atmosphere was drenched with splendor. There were youngsters sporting knitted kippot, tanned farmers from the moshav, and members of the Workers’ Religious movement Torah v’Avodah. They all were focused together, heart and soul concentrating on the holiness of the day, their faces buried in their holiday prayer books. Since I was a young child, I had been used to hearing the elderly chazzan in the Hatikvah Quarter open the prayers for this, the holiest of days, with the piyut, Lecha E-li Teshukati with a Yemenite niggun of longing and nostalgia. But here in Kfar Haroeh I hear the congregation whispering to themselves the Tefillah Zakkah, with its words of purity, contrition and beseeching, their faces veiled by their tallitot, their eyes glistening with tears. From the corners of the beit midrash restrained sighs float. Then suddenly, all together, they stand opposite the opened Ark and the shaliach tzibbur announces in a strong voice, ‘Or zaru latzaddik u’lyishrey lev simchah.’ ‘Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, gladness.’ And hundreds of youths respond with a roar, ‘Or zaru latzaddik u’lyishrey lev simchah.’ I was transfixed. Here I was only a teenager.”
Tzion ended his reverie. “I looked back up at the ceiling, and I thought I saw letters and stars sown across the azure dome. ‘Light is sown for the righteous.’”
On the fateful Motzaei Yom Kippur of 1973 I recalled what Tzion had told me about Rav Neria. Our tank crossed the Bnot Yaakov bridge and we ascended the Golan during that awful war on the Day of Awe. The dreadful news started to trickle in and I saw in my mind’s eye the piyutim and selichot that were recited, as Tzion had recounted to me, by Rav Neria to the tune of “Ish magen nafal,” the hymn to the Negev defender who fell. And I hear on the tank’s walkie-talkie: “Shaya fell, Shmuel fell.” A few minutes later, “Soriel fell.” The voice of Rav Neria crying and beseeching echoes in my ears, “B’arvot haNegev, ish magen nafal . . . U’netaneh tokef, kedushat Hayom, ki hu nora v’ayom, Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness for it is awesome and frightening. Man’s origin is from dust, and his destiny is back to dust. Who will die by water, and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who in his predestined time and who before his time?”
Through my field binoculars I see fire and smoke from tanks burning like torches. In in my heart, I see Rav Neria giving a derashah about ayelet hashachar, the first streaks of dawn breaking through the long exile’s night. And I beg to see one small spark of that light.
Rav Haim Sabato is a founder and rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’ale Adumim, and an award winning novelist.
The Blorit in Israeli Culture
The Israeli mascot Srulik (a nickname for Yisrael) was created in 1956 by Israeli cartoonist Kariel Gardosh, known by his pen name Dosh. The cartoon appeared for many years in the Maariv newspaper. Srulik sports Biblical sandals, shorts, and a blorit or forelock of his hair, peeking out of his tembel hat. (An Israeli national symbol, the tembel hat was commonly worn by Israelis in early years of the State until the 1970s.) The blorit became a symbol of the brash, somewhat disheveled, new young Sabra. The term appears in many patriotic Israeli songs. Especially famous is the song about military comradeship, “Shir HaRe’ut” (Song of Friendship), which is a War of Independence hymn that describes the fallen soldiers as “y’fe hablorit v’hatoar—with a beautiful blorit and handsome stature.” The term blorit also appears in the lyrics of the song described in the accompanying story by Rav Sabato. That song was “B’arvot haNegev Ish Magen Nafal” and the popular tune for this song was used by Rav Neria to sing piyutim of the High Holidays. That song describes the falling of a defender of the Negev, as the wind is blowing through the blorit.
The origin of the term blorit is in the Talmud and Midrash. It described a hairstyle of pagans, which Jews were forbidden to imitate. In the early years of the State, the term blorit was applied differently from its use in Jewish texts. It was used to describe a forelock, a tuft or mop of hair. The blorit became symbolic of the young Sabras. It was the genius of Rav Neria to utilize such symbols and popular folksongs in order to keep the religious youth from leaving tradition, at a time when the National Religious sector was hemorrhaging, or in the words of the story, “to rescue them from being swept away by the strong currents of secularization.” How did Rav Neria attract the youth in the 1940s and 1950s to study Torah and observe mitzvot? In this short story, Rav Sabato gives us some insight into Rav Neria’s success.
Rav Moshe Zvi Neria (1913-1995), born in Lodz, Poland as Moshe Zvi Henkin, is credited with revolutionizing religious education in Israel. His father had studied with the Chofetz Chaim, and Rav Neria himself had studied in Europe with the younger brother of Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Neria was captivated by the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook and, with the latter’s help, made aliyah at age seventeen in 1930. Rav Neria subsequently anthologized the writings of Rav Kook in a little volume called Mishnat HaRav. This small book was to play a role in the life of Rav Yehuda Amital, co-founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion (“the Gush”). When Rav Amital was taken to slave labor camp during the Shoah, he took with him (in addition to a Tanach and Mishnah) this book by Rav Neria, drawing spiritual sustenance from this little work that captured his heart.
In the 1930s Rav Neria was a talmid of Rav Kook and his son, Rav Zvi Yehuda. Rav Neria took an interest in the nascent groups of Bnei Akiva in Jerusalem and became an editor of its publication, Hebraizing his name from Henkin to Neria. Realizing that there was no middle ground between the religious high schools with minimal Torah studies and the Chareidi yeshivot with minimal or no secular studies, he founded a yeshivah with thirteen teenage boys in 1940 in the workers’ moshav Kfar Haroeh, near Netanya. This he did despite the opposition to the concept of a yeshivah in the Mizrachi movement. Yeshivat Kfar Haroeh was the prototype of the boys’ Bnei Akiva yeshivah high schools (and later girls’ ulpanot) of which there are dozens today, and which led to the founding of yeshivot hesder. In the words of Yehuda Mirsky in his book, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Rav Neria “had kept alive in his yeshivot and Bnei Akiva the incandescence he himself had experienced while studying with Rav Kook in the 1930s.”
During the period when Rav Neria founded his yeshivah, the boys did not want to wear black kippot, which were associated with Chareidim. So they wore “kasketim,” caps. Rav Neria introduced the knitted kippah, encouraging the Religious Zionist youth to walk proudly in the street, wearing their kippot. The knitted kippah became a symbol of the generation educated by Rav Neria, and he therefore became known as “avi dor hakippot haserugot—the father of the knitted kippah generation.”