The Human Spirit: Picking Up the Scent
February 5, 2010
Barbara Sofer , THE
The tale of a man’s decades-old search for the writings
of the grandfather he never got to meet and his triumphant find in the
last synagogue in Tajikistan.
The scent of newsprint has always reminded Benzion D. Yehoshua
of bread. Perhaps that’s partly because he began delivering daily newspapers
when he was 11 years old to earn his family’s daily bread after his father
was killed in the War of Independence.
“I didn’t feel sorry for myself,” said Yehoshua. “Many of my generation
were in a similar position.”
He would grow up to become an acclaimed author, a publisher and a lecturer
on Asian Jewry. He headed Jerusalem’s scholarly Magnes Publishing House.
But of all the printing with which he has dealt over a lifetime – Yehoshua
is a youthful 74 – a slim volume of pietistic poetry translated from Hebrew
into a Persian-Jewish language called Bukhori has moved him most. In there
lies a tale – a Jerusalem tale of our times with as many exotic characters
as a Russian novel.
Yehoshua’s father came to pre-state Israel from Afghanistan. The family
had escaped from the Persian city of Mashhad where they’d lived as crypto-Jews
after the pogrom and forced conversion of 1839. But when Yehoshua’s grandfather
was murdered by Afghan highwaymen, his father moved to Jerusalem, arriving
in 1898, in time for the historic visit of Theodor Herzl and the German
Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In those days, Yehoshua’s father used his full name, Raphael Yehoshua
Raz, but when a Raz cousin was apprehended for underground activity on
behalf of the Stern Gang, he dropped “Raz” and Yehoshua became his surname.
Raphael Yehoshua was a well-known Jerusalem storyteller, spinning a spell
before a large audience each day in the time between recitation of the
afternoon and evening prayers.
He lived in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter. “Bukharan,” of course, refers
to the ancient community of Central Asian Jews, once the Emirate of Bukhara,
today Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Kyrgyzstan and parts of Russia. Cities with names like Tashkent, Samarkand,
Dushanbe. In the Bukharan Quarter, storyteller Raphael Yehoshua met his
wife-to-be Yocheved Hanukka, a mystic who fasted each Monday and Friday.
Yocheved’s mother Sa’ada Azulai was from an old Sephardi family.
At age 11, she married Mullah Matatya Hanukka, a widower from Turkmenistan.
A short, dapper man, he always wore a red fez. He eked out a living for
his wife and eight children by taking wealthy Bukharan tourists to visit
the graves of the righteous in the Holy Land. They invited him at their
expense to visit them back in the Asian communities to collect donations
and encourage aliya. As gifts for those who would host him, he translated
into Bukhori two medieval liturgical poems he’d become acquainted with
in Jerusalem, both written by German rabbis.
The first was the emotional High Holy Day prayer favored by Ashkenazi
Jews, Unetaneh Tokef, “who shall live and who shall die,” by Rabbi
Amnon of Mainz. The second was a pious poem about the binding of Isaac
used in penitential prayer by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn (1132-1200), best
known as the writer who documented the massacre of the Jews of York in
1190. Benzion Yehoshua’s maternal grandfather Mullah Matatya Hanukka had
the two booklets handsomely printed at Jerusalem’s well-known Lunz Press,
and left on his odyssey.
IN THE meantime, Afghanistan immigrant Raphael Yehoshua (formerly Raz),
21, married Yocheved Hanukka, 14. Benzion Yehoshua, the youngest of their
children, was born at home in 1936. Because of the riots that year, leaving
home was dangerous. Yehoshua never got to meet grandfather Mullah Matatya
Hanukka, who died of starvation in Jerusalem at 50, but throughout all
his years of involvement in publishing, he searched in private and public
libraries for those two small books his grandfather had printed. A single
copy of the Unetaneh Tokef finally turned up in Beit Shemesh. Yehoshua
borrowed it and printed a facsimile.
Then in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Yehoshua was approached
by the government to serve as a cultural attaché to the five Asian
countries. His task was to strengthen Hebrew culture and to work, often
sub rosa, to facilitate aliya. As civil war broke out in Tajikistan, armed
Muslim Tajik rebels seeking to make the country an Islamic state battled
the neocommunist-dominated government. In 1992, on the night before the
start of Succot, Yehoshua found himself and a fellow Israeli flying into
the main city of Dushanbe, landing as rockets were being fired all around.
Said Yehoshua: “We were two Israelis in suits carrying attaché
cases, looking rather conspicuous. I assumed it was my last day on earth.”
But luck was with him. Unsure what to do, Yehoshua approached a Russian
military officer and simply told him they needed a place to stay. To his
surprise and relief, the officer and five tanks accompanied them to a
city hotel, pounding on the door with their rifles. “A very scared, elderly
hotel owner answered, apologizing that the place was closed. The officer
suggested rather strongly that he open it and provide a room for these
guests.” They had beds and a roof, but realized the hotel was in firing
range of the Tajik rebels in a nearby mosque.
“We didn’t sleep all night,” said Yehoshua. A knock on the door sounded
in the morning. A representative of the Jewish community arrived with
a basket full of fruit and treats. “Word of mouth had somehow gotten round
that there were two Israelis in town,” said Yehoshua.
The townsfolk had built a succa inside their synagogue because of the
danger. In his suitcase, Yehoshua had brought a citron, a palm leaf, myrtle
and willows – the Four Species required for the Succot blessing. The rabbi
and cantor had fled from the fighting, so the congregants prevailed on
the Jerusalemite to lead the services, to read the Torah and to give a
speech. The prayer service was easy enough, but he hadn’t read the Torah
aloud since his bar mitzva. He coped with the trope. Then it came time
to speak. How would he find the words to convince the community to leave
for Israel that very night with one suitcase, leaving behind generations
of their history and their property?
His hands shook as he made his case, urging the congregants to leave while
they still could. When he finished speaking he went back to his seat near
the western wall of the synagogue. On a wooden table lay a thick volume
called Mikraot Gedolot, a Bible with rabbinic commentaries. He
opened it aimlessly, and found something tucked inside the pages.
His breath caught. On yellowing paper with his grandfather’s name still
legible, was the gift brochure with a poem by a German rabbi, translated
into Persian-Hebrew 90 years earlier. Here was the last copy of it in
the last synagogue in Tajikistan.
“I felt my grandfather had come to bring me warm regards and to send me
a message that I’d done all right,” said Yehoshua.
That evening, the first of many planes of Jews left Dushanbe for Israel.
Also one slim booklet with a medieval poem.
Today, in his modern apartment in the new neighborhood of
Ramat Beit Hakerem, Benzion Yehoshua is a grandfather who likes to share
his stories with his children and grandchildren. He leads tours and gives
lectures. He’s taught himself all the languages spoken by Asian Jews.
He’s just recently published his tenth book, a collection of literary
criticism and stories called The Aroma of Fresh-Baked Bread. The
volume is dedicated to his beloved wife Tikva who died just last month.
Looking back, how does he explain his discovery of his grandfather’s book
that day in Dushanbe. Yehoshua shakes his head. “I had looked for it for
decades, and there it was on the table. I have no idea. I can’t explain
it at all.”
Such are the stories of our Jerusalem.