Most of us know where some of our grandparents came from. Some of us even know where our great-grandparents came from. But most of them came from Europe, and the war destroyed records, uprooted cemeteries, demolished memories.
Rabbi Ilan Acoca of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee, on the other hand, can trace his ancestry back at least to 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Many of those Jews, including his ancestors, went to Morocco, married within the community there, and created a thriving society; their descendants stayed until 1967. Israel’s Six-Day War was that year, however, and the fallout in Morocco prompted many Jews, including Rabbi Acoca’s parents, to leave.
Meyer and Simy Abecassis Acoca went first to France and then to Israel; their son, Ilan, was born in Bat Yam in 1970.
“I grew up in a very traditional Sephardic home,” Rabbi Acoca said. “It was very traditional but not necessarily 100 percent observant, which was very common in the Sephardic world.” Ilan went to elementary school in Israel and started high school there, but when he was about to enter ninth grade, the call of the Moroccan diaspora became too strong for his parents to ignore.
There was — and still is — a very large Moroccan community in Montreal, and Meyer Acoca had many relatives — “siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts,” Rabbi Acoca said — there. So the family moved to Canada.
One reason that the Moroccan Jewish community in Montreal is so big is that Montreal, like Morocco, is French-speaking. “We spoke mainly French at home,” Rabbi Acoca said. “But my grandmother, who had a lot of influence on me, spoke only Arabic, so I also speak Moroccan Arabic.”
He was changed by his new home. “I went to a Sephardic high school and lived in Montreal in a big Sephardic community — mainly Moroccan — and that opened up the Sephardic world to me,” Rabbi Acoca said; he somehow understood and was moved by the richness and beauty of his tradition in ways that he did not and was not in Israel. He and a bunch of his friends became more observant, inspired to “continue to explore, to look into Jewish texts, to learn.” Eventually, he and his friends left the Sephardic high school for a more observant Lithuanian-style Ashkenazi yeshiva; Rabbi Acoca continued to study there well past high school. “I even learned how to speak Yiddish,” he said. “There was a class that I really wanted to take, and the rabbi who taught it gave the class in Yiddish. So we had no choice but to learn Yiddish.”
He speaks five languages in all, he said — French, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and English.
Around this time, Rabbi Acoca decided that he should get married. Through a matchmaker, he met Dina Delmar, “who is my bashert, my soul mate,” he said. The two were engaged “two weeks after we met, and after about five months we got married,” Rabbi Acoca said. That was in 1996.
Like her husband, Dina Delmar Acoca can trace her ancestry back through Morocco to the expulsion from Spain, although that’s true for only one side of her family. Her mother’s side is Ashkenazic. But her family name, Delmar, which literally means “of the sea” in Spanish, tells the world that many of its members were sailors. Around the turn of the last century, “there is a history in my wife’s family of two brothers. One went to Spanish Morocco. That was Delmar. The other went to French Morocco, where people also spoke Arabic. He became Lebhar — of the sea in in Arabic.”
Rabbi Acoca was ordained by the rabbinical institution Yeshiva Gedola Beth Hamidrash L’horaa in Montreal, soon after he and Dina married; he also earned a bachelor’s degree from the Universite de Montreal. In 1999, a congregation in Vancouver, Congregation Beth Hamidrash, which had been looking for a rabbi and rabbanit, offered him its pulpit, and he accepted.
“That was a very important moment in my life,” he said. “It was a turning point. I understood that I had a mission. The congregation I served was the only Sephardic congregation west of Toronto.” (We should note that Vancouver, British Columbia, is on Canada’s west coast, and Toronto is just about north of Buffalo. There are more than 2,000 miles between those two Canadian cities.)
“Our mission was to make sure that the Sephardic congregation in Vancouver would continue to thrive and grow,” Rabbi Acoca said.
Unlike the Sephardic community in Montreal, which includes people from all over but is predominantly Moroccan, the Vancouver community “was extremely diverse,” Rabbi Acoca said. “They came from the four corners of the world. From Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, and Iran. There were some Askhenazim as well, looking for the warmth and heimische feeling we had. They felt part of it.
“I was exposed to so many rich traditions, and I was open to listening to all of them, to find out what it’s all about.”
There are many differences between different parts of the Sephardic world, he said; in fact, even the definition of Sephardic is elastic. It generally means all Jews who are not Askhenazi or Italian (who form their own category). Although the word “Sepharad” means Spain, and Sephardic Jews generally trace their ancestry through that country, the term Sephardic usually includes Jews from the Edut Mizrach — the Middle Eastern communities that never made it to the Iberian Peninsula in the first place.
There are divisions even between Sephardic Jews in one country, Rabbi Acoca said. “In Morocco, there are two communities. One is people like me, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain. The other community was there from before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. They are the ‘toshavim,’ the residents. My community is called the ‘megorashim.’” The exiles. There was not much intermarriage between the two groups, he added.
“In my ketuba, it’s written that we will have a home c’minyan Castilla.’” Like the community of Castille. Of Spain.
One of the most obvious ways that the differences between different Sephardic traditions are manifest is in their music, Rabbi Acoca said, “and that’s extremely important in our liturgy.” And outside the liturgy as well.
“If you go to the Middle East, you will find one type of music — the instruments sometimes will be the same, but the sound will be completely different,” he said. “North African Jews were influenced by Andaluc’a” — Spain’s southernmost province, and its heart during its Muslim period. “And there is some historic proof that Andalucian music was influenced by Jews, who traveled so much. You can hear the music of ancient Andalucia in Morocco and Algeria. But if you go to the Middle East, it’s an entirely different influence. You could have the same song and the same words — but it will sound completely different.
“Also, obviously, Jews are all about food, and the food is different. Sometimes the spices can be the same, but the type of food isn’t.”
And then there are the customs specific to various Sephardic communities. “One of the main traditions of Moroccan Jews is the mimouna, at the end of Pesach,” Rabbi Acoca said. “We open our homes and let everyone come in. It’s the idea of faith — mimouna comes from the Hebrew word emunah, which means faith. We had faith in God who took us out of Egypt. We mark that at the beginning of Pesach with the seders, and we end it with mimouna. More faith.”
Another particularly Moroccan custom is putting lettuce or green herbs on the table. “That’s because we’re changing seasons, and we’re going into the summer,” Rabbi Acoca said. “We are wishing each other a green summer, full of freshness and newness.”
After 17 years, Ilan and Dina Acoca decided that they’d met all the challenges they’d be likely to encounter in Vancouver, and that it was time to look for something new. Also, and not incidentally, “we were on the West Coast, and all our family was on the East Coast. We wanted to get closer to them.”
Through a friend at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Acoca — who is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, the group for Orthodox rabbis — heard about the job opening in Fort Lee, pursued it, was offered it, and took it. At the same time, he was offered the position of rav mechanech — basically rabbi in residence — at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. So as of the beginning of this school year, “My job is inspiring the kids, making sure that the Sephardic part of the school is alive, and supporting the staff in any way that I can,” he said.
Rabbi Acoca also has just published a book, “The Sephardic Book of Why,” which is a direct outgrowth of all the questions about Sephardic tradition he’s been asked. “A few years ago, I was at a wedding — not officiating but as a guest — and I saw that the officiating rabbi, who was Chabad, had a book, a guide for Chabad rabbis. Many years ago, the RCA came out with a rabbis’ guide. So I thought of doing that.” But on second thought, and after consulting with friends, he realized that a book aimed just at Sephardic rabbis would be entering a very small market. Why confine it to rabbis? Why not write for the whole Jewish world?
So he did.
He did a great deal of research; given the constraints of time and space, he couldn’t include every one of the many thousands of customs there are. Instead, he gives a general overview.
Still, he said, the most important message he’d like to give is that “we are one nation. We can agree to disagree, but at the end, the bottom line is that we have to respect each other.
“We each have to keep our own traditions, according to our own ancestry, but it is also important for us to be one nation. I’m writing about these customs not to define us, but to understand each other better. That’s what it’s all about.”
And, he added, there is some mixing. His own children — he has six of them; the oldest is in Israel, the second oldest finishing high school in Vancouver, the next three at Ben Porat Yosef, the youngest not quite old enough for it — have one Ashkenazi grandparent. “On Friday night, we had matzah ball soup and Moroccan fish,” Rabbi Acoca said.
Who: Rabbi Ilan Acoca
What: Will talk about “The Sages of the Past: Visionaries of the Future”
When: On Tuesday, January 3, at 8 p.m.
Where: At Ben Porat Yosef, 243 Frisch Court, Paramus
Why: To talk about the Sephardic world, its message, and its message’s relevance today
For whom: The community is invited
For more information: Call the school at (201) 845-5007