About 100,000 devout Jews descended on this dusty provincial town recently to remember a North African holy man through public prayer, euphoric dance and the ritual slaughter of sheep.
In the years since the death in 1984 of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira--a mystic known affectionately as “Baba Sali,” or “the father of prayer” in Arabic--the annual event marking his death has grown into a major festival for Jews of North African descent.
According to Jewish tradition, the death of a tzadik--Hebrew for “righteous one"--should be celebrated in the same manner as one’s wedding day. Abuhatzeira was one of the most beloved leaders of the Moroccan Jewish community, whose members immigrated to Israel by the hundreds of thousands in the 1950s and 1960s.
Celebrants come in droves to Netivot, where the mystic spent his last two decades after immigrating from Morocco. At his grave site they light candles, murmur prayers and leave notes asking for divine assistance in arranging marriages, jobs and good health.
Straining to touch the gravestone, men and women of all ages--most of them Israelis, but some from as far as France--throw notes onto the grave.
Others throw candles into a large fire nearby.
“Coming here, I am strengthened in my faith,” said Keti Biton, a woman in her 20s who made the trip with her family from the town of Acre about 125 miles to the north. “I feel spiritually uplifted.”
Vendors sell photos of the late rabbi and other revered sages, as well as “holy water” and plastic cupfuls of arak, an aromatic Middle Eastern liquor. Outside the perimeter, religious activists solicit donations, Moroccan music blaring from their stands.
The large turnout at this year’s festival reflected the growing attraction of mysticism and devout religious beliefs at a time of rising unemployment and uncertainty in Israel’s relations with the Arabs, as well as a growing identity crisis within Israeli society.
Especially affected are the masses of Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, who are dominant among the lower-income brackets.
“God willing, may all your prayers and requests be answered . . . and the righteous one will help protect you,” said a pamphlet distributed to the believers.