Lifestyle & Belief

A colorful and controversial Israeli rabbi dies at 93

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Credit: Daniel Estrin
Throngs of ultra-orthodox and Sephardic Jews packed the streets of Jerusalem for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's funeral.

Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern descent have lost a champion: Iraqi-born Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a spiritual and political leader who transformed the immigrant community into a powerful force in Israeli politics, died Monday. He was 93.

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Police estimated more than half a million people packed the streets at the rabbi’s funeral Monday, a main Jerusalem thoroughfare becoming a sea of black and white – the signature ultra-Orthodox garb. The rabbi’s adherents listened to eulogies out of radio speakers and paid their last respects to the man they call “The Generation’s Greatest.”

Beyond the sea of black and white clothing, though, is a community that transformed from sidelined minority to a political force. Sephardic Jews, as they're known in Israel, make up roughly half the country's population. The community was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews descended from European countries until Yosef changed much of that.

“In every Sephardic Jewish family, of course if you ask them who is their leader, they will definitely say Ovadia Yosef,” said Joey Darwish, 20, whose parents immigrated from Lebanon. They keep a photo of the rabbi in their home.

Yosef was a colorful character. Unlike the black and white garb of his followers, he wore a deep purple turban-like hat, a golden-braided robe, and large sunglasses. He was considered a prolific writer and had a photographic memory of Jewish texts.

He united Sephardic Jewish communities, abolishing various customs and codifying one Sephardic religious tradition.

“No more Iraqi Jews with their own specific traditions, and Kurdish Jews and Syrian Jews. He tried to consolidate one system of religious ruling for all of these Jews,” said Elhanan Miller, a reporter for the Times of Israel.

After uniting them under his spiritual guidance, he transformed the flock into a powerful voting constituency. His political party, Shas, became immensely popular with the Sephardic community, reaching out to the masses with catchy jingles, in the style of Ricky Martin.

The party became a kingmaker in Israeli politics for decades, joining both left wing and right wing coalitions. In return, he got funding for his vast network of religious schools.

Yosef also became a celebrity guru, with politicians and VIPs seeking an audience with him. Everyone who came to seek his blessing – from simple folk to prime ministers – would receive a playful slap on the cheek.

The rabbi was also a controversial figure. He once said the victims of Hurricane Katrina suffered “because they have no God.” But he was also surprisingly pragmatic, and ruled that giving up occupied West Bank land for peace with the Palestinians was more important than keeping those Biblical lands.

The late rabbi has left behind a political party that’s flailing. For the first time in decades, it is not in the governing coalition. Israeli society is fed up with the government handouts to the ultra-Orthodox, and Sephardic Jews as a whole remain underprivileged.

On top of that, Yosef has no clear successor.

Minutes after the rabbi died, Ariyeh Deri, the leader of Yosef’s political party, cried in front of reporters.

“Who will lead us?” he wailed.

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