(JTA) — The group of young Jewish professionals had gathered to participate in the revival of a Sephardic tradition hearkening back to the days of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Arriving at an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they greeted each other in French and settled in around a dining table laid out with snacks and bottles of arak.
They had come to listen to the chanting of bakashot, a class of traditional Sephardic liturgical poems praising and petitioning God. The singing of bakashot, which literally means “requests,” was once common practice among Sephardic Jews across the Middle East and North Africa, but it has waned in many communities over the past two generations.
Sung to classical Sephardic musical modes, bakashot were traditionally performed in synagogues during the pre-dawn hours before Sabbath morning services in the months between Sukkot and Passover.
“Ninety percent of the classic tunes sung in the synagogue are based on bakashot,” said Mony Abergel, who grew up in Casablanca, Morocco. “Every Moroccan, even if he does not know the bakashot, knows the tunes.”
Abergel was one of the gathering’s four singers, men in their mid-20s to early 30s from Moroccan Jewish families who meet every week to learn and rehearse bakashot.
The men sang in unison, breaking out occasionally into solos. One of them, the group’s founder Sacha Ouazana, also played a drum called a darbouka. The music was of a piece with classic Sephardic liturgical chanting, but with a supplicatory yet insistent quality.
Most of those at the March 29 gathering were members of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue. The synagogue is the spiritual home for a growing community of young Jews of North African heritage, many of whom grew up in France and have immigrated to New York over the past decade. Ouazana, for example, grew up outside Paris and now serves as the synagogue’s cantor.
Ouazana said he began his cantorial training at the age of 5 but discovered bakashot only when he went to study in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg in his late teens. Before starting the bakashot group in 2011, he spent 10 years gathering and studying materials.
“My goal was first to learn the bakashot and then to perpetuate this tradition, especially in the U.S.,” Ouazana said.
Bakashot draw heavily on Hebrew piyutim – or Jewish liturgical poems – from the Spanish Golden Age. Popular wisdom has it that the bakashot tradition originated then, but many scholars disagree.
Ethnomusicologist and musician Samuel Thomas said that the tradition’s real roots lie in the kabbalism of 16th- and 17th-century Safed in Israel. The works of the kabbalistic poet Israel Najara, who figured prominently during that period, are also heavily represented among the bakashot.