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“It basically comes from the Lurianic kabbalist tradition that looks to inspire a mystical brotherhood and tries to force the hand of God through mystical practice,” said Thomas, a scholar of Sephardic musical traditions who composes new settings for piyutim for his musical ensemble Asefa. “A major theme of the bakashot is asking for redemption. They are indelibly marked by the tragedy of the Spanish expulsion – and by the urgency that ‘this has got to be the time’ of redemption.”
The tradition spread throughout the Sephardic world with each community developing its own repertoire over the ensuing centuries. Among Syrian Jews, for example, there is a set group of 66 bakashot that are recited completely or in part each week. In the Moroccan tradition, by contrast, the bakashot change from Sabbath to Sabbath based on the weekly Torah portion. The communities with the most codified traditions, said Thomas, were in Morocco, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Jerusalem.
On this Saturday evening, the performers sang the bakashot that in the Moroccan tradition would normally be sung on the Sabbath preceding Purim, although that Sabbath had been several weeks prior. The melodic mode used for this particular group, said Abergel, was one heavily influenced by classical Andalusian tunes.
Both Ouazana and Abergel emphasized the difficulty of learning bakashot.
“Bakashot are very complex, and if you don’t have someone to teach you, they are very difficult to transmit,” Abergel said.
The difficulty of the music is one reason, experts said, the bakashot practice waned.
“It’s a tradition that really requires devoted and dedicated people,” said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center in Los Angeles. “Like many other aspects of Sephardic life in the U.S., a lot was lost. For a long time the narrative was that we were ‘the other.’ So we assimilated into Ashkenazi Jewry or assimilated out of Judaism altogether.”
The general decline in religious observance during the 20th century and the great disruption to Sephardic communities that was brought about when they left homelands in which they had been rooted for centuries were also contributing factors to the decline in the practice.
Today, in the United States, “it’s a matter of small pockets here and there that are bringing it back,” Bouskila said. “It’s a slow surge rather than a major revolution.”
Bouskila points to several Sephardic synagogues in Los Angeles that have occasional performances and one that goes through the entire traditional Moroccan cycle of bakashot, but on Monday evenings.
Thomas, who for two years has helped organize bakashot classes among Brooklyn’s Moroccan Jews, says that bakashot have also experienced a resurgence in the local Syrian community.
The renewed interest in bakashot can in part be attributed to increased religious observance, experts said, but it also takes its impetus from two phenomena spilling over from Israel. The first, said Thomas, is a surge in interest in piyutim across both secular and religious Israeli society. The second is the tremendous reawakening of Sephardic pride and culture in Israel that began in the 1970s and which recent immigrants to the U.S. have brought with them.
In Israel, the bakashot tradition has experienced a much more vigorous revival, even reaching into popular music.
“We are recapturing our identity,” Bouskila said. “Bakashot is part of the package.”
Brigitte Dayan, who hosted the gathering with her husband in their apartment, called the evening “incredibly moving.”
“What I was seeing in front of my eyes in the modern day and in a modern way was the perpetuation of our tradition,” she said. “It is what my husband and I want to transmit to our children.”