Rabbi sets Sights on novel writing

By Doreen Wachmann

MODERN Hebrew literature was once a largely secular domain - but Egyptian-born rosh yeshiva Rabbi Haim Sabato is changing that.

Thanks to last year's Education Minister's Prize for Jewish Culture winner, religiously-inspired literature is becoming valued within Israel's secular society.

Rabbi Sabato's book, Adjusting Sights, which earned him both the Sapir Prize for Literature and Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature, is largely autobiographical.

It deals with a religious soldier's experiences in Israel's poorly-prepared army on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, as well as with the loss of his best friend in the conflict.

Rabbi Sabato recalls his own experience when war broke out: "I was 22 in the hesder programme which combines military service with Torah study.

"I had just finished basic training in the tank corps. We, young and innocent dreamers, were in the synagogue reverently awaiting the blast of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. Instead the siren, undulating and piercing, sounded for an army call-up.

"Everything changed forever. Within hours we were in another world. Rapidly loading equipment on tanks, suddenly we were face-to-face with death. All round us long columns of Syrian tanks were approaching.

"Then I felt all that we had learned course through me. Verses and drashot seemed to come to life in front of my eyes - the land of Israel and the people of Israel, protecting Israel from its enemies and Maimonides' injunction against displaying fear in time of war."

He explained: "In those awful days, I saw true love between soldiers and commanders, religious and secular. After seeing the devotion of soldiers I took it upon myself to always think well of other Jews.

"The innocent religious belief of youth, which the sights and sounds of the Yom Kippur War lacerated so brutally and filled with questions, did not shatter. True, it changed. It is filled with pain and sadness. But it's more mature, deeper and intact.

"My faith also helped me very much to overcome my traumas after the war and return to normal life."

After Rabbi Sabato was miraculously saved when his tank was hit by the Syrians in the crucial Golan battle of the Nafah quarry, he made the decision to set up a new yeshiva, which he eventually did in Ma'ale Adumim.

He said: "Through the war I saw the vital importance of the world of Torah education on which everything depends."

The rabbi never set out to become a fiction writer. It happened almost by chance.

From his early yeshiva days Rabbi Sabato found himself writing short stories and showing them to his friends.

Some were published in the religious HaTzofeh newspaper. Then a yeshiva pupil showed them to the publisher of Yediot Aharonot who commissioned a book from him.

Adjusting Sights was not written till three decades after the Yom Kippur War. Its unique style of weaving Torah quotes into a description of one of the most crucial battles of the war won instant acclaim across the whole spectrum of Israeli society.

Rabbi Sabato said: "Soldiers and officers told me, with tears in their eyes, that they were glad the experience had been recorded.

"There have been hundreds of responses from all sectors - secular, religious, army, civilian, literati, lay people.

"One highly-ranked officer said that the book encouraged his recovery. I am glad to see that the book was received with enthusiasm both by charedi rosh yeshivot and secular kibbutzim."

He said he had not written the book with the intention of religious outreach, but that he was glad that the truths he had uncovered had entered into human hearts across the religious divide.

Rabbi Sabato's grandfather was the Syrian Aleppo Torah scholar Haham Aharon Shweka, who left Aleppo for Egypt, where he established a yeshiva.

During the Suez campaign, Haim's father was arrested and only released on condition his family immediately left Egypt.

Haim was only five when he made aliya. Despite the forced intermingling of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures in his Israeli absorption camp, his Sephardi heritage is still very dear to him and inspires much of his life and writings, especially his novella collection, Aleppo Tales.

He told me: "My grandfather came from Aleppo to Egypt when he was a boy and my other grandfather as well. But Aleppo was planted in our knowledge almost as if we were born there."

In Aleppo Tales, Rabbi Sabato describes his grandfather, Haham Shweka, as an outstanding Torah scholar who was also a textile merchant.

His father, also a Torah scholar, worked in a postal bank, but in his spare time taught Torah to the immigrant children in the transit camp.

His mother had a better secular education, especially in maths and French literature. Both Haim's parents encouraged him and his brothers to have both good secular and religious educations.

Rabbi Sabato told me about his Syrian roots. He said: "I remember a warm and happy traditional community which was also open, cultured and enlightened.

"Our family belonged to a community, led by great Torah scholars, which loved learning Torah."

So, how did he feel about the current destruction of his ancestral home of Aleppo?

Rabbi Sabato said: "Jews have not been in Aleppo for a long time, but human tragedies bring great pain to everyone with a heart. I feel no differently about Aleppo than any other feeling human being."

Many Egyptian Jews still remember with sadness and even bitterness their exodus from Egypt, where they had experienced a wealthy and comfortable lifestyle to the hardships they experienced in Israel.

But that is not Rabbi Sabato's recollection of his exodus.

He told me: "I didn't feel that we escaped, but that we came to Israel with a great love and desire to participate in building the land. We saw that as redemption.

"Despite all the hardships we were happy to be in the land of our fathers."

But he admitted that the transition was harder for his highly-educated and cultured mother.

In absorption camps there was great pressure, particularly upon Sephardim, to assimilate with Jews from different parts of the world and become more secular.

Yet, the Sabato family seemed to find the right balance between integration into wider Israeli culture and yet remaining true to their faith and Torah learning.

It is this balance between the two worlds which has inspired all of Rabbi Sabato's universally-acclaimed literature.

He said: "There was much assimilation. Also European Jews refused to really acknowledge the warm, deep traditions of Oriental Jews.

"But on a personal level I did not find any difficulty.

"I really loved meeting people from different traditions, which I found enriching."

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph