The Judeo-Arab (Sephardic) cultures originated in three different geographical areas–from two continents, Asia and Africa, and from the Middle East, bringing Be’er-Sheva Jews from: Algeria, China, Cyprus, Egypt (+Karaite Jewry), Erithrea, Ethiopia (+Falash Mura), Greece, India, Iran (+Persian Jewry), Iraq (+Babylonian Jewry), Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other countries. In general, all of these Judeo-Arab immigrant communities (with the exception of the Karaites) share the same core Jewish traditions and customs, but each one also has its own unique Hebrew dialect, ethnic/national history, Jewish liturgical style & elements, extra-rabbinic customs, and separate community synagogue(s). One lovely tradition shared by the various Judeo-Arab ethnic groups is the celebration of henna parties (engagement parties) for brides/grooms. When I first married in 1973, my kind Yemenite inlaws-to-be threw me a henna party along with that of my husband-to-be and bedecked me accordingly.
The Algerian-Jewish community celebrates a unique holiday they call “Molke Tsiyon” or the “Feast of Siyum” in adoration of Zion on the Thursday preceding the reading of the Hebrew Bible portion “Yitro” (“Jethro”) in the synagogues (usually in February). Traditionally, at this feast they have soup. Little is know about the true origin and meaning of this celebration and custom.
The Be’er-Sheva Association & Center for the Preservation of the Tradition of Babylonian (Iraqi) Jews, founded in 1991 by 5 key Iraqi figures in the city: Chairman of the Scholarship Fund (and my neighbor for decades), Ovadya Kalai; historian, Dr. Nissim Kazaz; lawyer & notary, Balfour Kvity; former Director of the Public Library, David Sa’ad; and car-dealer & philanthropist Ezra Yerucham (who funded an advanced Cancer Research Laboratory at BGU in 2014). This center maintains a fund that grants academic scholarships to students of Iraqi origin who reside in Be’er-Sheva – www.universities-colleges.org.il/P32473/?show=4&f=91163.
From 1975-1980, architect Nahum Zolotov, a master of raw concrete architecture, completed the unique Central Synagogue of the Iraqi-Jewish Community of Be’er-Sheva (in memory of Eliyahu Halachi) at 5 Montefiori St. in Aleph–nicknamed “the Star Synagogue” or “the Pyramid,” due to its rare star-of-David shape. It features a central lectern podium, around which the men sit, while the women sit in the 6 points of the star, under stained-glass windows. At night, when lit, a beam of light shoots out of the point at the top of the star.
In 2016, the Park of the Babylonian Immigrants, located in the Gimel neighborhood (on Wingate St.) was dedicated in memory of “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah” (1950-1951) that brought the bulk of Iraqi Jewry to Israel, many becoming founders of the City of Be’er-Sheva. It’s right near the oldest Iraqi community synagogue in the city “Magen David.”
Egyptian + Karaite Jewry
The first synagogue you encounter, “ha-Avot” (lit., the fathers), located on Be’er-Sheva‘s unique “Synagogue Row” on Shabazi St. in the Aleph neighborhood, belongs to the Egyptian-Jewish community.
Most of the original members of the Karaite community and synagogue in Be’er-Sheva came from Egypt. This congregation is mostly located in the Old City, under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Firrouz. The Karaites are accepted as Jews and their marriages are recognized by the State of Israel. They are distinct from mainstream Judaism, since they do not accept Jewish ‘oral law’ and the post-biblical rabbinic traditions and strictly adhere to the fundamental dictates of the Hebrew Bible. For example (like Muslims today), they remove their shoes before entering holy places, as indicated in the Hebrew Bible – http://www.karaite.korner.com.
The central organization of the Persian/Iranian-Jewish community in the Negev Region is called “Tsiyone Iran” and is located in the Bet neighborhood at 40 Bialik St. at the corner of Betsalel St. 08-6413253, 08-6463023, 050-5690390, 052-3235374.
The fifth synagogue you encounter on Be’er-Sheva‘s unique “Synagogue Row” on Shabazi St. in the Aleph neighborhood belongs to the Persian-Jewish community and was built in memory of Avraham Erets-Kedoshah (1931-1955), who was randomly shot and killed by snipers on the road to Eilat.
The third synagogue you encounter, “ha-Nasi,” on Be’er-Sheva‘s unique “Synagogue Row” on Shabazi St. in the Aleph neighborhood belongs to the Libyan-Jewish community.
The Association des originaires du Maroc en Beersheba, currently headed by Haim E. Melca, holds Moroccan culture evenings, the proceeds of which are used for student study-grants – http://www.melca.info, 08-6433751.
A Moroccan community synagogue “Minhat Ya’akov” (once called “Tehillat David”) located in the Daled neighborhood, contains a memorial corner where some congregants light candles in memory of Rabbi Chaim Ibn-Attar (or Hayyim Ben-Attar, a.k.a. “Or ha-Hayyim ha-Kadosh,” 1696-1743), a famous Moroccan Talmudist and Kabbalist.
“Maghreb” is a local Moroccan theater group that occasionally performs original or translated plays in Moroccan dialect at the Culture Hall.
The “Mabrukah” (lit., congratulations!) – Moroccan Treasures Hall seats up to 350 guests and offers authentic kosher Moroccan cuisine, atmosphere and folklore & catering – 08-6450749, mabruka.mazaltov2u.co.il.
“Yakota” (opened in the 1960s) is a beautiful kosher Moroccan restaurant that totally immerses you in a Moroccan atmosphere. ‘Veteran’ Chef Beber Ben-Moyal personally prepares every order and caters to every special request. Although it’s located in the Old City at 27 Morde ha-Geta’ot St., you feel like your sitting in Fez or Tangier and the food is delicious! – 08-6232689, 050-7949495.
Maghrebi/North African Jewry
Every year, on the night that marks the end of the Passover festival week (with its many dietary restrictions), North African Jews in Be’er-Sheva (and their guests) celebrate the “Mimouna” when returning to an unrestricted diet by covering large tables with fresh fried and colorful baked sweets, donning traditional ethnic costumes, playing traditional ethnic music, and opening their homes to guests.
An unique, annual “Rosh hodesh ha-banot” (“New-moon girls’ festival”) is celebrated by North-African Jewish women in the middle of Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights, usually in December).
“AYOT” – the Be’er-Sheva Association for Jewish Immigrants from Tunisia has a Center for the Promotion of the Tunisian Heritage located at 103 ha-Shalom St. in the Gimel Neighborhood. The association provides remedial classes for school children in need of help. Some of the local founders and leaders of the community are: Dani Fitousi, Rene Teshuvah, former City Council Member Nissim Na’im, & Ruthi Tsarfati.
A new main synagogue for the Tunisian community of Be’er-Sheva is being built on Mivsta Uvdah in Yud Aleph, intended to be an exact replica of the “Great Synagogue” in Tunis. Unfortunately, it appears that the construction has been stalled for some time due to insufficient funds for its completion; obviously another donor is being sought.
An unique, annual “Seudat Yitro” (“Feast of Jethro” or “Fete de Yetrou”) is held by the Tunisian-Jewish community on the Thursday preceding the reading of the Hebrew Bible portion “Yitro” (“Jethro”) in the synagogues (usually in February). It ostensibly celebrates the end of a plague that killed many Jewish men and boys in Tunisia. It’s also considered a Sons’ Feast, at which a festive miniature 3-course meal is served to the boys on miniature dishes, in miniature cups, shot glasses and with small ‘desert’ utensils. Even the food portions are minimalistic and include: 1st course–small sweetbreads, traditional farina & date cookies shaped like children & animals (makroud) & bite-sized, rosebud-shaped, fried deblah; 2nd course–vegetable pies (ma’akouda), salads & green fava beans; and the unusual 3rd & main course: pigeons stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, each inscribed with the name of the boy being served. The origin of this strange, uniquely Tunisian, festival is still unclear.
“Yasmina” is a newly-established (2017-, hopefully annual), specifically Israeli-Tunisian cultural event held in Be’er-Sheva in the middle of the Sukkot Festival (Tabernacles, usually in October), to bolster the Tunisian-Jewish cultural heritage through authentic Tunisian-Jewish music, stories & foods.
In Be’er-Sheva, the “Shabbazi Community” aids and supports new immigrants from Yemen and Aden, holds frequent religious and cultural events, and publishes a Hebrew weekly online journal. Some of the leading figures are: Zechariah Aharon, Zion Ahraq, Rabbi Natan’el al-Sheikh, Attorney Moshe Danoch, David Erez, Zechariah Hajbi & Yosef Matana. The “Abba Shalom Shabbazi” Synagogue (baladi liturgy) and“Bet Shabbazi” Community Center are both located on Shabbazi St. in the Aleph neighborhood. On Thurs. March 8, 2018, a special evening was held in honor of the last living crew member of Alaska Airlines, British Capt. Elgen Long (aged 91), who flew Yemenites to Israel in 1949; in the audience were 1 baby and 1 fetus who had been on that life-saving flight. Capt. Long, a righteous gentile, had never been back to Israel since 1949 and was amazed by all he saw. He also stated that he was only 1 member of the crew and accepts the honor on behalf of the entire rescue team posthumously.
Other Yemenite synagogues in Be’er-Sheva are: “Sha’are Tsedeq” (shaami liturgy) also on Shabazzi St. in Aleph; “Al-Sheikh” (baladi liturgy) in Daled; and “Afiqe Teman” in the Ramot neighborhood.
An amateur Yemenite theater group called “Penine Teman” (lit., Yemenite pearls) has put on original Judeo-Arabic plays in the Yemenite dialect, such as: “Sa’id and Sa’idah” (2006).
Authentic, kosher Yemenite cuisine is available in a number of places, for example: Shabbazi Restaurant in the Old City at 16 Smilanski St., where one can order delicacies, such as: Beef foot-bone soup, head meat, tail meat, and pita-bread hot off the tabun-oven wall; “Falafel ha-Kerem 2” – “the most Yemenite in town” at 2 Shimoni St. in Bet with take-away – 052-2460530); “ha-Felafel ha-Temani” at 17 Gershon Shufman St. in Neveh Ze’ev (with take-away – 053-9377950); and “Megulgalawah” at 4 Yitshaq Ben-Tsevi in the Merkaz Ezrahi neighborhood (facing the Government Mall) that makes Yemenite foods like malawah and jahnun (fried breads); and Uri’s Yemenite Felafel at 35 Pinhas ha-Hotsev St.