A formerly good Samaritan

While she may be giving her tiny sect publicity, not everyone is feeling charitable towards Sofi Tsedaka.

Sofi Tsedaka 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sofi Tsedaka 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A mainstream pop album is an unlikely place to encounter an ancient tongue known to a total of 705 people in the Holy Land. But tucked between the smooth chords and Hebrew vocals on Israeli singer Sofi Tsedaka's debut CD, listeners can hear the lilting language of the Samaritans. Tsedaka, well-known here as the striking red-headed star of soap operas and children's TV shows, calls her new album a gesture of reconciliation with the Samaritans, the tiny religious sect she was born into and which she abandoned in anger a decade ago. "Erasing what's past, not afraid to walk on a street I haven't crossed for a long time," Tsedaka sings on the title track, "Barashet," the word for "Genesis" in the Samaritan language. In the song, Tsedaka intones the first passages of the Book of Genesis in the Samaritan tongue. Other tracks sample the unique rhythms and whooping chants of Samaritan prayers and songs. "I'm not a great singer - I'm not Whitney Houston," Tsedaka, 31, told The Associated Press. "What makes this album special for me is that I'm touching places I've never been willing to touch before." The Samaritans have lived here for thousands of years, and are probably best known for the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament Book of Luke. Named for Samaria, a region in the northern West Bank, the Samaritans believe themselves to be the remnants of Israelites exiled by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. They practice a religion closely linked to Judaism and venerate a version of the Old Testament, but are not Jews. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Samaritan population is thought to have topped 1.5 million, but religious persecution and economic hardship had nearly erased it by the early 20th century. Today there are precisely 705 Samaritans, according to the sect's own tally. Half live near the West Bank city of Nablus on Mt. Gerizim, the group's holiest place and the site of its yearly Pessah sacrifice. The other half live in a compound in Holon. Tsedaka, whose family name means "charity" in both Hebrew and the Samaritan dialect, grew up in Holon. Like all of the sect's children, she studied in Israeli schools, receiving instruction in the Samaritan language and religion in the afternoon. But by the time she finished high school, Tsedaka had made up her mind to leave what she saw as the suffocating confines of Samaritan life. Without telling her parents, she began studying for conversion to Judaism. Then she announced her decision, married a Jewish man and had a daughter, now 9. She and her husband later divorced. Though her parents maintained some contact, the sect excommunicated her. Tsedaka became a successful model, and went on to host children's TV shows and star in soap opera. Her departure from Samaritan strictures is complete. In a newspaper profile Friday accompanying the album's release, Tsedaka is photographed seated in an artist's studio, wearing nothing. Even though her Tel Aviv apartment is only a short drive from the Samaritan compound, Tsedaka has never been back, and her three sisters have all left the sect. The album, three years in the making, is an attempt to reconnect with her Samaritan past and with her family, Tsedaka said. Her father, Baruch Tsedaka, 70, she said, has spent years "torn between the community and his daughters." Benyamim Tsedaka is the sect's historian and unofficial spokesman, and a distant relative of Sofi's. Interviewed at his home in Holon, he said that despite the "seductions" of secular society, only 3 percent of Samaritan young people leave the group. "Sofi gave in to the seductions," said Tsedaka. "We don't throw them out, but we'd rather they don't come." Still, Tsedaka suggested that the album might help by generating new interest in the Samaritans. "Sofi is providing a service to us with her talent and beauty," Tsedaka said. "But that doesn't mean we welcome her with open arms."(AP)