The rabbi's cantor

Moshe Havusha, Ovadia Yosef’s favorite lyricist, adapted songs by Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab and played his oud for hours, until Yosef’s wife came to tell him it was time for bed.

Moshe Havusha (photo credit: Flash 90)
Moshe Havusha
(photo credit: Flash 90)
As I make my way through the narrow, picturesque alleyways of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Yisrael toward the home of the most well-known lyricist in the Jewish world, Moshe Havusha, I feel like I’m slowly entering a different world. There is barely room for a car to squeeze through the narrow street that runs between the stone houses. Every building here has historical significance.
When I reach Reichman Street and locate the correct building, I begin climbing up the four stories, all the while looking at the family name on each door; I am amazed by the interesting mix of Eastern and Western names.
Despite Havusha’s reputation as one of the greatest Sephardi Jewish cantors and lyricists, his home is modest, and the furniture is modern and practical. Havusha himself tells me later that in showbiz there’s a huge difference between having a great reputation and having great income. Even when Havusha is invited to perform, he carefully investigates each offer before accepting.
“I don’t just go everywhere I’m invited. First, I check out who the individual is. I don’t agree to perform until I’m convinced that the audience will appreciate my music. I guess you can say I’m pretty picky,” he says.
Havusha, 51, was born in Jerusalem to David and Sa’ida, who made aliya in 1951. He is the fourth of 10 siblings. His parents married while they were still living in a ma’abara (immigrant transit camp) but soon moved to the Mahaneh Yehuda neighborhood and then to Beit Yisrael. Havusha studied in a religious school in the Bukharan Quarter and then continued his talmudic studies at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva.
Havusha had his first glance of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef soon thereafter, at a party that was held in the yeshiva in honor of Yosef’s becoming Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi. From that moment on, Havusha was hooked and since that day hardly missed any of Yosef’s weekly Torah study sessions at the Hizadim synagogue in the Bukharan Quarter.
At the age of 11, Havusha was exposed for the first time to the type of music he performs today.
Rabbi Mordechai Halfon, a songwriter, musician and teacher in Jerusalem, showed up one day at the school where Havusha was studying in search of students for his choir. He asked each boy to audition for him. When he got to Havusha, after just a few seconds Halfon realized the boy’s potential.
“You will sing the solo,” he told Havusha, who then learned that he had a special talent.
Havusha involved himself in the world of poetry and singing at the Bukharan Quarter’s Shoshanim Le’David synagogue. He would wake up early in the morning to participate in the special Bakashot prayers. These are texts that were written over the last few hundred years by Jews living in Arab countries; they are mainly prayers in praise of God.
They are read in the winter in the early morning hours before the regular Shabbat morning prayers.
The most popular writers were rabbis Rafael Entebbe Tavush, Mordechai Abadi, Ezra Attiya, Yisrael Najara and Yehuda Halevi. Havusha says that the Halabi (Jews of Syrian descent) Bakashot became the most popular in Sephardi synagogues, from Jerusalem to New York.
To this day, Havusha still goes to the synagogue every week at 3 a.m. to say the Bakashot.
“I love that we are carrying on with this tradition and that the younger generation is following suit, too. This makes me so happy,” he says.
His family proudly boasts about a new trend, where tourists come to their neighborhood for Shabbat just to hear his unique voice.
WHEN HAVUSHA was 16, he made a discovery: He wasn’t endowed with just a beautiful voice but also with fingers that could play beautiful music.
“I began learning to play the oud, even though the rabbis at the yeshiva tried to discourage me from practicing. But I knew this was what I wanted to do, so I followed my heart,” he says.
Very quickly, Havusha began performing at small events that were held in various synagogues. His name became known, and one day he received a phone call that dramatically changed the course of his life. It was Rabbanit Margalit Yosef, Rabbi Ovadia’s wife, who had heard about the young talented musician. She wanted him to play for her husband, since he was very fond of Arabic music.
“Mr. Havusha, tonight we will be holding a sheva brachot [post-wedding meal] on Jabotinsky Street.
Bring your oud along with you,” the rabbanit said.
“I was in total shock. I just couldn’t believe it,” Havusha says. “I tried to watch the rabbi out of the corner of my eye while I played. I noticed that he was very taken by my oud playing. At the end of the evening, the rabbanit could tell that the rabbi wanted to hear more, so she told me, ‘Come in the other room so you can continue to play.’ I went into the room and sat on the couch next to the rabbi. I was so excited, I thought I was going to burst! He asked me if I was in a hurry to go somewhere else, and I said, ‘No, definitely not. This is like a dream come true for me to be sitting here and playing for you.’ He was happy to hear that and said, ‘May God protect you.’” Havusha played for Yosef for quite some time that evening, and the rabbi didn’t want him to stop.
Finally, the rabbanit opened the door and said, “Rabbi Ovadia, it’s late; you need to go to sleep.”
Havusha said goodbye to the rabbi, who blessed him and thanked him profusely.
From that moment on, Yosef summoned Havusha time and again to elevate his spirits or to perform at a celebration. He played at both happy and sad occasions, on holidays and at events, sometimes even day after day. Havusha never hesitated to accept; he always ran to Yosef with his oud wherever he was summoned.
Over the years, Havusha’s love for and friendship with Yosef grew and grew. He was no longer just Yosef’s favorite singer but became his official cantor.
“This happened 14 years ago. I used to assist the rabbi during the Slihot prayers in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, and then one day he invited me to be the cantor in his synagogue,” he says.
“Why do you need to travel overseas?” Yosef had said. “You should be the cantor in our synagogue!” Havusha agreed and from that day on, he led the High Holy Day prayers in Yosef’s synagogue.
An anecdote that reveals the great importance Yosef attached to guarding against the evil eye occurred a few years after Havusha began leading the High Holy Day prayers. Havusha heard that Yosef had arranged for another cantor to pray next to him, so he hurried to ask Yosef why. Yosef began to tell a story about a cantor in Turkey who was famous for his extremely strong voice.
“One year, the cantor outdid himself on Yom Kippur and prayed with an incredibly booming voice. This drew the attention and envy of the evil eye, and so he died. Havusha, why do you need to stand out? It’s not good. I’m afraid for you,” Yosef told him.
After spending numerous hours together, Havusha and Yosef developed a very close relationship.
“You can’t possibly know how much I love you,” Yosef once told Havusha.
Yosef was also very protective of his cantor. In one case, haredi men hung posters in protest at Havusha’s participation in the International Oud Festival in Jerusalem. They were unhappy that he had appeared in front of a mixed-gender forum.
Havusha had been invited to perform that same evening and was surprised to see Yosef at the entrance of the hall. He had come especially to support Havusha.
“Be strong and have no fear,” he told him. “These people will all go away; you should continue on with life as usual. I know you well. It wasn’t by chance that I asked you to be my cantor.”
THERE AREN’T many people who have conducted simple, friendly telephone conversations with Yosef, but Havusha is one of them. More than once, he answered the phone and was greeted by “Ovadia Yosef” as the rabbi would unceremoniously identify himself. One time, Yosef called to apologize for not having attended Havusha’s son’s bar mitzva. On another occasion, Yosef called to critique a song from Havusha’s new album.
“I do not like this song,” he said. “The words do not match the melody. The language referring to the prophets is not dignified enough. I’m afraid for you, so be careful and don’t sing this song anymore.”
Needless to say, the fate of this song had been decreed, and never again did Havusha perform it.
The last phone call Havusha received from Yosef was the day before Rosh Hashana. Havusha was feeling very melancholy, since Yosef was in Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem.
Every year, Havusha would walk from Beit Yisrael to Har Nof, a 90-minute trek. Havusha couldn’t decide if he should make the effort this year, since Yosef was in the hospital.
Just a few minutes before the holiday began, Yosef called Havusha and said, “My dear Moshe, you must go tomorrow to my synagogue as usual. Please give them my apologies - the doctors won’t let me leave the hospital, so I must stay here. I am asking you to go there as you do every year to lead the prayers.”
Yosef ended the call with his usual abundant blessings.
As the musician who was closest to Yosef, Havusha knew Yosef’s taste in music very well.
“The rabbi loved the old songs of Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab from the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1960s, Wahab began combining classical music with traditional Arabic music, and Yosef did not like this new style. He would tell me, ‘What happened to him? Has he gone mad? I cannot relate to this new music at all.’” Havusha would identify melodies that Yosef liked and replace the original texts with words taken from scripture.
One time, Yosef felt inspired to tell Havusha a story about his own childhood. Every day, Yosef would ask his father for money to take a bus to the yeshiva in the Old City. His father would give him half a grush, but Yosef would keep the money and walk with his friend, Rabbi Ben Zion Abba Shaul, one of the greatest Sephardi rabbis. For many months, Yosef collected the coins in a drawer, until one day the drawer broke and the many coins spilled out onto the floor.
When his father saw this, he asked Yosef where all the money came from. Yosef confessed to his father that he’d kept the coins his father would give him and walk to the yeshiva. “Why have you been doing this?” his father asked. Yosef explained that he wanted to publish a book of new Bible commentaries that he’d written. When his father heard this, he was very moved and helped gather up the coins. He took the coins to his store and exchanged them for bills, which he gave to his son – who was then able to print his first book.
There’s another story that Havusha heard Yosef tell about his father. In addition to working in his grocery store, Yosef’s father occasionally traveled to Baghdad to sell books. Traveling from Jerusalem to Baghdad in those days was relatively simple. A bus left from Yehezkel Street every morning at 7, traveled via Jordan and reached Baghdad by 8 p.m. On one of his trips, he brought Yosef with him. He dropped Yosef off at the synagogue in the city and told him that he’d pick him up at the end of the day.
When he returned, he saw his son carrying on an intense discussion with the local rabbis, who were incredibly impressed with Yosef’s great knowledge of Torah. They wished him a safe journey home and told Yosef’s father, “This child will bring light unto the nation of Israel. Keep him safe and nurture his abilities.”
Yosef loved Havusha so much that once he even “smelled” the lyricist’s presence. Havusha recounts, “Once I came to the rabbi’s house to ask him if he’d write a recommendation for a friend of mine who was collecting donations for a sick family member. The rabbanit said it wasn’t such a good time for the rabbi to see me. I thanked her and began to make my way down the stairs when suddenly I heard the rabbi calling from upstairs that I should come upstairs immediately. Of course, he wrote me the recommendation that same day.”
THE DAY Yosef died was very difficult for Havusha. He had just married off his son the night before.
“My son wanted to get married on Monday, but the photographer said he was only available on Sunday. The young couple was adamant about using this specific photographer, so they switched the wedding to Sunday night. I believe that the rabbi had his hand in this, that he did everything he could not to ruin the wedding. For if the wedding had been on Monday, I would not have been able to be happy at the wedding, and the guests would not have come,” he says.
The day after his son’s wedding, when Havusha heard that Yosef’s health had deteriorated dramatically, he went into his bedroom, closed the door and tore his shirt in a sign of mourning. “From the day I met the rabbi, I knew that on the day he would pass away, a deep emptiness would be left inside me. I didn’t only miss his talmudic genius and his wisdom, but I also missed my friend! That’s how I felt about the rabbi. I thought to myself that I would never again sing the songs I had sung for him and adapted for him,” he says.
Now that the Yosef era has come to an end, Havusha will have the opportunity to move on to a new stage in his musical career. Many are curious to see what kind of artist he turns out to be. He has already collaborated with a number of popular artists, such as Berry Sakharof, Mosh Ben-Ari, Etti Ankri, Micha Shetreet, Shlomo Bar, Ofer Levy and Yair Dalal – all of whom approached Havusha in an effort to experience the enigma of his lyrics.
In addition, Havusha is a mentor for talented boys who come to Israel from all over the world to spend a year or two learning cantillation, after which they will return to their communities to lead them in more meaningful and spiritual prayer. For three semesters, he also taught poetry at the Hebrew University.
Asked if he feels a connection to Israeli music, Havusha replies, “I love the old Eretz Israel songs, but I don’t like modern Middle Eastern music at all. They take Arabic songs that they don’t understand, and then record a new song in Hebrew that comes out terribly. I hear many songs on the radio that I recognize as having been sung originally in Arabic, and I don’t understand why they ruined them. Why don’t they sit down and learn about the original songs properly? I do love Arik Einstein’s music, though,” he says. • Translated by Hannah Hochner.