November 30, 2006
Rabbi Pinto’s miracles
Growing up in Morocco, the word "miracle" was a familiar one. I remember how my parents, especially my mother, would bring up the great Moroccan mystics at all
times of the day -- either to pray for a miracle, or to thank them for one.
No miracle was too small. If a plate would break and a child was not hurt, or if a plate would break and a child did get hurt, whatever it was, mothers would immediately call out to one of the sages. Their names were our security blankets. For centuries, they provided a protective, spiritual cocoon for the Jews of Morocco.
These sages were different from the sages of the Bible or the Talmud; they were the sages of the hood. They were gone, but they were not long gone. You knew someone who had kissed their hand. Your father would tell you about a miracle that his own father had experienced with a certain sage. Somewhere in the neighborhood lived the grandson or grandnephew of another great mystic. We would sleep in tents at their burial sites during their yahrzeit. Their pictures were on our walls.
You could almost touch them.
Today, one of the great Moroccan sages, Rabbi Chaim Pinto of the city of Mogador, has a living presence right here in our own hood, on Pico Boulevard, just east of Robertson. It's at a little shul called the Pinto Center.
It's not uncommon for a Moroccan synagogue to be named after a well-known sage (a mile north on Fairfax Avenue is another Moroccan shul named after the great Baba Sale). What's unusual here is that the heart and soul of the Pinto Center is a Pinto himself. He is Rabbi Yaacov Pinto, a direct descendant of the Pinto dynasty.
But I haven't told you about the miracle yet.
Rabbi Yaacov opened the synagogue in the mid-1980s and built a thriving little community center of prayer and learning, attracting a high-intensity blend of Israeli, French and Persian Jews. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Rabbi Yaacov developed an irresistible urge to return to Israel, where he had been born and raised.
For a shul that revolved around the charisma and leadership of one man, this was a spiritual earthquake. Nevertheless, after much agonizing, Rabbi Yaacov and his family moved in the summer of 2003 to Ashdod, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv with a large Moroccan community, including the rabbi's mother and several of his siblings.
(I knew Rabbi Yaacov well at the time, and from what I gather, the pressures of fundraising were starting to burn him out; he wanted a better education for his kids, and, like he said to me once, he simply missed the Holy Land).
It didn't take long for the Pinto shul to unravel. Despite Rabbi Yaacov 's best efforts -- he came back every six weeks or so and was here for all the holidays and stayed in constant contact with his people in Los Angeles -- the Pinto Center was losing its soul. When the Shabbat minyan dwindled from more than 100 to fewer than 20, the end was near.
Rabbi Yaacov prayed to his ancestors, as he often does. That's when an idea came to him: He would create an intimate "candle room" in the synagogue, where people could come meditate and light candles in the presence of the great Pinto tzadikim, and pray for anything they wished. Well, the word got out and they came from all over to light candles, and I guess somebody must have prayed for the revival of the Pinto shul, because that is precisely what happened next.
The "miracle" took about a year, but slowly the Pinto shul came back to life. It's not a coincidence that Rabbi Yaacov chose as the ba'al habayit, or master of the house, someone whose family has been connected to the Pinto family for three generations. When this highly enthusiastic man, Maurice Perez, talks about the Pinto family, he sort of transfers the goose bumps over to the listener. His defining family story is when his mother and grandmother got an impromptu blessing on a street in Casablanca from one of the Pinto sages. This story happened 70 years ago, but when you hear him tell it, you'd think it happened yesterday.
Maurice, who joined the shul in 1997 and who currently does the chazanut, decided with Rabbi Yaacov to bring in a teacher ("Rabbi Raffi") to give Torah classes during the week, and to speak on Friday nights and during the third meal of Shabbat. Maurice formed a small, core group of supporters to cover all expenses, which helped reduce the stress level and bring a general harmony to the shul. They upgraded the interior, with new seating built in Israel, and a new women's section that features an ethereal, see-through crimson curtain for a mechitzah.
Rabbi Yaacov himself increased his visits to Los Angeles, but he did more than that, too. He made the shul think "bigger than itself," and got it involved with two projects in the Holy Land. The first was a "supermarket" for the needy, which Rabbi Yaacov started in Ashdod and which has garnered attention for its unique approach: a system based on points, where the poor can keep their dignity while "shopping" for donated food. This project, called C.H.A.I., is a big source of pride for the Pinto shul, as you can see from the pictures on the wall.
The second is a recent decision to have a sister shul in Hebron, where the Patriarchs of the Bible are buried. A few months ago, the Pinto shul donated a Torah scroll, and they are planning regular activities and visits between the shuls.
And then, of course, there's the dafina.
When I was there on a recent Shabbat, the shul was packed. Call me a cynic, but if you taste this dafina, the Moroccan version of cholent, you can't help thinking that this hot, spicy stew might have something to do with the Pinto miracle.