January 10, 2008
The possible Jew
Meir Abehsera was a shy, introspective 12-year-old boy living in Rabat, Morocco, when one day, in a spontaneous show of enthusiasm, he started waving forms in the face of the school headmaster, a Frenchman named Monsieur Camille.
They were forms showing that Abehsera was applying for a card at the Rabat public library, the only place in town where you could find decent books.
Monsieur Camille, not appreciating the chutzpah, slapped Abehsera across his skinny face.
Now, you might think that this violent response would traumatize a fragile and impressionable young boy, or at least encourage him to clam up even further.
Instead, for reasons only a clever shrink might figure out, Abehsera spent the next five decades of his life becoming one of the world's great raconteurs. He started by "eating three books a week," as he says, and conversing about ideas with anyone who would join in.
For the past 18 years, I've been a recipient of Abehsera's jazzy, frenetic and sometimes obscure riffs on everything from French literature, Chasidic philosophy or the curative powers of squash soup.
I got a further taste the other day when I broke bread at Shilos with Abehsera, a former resident of Los Angeles, who was visiting from Jerusalem.
As I was hearing his life story -- how he went from the French and Hebrew schools of Morocco to the literary salons of Paris to the cafes and jazz clubs of Greenwich Village to the Chassidic shtibls of Brooklyn -- I couldn't help but think of how different the collective Jewish journey has been in the 20th century, compared to that of our ancestors.
I wondered: What would Abehsera's life have been like had he been born 100 years earlier, and spent his whole life in one neighborhood, living his life and his Judaism in a simple, straightforward way -- and never leaving his country or even meeting an Ashkenazi Jew?
In Abehsera's case, because his family lineage traces back to some of Morocco's holiest rabbis, you could easily imagine him becoming a gelaba-wearing Sephardic sage who would spend his days learning Torah and having his hand kissed by local Jews seeking blessings.
Instead, he ended up leaving Morocco for the intellectual salons of Paris, immersing himself in the French literature he had begun inhaling in his youth, and discovering the life of the mind beyond the Talmud of his ancestors.
Once his curiosity was aroused, Abehsera's journey took him to New York, where a chance encounter led to a meeting with a Japanese mystic, George Oshawa, a founder of the macrobiotic movement. This began Abehsera's discovery of another life: not of the mind, but of simple food.
He wrote books on macrobiotics -- "Healing Ourselves" (co-written with Naboru Muramoto), and "Zen Macrobiotic Cooking" and "Cooking for Life" -- and with a new wife and baby in tow, drove 10,000 miles during the 1968 Summer of Love in a Volkswagen van touring and talking about his books and the healing powers of macrobiotic cooking.
Still, whether he was giving a lecture on macrobiotics, reading French poetry or hanging out with the new bohemians of Greenwich Village, there was one thing that was never too far from his mind.
Abehsera comes from that Sephardic tradition whereby no matter how far you might sway into the secular realms, you never lose touch with your Jewishness. Part of this tradition includes a reverence for holy men.
So when a friend invited him in the early 1970s to visit this unique and powerful man who lived in Brooklyn called the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it was not a tough call to say yes -- even if the rebbe wasn't Sephardic.
Thus began a 30-year love affair that continues to this day between Abehsera and the Rebbe, who died in 1994. I was a lucky witness to this love affair when Abehsera took me to Brooklyn's Crown Heights in 1990 during Simchat Torah. By then, Abehsera had become somewhat of a legend in Chabad circles; he was known as "The Rebbe's Whistler," since the rebbe would frequently call on him to whistle while his followers would sing their nigunim in a frenzy of joy.
Over the years, Abehsera's mixture of intellect, folksiness and whimsy, as well as his deep Sephardic roots, have been embraced by Chabad emissaries around the world who regularly invite him to speak. Beyond the road shows, however, have been the countless nights where thousands of people from all walks of life have come to hang out wherever Abehsera happens to live, knowing they could always count on a little couscous or brown rice, or at least some hot tea and a good story.
Abehsera, it seems, has always loved a good story.
Eventually, he developed an urge to write these stories down. So in the mid-1990s, while living in Los Angeles with his wife and seven children, he began writing a personal meditation on his life and ideas inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which became a book called "The Possible Man."
Now, out of Jerusalem, he is putting the finishing touches on his longtime labor of love: a film version of "The Possible Man," as his lasting tribute to the Rebbe.
Talk about a possible man: A Sephardic Jew from a famous rabbinic family journeys with the French literary crowd, immerses himself in the curative world of a Japanese mystic and ends up as the cherished prince of a Chasidic movement.
Don't ever tell Abehsera this is not an extraordinary time to be Jewish, or he might just give you a slap in the face -- before reading you a French poem, or offering you a little brown rice.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.