The Vital Energies, Especially Musical, of Israel's Desert Towns

A letter from the “development town” of Ofakim, where Jews from North Africa are helping to forge a new Israeli culture.

An Israeli woman and her children at the post-Passover festival of Mimouna, a North African Jewish tradition that is now a de-facto national celebration. Flash90.

An Israeli woman and her children at the post-Passover festival of Mimouna, a North African Jewish tradition that is now a de-facto national celebration. Flash90.

July 5 2018
About the author

Aryeh Tepper teaches at Ben-Gurion University and is a senior research fellow at its Center for Israel Studies. He is also the director of publications for the American Sephardi Federation.

Ofakim is a working-class city of 30,000 people in southern Israel, twenty minutes west of Be’er Sheva, the regional capital, and thirty minutes from Gaza’s Mediterranean coast. Conventionally referred to as a “development town,” Ofakim was established in 1955 with the aim of drawing newly arriving immigrants away from Israel’s central coastal region and strengthening the country’s hold on the sparsely populated Negev desert.

As in other development towns across the southern region, Ofakim’s settlers were not the revolutionary Zionist dreamers of an earlier era but dazed, religiously traditional “Mizraḥi”—i.e., “eastern”—Jews from Arab and Islamic lands. In Ofakim’s case, these Jews, mainly from Morocco and Tunisia, were bused straight from the port to their destination by Israel’s socialist government—high, in that hectic and heady era of state-building, on central planning.

Situated far from the center of Israel’s economic engine, and with its fate often determined by bureaucrats, Ofakim struggled to grow economically for much of its history. Today, its population still retains a heavily North African and especially Moroccan character. Occupying a seat in what is conventionally referred to as Israel’s “periphery,” Ofakim and its residents also occupy a peripheral place in media coverage of the country except as colorful curiosities or objects of socio-economic analysis.

And yet, for the past six decades, vital energies have been percolating in this and other desert towns, energies rooted in what the scholar and poet Haviva Pedaya has called the periphery’s “added value” to Israel’s mainstream life and culture.

What is that added value? Much of the answer can be found in the Ofakim Municipal Archive, on whose steering committee I serve as a resident of the city with my family. In connection with an initiative by the Ben-Gurion Archives to establish municipal archives throughout the Negev region, the Ofakim archive was formally inaugurated in 2016.

Fortunately, a local activist named Itzik Krispel had already been long engaged in documenting the city’s story, and his labors made it feasible to envision the archive’s becoming the basis of a museum that would tell the story of Ofakim from the inside. A team from Haifa University is now working on the design.

With Krispel at the helm, the steering committee decided that Ofakim’s story would begin not with the city’s founding in 1955 but with the residents’ points of departure in Morocco, Tunisia, and elsewhere. This might seem like an arbitrary detail, but it reflects the fact that, unlike the established pattern in Israel where Zionist ideology largely dictated the erasure of incoming communities’ historical memory, those relegated to the periphery have largely succeeded in maintaining a continuous connection with their own past and its cultural heritage—especially its musical component.

Hence the added value. Today, the country’s mainstream society has gratefully (if still fitfully) embraced the offerings of the periphery, from which it has greatly benefited.


Consider a relatively recent event. Last December, the Israeli government formally recognized the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod as a national ensemble, right up there in terms of both prestige and financial support with the venerable Israel Philharmonic. The Andalusian Orchestra performs music rooted in the medieval Jewish-Arab culture of southern Spain that in turn deeply informed the practice of Judaism across the coastal urban regions of North Africa.

The recognition conferred by the Israeli government, pushed by Miri Regev’s ministry of culture, didn’t come easy. The story, on one level, is about Israel’s long-running culture wars between West and East, or Ashkenazi and Mizraḥi. A deeper story, however, arises out the pages of recent history.

The orchestra was established relatively late, in 1994. Initially, its musical repertoire was drawn in its entirety from the genre of liturgical poems (piyyutim) known as bakkashot (petitions). Recited and sung on the Sabbath during late-night prayer vigils that end at sunrise on Saturday, and that run throughout the winter, the poems and their unique musical settings survived the journey to Israel and then took on new life in the periphery.

Over the years, the 600 poetic texts in the bakkashot songbook were corrected and edited by the Moroccan rabbi and scholar Refael Ḥayyim Shoshanah (1912-1987) who, working in almost complete obscurity, published them in a new, three-volume edition. Meanwhile, on the musical side, the great Moroccan-Jewish payytan (composer of piyyutimRabbi David Bouzaglo (1903-1975), who arrived in Israel in 1965, revitalized public practice by traveling from town to town to lead local congregations in performances of the traditional texts, in the process raising a generation of students. The tradition of singing bakkashot is still observed in places like Ofakim where a group of hard-core devotees brings them to congregations throughout the city.

In other words, the orchestra’s achievement of official recognition does not signify some token affirmative-action gesture toward Israel’s ethnic “diversity.” It rests on the same basis of scholarship, exacting performance standards, and generations of musical excellence that are to be demanded of any high art worthy of the name.


This is not to say that every Mizraḥi community in Israel has managed to nourish and maintain its specific cultural heritage. Iraqi Jews, for example, who also arrived in substantial numbers in the early 50’s, traced a different path. Many, having been relatively modernized in Iraq, quickly assimilated to the Israeli mainstream and began ascending the economic and professional ladder. Today, for example, you’ll find a large Iraqi-Jewish community in Ramat Gan, a city bordering Tel Aviv and itself a leading business center in the country.

But Iraqi-Jewish culture did not fare so well. Much traditional composition and performance—from liturgical piyyutim to the daqqaqat troupes of women singers and drummers who performed mainly at weddings—all but disappeared. Today, while there are two Andalusian orchestras in Israel, the one in Ashdod and another in Jerusalem, there is no Iraqi orchestra.

It’s tempting to trace this absence to the same societal pressure to downplay, if not nullify, the millennial heritage of the exile and to integrate into the cultural mainstream. But that’s a little too simple. Significant sectors of Iraqi newcomers were already disposed to integrate and assimilate on their own, even at the cost of what were once communal modes of practice and observance. Ramat Gan is still full of Iraqi Jews, but you would need a magnifying glass to find remnants of Iraqi Judaism there.

Similarly shed was another aspect of Iraqi Jewish culture: namely, the Jewishness of much of Iraqi popular music. During the first half of the 20th century, the most prominent vocalist in Iraq, Salima Murad (née Pasha), was Jewish, and so were Iraq’s leading composers of Arabic music, the brothers Salih and Daoud al-Kuwaiti. Back in 1932, at the Congress of Arabic Music in Cairo, almost all of the musicians representing Iraq were Jews. Once in Israel, things changed. The al-Kuwaiti brothers performed once a week with Israel Radio’s Arabic orchestra, but, lacking a strongly devoted audience, they struggled to make a living and were occasionally even reduced to selling eggs in the marketplace. Both of them forbade their children from learning to play musical instruments.

To be sure, there was another contributing factor here as well: the typical Iraqi-Jewish musical “sound” is not so readily agreeable to non-Mizraḥi ears as is, for instance, the open and pulsating sound of Andalusian piyyut with its occasional Spanish lilt. Instrumentally thick, with weighty rhythms and a heavy vocal style communicating a deep pathos, Iraqi music in the first half of the 20th century didn’t even feature Western instruments like the guitar or piano (to mention two instruments adopted by more cosmopolitan Egyptian composers).

It’s therefore of interest that when the Israeli pop star Dudu Tassa, the grandson and namesake of Daoud al-Kuwaiti, relearned his grandfather’s music and, beginning in 2011, embarked on a grand family reclamation project, he maintained the overtly expressive Iraqi vocal style while adding such instruments as trumpet and electric guitar and making free use of contemporary rhythms. True to Iraqi culture, Tassa’s vocals are hot, not cool—and Israelis of all origins and tastes can’t get enough of them.


In light of the different fates of the Moroccan and Iraqi Jewish traditions, one can better appreciate the indispensable role played by Israel’s peripheral towns in sustaining, nurturing, and transmitting their cultural memory—and in the end bestowing it as a gift upon new generations of Israelis, Mizraḥi and non-Mizraḥi alike.

Nor is music the only area in which the periphery’s impulse to preservation-and-transmission has intrigued and influenced Israeli life as a whole. Take the post-Passover festival of Mimouna, a North African Jewish tradition that is now a de-facto national celebration.

Or take the case of the Moroccan rabbi Israel Abuḥatzeira (1889-1984), a/k/a the “Baba Sali,” who moved to Israel in 1964. Shortly after his passing, the rabbi’s grave became a large-scale pilgrimage site and prayer shrine, something heretofore unheard of in Israel for any but ancient rabbinic figures. What happened was simply that Moroccan Jews from the area surrounding the rabbi’s peripheral town of Netivot were intent on maintaining the custom of honoring the graves of the righteous, a tradition rooted in the inland regions of Morocco, and over the decades the ranks of pilgrims have multiplied. Meanwhile, the specifically musical traditions of the Abuḥatzeira rabbinical dynasty now form the repertoire of the piyyut ensemble of the Ben-Zvi Institute, a venerable center dedicated to the research and study of Mizraḥi culture.

In literature, finally, the struggle to articulate a voice of rooted cultural memory within Israeli society also animates the work of the Moroccan-Algerian poet Erez Bitton, a recipient of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor. (Bitton himself grew up in Lod, a town not far from Tel Aviv but socially and culturally as peripheral as Ofakim.) Toward the North African Jewish past, Bitton’s poetry expresses neither distance nor nostalgia but rather a simple, straightforward, organic connection.


David Ben-Gurion imagined the Negev as a place where Jews, disburdened of their exilic past, would create something from nothing. In order to attract Israelis to the region, the “Old Man” chose to be buried not, like most Israeli leaders, on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl but close to his desert home in Kibbutz Sde Boker. As if to defy his wishes, the Negev region has instead become a place where Jewish historical and cultural memory, rooted in the exile, has instead been preserved and flourished.

What will happen to this historical memory? Being a matter of mores, customs, and traditions that aren’t inculcated in any educational curriculum, it has invited a fierce competition for ownership. The quasi-ḥaredi party Shas would like to bring all Mizraḥim under its wing—but Shas is itself deeply influenced by the stricter norms of Ashkenazi ḥaredi Judaism, and this sometimes creates a rift between its local rabbinic leaders and the congregations over whom they preside. Leaning in the opposite direction, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, famous in the 19th century for its educational activities on behalf of Jews around the Mediterranean, and still operating within schools in Israel, works hard to promote North African and Middle Eastern rabbis whose moderate approach to Judaism reflects the religious wisdom embedded in the lived practice of local Mizraḥi communities. So far, however, the influence of the Alliance has been minimal.

As for the small town of Ofakim, we’re dreaming about our modest museum, and working hard to realize that dream. Picture, then, young Israeli visitors moving through this museum-to-be and learning the city’s story. From artifacts, interactive images, music, and wall text, they will progress from street scenes in Casablanca, Fes, Djerba, and many other places from which Jews departed, to Ofakim itself. Once there, they will recognize, in the faces and stories of the city’s residents, counterparts of their own grandmothers, cousins, and the old men conversing on benches in their own town centers. Without having to be told in so many words, these young visitors will imbibe the message: their own individual stories, too, trail millennia of Jewish experience and creativity and are by no means the invention of something out of nothing—and the same goes for the story of Israel, their nation of nations.

In the fullness of time—it is even possible to dream—such notions might well move from the realm of peripheral instinct into, for Israeli society as a whole, the realm of fully internalized conviction.

More about: Arts & Culture, Israel & Zionism, Mizrahi Jewry, Negev