Watch Mosaic's Dramatic Reading of "The Dawning of the Day"

Watch our recording of the modern Israeli classic. Then stick around for the discussion with Israeli novelist Ruby Namdar and American rabbi Daniel Bouskila.

David Khabinsky.

David Khabinsky.

Dramatic Reading
The Editors, Jonathan Silver, Haim Sabato, Ruby Namdar and Daniel Bouskila
Dec. 28 2022
About the authors

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem and Los Angeles and the rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue.

A simple Jerusalem laundryman is tested by a vanished voice from his past and the destruction of his treasured way of life

Set in and around Jerusalem’s famous shuk, and featuring three top-notch actors playing multiple characters each, The Dawning of the DayMosaic’s 2022 year-end dramatic reading, adapted from the classic novel by Haim Sabato—brings to the screen a way of life that no longer exists.

Ezra Siman Tov is a character the equal of Tevye the Dairyman—if Tevye came from a Syrian Jewish family rather than a Russian one. Happily ensconced in a pious daily routine, Ezra’s life is upended when his family decides to throw him a feast for his 60th birthday and, amid the revelry, an old friend shows up uninvited. Does the friend mean well? What are the lawyers poking around the old shuk doing? And what’s the voice that starts to appear in the distance?

Through it all, Sabato pays tribute to the culture of Middle Eastern Jewry, and—as Ruth R. Wisse, one of the world’s leading scholars of Jewish literature, puts it in an accompanying essay—“makes us believe in the reality of what we have been raised to believe in.”

The reading premiered Wednesday, December 21 at 7 pm, was preceded by a message from Sabato himself, and was followed by a post-show discussion with the Israeli novelist Ruby Namdar, the rabbi and Sabato enthusiast Daniel Bouskila, and Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver. The recording of the program, as well as a transcript of the discussion, is available to Mosaic subscribers below. We thank David and Ilene Siscovick and the Sephardic Community Alliance for their generous support of this production.

If you’re not yet a Mosaic subscriber, click here to subscribe.

 

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Jonathan Silver:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve tried to convene a discussion with two extraordinary gentlemen to help us understand the moral, literary, intellectual impulses behind Rabbi Sabato’s work and behind The Dawning of the Day.

I’m joined in Los Angeles by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the head of the Sephardic Education Center and a friend and sometimes collaborator of Rabbi Sabato. Rabbi Sabato, as many of you know, won the Sapir Prize in Israel, perhaps the most distinguished literary prize given in contemporary Israel.

And we are joined also by a successor Sapir Prize laureate, Ruby Namdar, the distinguished author of The Ruined House. Gentlemen, welcome. Maybe we could just begin with Rabbi Sabato himself. Daniel, I know that you’ve known him for many years. Tell us just first how you came to meet him and discover his work.

Daniel Bouskila:

I discovered his work because I’m a lover of Agnon‘s work. And it was really almost so surreal when somebody asked me, “What would it take for there to be another S.Y. Agnon?” Somebody who’s so deeply rooted in traditional Jewish learning, and who blends that knowledge and that language into narrative, into storytelling. And I said, “Today in Israel, it would take somebody who’s a rabbi, somebody who would try his hand at writing.”

About a week later I discovered there was such a person named Rabbi Haim Sabato. And I immediately fell in love with his writing, for a whole variety of reasons. And the way I came to meet him is the way you meet anybody in Israel, by simply contacting him and saying, “I want to come and meet you.” And he’s a warm and very welcoming person. And this is about twenty years ago that I had the privilege of meeting him, and maintained an ongoing relationship and friendship via email, via WhatsApp, or best, in person when I’m in Israel. And I always go and see him. He’s a very, very special person.

Jonathan Silver:

And Ruby, how did you encounter Rabbi Sabato?

Ruby Namdar:

I never had the privilege of meeting him face-to-face, which is, I guess, a shame. But I, on the other hand, had the privilege of meeting him through his literature. You mentioned the Sapir Prize. My first encounter with him was that big—and I’m just going to say it—earthquake when his book Ti’um Kavanot won the Sapir Prize.

Jonathan Silver:

This is translated into English as Raising of the Sights.

Ruby Namdar:

Raising of the Sights. Yes.

Jonathan Silver:

Adjusting the Sights.

Ruby Namdar:

Adjusting the Sights. Perfect. And this caused a great . . .

Jonathan Silver:

An earthquake.

Ruby Namdar:

Earthquake. And I say it again, because some tectonic shelves were broken by this, by this brave and interesting choice of the Sapir Prize committee. And in some way nothing was ever the same since, as he was introduced into the mainstream and the main hall of Hebrew literature. It was a first.

Jonathan Silver:

What was so shocking? Why was that such a big change?

Ruby Namdar:

For this, you need to go back in time to the world in which I grew up in Israel, when Hebrew literature and culture was very much governed and led by a very specific group in the population. And this group was pretty homogenous, ethnically, religiously, and ideologically. There were some renegades, Uri Zvi Grinberg, who was right wing. Or Moshe Shamir, who was right-wing, flirting with whatever. There were some renegades, but they all came from a very similar background and were pretty much in agreement about what Hebrew culture was. And then they tugged it in various ways.

A few authors before Haim Sabato had started chipping into this hegemony. And I’m thinking about, on the Mizraḥi side, one important novel, which was Dan Benaya Seri’s The Salt Cookies of Granny Sultana, which I’m not sure was translated to English. Maybe it was. And there was Akud [“Bound”] by Albert Suissa. But these authors presented very marginal non-Ashkenazi characters.

They were characters that were not from the mainstream Ashkenazi secular world, but they were from the margins of society. So it was okay. Somebody wrote a book about them, but they were still in the margins. Then in walks Haim Sabato. He did write a very good book, Emet mi-Eretz Titsmaḥ [Aleppo Tales] before, but he was not yet known. In walks in this Mizraḥi, religious young guy and just writes an all-Israeli story about the great wound of the Yom Kippur War.

Now this conversation before that belonged, so to speak, to very different ethnic groups. People spoke about the Yom Kippur War, but no one expected a religious young man from a non-Ashkenazi background to walk in and tell that big story. We were supposed to tell a small story, a story of the margins. He came in and he told the big story. That was a big earthquake. There was a tectonic shift that only now in hindsight can I appreciate how important it was.

Jonathan Silver:

In the essay that Ruth Wisse published in Mosaic this month, she makes a big deal about Rabbi Sabato’s literature being free from some of the tensions that Ashkenazi authors faced. Tensions with modernity and the enlightenment, those kind of philosophical tensions.

But of course, it would be a mistake to understand Rabbi Sabato as being free of all tensions. He had his own tensions, some of them were ethnic and political and in Israeli society. I know that’s something you’ve also thought about.

Daniel Bouskila:

Yes, most definitely. I believe that he does represent an author with tensions, perhaps not the ones that were part of the mainstream, the homogeneous group that Ruby spoke about before. But the tensions first and foremost of being perhaps the first author whose primary vocation is to sit all day and study and teach Talmud in a seminary, a yeshiva. He’s the head of a yeshiva. That’s the world he lives in every day.

He doesn’t live in his book-lined study like other authors. He doesn’t sit and write all day. I don’t know when he has the time to do that because the majority of the day, he’s with students—Israeli students, American students. And so, he lives in that world where he has to be the head of a yeshiva, who teaches, and at the same time, produces art as a writer. And while many might say that’s a beautiful blend, in Israel, very often those are mutually exclusive worlds.

The world of the talmudic scholar versus the world of the artist are an ideal blend that perhaps reminds us of the Sephardi heritage that Haim Sabato celebrates in this novel. Those who are able to blend talmudic learning with poetry, with Psalms, with music, with the poets of the golden age of Spain—who were his inspiration—and with Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto from Italy. These were what we would call Renaissance men.

Perhaps Rabbi Sabato who is a Torah scholar who publishes books on the Talmud, on the Pentateuch, on Jewish thought and Jewish philosophy has also said that when he writes, in addition to the obvious connection to Agnon, he is also deeply influenced by Molière, by Shakespeare. You don’t hear that language coming from the world of yeshivot too often. Certainly not from someone who’s the head of a yeshiva. And so, I think that’s one of the conflicts that he deals with and he has to harmonize.

I think, in addition, the other conflict is what was mentioned previously: the idea that he is not ethnically and culturally from the mainstream. Here you have a Sephardi or Mizraḥi Jew, in a yeshivha—religious, with a kippah on his head—telling the national story, the Yom Kippur War is the holy of holies of whom it belonged to and whom it didn’t belong to. He’s suddenly saying, “I have a new way of telling the story. I’m not declaring myself the new Agnon, but I’m coming to do what Agnon didn’t. He told the stories of Buczacz and Poland; I’m coming to tell the stories of Morocco and of the Naḥla’ot neighborhood of Jerusalem, of the Sephardi community. I’m a new voice in Israeli society. And yes, it was an earthquake. He shattered the glass ceiling in terms of what he is.

Jonathan Silver:

It strikes me, Rabbi Bouskila, listening to you that there is a parallel development that one can see in Israeli music. When you look at the most popular, interesting Israeli musicians, you see that they’re, in this generation, influenced by a tradition of piyyut, of liturgical poetry, and often making music derived from Mizraḥi influences. And these are popular musicians whose music, I want to stress, is enjoyed across Israeli society by religious and secular, men and women, young and old, Ashkenazi and Mizraḥi. And that means that there is some kind of cohesive Israeli spirit which we’re coming to discover. It is being midwifed through the Mizraḥi artists. I understand Haim Sabato in a similar track almost.

Daniel Bouskila:

I would agree with that. I think linguistically, culturally, the ear of music is a recasting of the narrative of what it means to be an Israeli. What defines Israeli music? What defines Israeli literature or modern Hebrew literature? What does it have to sound like? What story does it tell? What’s interesting about what you’re pointing out, Jon, is that [Mizraḥi-influenced popular music today] is not just popular for one small, particular group. It’s become mainstream. This is what Israelis listen to. This is what’s in, in rock-and-roll and pop music: to listen to the sound of what once upon a time came from the synagogue on Yom Kippur.

Sliḥot [penitential prayers recited in the month before Rosh Hashanah], for instance. The phenomenon of Sephardi Sliḥot has become so popular that you have Israelis coming in from all over the country during the lunar month of Elul for what they call Sliḥot tours, starting at midnight [when these prayers are traditionally recited]. And those tours are very much a walkthrough of The Dawning of the Day, the novel that you heard. You will literally be going from synagogue to synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Naḥla’ot and Ohel Moshe, and you’ll hear those sounds.

And you’ll probably meet one, or ten, real-life Ezra Siman Tovs during those Sliḥot tours who are still there. They’re not the rabbi, they’re not the head of the synagogue, they’re the beadle or the sexton, who could tell you lots of stories about how this world was made up. And this is what I think Haim Sabato has captured, amongst other things: the ability to tell the stories that have gone untold and to do so in a very creative, original, authentically Hebrew way. Call it Sephardi if you will, but it’s really larger even than Sephardi, he would say. He would say this is the original Hebrew that we spoke. This is the Hebrew of the sources, this is the Hebrew of the Bible, of the poets, of the Talmud, of the Psalms. This is the Hebrew that he tells his stories and much like his predecessor Agnon did, telling a different story about Israel.

Jonathan Silver:

I want to make one observation and then Ruby, I’m going to turn to you to discuss The Dawning of the Day itself. But the one observation is this: when we think in American culture about the expression of previously marginalized voices that were not adequately dealt with, that discourse usually leads to greater social fracturing. What we see in Haim Sabato is the expression of those voices in a way that leads to greater social cohesion. That’s a big, interesting difference and it makes me think that there is truly something of the maturing of the Israeli character, the Israeli society through the devotion to his work.

But now Ruby, I want to turn to this particular work, The Dawning of the Day. It is of course replete with references to other Israeli writers, other Jewish writers. One sees echoes of the book of Job, of Agnon, as Rabbi Bouskila was just saying. There is in the selection that we drew out of a reference to, and examination of, the themes that we see in Sholem Aleichem’s work. Just, literarily speaking, tell us how you situate it.

Ruby Namdar:

I think that Rabbi Bouskila very astutely pointed out the connection to Agnon. And I feel that I need to point out that this is a dangerous wrestling with a very dominant voice. And when I think of this, I think of the famous story of Jacob and the angel wrestling on the River Jabbok. This life-and-death wrestling to which there’s a lot of attraction, but it’s very easy to be swallowed by. Agnon gave rise to many people who tried to write Agnonese. Actually there’s a famous quote by the secular Israeli author S. Yizhar who, the legend has it, had a note above his desk saying, “Thou shalt not Agnonize,” a warning to himself not to succumb to the temptation because Agnon is very, very dominant and Agnon is one of these occurrences that happen once every few generations that you really can’t emulate. Sabato is playing with fire, and I think he’s successfully playing with fire by going to this place.

I think the shadow of Agnon is dealt with in many interesting ways in The Dawning of the Day. And I think for the English reader, no matter what you say about Agnon may not quite explain the heaviness of the legacy for Hebrew readers and writers. Agnon is the great eagle, the mighty eagle of Hebrew literature. He did not succeed in English as much as one would think. And so there are references to a very famous novella by Agnon called Tehila, and I feel that basically this book is a homage to Tehila, which is a novella about a righteous woman living in old Jerusalem whose beauty and righteousness stand in contrast to all the horrible turmoils of the Jewish world in which she grew up.

So I feel that Rabbi Sabato has borrowed the Tehila and created the male version, and therefore the constant grappling with the book of T’hillim, Psalms, which is considered in the religious world the book of the less learned, the book of the pedestrian reader. You don’t have to be a great scholar to say Psalms and here’s the man who’s like a walking book of Psalms. And that book is call T’hillim, which is the masculine plural form [of the name Tehila]; and the character is male and Sephardi. So this is a very beautiful game that Sabato played with a well-known novella. He also creates this beautiful shadow character called The Author. Some people say it’s Sabato himself. I believe it’s Agnon.

Daniel Bouskila:

I believe it’s Agnon.

Ruby Namdar:

Right? There was a whole argument between two critics. I believe it’s Agnon for sure.

Daniel Bouskila:

There were critics who had a different view. Yes, I believe it’s Agnon.

Ruby Namdar:

Some critics said “No, he’s written himself into it,” and others said, “No, this is his way of marking, ‘This book is my great homage to Agnon.’” I am of the school—

Daniel Bouskila:

When I spoke to Haim Sabato, I asked him. I said—

Ruby Namdar:

You asked? I wouldn’t dare.

Daniel Bouskila:

I asked him, I said, “Is that Agnon?” He goes, “Whatever you say.”

Ruby Namdar:

“Whatever you say.” He’s too smart to answer your question.

Daniel Bouskila:

Of course.

Ruby Namdar:

Of course. I would be very disappointed if he said, “Of course.”

Daniel Bouskila:

No, I knew had to. The temptation was too great to ask, but I knew.

Ruby Namdar:

We must succumb to the temptation and then he must not succumb to the temptation to tell you what he meant.

Daniel Bouskila:

Exactly. Right.

Jonathan Silver:

And Rabbi Bouskila, there’s obviously a theological current or theological way of reading this text too. Why don’t you just see if you can situate some of the main themes, especially from what we’ve just seen?

Daniel Bouskila:

If we continue this conversation about the comparison with Agnon, Haim Sabato himself gave a very beautiful and creative lecture. You could see it on YouTube; it’s in print, both in Hebrew and an English translation, where he was asked to speak about Agnon, I think it was on the yortsayt of Agnon or the birthday or an event celebrating Agnon. And they invited him as the so-called “Sephardi S.Y. Agnon” to come and speak. And he drew the differences between himself and Agnon, as much as he had tremendous reverence and respect for Agnon, Agnon theologically was a pessimist, not an optimist. And Haim Sabato actually says, in addition to the cultural hole that he wanted to fill, to come and tell the story as he says, “I listened, read the stories, and learned all about the great rabbis of Eastern Europe, but I became zealous for the word plays of the Sephardi sages, the language, the homiletics of the great Aleppo scholars, the Aramaic translations of Yemeni Jews, the Ladino scholars of Jerusalem who mixed midrash and Bible with the commentary of Rashi and created Ladino idioms.”

This was the cultural agenda of the novel. But one of the main differences you find, in Haim Sabato’s own words, “I did not have the bitter drop in my story.” He says, “Yes, Ezra Siman Tov was filled with pain and one cannot naively discount him as just being the simpleton.” He says, “This sadness and pain are not what led to pessimism. Hopelessness leads to pessimism. With all my heart”—I’m quoting Sabbato directly—”I believe that there is hope, even if it is painful. That is my belief in Torah and life, or in the stories that spring from life. There’s a huge gap between pain and futility, between sadness and fate.” I think theologically, if this story were written by Agnon, perhaps Ezra Siman Tov would end a nonbeliever. There are many who have written about what they call  the death of the Sh’khinah [divine presence] in the writings of Agnon. Agnon so often through his characters spoke about God having abandoned, God is no longer sovereign over the world.

In a book review that he wrote in 1961 of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in Ha’aretz, Agnon described this book about the period of time “when the Holy One, Blessed be He, ceased to rule the world.” When God’s providence was no longer there. For Haim Sabato there’s no such thing. And while we struggle with God, it’s part of our tradition from Abraham to Job, we never lose faith and we never lose hope that redemption is possible, and I think that’s the theological premise. The suffering of Job is prevalent throughout. Themes like silence, holding onto a trauma, a pain. These are all part of Ezra Simon Tov and they’re part of Haim Sabato, but they don’t negate the opportunity for redemption that comes through faith. His religious artistry is to take religion and to use it as a mode where you could express yourself artistically and find light and hope. He told me, when I asked him, “How are your books received in the religious world, the world that you operate in, as the head of a yeshiva?”

He says, “Interestingly, some of my highest sales actually come from the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, the ḥaredi community, where you would least expect it.” And he said, “Why? Because much of the traditional ethical literature that was once studied in yeshiva is no longer studied, it’s viewed as too heavy for the modern students. Even in Bnei Brak, even in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, my novel represents a similar worldview told in stories that end up in hope, not in despair or in hopelessness or an outright denial of God’s providence over the world.” So I think that’s logically where Haim Sabato sits, because he is a rabbi writing stories. He doesn’t divorce his personality. It’s not bifurcated. When he’s reading the Talmud in the hall of study, I think his artistic mind is analyzing the talmudic section and when he’s writing his novels, the theological mind of the rabbi is ever present in his literature.

Jonathan Silver:

Ruby, let me get you to elaborate on this, but let me do so by asking you to dilate a little bit on the fact that this story, which is obviously dealing with the main driving personalities, loss and suffering and despair over a world that is ceasing to be. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Bouskila says, it does not experience really a crisis of faith of the kinds that European philosophical writers sometimes experience. And the family [depicted in the story] is restored to a sort of integrity, redeemed by Torah study. At the end, there’s this scene of Torah study after which the family is restored to some kind of wholeness, possibly. In other words, despite all of the darkness that one sees, nevertheless, the text is called The Dawning of the Day. And the invocation of dawn seems to point toward a brighter future.

Ruby Namdar:

Definitely. Look, when Rabbi Bouskila was speaking, I thought about the “n’kudah m’irah,” the shining point, which is almost like a kabbalistic term, and we have to understand, of course, Agnon’s work and his own ḥasidic and kabbalistic upbringing. However, there is a price to pay. And it is a bold decision because literature as we know it, as most of us read it, comes from a different tradition where pessimism is almost wrought into the medium. And the expectation of a reader is that feathers will be ruffled, textures will be broken. We expect friction. And when an author comes in and says, “I will give you friction, but I will take you through it to a place of harmony.” It sounds easy. It is a very bold choice and it has prices because most of us who grew up in a different tradition than the tradition of the Western novel, we don’t expect everything to be put back together for us in a way that will affirm our faith in the human and the divine.

This is not our expectation. Here and there you see [exceptions]. Dostoevsky did something to that effect at the end of Crime and Punishment, because he too had his religious epiphany moment. But most of us writers do not strive for that. So when Haim Sabato went in this direction, he took a great chance that many of the readers are going to say, “Oh, the rabbi here took over the author. Here he is being a rabbi telling us it’s all going to be okay.” He, on the other hand, is totally unfazed by that. He says, “I came here to redefine what Jewish literature might mean and maybe break away from certain traditions of the West where we expect a certain pessimism. Maybe I am here to start our own literature,” and that’s a very bold, very strong statement. And I can only salute the audacity, the blessed chutzpah of saying that. It remains to be seen: is there going to be a new wave that proclaims, “Yes, there’s such thing as Jewish literature that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the previous rules of literature, that most often was also anti-Semitic?”

Daniel Bouskila:

With your permission, it’s too tempting not to quote Haim Sabato himself because Ruby captured perfectly how he concluded his Agnon lecture. He says—I’m quoting him in English—“In my stories, I did not follow Agnon’s custom of infusing them with a drop of bitterness. I refused to do this. I did not banish the bitter, as some of you may think, from some childish naivety or out of some attempt to ignore evil, heaven forbid, or pervert its power. I did it because I do not believe in the bitter drop and the fateful grip. I believe that man can wrest free and beseech his creator for help in changing himself. So be it if there are those who say my stories are less powerful, but what can I do? A writer can only create from the ruminations of his own heart.” He understands exactly what he said.

Ruby Namdar:

Wonderful.

Daniel Bouskila:

“That may be not the Western tradition, but I’m not from that tradition.”

Jonathan Silver:

Ladies and gentlemen, with that, I’m going to bring this conversation and this wonderful evening to a close. Rabbi Bouskila, Ruby Namdar, thank you for joining us.

Ruby Namdar:

Thank you.

Jonathan Silver:

Ladies and gentlemen, that brings to a close our dramatic reading of Haim Sabato, The Dawning of the Day. Let me just take this last opportunity to thank you once again for your subscription, for your support of our work. We’ll hope to merit that support over the course of the next year, and we’ll see you soon. With that, we adjourn.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Dawning of the Day, Dramatic Readings, Haim Sabato, Israel & Zionism, Israeli novel, Jewish literature, Mosaic Video Events