“Yafa Vetama,” a song once buried in the rubble of history, is very dear to me. My great-great-grandfather Shlomo Abitbol, a poet and composer of Andalusian music, wrote the song in late nineteenth-century Marrakesh. But if not for a wild synchronicity, I would never have learned his music existed. I like to recall how this song and I came together: how discovering it brought my ancestors back to life, and with them, a long lineage of spiritual tradition rooted in Hebraic sacred poetry and Arabic music.
In the summer of 2019, I’d been singing Sephardi music professionally for about five years as a lead singer for the New York Andalus Ensemble, and I wanted to deepen my knowledge of Arabic music theory. I traveled to Jerusalem to study maqam (an Arabic melodic system) and its relationship with Jewish Moroccan liturgies. I was especially interested in the Baqashot—songs for Shabbat that Moroccan and Syrian Jews traditionally sing in winter—and how a different musical mode of maqam is employed each week throughout the season. For a long time, if you had attended services at a Moroccan synagogue every Shabbat evening in winter, you would have learned every mode of maqam come spring. I wanted to know these melodies, and to sing them.
At the time, I still thought that, as an artist, I was a rarity in my family; I was expected to go to business school, follow the routines of capitalism, and maintain the trend of upward social mobility that my parents had fought for. But then, that summer in Jerusalem, my maqam teacher and I began talking about Jewish Moroccan liturgies, and he told me I should get a book called Shir Yedidut, the bible of Moroccan Baqashot. Standing in the Sephardi bookstore of Jerusalem, I opened the volume to the first page, and my breath caught in my chest. The original preface had been written by my great-grandfather Avraham Abitbol, circa 1931.
I knew Avraham had been a great rabbi. But I had no idea he was a scholar of Baqashot. As I read the preface, I learned that he was rosh yeshiva in Marrakesh, and that he had been instrumental in compiling all of the traditional Baqashot: along with great rabbis from all over the country, he’d worked hard to transcribe and collect these sacred songs. And as I flipped through the book’s pages, I found not one, not two, but twelve songs that Shlomo Abitbol, Avraham’s father, had written. One of them was “Yafa Vetama.”
The song belongs to Shabbat Beshalah, for which the maqam is hijaz mesharqi, a Moroccan musical scale. Jewish Moroccan ears will know this mode by heart: it’s the one used every Friday night for kiddush. “Yafa Vetama” itself is a poem dedicated to the beauty and depths of the Torah; it revels in the layered path one can take through the book in order to reach סוד אלוהים חיים—the secret of God and Life, or the secret that God is Life.
As I read the words of “Yafa Vetama” for the first time, looking at my great-great-grandfather’s poem and trying to conjure the traditional melody of Shabbat Beshalah in my mind’s ear, I felt as if a window had opened. I wondered: Is this why I’ve been playing Andalusian music for the last five years? The past was returning to make sense of the present.
I kept reading, turning to the newer preface written by Meir Atiya, z’’l, who’d been the compiler of this latest edition, spiritual heir to the rabbis of these texts, and master teacher of this music. In his preface, Atiya mentioned that the first edition of the book was published in a Marrakesh printing shop by one Mr. Ephraim Elkeslassy—a name I knew well. Ephraim Elkeslassy was none other than my grandfather! Suddenly, I remembered my father telling me that when he was a kid in the 1950s, his father used to ask him to drop out of school and come work at the printing shop. My dad’s childhood was marked by the loud sound of machinery printing day in and day out, by the dizzying smell of ink. Today, in Marrakesh, my uncle still runs the shop where the first edition of Shir Yedidut was printed.
At the time of this discovery, I was preparing a workshop on Baqashot with my friend Natalie Haziza. In 2018, we’d teamed up to lead the first egalitarian Sephardi Shabbat and holiday services in New York and Boston; she was one of the first people I thought to call. When I got Natalie on the phone, it all came out in a rush, how my ancestor had compiled Shir Yedidut, and how my grandfather had printed the first edition. Right away, she responded: “My ancestor compiled Shir Yedidut!”
“Who is your ancestor?” I asked.
I grabbed the book, and looked again at the preface. It said that over a century ago, David Kayam and Avraham Abitbol (alongside rabbis from all over Morocco) had worked together to compile this anthology. And there we were, unknowingly, 100 years later, trying to pull together a Baqashot workshop in New York City!
I smile to think that I was walking in the footsteps of my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather without even knowing it. That I’d always been at home in this family of musicians, poets, and scholars. And though Shlomo Abitbol surely would have frowned on my leading services as a woman, I like to think that it was meant to be.
My discovery of “Yafa Vetama,” and everything that came with it, set me on a personal and artistic journey that continues to this day, into the very texts you’re reading (and listening to) now. As we pulled together the material for Ya Ghorbati, my collaborator Ira asked me one day: What are some of the names in your family history? I responded that my original name was Elkeslassy—the name that belonged to my printer grandfather, and once, to my father.
I was born under the name Lassy. My father cut his name from Elkeslassy to Lassy after he moved from Morocco to France in 1963. He wanted to avoid antisemitism and Arabophobia, both in the Ashkenazi Jewish community and in French society at large. The name Lassy allowed us to pass, opening a path to upward social mobility. At the same time, the change cut us off from who we truly were and are, slicing away the letters that marked us as both Arab and Jewish.
That personal rupture reflects the collective rupture that Jews from Arab lands underwent, willingly or not, in the second half of the last century: history’s attempt to set two identities, once intertwined, in ontological opposition. In the new dichotomy that Jewish and Arab nationalisms brought about, between Arab and Jew, these are the questions I have been wrestling with: Who were we then? And who am I now?
The name Elkeslassy, I discovered, is rooted in a very specific geography. It is a toponymic name: it literally means the inhabitants of Casales. Casales is thought to have been a town in the province of Lugo, Spain in the twelfth century, a time when Spain was under Arab rule. My family must have left Spain in 1492 with the Inquisition and the great exile of Sephardi Jews. They must have found refuge in Morocco, where our name can be traced back at least four centuries. So this name is deeply rooted in a geography that connects North Africa to Europe, a geography that is Jewish and Arab and Spanish, a geography of the Mediterranean.
After spending so much time with these divas and their history—after all the exploration, excavation, and song—I found myself playing this concert in June, the one that forms the musical architecture of this collection.
It was with great emotion that I sang Shlomo Abitbol’s words that day, performing “Yafa Vetama” publicly for the first time under my true last name. On the program, an old name had returned: Elkeslassy.
- Rav Meir Eleazar Atiya, ed. Sefer Shir Yedidut HaShalem. Jerusalem: Otzrot HaMagreb – Machon Yissachar Yerushalayim, 5760 (1999–2000).