Rabbi Ilan Acoca has published his first book, The Sephardic Book of Why (Hadassa Word Press, 2016).
Why is a set of Sephardi tefillin different from an Ashkenazi pair? Why do Sephardim laugh during Havdalah, after reciting the blessing over the wine? Why do Sephardim not use the shamash to light the Chanukah candles? Why do Sephardim celebrate with henna before a wedding? These and so many other questions are answered by Rabbi Ilan Acoca in his book The Sephardic Book of Why: A Guide to Sephardic Jewish Traditions and Customs, just published by Hadassa Word Press.
The spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamidrash for 17 years, Acoca will return to the synagogue for the book’s local launch on Dec. 10, as part of a larger tour. Acoca and his wife Dina have been rabbi and rebbetzin of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee, N.J., since they left Vancouver in August, and Rabbi Acoca is also rabbi-in-residence of Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef, in Paramus, N.J.
“I would like to invite the entire community to the book launch,” Acoca told the Independent, “where I will explain what triggered me to write the book, as well as some singing and shmoozing.”
The rabbi shared a little of his motivation for writing The Sephardic Book of Why, which, he said, took three years to put together.
“Through the years, many people (Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike) asked me questions about Sephardic customs, trying to understand where each originated and what is the significance. At times, I had an answer and, at times, it intrigued me to research and find out more. One day, I was invited to a wedding as a guest and saw that the officiating rabbi had a Chabad rabbi’s guide. I knew that the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America] had an Ashkenazi rabbi’s guide so I thought to write one for Sephardic rabbis. A few days later, I sat down with my friend David Litvak and shared my idea with him. He thought about it for a moment and suggested a book that would include the entire Jewish and non-Jewish world. Immediately after the meeting, I opened my email and saw one from Hadassa press telling me they saw some of my classes on YouTube and were interested for me to publish a book with them. For me, that was a sign from heaven that I could not ignore.”
Adorned by a cover featuring the interior of Lazama Synagogue in Marrakesh, Morocco, The Sephardic Book of Why – Acoca’s first book – is divided into five chapters: Daily Rituals, Shabbat and Holidays, Lifecycle Events, Sephardic Culture, and Rabbi’s Musing. The last chapter comprises a selection of articles by Acoca that were originally published in the Canadian Jewish News. They cover a range of topics, including essays on “the middle path,” unity and the importance of diversity. So, having arrived in the United States from Vancouver only months before the presidential election, the Independent asked him if he had any advice to offer to Jews living in the United States (or Canada) about the polarity and divisions that were highlighted in the campaigns.
“It is pretty simple,” he said. “In order to move forward, we have to find things in common. There are so many things that unite but we often concentrate on what divides us. By finding things in common, we could understand each other, communicate and move forward.”
While there are a couple of other books on Sephardi customs, Acoca said, “My book is the only book that is in a question-answer format. It is more condensed, short, to the point, with sources.”
“The book is very thorough, yet easy to read,” writes Rabbi Elie Abadie, MD, of New York City’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue and director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies, Yeshiva University, in the book’s foreword. “It will please scholars and students equally, with good source material and footnotes. It covers the entire year-cycle of holidays and the lifetime milestones. It is a perfect book for Sephardim who, unfortunately, are just beginning to learn about their own traditions and for Ashkenazim who have just begun to interact with and learn about the Sephardim and their ‘different’ customs.”
Abadie puts quotes around the word different because, he notes, “In the overwhelming majority of minhagim [customs], the ‘Sephardi way’ was the ‘original and standard way’ of fulfilling a commandment, and the Ashkenazi community throughout the ages veered from the original minhagim and traditions, given the geographic region that they lived in and the circumstances that surrounded them.”
For those wanting to learn more about the “original” ways of Jewish practice, or to see a good friend while he’s in town, the Dec. 10 book launch, talk and signing starts at 8 p.m. People can also order a copy of the book from Hadassa Word Press.