A block from the U.C. Berkeley campus, cattycorner to a burger joint, down the hall in a second-floor apartment and parked in his kitchen, Mishael Hibshoosh chants Torah with practiced precision.
With all the street noise, no one outside could possibly hear the 8-year-old boy chirping away in the upper reaches of the treble clef.
Few would know he chants a trope nearly as old as King Solomon, or peg this child as a living link to an ancient Jewish Yemenite culture.
Mishael rehearses his chanting alone. He has no rabbi or chazzan to help him learn the ta’amin, the Yemenite liturgical melodies.
He doesn’t need help. Mishael learned the Hebrew text and trope symbols by age 6.
Though his father taught him as much as possible, nowadays Mishael relies on tapes, instructional books and a vintage Yemenite siddur for self-instruction. A year studying at a Yemenite yeshiva in Tel Aviv when he was 6 didn’t hurt either.
No doubt Mishael will be ready for his next Shabbat morning aliyah at San Francisco’s Magain David Sephardim Congregation.
Every week, he is — by far — the youngest person to be chanting verses from the parshah, or weekly Torah portion, at Magain David (or probably anywhere in the Bay Area). It’s always an amazing experience for those unfamiliar with the Yemenite custom of letting young boys chant Torah on Shabbat. And it’s even spine-tingling for those who have seen him do it before.
“If the words are hard, I have to go slowly,” says Mishael, who speaks perfect English with a slight Israeli accent. “If the words are easy I can speed up immediately. The first parshah I did was easy. It was shorter and it had less vowels.”
Discussing with Mishael the proper way to chant Torah gets the uninitiated into trouble. He dazzles with his expertise in segulta and zerba, two of several Yemenite trope symbols that guide him through the melodies.
And with no hesitation, he will trill a pasuk (sentence) from the Bible over and over until he gets it right.
Holding up a weathered leather-bound prayer book, Mishael says: “This is from 1900. My grandfather passed it on to my father and he is going to pass it on to me.”
His father, Aharon Hibshoosh, 65, teaches marketing at San Jose State University. Though he has lived in California for decades, the Israeli native never disconnected from his Yemenite roots, which he passes on to his Berkeley-born sons, Mishael and Yechiel, 4. Now it’s the younger boy’s turn to begin his Jewish learning.
“It’s a very important tradition in our community,” Hibshoosh says. “We are Yemenites, and it’s very common among Yemenite Jews that young children will speak precise Hebrew.”
Hibshoosh and his wife, Russian-born Israeli Margalit Hibshoosh, 47, began taking Mishael to Magain David when he was very young. Even then he was motivated to learn: As a toddler, he would run up to the bimah to open the curtains of the ark.
“We began when he was 4,” says Aharon of Mishael’s Jewish education. “He had to learn how to pronounce every letter, every vowel, of the alef-bet precisely. He learned how to pronounce the vowels according to very difficult rules.”
By age 6, Mishael had also learned the ta’amin melodies. He was ready to ascend the bimah, mount a stepstool and chant. That’s been Mishael’s routine ever since: Practice all week, and by Saturday morning he’s ready to rock the shul.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Magain David Rabbi Eliahu Ezran. “He’s a very intelligent child. He likes to do what he is doing. It’s not a burden for him. [Congregants] like it. They are waiting for him to read.”
It wasn’t always so. In the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, one must have had a bar mitzvah to be eligible for an aliyah. Ezran says some of his congregants grumbled when they first witnessed Mishael chant on Shabbat. One irate man even bolted from the service when he saw the child chanting.
Ezran remained undeterred.
“When his father told me, ‘In the Yemenite synagogues, even a child who is not bar mitzvah can come up and say aliyah,’ I said, ‘If this is your tradition, we will follow it,’ ” Ezran says.
According to the rabbi, Jewish law states that one performs only those mitzvahs one is obligated to do, and since a child pre–bar mitzvah is not obligated to read Torah on Shabbat, he should not do so, especially when an adult present can perform the mitzvah instead.
The rabbi acknowledges this fact, and concedes that those who object to Mishael’s chanting have some basis. But “many Yemenite Jews can open the Sefer Torah and read it from their childhood,” he adds. “If the Yemenites say the children in the community can read Torah and participate, I think it’s a very wise tradition.”
Dating back thousands of years, the Yemenite religious tradition is unique in Judaism. The liturgical melodies have a distinctive Arabic sound, almost like the call to worship from a Muslim muezzin. Services are conducted in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Yemenite Jews strive to teach their children to read and write Hebrew and pronounce their distinct accent impeccably.
“The Yemenites pronounce [Hebrew] the original way of pronouncing it,” says Hibshoosh. “The chief rabbi [of Palestine] 100 years ago said the Yemenites are keeping what was our initial Hebrew.”
The vast majority of Jews from Yemen (a country on the Arabian Peninsula) immigrated to Israel in two waves between 1881 and 1950. Today their community mainly survives in Israel, while pockets exist in the United States, particularly in New York and Los Angeles. There remains only a tiny — and persecuted — band of Jews in Yemen, a land in which they once reigned as kings.
Counter to the penury most Yemenite Jews endured before immigrating to Israel, in the 1920s the Hibshoosh family prospered in Yemen. As traders, they dealt in everything from motorcycles to perfume to coffee. Aharon’s father immigrated to pre-state Israel in the 1930s, where he became a journalist, poet and author. There he raised a family, all the while striving to maintain the old traditions.
Aharon came to Berkeley in 1969, earning a Ph.D. in economics at U.C. Berkeley. He had intended to return to Israel, but ended up staying in California.
About 13 years ago, while on sabbatical in Israel, he called a friend in Jerusalem. A young Russian immigrant named Margalit answered the phone, and the two chatted, hitting it off. Though they wouldn’t meet for another year, once they did, as Hibshoosh recalls, “that was it.”
She had grown up in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky). Like most Jews in the former Soviet Union, Margalit had little connection with Judaism. Her Polish-born great-grandparents were the last generation before her to be Torah observant.
The two married, and when the couple had children, they chose to raise them in the Yemenite tradition. Ashkenazi and now observant herself, Margalit felt right at home in Sephardic and Yemenite synagogues. “Once I went to the Sephardic synagogue, it’s difficult to go back,” she says.
Mishael attends a Berkeley public elementary school, where he excels in all subjects, including his favorite, geography. In his spare time, he likes to read Harry Potter novels and make paper airplanes.
He also likes to channel Julia Child.
Clutching a paring knife, he says, “My mom sometimes doesn’t want me to cook, but when I cook she likes it. For example, once I made her a surprise breakfast with a dish I made up. I’ll give you the recipe. You cut tomatoes, you cook a potato, you cut onions, you mix it all together. I call it the Tomato Mix.”
He tackles his hobbies with the same intensity he devotes to religious studies, though he doesn’t see himself as special just because he layns Torah. He can be very self-critical, especially of his pronunciation of certain Hebrew vowels.
Noshing on Entenmann’s donuts, Mishael recalls his year in the Israeli yeshiva where he mastered Yemenite chanting. One time he scored an A+ on a run-through.
“ ‘Tov me’od’ [the Hebrew term meaning “very good”] is like, very few mistakes and no mistakes in ends of sentences,” he says. “It was in fact an achievement because I was one of the kids who did it very good. So I got this compliment.”
Notes his father: “The more he reads the Torah, the more he gets used to how it’s pronounced. When we go to New York, he goes to the Yemenite synagogue and they straighten him out. I cannot correct him. I’m only the sounding board.”
Mishael might be just one out of many skilled kids when he’s in a Yemenite synagogue in Israel or New York. But in San Francisco, for one grieving Polish-born man, the boy is a walking wonder.
Yakov Shraier, 83, lives at Menorah Park, a residence for the elderly in San Francisco. He still has the medals he earned while fighting with the Soviet army against the Nazis. But he keeps the medals in a drawer, out of sight. They don’t mean much anymore, especially since he and his wife, Sima, left Ukraine in 1989 seeking a better life in San Francisco.
After moving here, he says, he never missed Shabbat services at Chevra Tehilim, an Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco.
Though he attended yeshiva during his childhood in Poland, Shraier’s Jewish education ended in 1939 with the onset of World War II. Throughout his adulthood in Ukraine, he had few opportunities to practice his religion. His communist bosses begrudged him a day off for Yom Kippur only if it fell on a Saturday.
A little over a year ago, Sima, his beloved wife of 63 years, died. Grief-stricken and wracked with depression, Shraier dedicated himself to saying Kaddish twice a day, every day, for 11 months.
Congregation Magain David was the only nearby shul offering that option. Though the Sephardic customs seemed strange to him initially, something he witnessed there one Shabbat morning brought tears to his eyes.
“A small boy was called to the Torah,” recalls Shraier, speaking in Russian. “I never saw that before. He doesn’t make errors. This is a miracle. When I saw how he read Torah, I felt better. This little boy really helped heal my heart.”
Says Mishael of his friend Yakov, “He’s a very nice man, and sensitive. Every time I go, I shake his hand and he gives me a kiss on the hand and I kiss him back. I don’t understand Russian so I can’t understand what he says. I know his wife died. That’s all I know.”
Aharon Hibshoosh took note of Shraier’s emotional reaction to Mishael’s performance on the bimah.
“Older people enjoy it,” he says of his son’s ability. “It’s a sign to them that Judaism did not lose its rejuvenation. It gives them the sense there is a hope, and we are renewing our connection to the soul.”
It’s a running joke within the Hibshoosh family that they will someday return to Israel to stay. Aharon Hibshoosh has a full plate teaching at San Jose State, which has caused the family to forestall the plan.
Meanwhile, Mishael has seen much of the world. In addition to frequent trips to visit family and friends in Israel and New York, he has been to Singapore, Brazil, France and Russia (he likes to tell the story about the time he caught a pike in the Volga River).
Skilled as he is in Jewish religious practice, Mishael does not want to become a rabbi or a cantor. “What I want to be is a builder, an architect,” he says, “so I decide what the design will be.”
Why, then, would he work so diligently to chant in the ancient Yemenite manner, when he could be designing more paper airplanes or reading another Harry Potter novel?
“Simple reason,” he says. “I want to have it easier when I grow up, so when I do the hard work, I won’t have to do as much because I already know it.”
With the hour growing late, Mishael looks up from his siddur: “Any other questions?”
And with that, Mishael picks up where he left off, singing the Torah, as the muffled sound of his voice fades in the Berkeley afternoon.
Read Dan Pine’s blog entry about this story: The Boy Wonder and me