Baba Baruch in Bergen County

Posted on the local shuls yahoo group. The wonder worker Baba Baruch will be in town tonight.

It is with great joy that the ……. invites the entire community to welcome Baba Baruch, the son of Baba Sali Z”L, this coming Thursday May 5th Rosh Hodesh Iyar. Baba Baruch will pray Minha in The Sanctuary at 7:35 PM and will lead a Shiur (in Hebrew) afterwards. After Arvit, Baba Baruch will meet individually with anyone wishing to receive a Bracha. This is a special opportunity, and we hope that you will be able to attend.

I assume that most people go because they want the blessing. They dont look into his magical credentials or history; they accept his social role as giver of blessings. The sociologist Nancy Ammermann teaches that one needs to look at the actual lived relgion of a community. Going to Baba Baruch is part of the unified object of Bergen county Modern Orthodoxy. Their YU pulpit rabbis and teachers are against it but lived relgion needs its magic. As Bronislaw Malinowski wrote more than half a century ago:

magic supplies primitive man with a number of ready-made ritual acts and beliefs, with a definite mental and practical technique which serves to bridge over the dangerous gaps in every important pursuit or critical situation… The function of magic is to ritualize man’s optimism, to enhance his faith in the victory of hope over fear. Magic expresses the greater value for man of confidence over doubt, of steadfastness over vacillation, of optimism over pessimism.

For those interested in Baba Baruch’s background – see this article by Yoram Bilu and Eyal Ben-Ari

Rabbi Baruch (“Baba Baruch”) was far removed from his father’s lifestyle of learning, piety, and asceticism. Though raised and educated by his father in Erfud (in Tafillelt, southern Morocco), in his youth Baruch spent many years in Paris disengaged from the traditional ambience of his Moroccan hometown. Having followed his father to Israel in the mid-1960s, he decided to pursue a political career, and was soon elected to the post of deputy mayor in Ashkelon (another southern town in which Baba Sali lived before moving to Netivot). It was in this capacity that Baruch Abu-Hatzera was accused of corruption and bribery, found guilty and sentenced to a long term in prison. After being paroled (he received an early release after serving five years in prison) he joined his father and was with Baba Sali during the last three months of the saint’s life.

While Baba Sali’s lifestyle lent itself quite easily to aggrandizement and mythologization, his son’s notorious personal record as an ex-convict and an adulterer obviously was not the right stuff for sanctification. The intriguing question, then, is how could Baruch establish himself as his father’s legitimate successor despite his problematic past. In what follows we seek to elucidate the reasons for this astonishing success.

Once again, the cultural assumptions underlying saint worship in the Maghreb should be taken as a favourable starting point in the search for legitimacy. The notions of baraka among Muslims and of its Jewish counterpart, zechut avot (ancestral merit), connote a strong sense of inherited blessedness and ascribed virtue. As mentioned earlier, the Abu-Hatzera family figured as a most important, if not prime, example of line ancestry in which such sanctity was ingrained. The family’s accumulated zechut could thus prove a fortuitous starting point for Baba Baruch’s claims.
Yet despite the stigma that seriously corroded his public image and the existence of other (perhaps more) worthy contenders for succession within the Abu-Hatzera family, Baba Baruch has managed to take his father’s mantle and to step into his shoes

Second, having lived with killers, rapists, and drug addicts, Baruch presents himself as a person most fitting to deal with the wide scope of human misery addressed to him by those seeking his help. Time and again he plays up the idea that, following his prison experience, nothing human is foreign to him. Finally, he stresses the fact that his religious faith and moral commitment have been strengthened in prison rather than attenuated. According to his story, he was the prime agent responsible for a wave of religious revivalism there, having served as a ray of hope and comfort for the other inmates.

A number of factors appear to have facilitated the dissemination and propagation of Baruch’s new image as born-again, as reconstituted in his father’s mould.
The second factor conducive to the propagation of Baruch’s image as his father’s inheritor has to do with the cultural practice of visitational dreams. In the context of Jewish Moroccan hagiolatric traditions, this psycho-cultural mechanism has been deemed the vehicle for transmitting knowledge and instructions from deceased sainted figures. Against this background, Baruch’s claims that his father frequents his dreams, providing him with reassurances that he is his legitimate heir, cannot be dismissed by Baba Sali’s adherents as a mere calculated fabrication.

The third factor is associated with the realization of the blessedness putatively promised in the dreams. The distinctive healing tradition of the family, based on uttering a special incantation over water which is thereby endowed with healing qualities, has long been one of the factors underlying their popularity and renown.

Within the seven days of ritual mourning after his father’s death, aptly dramatic and miraculously unexpected (for example, a paralytic rising from a wheelchair) stories of his power began to spread by word of mouth and through newspaper reports. The unprecedented publicity gained by these first cures should be carefully noted. In part, this publicity may have reflected a genuine need to find an effective substitute for the legendary healer; but more pertinent to our theses, it may be viewed as a manifestation of Baruch’s skills in creating favourable public relations and manipulating the media. Read the rest here.

There are lots of recent books on the Sefardi saints, graves, demons, magic and business. The most eye opening for someone not familiar with this material is Yorem Bilu, Without Bounds: The Life and Death of Rabbi Ya’Aqov Wazana

For a very good anthropology article with full literature on the new cults of saints – see Gil Daryn, Moroccan Hassidism: The Chavrei Habakuk Community and Its Veneration of Saints Full text pdf here.

Baba Baruch also tried to invoke Rav Ifergen (X-ray) in scandal- you can find it in a search.

Now to return to Bergen county. How does this wonder working play itself out differently in Bergen county? Jail time does not give one street credibility in Jewish Engelwood and visions and dreams are not part of Bergen culture. How will the attendees, especially those who paid 4 or 5 figures for a blessing conceptualize this powers? Will it just be last chance prayers for remission of cancer and real estate developers getting the power to close the deal? or will it be more?
What role does the year in Israel and it romanticism play here? Thoughts?

One response to “Baba Baruch in Bergen County

  1. It’s probably for people who either can’t afford to see Rabbi Pinto (a more famous descendant of Baba Sali), or aren’t really sure the magic works so prefer to go the cheaper route first.

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