When the human mass at the top of Jerusalem’s Malchei Yisrael Street became too dense, young yeshiva students placed their hands on their friends’ shoulders, desperately trying to snake their way forward, to the Sanhedriya cemetery less than a mile away.
Women clad in dark thick stockings and sweaters in the cool Jerusalem evening watched as the menfolk pushed slowly along the street. “Women to the right!” shouted one man.
People crowded next to a yeshiva, pausing in their slow progress toward the cemetery to listen to eulogies being relayed on loudspeakers from a balcony.
Though Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was associated most closely with the revival and empowerment of traditional Sephardi (Middle Eastern and North African) Judaism in Israel, this vast, unprecedented crowd streaming to honor him, mourn him and just be present at his funeral was anything but monolithic.
Unlike any other mass funerals of great ultra-Orthodox leaders, here young adherents of Lithuanian-brand Judaism, in sleek modern suits and broad-brimmed Borsalino hats, crowded next to Yiddish-speaking Hassidic men in long beards and ear-locks. Groups of National Zionist teens with knitted kippot and dangling tzitzit (ritual fringes) stood next to fathers and sons with no kippa at all.
“We sustained such a tremendous loss, how could I not come? We will feel this loss for many years to come.” said Daniel Massas, a clean-shaven middle-aged security guard who had rushed to Jerusalem straight from work at a children’s yeshiva in Holon.
“For me, he was a living Torah scroll. I came here to show my respect for the Torah,” said Meir Chetrit, who immigrated to Ashdod from France last year and cannot speak Hebrew. “The trip here by Egged bus took us two hours.”
Chaya, who had walked all the way across town from her religious, English-speaking seminary, admitted she had asked her principal what would be the point of going to the funeral “if we’re just going to stand here for a few hours and not see a lot.” Nevertheless, Monday night’s classes were canceled and the girls were encouraged to march for an hour, with the city’s bus services largely paralyzed. “Plus there’s nothing else to do. Israel is shut down, and everything is revolving around this big levaya (funeral),” she said, a rare voice of relative indifference.
“Our rabbi told us that when a great rabbi dies, the Torah leaves the world and the whole world is really affected by it,” said Chaya’s colleague, Sarah, who came to Israel from Illinois to study for the year. ”In a way, he was our protection. Now that we don’t have someone of his caliber, it’s a bit frightening.”
Yehonatan Yahav came to the funeral with his teacher and ninth grade classmates on a bus chartered by his national religious yeshiva high school, Sha’alavim, near Modi’in.
“Rav Ovadia Yosef wasn’t only Shas’s rabbi, he was everyone’s rabbi,” Yahav said. He said he knew he wouldn’t be able to get close to the actual burial, “but it was important for me to come, and not only for me but for the whole yeshiva. A big part of the people of Israel was lost just now.”
With his self-confident leadership style and, as the years went by, his increasingly outspoken manner, Yosef often accentuated the rivalry between Jews of Sephardi and Ashkenazi (European) extraction. But that wasn’t the message of these hundreds of thousands of mourners. One young man, a Sephardi student at an Ashkenazi institution in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Kiryat Sefer, said any such rivalries were shelved with the passing of so prominent a luminary.
“There’s politics, and then there’s Torah,” he said, noting that all his settlement-city’s Ashkenazi yeshivot chartered buses for the funeral. Yosef “was a giant, not an ordinary person.”
Gavriel, a middle-aged bearded man from Ashdod, caught a ride to the funeral with a bus leaving from a neighboring yeshiva. He’d walked several miles from before the entrance to Jerusalem when the highway leading into the capital was shut to incoming traffic.
“I was walking for about an hour. All the buses are still back there. Even Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani of Shas’s Council of Sages is still stuck there,” he said.
Gavriel said he was very attached to Yosef, and remembered sending him questions on Jewish law when Yosef served as Israel’s chief rabbi, between 1973 and 1983.
“He was the leader of our generation. A minister of Torah. I was shocked and saddened when he died. We pray to God to bring messiah … to produce a new shepherd to replace the rabbi.”
Gavriel said he did not know what would become of Shas, the religious party founded by Yosef in 1984, and for which he remained the final arbiter up until his death. ”I hope Shas maintains its strength and maybe even grows following this. Maybe now people will unite.”
Other attendees preferred to focus on the religious legacy of Yosef, not the politics. Yisroel Ben Yaakov, who came from Efrat to pay his last respects, said ”I cannot stand Shas. I can’t stand sectarian politics dividing Jews. There were no Sephardim or Ashkenazim or Ethiopians at Sinai. We were all brothers, and I hope and believe this leads to the end of Shas as a separate, divisive party,” he said. ”That’s not what Judaism is about and certainly not what Rav Ovadia was about,” he insisted, then added: “Unfortunately, he’s the last of his generation.”