Unknown – Bar Yohaï – Pacific, c. mid-1950s

Until well into the twentieth century, Tlemcen, Algeria was known as “the Jerusalem of the West.”[1] That appellation derived from the robustness of the city’s Jewish community––both in terms of its size and piety––and so too from the fact that Tlemcen was home to the sainted tomb of Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua (al-Naqawa), also known as the Rabb.

Enkaoua, born in Toledo in 1359 and who fled Spanish persecution there in 1391, is considered a foundational figure in Algerian Jewish history. He is not only credited with re-establishing the Jewish presence in Tlemcen in the 1400s following his settlement there but so too, with performing all manner of miracle in the process (including riding into town seated on a lion and soon thereafter healing the ailing daughter of Sultan Abu Tashfin). All of that miracle-making earned him moniker of the Rabb, which translates to something akin to “master.”

Since at least the nineteenth century and through the twentieth, reverence for the Rabb culminated in the annual pilgrimage (known as both a ziyara and hillula) to his burial site in Tlemcen. For centuries, thousands of Jewish pilgrims ascended to the Rabb’s tomb on the holiday of Lag BaOmer, a date which corresponds to the thirty-third day after Passover and which marks the death of the second century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. In this way, the ziyara or hillula to the grave of the Rabb has long been imbued with an intense mystical quality. That mysticism is palpable in the kabbalistic, Hebrew-language piyyut (hymn) of “Bar Yohai,” written by the sixteenth century Rabbi Shimon Lavi and which was performed to great fanfare at the tomb of the Rabb at least through Algerian independence in 1962 and in more sober fashion in the decades that followed.[2]

In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of North African Jewish artists recorded the piyyut to 78 rpm disc. This version of “Bar Yohaï”[3]––of an uncredited singer on the Pacific label––comes from about the mid-1950s and was certainly the last ever recorded in Algeria.

Notes
Label: Pacific
Title: Bar Yohaï
Artist: Unknown and uncredited
Issue Number: CO 9009
Matrix Number: BY 2
Date of Pressing: c. mid-1950s

[1] Susan Slyomovics, “Geographies of Jewish Tlemcen,” Journal of North African Studies, 5:4, 2000, 81.
[2] North African Jews also sing “Bar Yohai” on Sabbath evenings before the start of the meal.
[3] “Bar Yohaï” is misspelled in the Arabic on the label as “Dar Yohaï,” which unintentionally means “the House of Yohaï.”

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