Nir & Priel Nissim should be Chabad emissaries – or whatever is the Karaite equivalent. Because of them, the past few months have given rise to an amazing, wonderful and spiritually uplifting occurrence in the Bay Area. The newly renovated home of the Karaite Jews of America is being filled with more learning and more blessings than I have ever seen.
It all started a few years back when Nir Nissim ha-Levy, a hazzan from Israel, visited the Karaite Jews of America in Daly City. The members of the community instantly took to his melodies, his heart and his desire. Fast forward a few years, Nir married Priel, an incredibly knowledgeable Israeli Karaite, and found their way to the Bay Area for a year.
Well, I am glossing over the herculean efforts it took for them to come. Dr. Nir Nissim is doing his research at Stanford. He frankly could have done his research in many other (more affordable) places, but Nir strove to do his research here, close to the only Karaite synagogue in the U.S and near some of his and Priel’s relatives. And while here, Nir and Priel are volunteering their weekends for the betterment of the community. A few of their accomplishments include filling our synagogue on erev Shabbat, holding classes for hazzanim and beginners alike.
And simply put, they are reaching people – not simply planning programs.
Today, I catch up with them and interview them for the A Blue Thread.
- What inspired each of you to be involved in the Karaite community in Israel?
Nir & Priel: When God gives you certain skills and abilities you must utilize them for the sake of promoting the community, to encourage and help members of the community strengthen their belief and get closer to God. We must use our strengths to promote understanding and learning Torah and halacha. Every single one of us living today is actually a messenger or emissary in this world. In our case, we seek to educate the current and next generations as to our beliefs. We also have an obligation to share the knowledge we acquired along the years. We are incorporating knowledge from many of our rabbis and hakhamim. In particular, we have learned from from Rav Haim Halevi and Rav Hefez Haim Halevi from Ashdod community, Ofira Ma‘atuk and her husband Hazzan Eliyahu Ma’atuk and Rav Ovadia Levi (Ma’atuk). We also actively learn from the current Chief Rav Moshe Firrouz.
- Priel – what is the most meaningful aspect of being Karaite Jew?
Priel: From my perspective, the most meaningful aspect of being Karaite Jew is the ability to understand for ourselves the Tanakh – and to derive for ourselves the reason for customs and commandments. Karaite Judaism is based on the Tanakh, we are empowered to utilize the three principles of Karaite Judaism: (i) Peshat, Plain Meaning; (ii) Hekeish, Inference; and (iii) Sevel Hayerusha, The Burden of the Inheritance. With these principles, we each can search the Scripture well, even if we do not hold the title of “rabbi”.
Another important principle to me is the role of women in Karaite Judaism. In our tradition, a woman can sign her ketubah, be a witness on someone else’s ketubah, initiate a divorce from her husband, pray out loud in front of men in our synagogues, and much more.
I like to think that we, Karaite women, preserve the strength and initiative of many female leaders in the Tanakh, including Zipora who conducted Berit Mila for her son, and Miriam who was a prophetess of Israel, and Devora who was a judge of Israel, and many others. [Editor’s note: I did a video on Women in Karaism here.]
- Nir, of all the projects you have been involved in Israel, what are some of the most meaningful?
First, I must give credit to the Creator of the World for providing me with the strength to undertake these projects. And immediately, I must recognize that these projects were initiated and completed by a group of close friends within the community. We bonded 20 years ago, while we were studying under the guidance of Rav Hefez Haim Halevi, and later also under the guidance of Rav Haim Halevi.
The most meaningful projects have been:
(i) renewing and uplifting our traditional ceremonies with musical productions. These include wedding ceremonies, berit mila, and baby namings for the birth of a daughter;
(ii) creating a new, illustrated passover haggada with musical production and recording of the haggadah reading and a recording of traditional Karaite passover songs; and
(iii) creation of the first blessing and song book for Tishrei, including wonderful illustrations, explanations and musical recordings.
As you can see I think that music plays an important and uplifting role in our lives and holidays.
- Priel – a little birdie told me that you and Nir are working on a Karaite recipe book; can you tell me more about it?
We were inspired to do the book initially because our food is delicious and we want to preserve the beauty of our traditional foods. But on a deeper level, these Karaite dishes actually support the observance of the commandments and tradition. For example, as is well known, Karaites do not reheat food on Shabbat, so on Yom Shabbat, we eat food like Tagarinas and Boftek that are eaten at room temperature and may even be eaten slightly cold. Another example is the traditional, grilled lamb we eat on the night of Passover, as a memorial for the lamb which every Hebrew family was commanded to sacrifice. (Of course, this also harkens back to the exodus from Egypt and that each Hebrew family put the lamb’s blood over the door post.)
It is important to mention that the book is not just a regular recipe book. In this book, every single recipe is documented by someone new in the community – thus a grandson may interview his grandmother to get the recipe. This enables us to pass traditions and meaningful interactions from generation to generation.
The ultimate goal is to produce a book that allow future generations of Karaite Jews to enjoy the taste of traditional food, recall the flavors of their childhood tastes and also receive the tools to help them preserve our culinary tradition.
With the help of the Creator of the World we shall do and we shall succeed.
- Do either of you have advice for American Karaites who do not live in the Bay Area so that they can uphold the Karaite tradition?
Nir and Priel: At a fundamental level, you must have daily rituals that better connect you to God. These rituals include blessings and songs. We strongly encourage you to respect and observe Shabbat, as it is the source of God’s blessings and the foundation of the belief of the Jewish community in God.
On a practical level, Karaites – whether in Daly City or more distant – should do everything they can to learn Hebrew and understand our prayers. Connection to God comes from understanding His commandments and understanding the words we are using to worship Him. Finally, never stop learning about our community, our tradition and the commandments, every week. For example, each week, the Karaite Jews of America puts out a newsletter and they have recently been profiling a different Karaite sage and their poetry. This is a great way to learn about Karaite history, Karaite liturgy, and to learn Hebrew – because the poems are translated and transliterated.
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Note: In case you did not pick up on the play on words, Nir and Priel’s last name, Nissim, means “Miracles” – and the article’s title, “Great Miracles are Happening Here” – is a reference to the (rabbinic) Hanukkah phrase: A Great Miracle Happened There / A Great Miracle Happened Here.
And here is a video of Nir and Priel’s wedding in case you want to see how it’s done in Israel these days!