In a world where it seems most of our most extreme violence is caused by the zealous of all faiths and religions; it's hard to remember that faith is supposed to be something glorious. It's not supposed to be a cudgel you use on an opponent in a political struggle, or a flag to wave leading troops into battle.
We read so much about Muslim suicide terrorist bombs, anti-freedom moralizing Christians, and the self-righteous of all faiths that we forget that for every one of those types there are an equal, if not greater, number of people for whom faith is one of life's pleasures. It's one of the great ironies of humanity that that which is supposed to be a solace in a time of need has become something we equate so readily in our troubled world with being a root cause of hatred and disharmony.
Even putting aside the connotations mentioned above, simple belief for the sake of belief is looked on with cynical patronization. In our superiority and arrogance we have trouble believing that anything as intangible as faith can really have that much of an effect on us. We look on someone who is dependant on faith as someone somehow backward and out of touch with reality.
On the other hand I believe that beneath that veneer of urbanity and sophistication, people are in love with the idea of worship and prayer, but have no desire to do the work required to believe. Perhaps that's why so many quick-fix new age religions are springing up on a daily basis offering people a sure-fire path to enlightenment; it's spirituality without the commitment.
Haim Sabato has written the perfect antidote for all of us who have become sick and tired of all of the above. Without once straying into sentimentality, his beautiful novel The Dawning Of The Day: A Jerusalem Tale gives us a present in the person of Ezra Siman Tov. Ezra is an orthodox Sephardic Jewish man who works in a hand laundry pressing prayer shawls and shirts during his working hours.
But it's the depiction of his life outside of the store that we really are concerned with. At first glance you may find it off-putting, it's so contrary to what anybody "really" does in the world anymore. Who actually gets up before sunrise every morning to go to the synagogue to participate in prayers? Who sits of their own volition to read from the "Book of Psalms"?
Nobody really can get such pleasure from reciting a prayer that they will weep tears of joy will they? So you might think, and so you might feel when you start reading the story of Ezra Siman Tov, but I very much doubt that you will feel that by the time you come to the end of this little book.
I'm not a religious person in the sense of adhering to the code or ritual of a faith, and I definitely don't agree with a lot of the ideas and philosophies put forward in the Torah or other versions of the Bible. But that doesn't stop me from recognising a true depiction of faith. What Haim Sabato has done is quite simply written a beautiful testimony of what it was like for some of the older inhabitants of Jerusalem's Sephardic community.
Each chapter is a lesson that either Ezra learns or teaches to someone about how to worship or about faith. As contrasts to Ezra we are shown his brother-in-law, who is a famous scholar. He is never without a dissertation or the latest interpretation of the laws so that he can be ready to correct anyone who makes a mistake. Than there is Reb Moishe Dovid, the Talmudic scholar, (The Talmud are commentaries on The Torah) who knows that the study of the law and its worship are serious business and should not be taken lightly.
One day he complains to Ezra that his, Ezra's, singing of the Psalms is interfering with his serious work of dissecting a commentary on a commentary. If that's all Ezra is doing enjoying himself, while he, Reb Moishe Dovid, is trying to work, perhaps Ezra could keep his voice down a little?
Ezra prays from the heart and the spirit, not the mind. He barely reads Hebrew, and has to read the Aramaic versions of the texts. When he stumbles and his brother-in-law corrects him with a wince and a sneer, Ezra feels shamed. But we see that the brother in law feels shame too, over his behaviour, but he will never admit it to Ezra.
It would have been easy for Ezra's character to be a figure of sentiment and a cloying sweetness to the book. But Haim Sabato manages to tread the fine line that prevents it from falling into that trap. Ezra's not a perfect saint or an angel; he's just a simple man trying to live his life according to the precepts of his God.
This is a beautiful book about faith and belief. Yes it's about being Jewish, but it can apply to any religion. If you ever want your own faith restored, in whatever it is you have faith in, looking to Ezra as an example would do you no harm.