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The ‘musician’ who conducts the rugby scrum

If Kevin Musikanth’s name has a certain ring to it, it’s not surprising. King David Linksfield’s new director of rugby says that the original family name was “Muzikant” which literally means “musician” in Russian.

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LUKE ALFRED

One way or another, and Musikanth has been conducting the rugby-playing orchestra for years. Sometimes he hears the grace notes, sometimes he sees and hears an atonal mess, but whichever way you look at it, Musikanth believes he was born to search for ways to reach the higher registers.

Musikanth also recently became coach of the Israeli national rugby side, spending about six months of the year in Israel and six months back here in Johannesburg with King David Linksfield.

“Your average player there now is an Israeli, not an expat from South Africa, Australia, or the United States,” he says. “Although the national team draws players from only ten club sides, the game there is growing. Tag-rugby is becoming part of the extra-curriculum activities at schools, and I don’t think it’s going to be long before we see Israeli players turning professional.”

At the same time, Israeli rugby has some way to go before its players become household names. The difference in standard between the top two clubs and the bottom two in the ten-strong Israeli league is profound, and the national side is located in a tough European theatre that results in them playing mainly against neighbours and not-too-distant opponents such as Malta, Cyprus, Croatia, and Bosnia – who they beat 40-0 in their final friendly of the season two weeks ago.

Should Israel beat all of their neighbours, they will need to beat regional powerhouses like Georgia and Russia if they’re to have any chance of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup. They might even have to take on Spain, Portugal, and Germany at some stage of the process.

“I know Israel beat Austria in the European [Championship] soccer qualifier recently,” he says. “But after beating Bosnia, we’re now ranked 60th in the world. In a sport played by 150 countries, I don’t think that’s bad. It’s probably the highest internationally-ranked Israeli team in the world.”

Musikanth matriculated from Wynberg Boys’ High in 1996, where he was a handy flyhalf hampered by shoulder injuries. Soon the injuries became too crippling, and he needed to look for something else – preferably within the game.

“Whether I was working as a personal trainer and coaching in my spare time, or whether I was working professionally as a coach or director of rugby, I soon realised that I loved coaching. I can’t be without it,” he says.

He’s coached False Bay and Ikey Tigers (when the University of Cape Town won the Varsity Cup in 2015) as well as being the director of rugby at both Wynberg and St John’s College before taking up his most recent post at King David Linksfield. Such exposure to the game at a level largely uncovered by the media has hardened him and made him wise. “In a game fuelled by ego,” he says, “I’ve found that there’s absolutely no room for ego.”

He has big plans for the approximately 150 rugby players at the school, plans that officially kick-off for the season when the first XV take on CBC Boksburg on Thursday.

As in years gone by, King David will compete alongside schools like Northcliff and Randpark Ridge in the Pirates Grand Challenge, but they’ll also be touring KwaZulu-Natal and competing in the St Stithians Easter Festival this season. “We’ll be playing against the Michaelhouse and St Stithians 2nd and 3rd teams at the festival,” he says, “because it’s important to begin to expose the boys to some of the top rugby schools.

“Results do count,” he says later, emphasising that without them, the sport can’t grow at King David, but he’s savvy enough to also know that his brief is broader. He not only wants to improve – and strengthen, with the addition of a new gym at the school – the boys, but wants to improve the skills of the coaching staff.

“The Ikey’s side I was involved in had 13 support staff,” he says. “That might have been a little top-heavy. Rugby coaching is moving away from being a jack of all trades to increasing areas of specialisation, whether that be on attack, defence, or skills. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve here at King David.”

Come the end of the season he will head up north, to see if he can get rugby in Israel to sing.

Sasha shoots for gold

Israel’s Alexander Shatilov won the gold medal at the FIG World Cup in Doha last weekend, a remarkable achievement given that he was ranked only fourth coming into the competition. The injury-prone Shatilov (32) was born in Uzbekistan, his family moving to Israel in 2002.

Nicknamed “Sasha”, Shatilov discovered the sport when his mother, an acrobatics coach, introduced him to a gymnasium at a young age. He was the first ever Israeli gymnast to win a medal at a world championships when he won bronze for his floor routine at the World Championships in London in 2009.

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Yochanan’s gamble: the controversial move that saved Judaism

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Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, known as the father of rabbinic Judaism, saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, his methods weren’t without controversy. He was crafty, practical, and pragmatic, and history has questioned his behaviour ever since.

Limmud@Home on 22 August 2021 featured Marc Katz, the author and rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey, United States, who discussed Ben Zakkai’s controversial gamble that saved Judaism, and the lessons that can be learned from it.

The zealots, a group of religious fanatics in Jerusalem, wanted to fight the Romans. When the sages refused to engage in battle, the zealots burned wheat, deliberately causing starvation to make the people desperate and have no other option but to fight.

“Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it’s possible that through this, there will be some small salvation,” Ben Zakkai told Abba Sikkara, the leader of the zealots.

Heeding Sikkara’s advice, Ben Zakkai pretended to be dead. In a coffin, he could possibly travel outside the city to seek a solution with the Romans.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua successfully carried Ben Zakkai past the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, by telling them that they were burying the coffin outside the city.

When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he spoke to Roman leader Vespasian. Ben Zakkai helped Vespasian cure his swollen feet. Vespasian offered something in return, and Ben Zakkai asked for certain Jewish lives to be spared and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.

Why didn’t he ask the Romans to spare Jerusalem? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there wouldn’t be even this small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request in the hope that he would receive at least that much.

Katz said several lessons could be learned from this story.

He drew a comparison to US President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, who freed slaves.

“One of the things he’s famous for is that he surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him in order to build the best coalition and understand that he didn’t have all the right views in a time of discord,” said Katz. “So, many of his secretaries – like his treasury secretary, his war secretary – were people who were actually his political rivals but he brought them in because it was really important for him to listen to them. It was pragmatic because he knew the social capital he was going to gain from it. It was also hopeful because he wasn’t so caught in his ways that he couldn’t hear them out or heed their warnings. That is exactly what Ben Zakkai is doing. Not only is he creating this plot of land where he is going to save Judaism, but he is the kind of guy who tends to think about politics in the way he governs.”

Another lesson is to try to seek compromises, just like Ben Zakkai did with Sikkara.

A further lesson is to have love and kindness, not regret and hatred. Katz discussed what happened when Ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem with Yehoshua, and they witnessed the destruction of the Temple. “Don’t be bitter, my son, for we have another form of atonement which is as great, and this is [an] act of love and kindness [gemilut hasadim],” Ben Zakkai told Yehoshua.

An additional lesson is not to be afraid of people. If they kill you, you won’t be dead for eternity as there is life after death. But the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lives and endures forever and all-time, and if he kills you, you are dead for eternity.

“Yochanan doesn’t know if he is going to heaven or hell,” said Katz. “I truly believe that’s because he doesn’t know whether he made the right call or not – he doesn’t know if the pragmatic decision he made was better than going for broke and asking for Jerusalem to be saved.”

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The dispersal of the Bukharian Jews

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The story of the Bukharian Jews, a community with deep roots in Central Asia, is sadly coming to an end, but the community’s legacy lives on in the United States and Israel, where most of the remaining Bukharian Jews now live.

Uzbekistan-born Bukharian Jew, Ruben Shimonov, told of this little known Jewish group which emanates mostly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, countries in the heart of the Asian continent.

Speaking to a virtual audience via Zoom at Limmud@Home last Sunday, 22 August, Shimonov said the different layers of culture, cuisine, music, and language in the region were an amalgamation of all the different cultures of Central Asia, and were also reflected in the small but deeply-rooted community of Bukharian Jews.

The Bukharian Jewish story begins with the Babylonian conquest of the ancient land of Israel, Judea, and subsequent exile of Jews east of the land of Israel to other regions of the Babylonian Empire, namely present-day Iraq and Iran.

The Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. “Under the Achaemenid Empire, the king was a more benevolent king and he allowed Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash,” said Shimonov. “But many Jews stayed as they now felt safe and secure under this new reign and moved even farther east of this new large Achaemenid Empire. This, folks, was Central Asia.”

Shimonov believes that the Bukharian Jews were more integrated with the local non-Jewish communities in Central Asia than, for example, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

“Even though Bukharian Jews for a large part of their history lived in quarters [maḥalla], there was constant interaction with the dominant societies amongst which they lived,” said Shimonov. “For example, the shashmaqam musical tradition is influenced by Sufi Islam, but many Bukharian Jews became the gatekeepers of this tradition.”

According to Shimonov, there are 250 000 Bukharian Jews in the world. Most of them now live in Israel or the United States, primarily in the New York City borough of Queens.

“In Uzbekistan, there are fewer than a thousand Bukharian Jews left – mainly elderly folk who are staying behind because it’s harder for them to emigrate,” said Shimonov. “Jews in Uzbekistan are highly protected; their safety is preserved. And Jews do go and visit Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where there is one kosher restaurant and a couple of synagogues. But our story is quickly coming to an end in our place of origin.”

In the Tajikistan city of Khujand, where Bukharian Jews once enjoyed a rich communal life, the last remaining Jew, Jura Abaev, died in January this year. Zablon Simintov, a carpet trader who is the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, is reportedly safe as the country comes under the control of the Taliban.

Shimonov, who emigrated from Uzbekistan three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said the main reason for the low numbers today was the struggle of the Bukharian Jews living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

“State-sanctioned antisemitism and dispossession or marginalisation of Jews was part of that story even though there were more ups than downs. And then, the subsequent new instability of the newly formed independent republics – whenever new countries are formed after the colonial past there is more often than not a lot of political, social, and economic instability,” he said.

“As a democratic minority, we felt that even more. So, the urgency to leave was clear and present. In the decade of the late eighties to mid-nineties, we went from having the majority of our community living in this place where we had lived for centuries to the majority of our community living in a new diaspora. In Uzbekistan, the real impetus to leave was more about everything I mentioned than antisemitism coming from our Muslim neighbours.”

“Our Muslim neighbours were our friends, and we baked bread with them,” Shimonov said. “This is different to Jews coming from the Arab world, where Arab nationalism and Zionism came to a head in a way that the Jews were sadly caught in the crossfire.”

In contemporary times, Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev and Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff are two of the Bukharian Jews who have made an impact. Known as the “king of diamonds”, Leviev annually sent large quantities of Passover food to Chabad emissaries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to distribute to Jews in these communities. Moussaieff, the former First Lady of Iceland, promoted Icelandic culture and artistic productions in the international arena.

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Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi

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More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.

Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.

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