Still Reading Torah After All These Years


At 87, Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah continues to share the "old school" Torah reading skills he first developed in India; recently celebrating 25 years as the designated reader at a Conservative synagogue in Center City.

When Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah took to the bimah at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel on a recent Shabbat — as he does on most Shabbats throughout the year as the synagogue’s designated Torah reader — he brought decades worth of experience with him.

The 87-year-old proceeded to read the first few sections from parshat Emor — a fairly dry chapter in Leviticus that explains special laws concerning the Israelites’ priests, or kohanim — with slow, careful precision in an entrancing voice that roles with the Kolkatan accent Musleah developed in India, where he was born and raised.

For some, Musleah’s meticulous re­cital of the biblical verses may seem a tad tedious, but for Adam Laver, 39, who grew up in the BZBI community and is a longtime disciple and admirer of the rabbi, the reading is “the closest to Sinai” that he’s ever been.

“He is such a master,” said Laver, who began studying with Musleah at the age of 14, after his Bar Mitzvah, when the rabbi asked if Laver wanted to learn how to read Torah “properly.”

“He really is a world expert in the art of Torah reading,” Laver said. “When he reads, even if one doesn’t fully comprehend the Hebrew, he adds meaning and his voice changes.”

Laver was referring to Musleah’s tendency to use different voices, hushed or loud, godly or Moses-like, to coincide with the verses he is reading.

Musleah’s journey to BZBI began in Baghdad, where his ancestors lived until the early 1800s, when they moved to Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), the capital city of West Bengal, a state in east India.

Musleah was born in Kolkata in 1927 and spent most of his early life there. He began his Torah reading studies at the age of 10 — and has since become an expert in four different nusachim, or melodies, including one originating from the Jews of Aleppo in Syria, who arrived in Kolkata around the same time as the Jews of Baghdad.

Musleah left his home for a few years as a young man to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in order to become the Kolkata Jewish community’s first rabbi and the first chief rabbi of India. Until that point, the Jews in Kolkata had received leadership from chazzanim and knowledgeable members of the community but didn’t have any official rabbis, according to Musleah.

“I owed my local community my allegiance because I knew that they required a rabbi with some modernism,” Musleah said of his decision to return to India following rabbinical school. He noted that the community there, which at its peak was about 6,000 strong, was already in decline when he returned as a rabbi. Today, he said, there are fewer than 100 Jews left in Kolkata. An estimated 5,000 Jews live throughout India today.

When he went back, he said, he hoped to steer younger Jews to move to Israel, like his two siblings did in 1945. He did a good enough job, he said, that “it so happened that I influenced about 250 young people to move there through youth aliyah.”

By 1964, once most of the Jews had left either for the United States or Israel, Musleah said, he decided he was ready for a new challenge and new horizons.

His search was answered by a job offer in Philadelphia to become the head rabbi of Mikveh Israel, a historic Se­phardic Orthodox synagogue founded in Old City in the 1740s, where he served for 15 years before stepping down and embarking on a three-year stint as the rabbi of Historic Congregation B’nai Abraham Synagogue on Lombard Street, across from where he lives.

Starting in 1982, he focused his energy on his position as chairman of the Conservative movement’s Beit Din in Philadelphia. He had held that position since 1979, specializing in arranging Jewish divorces, and continued to serve in that capacity until a few months ago.

Then, in 1990, Musleah began looking for a community in need of a designated Torah reader. It happened that BZBI, under the direction of its then new rabbi, Ira Stone, was in the market.

Finding someone to read on a regular basis “was daunting,” said Stone, who will soon become the congregation’s rabbi emeritus. Luckily, he added, “Rabbi Musleah messaged us that he was willing to do it, and the rest is history.”

Since becoming BZBI’s steady Torah reader 25 years ago, Musleah has asserted his influence beyond his Torah reading duties as a mentor for many young members of the community.

“Having the opportunity to learn with him has always kept me grounded and I’ve found it to be so important in my life,” said Laver, who continued to study Torah with Musleah through college and now into his life as a partner at a local law firm and the father of two.

“But the heart of the study is always Torah — it begins and ends with Torah,” he said, adding that Musleah blesses his children, ages 7 and 4, whenever he sees them.

Ramy Djerassi, a judge on the Phila­delphia County Court of Common Pleas, was part of the committee that first invited Musleah to come read Torah at BZBI.

Djerassi, 58, who later served as the synagogue’s president from 1997 to 2001, shared the positive ways in which the rabbi has impacted his life and career. “He really helped me understand who I am as a Jew,” he said, describing his own Jewish background as “average to secular.”

“He has taught me the importance of being patient as a teacher and how critical it is to value everybody the same as a potential student, and to be humble,” Djerassi said, noting that he has some 60 pages of handwritten notes on halacha, or Jewish law, that Musleah penned in blue ink.

And, like Laver, he lauded Musleah’s “old school” Torah reading skills.

“They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” Djerassi said.

Both Djerassi and Laver mentioned Musleah’s wife, Margaret, whom they described as a steadying presence by Musleah’s side, a positive influence in their lives and an avid Torah reader herself.

Margaret Musleah, who also occasionally reads Torah at BZBI, grew up as Musleah’s neighbor in Kolkata, before they began dating and eventually marrying. But their shared history extends long beyond being former neighbors.

The couple has a copy of an old ketubah, or wedding contract, that was signed in Baghdad in 1781 by ancestors from both sides of their family, who were jointly serving as witnesses at a wedding. Now closing in on 60 years of marriage themselves this September, she joked, “If we’re married for so long, it must have been great.”

“It gives me a lot of pleasure” to watch her husband read Torah, she said, noting that the rabbi taught her how to read Torah when she was in her 60s.

“She can read the way we read in Kolkata and also the Ashkenazi way,” her husband added proudly.

She was by Musleah’s side again on May 17 — along with the couple’s three daughters, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild — when he was honored by BZBI for his 25 years of service. The event was held at a hotel and doubled as a celebration for Yom Yerushalayim, or Jeru­salem Day.

The rabbi said that what keeps him reading Torah at the age of 87 with the same passion he developed as a 10-year-old, when he first started learning how to read Torah, is this:

“There’s only one word that describes my attraction to Torah reading and that is ‘love,’ from the bottom of my heart,” said Musleah. “So that is my story.”


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