Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah, Chair of Beit Din and Leader at Mikveh Israel, Dies at 92

Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah, with his wife, Margaret, at a family party | Courtesy of the Musleah Family Study Finds New Mutation in Ashkenazi Jews

Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah, who dedicated his life to religious leadership, inspiring students and chanting Torah from India to Philadelphia, died on July 14. He was 92. 

“When Rabbi Musleah read Torah in the synagogue,” said Adam Laver, a lawyer and a longtime student of Musleah’s, “it was the voice of God.”

His family “could not stop him from telling stories,” said his daughter Rahel Musleah. By the same token, Musleah’s family, friends and acquaintances eagerly shared stories about the man who was “like a piece of baklava,” according to Rahel, quoting the Israeli writer Sami Michael. “One layer is sweeter than the next.”

Ezekiel Musleah’s family traced its roots to Baghdad, but by the time he was born in 1927, they had trekked to Kolkata, then still spelled Calcutta in the English-speaking world. From a young age, his engagement with the Torah was thorough; over the course of his life, he learned four different nusachim, or melodies, in which to chant the verses. 

As a young man, he departed India to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, having previously studied philosophy at the University of Kolkata. One classmate, Rabbi A. Nathan Abramowitz, recalled Musleah’s “unique pronunciation of the Chet and the Ayin, which none of us could reproduce.” 

Musleah “was such a special person, gracious, authentic and with deep and sincere piety,” Abramowitz added. “He was truly a unique treasure.”

He soon returned to lead Kolkata’s Jewish community, beginning in 1952. Over the next 12 years, most of the Jewish community left for Israel or the United States. In 1964, he joined the exodus, heading straight to Philadelphia, though he would return to his home country many times. He was joined by his wife, Margaret, his childhood neighbor, as well as their three daughters. 

For 15 years, Musleah led Mikveh Israel, and “served the congregants very well,” said Mikveh Israel congregant Leon L. Levy of Center City. “His whole life was centered around Torah, his children, his family and how he could help in some way.” 

After his tenure at Mikveh Israel ended in 1979, he spent three years leading Historic Congregation B’nai Abraham Synagogue on Lombard Street, before leaving the synagogue to allocate full-time focus to his part-time job: chairman of the Conservative movement’s Beit Din in Philadelphia. He held the position until 2015, specializing in the delicate work of arranging Jewish divorces.

In 1990, Musleah answered another community’s call. Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel was looking for a designated Torah reader, and Ezekiel Musleah fit the bill, as both a reader and a teacher. Laver recalls stepping off the bimah at his bar mitzvah, only for Musleah to gently pull him aside. 

“He asked if I would like to learn to read Torah correctly,” Laver said with a laugh. 

Laver became one of the rabbi’s countless students, accrued over a lifetime.

“He taught people without caring about remuneration.” Rahel Musleah said. “He just taught people because it was important to him.”

His spirit of generosity extended beyond his teaching, according to his daughter. He gave away many of his books to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda and took seriously the responsibility of tzedakah. 

For all the seriousness of his life as a student of teacher, Rahel Musleah said, he was quite funny, in a wry way. He liked to hide jellybeans around the house, and would hide his daughter’s rings while they were busy with netilat yadayim. 

“That mischievous streak carried on throughout Sabba’s whole life.” said Shoshana Altman, one of his granddaughters. “You could see it when he made a cheeky comment about Savta and looked over at her with a sly grin, waiting to see how she would respond.”

“His whole being seemed to shake with laughter, from his round belly to the glittering of his eyes,” said Penina Polofsky, another granddaughter. 

Musleah is survived by his wife, Margaret; three daughters, Flora Musleah (Rabbi David Levy), Rahel Musleah and Aliza Musleah (Howie Goldman); eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.


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