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Wednesday
Apr292015

FROM TURKISH HOOPSTER TO TANYA IN TURKISH

It’s hard to believe that the young Chassidic man sitting in Yeshivat Daat in Rechovot used to be a basketball player for the top team in Turkey and a well-to-do businessman.  But that is part of the remarkable life story of R’ Mordechai Mizrachi who is currently immersed in translating the Tanya into Turkish.

BASKETBALL PLAYER WHO RETIRED IN HIS PRIME

R’ Mordechai Mizrachi was born in Istanbul over fifty years ago, during the days when the military government exercised totalitarian control.  “My maternal grandparents emigrated from Georgia to Turkey before World War II.  My grandfather, R’ Mordechai Fitzachdzeh served as Chief Rabbi of Istanbul and the area, but I did not know him.  At home, I always heard him spoken about with the greatest esteem.”

R’ Mordechai’s parents were less religious and he and his brother were sent to a nearby public school.

“Many children from the Jewish community attended public school, but at the same time my parents sent me on Shabbos and Sunday to the Talmud Torah in the shul where I learned and later on, even taught.  The truth is that it was more of a Jewish youth movement.  They did not teach us about mitzvos and the importance of Torah.  Rather, they exposed us to historical aspects of the Jewish people and its customs.”

Serving in the Turkish army was mandatory at that time, but army commanders did not allow Jews or members of ethnic groups to serve as commanders or in combat units. Mordechai was sent to do office work in one of the rear bases.

“Even before serving in the army, I would spend most of my time playing basketball.  I loved the game and was one of the best in my high school.  When I finished my army service, I joined the top team in Turkey and regularly competed against teams from other countries.”

There was no basketball fan in those days in Turkey who did not know and admire the ambitious young athlete who brought great honor to the national team of Turkey.  For ten years he was famous and was written up in the sports pages as an outstanding athlete.  His scoring average never fell below twenty-five.  “In one game, I scored 56 baskets and was considered second in the country for the number of baskets in a game.”

R’ Mordechai recalls the Israeli athlete, Micky Berkowitz, whom he knew:

“In Turkey under military rule, we were not allowed to import products and so I had to wear Turkish sneakers which weren’t always comfortable.  More accurately, they were uncomfortable and made running difficult.

“My knees would hurt after every game for several hours.  One day, when the Israeli basketball team came to Turkey to compete, I discussed this problem with Micky Berkowitz, a well-known Israeli basketball player.  I told him that I am also Jewish.  Before he left the stadium he took off his shoes, autographed them and switched with me.”

R’ Mordechai was highly regarded and admired. He rarely experienced anti-Semitism and he never had to hide his Jewishness.

THE ROAD TO SUCCESS

After many years playing basketball, he decided to retire while still in his prime.  He joined a company which manufactured thread and became their exclusive representative, marketing for them nationally and internationally.  He became very wealthy and married a woman from a Jewish family in Izmir. 

“After we moved to Izmir, I left my job at the thread company and joined a plastics business run by my father-in-law.”

After twenty years of marriage, R’ Mordechai felt a gnawing emptiness. His expansive lifestyle had no inner meaning.  He felt that money no longer interested him and he began to search for true meaning in life.

“I knew that the truth was in the Torah and I knew that what I knew of Torah was minuscule.  I decided to start a shiur in my house and I invited other Jews to join.  The rav of the city would come and give shiurim.  There had never been anything like this in the city and my wife was nervous.”

EXPLORING THE WORLD OF JEWISH LIFE

Along with his business success, R’ Mordechai strengthened his religious observance and tried to do the same for the Jews of Izmir.  He headed an irreligious Jewish movement and worked to instill Jewish fundamentals among the Jews of Izmir.  In addition, he kept up the shiurim every week in his home.

“I think that, already then, I uncovered some Chabad tendencies.  I read about the history of the city and learned that I was living in a place where great tzaddikim, like Rabbi Chaim Palagi, had lived.  I saw that the state of Judaism was abysmal and I felt I had to do something about it.”

“I would log on to the Internet every day and look for inspiring divrei Torah.  There were times that my surfing led me to Chabad sites and I enjoyed the material there, but it wasn’t enough.  I remember sitting one night and talking to Hashem and asking that He send me someone to teach me Torah.

“It was a very difficult time of confusion and soul-searching. On the one hand, I had money and I had a respectable place in the community.  On the other hand, I felt incomplete.  I spoke with my older brother Shabtai, who was six years older than me and was religious with a beard and kippa. I asked his advice because I relied on him and thought of him as being a model Jew.

“My brother urged me to say a lot of T’hillim and to pray to Hashem to send me salvation and that is what I did.  That night I read all of T’hillim and felt my neshama cry out for help.

“The next morning I went to minyan for Shacharis as I did every day.  I arrived a bit late and prayed a little after the minyan.  Suddenly I noticed a man wearing a sirtuk, a gartel and hat, a strange sight in Turkey.  I had never seen anyone wearing such an outfit before.

“After davening I went over to him and he began conversing with me in Turkish.  I was stunned.  A Jew who looked like that could speak Turkish? I had no doubt that Hashem had heard my prayer and had sent me someone to help me get close to Him.  I introduced myself and he said he knew my older brother from Istanbul and they were good friends.

“I was very excited and we spoke for four hours! We couldn’t stay in the shul because it had to be locked right after Shacharis for security reasons, so we continued talking on a nearby street.  He told me that his name is Yisachar Izak. He was born in Istanbul and he had become a baal t’shuva a few years earlier.  He had left Turkey and progressed in his learning elsewhere.  Then he had a feeling that he should return to his homeland and become a sort of shliach to other Jews in Turkey.  I urged him to remain in Izmir and promised to help him.”

That’s what happened.  Mordechai, who was connected with other wealthy Jews from the community, helped R’ Izak establish himself in Izmir and institute a wide range of Chabad outreach activities.

“We would learn Chassidus every day until at a certain point I became a ben bayis by him.  I felt that the thirst I had was beginning to be slaked and that I had finally found the truth.  R’ Izak told me a lot about the Rebbe and the Besuras HaGeula.  I took it all in and became a Chassid.”

At a certain point, R’ Mordechai wrote to the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh and asked what he should do next.  The answer was clear, to move to Eretz Yisroel and to learn in Tomchei T’mimim.

DROPPING EVERYTHING

With the help of the shliach, R’ Izak, Mordechai decided to do it.  In 5767, at the age of 43, without knowing Hebrew but looking like a Lubavitcher, he got on a plane for Eretz Yisroel.

He went to an ulpan to learn Hebrew in Beer Sheva.  With the money he got from the Jewish Agency he immediately bought t’fillin and sefarim.

“When I lived in the immigrants’ hostel I spent most of my time in Heichal Menachem in Beer Sheva and learned Torah.”

Being in Eretz Yisroel was a dream come true for him.  After consulting with R’ Izak, he went from the absorption center to Rechovot where he attended Yeshivas Daat headed by R’ Yitzchok Arad.

“In Daat, I learned according to the curriculum they gave me which included Tanach, Halacha, Gemara, Tanya and Chassidus.  I spent many hours a day on this and did this for three years, aided by Hebrew-English and English-Turkish dictionaries.”

Now that he’s back in the business world, he says with a smile, he sometimes speaks unintelligibly to the man on the street because he learned most of his Hebrew from his Jewish studies.

TURKISH TRANSLATION

In 5770, after three years of relative calm, he received a phone call from his mother in Turkey.  She told him the shocking news that his older brother Shabtai was hospitalized in critical condition after a sudden decline in his health.

“I asked her to give my brother the phone so I could talk to him, but it was too late.  To my great sorrow, he died in his fifties.”

The funeral was the next day and Mordechai took the first flight to Turkey.

“My brother was very involved in translating Jewish books into Turkish, so that the younger generation, who were not proficient in Lashon HaKodesh, would have an easier time learning Torah.  I, who knew that this project meant the world to him, vowed at his grave that it would continue. My brother was the first to translate T’hillim and the Chumash into Turkish and I promised to continue his work.”

When he returned to Eretz Yisroel he immediately got to work.  Due to his intensive studying, he had already translated parts of Tanya into Turkish, but this time he got to work on a translation in a serious and systematic way with the goal of producing a Tanya in Turkish for beginners and bringing the message of Tanya to those who speak the language. 

He spent four years on the project, two years on learning and perfecting his understanding, and another two years in which he sat for hours, translating carefully, word by word, including an explanatory commentary in Turkish.

“It’s a series of volumes, with each volume containing hundreds of pages of translation, on only ten chapters of Tanya.  I’ve also translated other sefarim, including sichos of the Rebbe, maamarei Chassidus, and portions of the Gemara, Mishna, and Halacha.  I feel as though this is only the beginning.”

How do you bridge the gap between concepts in Lashon Ha’kodesh that don’t exist in Turkish?

“It’s the biggest problem I have to contend with.  I know Turkish very well, including the nuances, but it has happened in the middle of translating that I find it hard to translate a word from Lashon Ha’kodesh.  I stop and think about it for days until the concept falls into place the right way. I feel the siyata d’Shmaya (heavenly assistance).”

What is the hardest part in the work of translating and explaining?

“The feeling that it’s endless work.  Even when I finished translating a chapter, it was never complete.  I go over it again and again and each time I add and correct or choose other words and only then do I move on to study other chapters.  Then, once again, I consult and ask others to make sure I understood the Alter Rebbe properly. It’s never-ending work.

“I was once the guest of the mashpia, R’ Zushe Alperowitz in Kiryat Gat and we spoke about my translation work.  He said a line which stays with me as I do this work.  ‘Mordechai, I know that you love the Tanya, but it’s not enough to learn it, you have to drink it in.’  What it says in Tanya has to be part of our soul and I try to approach the work of translating only after I’ve learned a few chapters and I’m in the rarefied atmosphere of Chassidus.”

In your work, do you explain as well as translate?

“The translation itself is a kind of explanation.  I did as the Rebbe said to do in Lessons in Tanya.  At first I present the chapter of Tanya as is, and then the chapter transliterated into Latin letters, and then there is a commentary.  At the end of the chapter there are more explanations. 

“Every ten chapters get about 500 pages! I was recently thinking how the words of Tanya are an ever flowing wellspring so that if I were to go over the translation again, I would be able to double the material.”

Why did you start with translating Tanya?

“In Turkey, there are 15,000 Jews who have almost no exposure to Chassidus.  Other sefarim were translated already but there was no Tanya translated into Turkish, even though it was translated into many languages, including Arabic.  I finished the first volume on 28 Sivan, the day the Rebbe arrived in America, a day connected with spreading the wellsprings outward, in the words of the Rebbe.”

Tell me about feedback you’ve gotten from people in Turkey who learn what you’ve translated.

“The feedback is very good.  I have some wealthy friends who really got into the project and who help me print and market the sefarim.  The feedback from people reached the point where nearly every day I give shiurim in Tanya over Skype to groups who are learning it in Turkey.  It started when I visited Istanbul and people wanted to learn Tanya together and since I live in Eretz Yisroel, I nearly turned them down.  Then someone suggested that I give shiurim over the Internet, and that’s what we do.  It has expanded since then, not only the learning of Tanya but other shiurim, in Halacha too.”

Do you feel or see what the Rebbe emphasized that the world is ready for the Geula?

“In the approbation to Tanya it is hinted that we will greet Moshiach with it.  I am sure that this promise was brought one step closer, at least, because now even Turkish Jews, who do not know Lashon Ha’kodesh, can learn and connect to the power of Tanya.

“If you would have asked me long ago about whether I could do a project like this, I would not have believed it possible, but the Rebbe taught us to believe that each of us can and must spread Chassidus, as the Rebbe said – do all that you can.  Our abilities are definitely greater than we think they are.”

EMPTINESS CAN SPUR GROWTH

“Life is full of ups and downs. We don’t know what Hashem’s plan is but we have to trust in Him, because He, and only He, truly knows what’s good for us.

“I finished translating twenty sefarim so far; it seems like a dream.  I came to Eretz Yisroel, I learned Hebrew, I opened a thriving business here, and I wasn’t young.  Who would have believed it?

“There was a time that I had everything, or at least I thought so then.  Sometimes, you need to empty out in order to fill up with something authentic.  I never dreamed I would be where I am today and I have no doubt that tomorrow I’ll be in an even better place with myself and my spiritual and material life.”

***

You can find R’ Mordechai in Rechovot.  He is a dynamic businessman who spends a large part of his day learning Torah.  He has not given up in the face of challenges that Hashem has given him; he handles them and grows from them. 

This “Turk,” as he is fondly called by the fellows in Yeshivat Daat, is aflame with the fire of Judaism and Torah and spreading the wellsprings.

 

SCROLL FROM HEAVEN

On one of his visits to Turkey, it was Purim and for various reasons he had to stay in his mother’s house for Purim where he did not have a kosher Megilla.  Nor did he have any idea how to get a Megilla. 


“Erev Purim I was frustrated and I cried as I prayed to Hashem that I need a Megilla.  Then an open miracle occurred.  My uncle came to visit my mother and we sat down to talk.  During our conversation I noticed that he was holding a big bag and I wondered what was inside.

“He smiled and opened it and took out a Megilla, perfectly kosher.  ‘This belonged to your grandfather who received it from his grandfather.  It’s a beautiful Megillas Esther that has been passed down in the family.  It is over 200 years old.  Since you are religious, I decided to give this to you to preserve.  I’m sure you know how to preserve it better than us.’  I looked at him and after a few moments of speechlessness, I jumped up in joy.  It was Purim night and I began reading the Megilla, enabling my uncle, aunt, and mother to hear it too.”

 

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