Old Moroccan festival, S.F.-style: ‘Hey man, this is my culture’

One would think that Abraham Sultan — rabbi, cantor, shochet, mohel and sofer — would have no problem drawing a room’s rapt at

True, the former spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Orthodox Chevra Thilim is all those things. And yet, even during the stirring verses of “God Bless America” (to be more precise, at the exact moment that Sultan belted out the line “from the mountains to the prairies”), there was a restlessness that couldn’t be contained, even by Sultan’s cantorial calisthenics.

There was tiny 3-year-old Gabriella Bitton, all long brown hair and red-buckled shoes, weaving her way through the packed audience. All anyone saw of her was a tuft of hair nudging at their elbows as she forced her way through the crowd, content as they were with spicy eggplant salad, couscous, Moroccan-style lamb, pastries and plenty of wine.

And toward whom was little Gabriella making her way as Sultan (who came especially from Quebec for this event) sang his patriotic ode? It was Jacques Bitton, the vice president of Anshey Sfard, the de facto master of ceremonies — a man who can easily converse in seven different languages, including some earthy sayings in Tagalog.

Bitton, a blend of Joe Pesci, Frank Sinatra and George Hamilton, didn’t see his daughter approaching, as he was too busy explaining to someone in the congregation why he was wearing his traditional Moroccan hat.

“Hey man, this is my culture. My heritage,” Bitton told the questioner. “It’s like ‘Casablanca,’ except I’m like Chaim Bogart, not Humphrey Bogart. You know what I mean,” he said with a laugh.

Well, yes, someone nearby responded, it was all about passion, just like the whirlwind passion that brought together Bitton and his stunning wife, Kathy. (Ingrid Bergman, probably wouldn’t look as chic in a leather skirt as Kathy Bitton did.) It was a “Romeo and Juliet” romance, the stuff of congregational legend.

Well, truth be told, there were a lot of legends present at the Hilloula Festival, which marks the anniversary of the death of a Moroccan tzaddik, a holy man. However, according to Moroccan tradition, the death of a tzaddik brings him closer to God and cannot be regarded as day of mourning. Therefore, the Hilloula meal is more of a celebration than a yahrzeit, although in Morocco the Hilloula is marked by pilgrimages to gravesites.

And there were other legends, such as those of the revered rabbis who graced the candles that were auctioned off. Famous rabbis, such as Israel Abu Hatsira, Ya’acov Abu Hatsira and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, were auctioned off by Jacques Bitton who exhorted the crowd that he “heard $500 — now what about $550?”

That, of course, all followed Sultan’s version of “God Bless America,” but it wasn’t long after tiny Gabriella continued her journey through the crowd. And who else did she pass by?

Why, none other than Jacques Amiel (the “other Jacques,” according to Gabriella’s father), who is the congregation’s president. That stands to reason, of course, because Amiel, with his jaw chiseled out of granite, impeccably coifed hair and steel-blue eyes looks like a president.

In fact, one can easily imagine posters in Israel, the United States, Morocco, France, Spain or Arabia with the words “Jacques Amiel for president: for all of our yesterdays, and for many better tomorrows.” But Amiel was not available for comment, as he was escorting — in a manner that seemed so fluid it was almost choreographed — a trio of elderly ladies and their grandchildren to a table.

At that very same table — the one little Gabriella had just finished passing by on the way to her father — sat 22-year-old Shlomo Franco, who, while appreciative of Sultan’s fine tenor, was in the midst of dispensing some important philosophy.

Why, the insouciant and handsome youth wanted to know, did people refer to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as “occupied territories,” when they were won during a war? Why are local papers so anti-Semitic? Why do various synagogues (excepting the present one) charge “absurd” yearly dues, when that goes against the very nature of community-based faith?

And, Franco wanted to know, why exactly is Santa Barbara — not exactly a mecca for higher political consciousness — so adamant about recycling?

And just as Franco was fending off repeated attempts to be set up with a reporter’s sister, little Gabriella finally reached her father, who scooped her up in his arms, and double-dipped her, much to the delight of the congregation.

By this time, Sultan had finished “God Bless America,” and was about to lead the congregation in a prayer. After a few attempts to settle the crowd down, he cleared his throat, and gave an exasperated rolling-his-eyes-to-the-heavens-look. Just as Sultan looked like he was ready to step off the stage, Jacques Bitton called out to him.

“Hey rabbi, slap me some skin, man.”

Sultan looked at Bitton, and seemed to be weighing his options. He hesitated for a moment, and then smiled, as his knuckles met Bitton’s high in the air.