My father died on July 14, a Tuesday. He loved Tuesdays because it was the day of “double good” in the creation of the world.
He did so much good in the world, reflected in the outpouring of love and letters we have received from relatives, friends, colleagues, students and community members whose lives he touched. He was a scholar who carried himself with grace and dignity; who shared his wisdom, and left his stamp of love and kindness on many.
He was born in 1927, in Calcutta, the youngest of three surviving children but the tenth in the number of his mother Flora’s pregnancies. He was ill with jaundice when he was born—it was a life-threatening illness then—and was named Yehezkel Nissim, may God strengthen you with miracles. He grew up to be a mischievous boy, then a serious and dashing young man, then a devoted rabbi and teacher, and a wise and loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
God did strengthen him and he never forgot, paying back with a lifetime of devotion to Torah, to God, to family and to the many communities he served.
He grew up in an extended family at 11 Bowbazaar Street with his parents Isaac Sasson and Flora; brother Meyer and sister Ruby; grandparents Meir Ezra and Masooda, and unmarried aunts and uncle. His mother died when he was 10, shortly after he read Torah for the first time. It made him both tough and tender.
Partly for solace he turned to chanting Torah. He was smart and fast and good at it and it became one of the loves of his life. Even then he had great determination: he started learning Torah when he was 12, deciding to learn a third each year for three years, so by the age of 15 he had completed the entire Torah.
Anybody who ever heard him read Torah never forgot it. He was a master, meticulous and precise. He understood every word and nuance, every azla gareesh and mapik hay. When the trope sequence was repetitive or tricky, to help him remember he would make up stories about why that particular trope was there. They were really midrashim on the text.
Torah was one of the tropes of his life. He savored each word and knew most of it by heart. Even if I was looking at the text and he wasn’t, he could correct me. He knew four different tropes and could switch easily between them. That was always an amazing treat.
He loved poring over books and papers, studying, reading, making notes. He catalogued everything, writing on little index cards that he tucked into the books. They would invariably fall out and we could see his looping script detail the name of the book; when and where it was published; who it belonged to, and any other pertinent facts. He loved telling stories that have by now become apocryphal.
As a teenager he was influenced by Rabbi David Seligson, a chaplain in the U.S. Army stationed in India who had started a sort of Jr. Congregation in the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta. He attended the St. James School and was tutored at home in Tanach (Bible) But most of all he learned just by absorbing the customs and traditions in the family. He was active in Habonim, the Zionist youth group, learning songs that he later sang for us with so much heart.
He received his degree in philosophy from the University of Calcutta, and at the age of 20 he took his love of Torah, left his family and community, and sailed to the United States to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary for the next five years. His siblings had already made aliyah to what was then Palestine. He thought of himself as a different sort of pioneer. He studied with the greats--Simon Greenberg, who singled him out for the homiletics prize, Abraham Halkin, and others. They recognized his skill and when he was asked to read Torah at JTS, he learned the Ashkenazic trope.
He could have stayed in the U.S., but he wanted to return home to help the community. In 1952 he became rabbi of Maghen David, the same synagogue in which he grew up. He married Margaret Judah in 1955 on the tebah of her family’s synagogue—Beth El, and they soon had three daughters within the space of three years. In 1964, as the community was getting smaller, he found a job as rabbi of the historic colonial Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia, and we emigrated to the U.S. in July of that year.
One of my earliest memories is of my father listening to a recording on a reel-to-reel tape recorder of Rabbi Leon Elmaleh singing the traditional Spanish-and-Portuguese melodies that he had to learn in a month to officiate at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. He led Mikveh Israel for 15 years, including overseeing its transition from Broad and York to Independence Mall in time for the Bicentennial in 1976. Afterwards he became a mesader gittin, arranging Jewish divorces with compassion, and served on the local and national Conservative bet din. Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel welcomed him to become their Torah reader 30 years ago. He chanted Torah there weekly until the pandemic shut everything down. He was a beloved and respected leader in the community.
Our family name was a huge part of his identity. He brought us up with the mantra, beshem Hashem na’aseh v’natzliach, in the name of Hashem, let us do, and let us be successful. Don’t be idle, always study, always do.
He taught rigorously and from the heart, starting with his own family. He supplemented what we learned at Solomon Schechter and later, at Akiba Hebrew Academy and Girls High, with a demanding additional home schooling curriculum of his own making—Bible contests, Tanach with Rashi, Talmud, Jewish history. Around the Shabbat table we learned Hebrew grammar, pee-el, hufál, hitpael, and sang pizmonim from the Baghdadi tradition. When my mother turned 65, he decided it was time to teach her how to read Torah as well, and she was his foremost star pupil.
He was a genealogist, historian, researcher, preserver of tradition. He traced our family tree back to 17th-century Baghdad. His doctoral dissertation was a history of the Jews of Calcutta later published as On the Banks of the Ganga. At the funeral and afterwards, we have been following his wishes as spelled out in Kiru Aharai, a comprehensive book of mourning. He translated and recorded the pizmonim in Kol Zimra, and also recorded all the services from the Baghdadi-Indian nusah. He wrote his own memoirs: No Shortcuts to Far Horizons: Pioneering Paths from Jewish India, and Bits and Pieces: Snitches and Snatches from a Lifetime of Thoughts, Anecdotes and Events.
My father always stood proud, tall, and dignified, but also indulged his playful and mischievous side. He loved baseball, especially the Phillies; adored the opera, travel and nature, and enjoyed playing towlee, backgammon. When he wanted a double six, the best number, he would roll the dice around in his hands above his head and cry, gan eden, paradise. That’s where we hope he is now.
He loved gematria, the value of numbers as midrash. He left us a month short of his 93rd birthday on 7/14, the best possible number. Seven for Shabbat, and 14, a double Shabbat, a time of rest for both body and soul.
My sister Aliza wrote this beautiful gematria, based on 93 as the value for magen, shield, and my father’s deep connection to the Maghen David Synagogue. The Magen David is comprised of one triangle facing down and one triangle facing up. He had his feet on this Earth for 93 years like the point of the triangle facing down, but always looked up to God for strength like the point of the triangle facing up.
“Ve-atah Adonai magen ba’adi/K’vodi u-merim roshi/Koli el Adonai ekra, vaya’aneni me-har kodsho. Selah.
But you, O God, are a shield around me, my glory and the one that lifts my head high. With my voice I call to God and he answers me from his holy mountain. Selah.
-Tehillim 3: 4-5
Torah, teaching and family aside, the love of his life was our mother, his wife of 65 years, his Eshet Hayil. Our custom as in many families is to sing Eshet Hayil (Woman of Valor) from Proverbs on Friday nights, but in our home, we all sang it together. Only at the lines ve-át alit al kulana, you are above all other women, did we stop singing and he looked at he and recited that line by himself.
Hopefully he is at peace knowing what a great legacy he has left us, his three children, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Together that number adds up to 17: the numerical value of tov (good). Break down the 17 into 1 + 7, and you get 8, which equals infinity.
The Sephardic version of Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, ends with Mah She’achalnu that we always sang together in harmony as a family. The paragraph ends: Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki le-olam hasdo. Give thanks for God is good; God’s hesed stretches to infinity. Hodu l’Adonai. Hodu is also the Hebrew word for India.
My father gave us a bracha, a blessing, every Erev Shabbat, in person when we were growing up, and by phone when we became adults. When we were in person, we would stand up and line up in front of him, wait for him to extend his hand, bow to kiss it. Then he would put his hands on our heads and give us our bracha:
Y’varchecha Adonai v'yishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you.
Ya’er Adonai panav elecha vihuneka. May God shine His face on you with grace.
Yisa Adonai panav elecha v'yasem lecha shalom. May God lift His face to you and give you peace.
We now bestow the same blessings on him.
Yehi zichro baruch.
To learn more about my father’s life and impact on others, please read JTA’s beautiful Bonds of Life tribute here.
It's a custom in our tradition to dedicate a Torah or another ritual object in memory of a beloved family member. Our family has decided to commission the creation of a Torah mantle that will bring to life all that our father, Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah z"l, held most dear: the vibrant blessings of living, reading and teaching Torah. To contribute, learn more here.