The Saints' Impresarios: Dreamers, Healers, and Holy Men in Israel's Urban Periphery

The Saints' Impresarios: Dreamers, Healers, and Holy Men in Israel's Urban Periphery


Yoram Bilu

Series: Israel: Society, Culture, and History
ISBN: 9781934843710 (hardcover) 
Pages: 364 pp.
Publication Date: December 2009

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The astonishing revival of saint worship in contemporary Israel was ignited by Moroccan Jews, who  immigrated to the new country in the 1950s and 1960s. The Saints' Impresarios charts the vicissitudes of four new domestic shrines, each established by Moroccan-born men and women in a peripheral development town, following an exciting revelation involving a saintly figure. Each of the case studies discussing the life stories of the “saint impresarios” elaborates on a distinctive theme: dreams as psychocultural triggers for revelation; family and community responses to the initiative; female saint impresarios as healers; and the alleviation of life crises through the saint’s idiom. The initiatives are evaluated against the historical background of Jews in Morocco and the sociopolitical and cultural changes in present-day Israeli society. The original Hebrew edition garnered the coveted Bahat Prize (Haifa University Press) for the best academic book in 2006. The book is for readers interested in Israel and Jewish studies, folk religion and mysticism, cultural and psychological anthropology, and Moroccan Jews.

Yoram Bilu (PhD Hebrew University) is a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His main publications include Grasping Land: Space and Place in Contemporary Israeli Discourse and Experience (SUNY Press, 1997, co-edited with Eyal Ben-Ari) and Without Bounds: The Life and Death of Rabbi Ya'aqov Wazana (Wayne State UP, 2000).

These case studies of pilgrimage sites appearing on the margins of society touch on the quest for revitalization in the midst of individual and collective hardships, caused by migration and loneliness. The author portrays a unique class of religious virtuosi, the emissaries of forgotten holiness that haunts them in their dreams. Then, the dreamers become doers and manage to create a rebirth of lost traditions. We encounter here something that always lives at the heart of living religion, a mystery of seeming simplicity and innocence that manages to transform objective social barriers.
— Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, University of Haifa
Yoram Bilu’s work on the ‘cult of saints’ (tzaddiqim), a system of religious practice common among Israel’s North African immigrants, represents a model of ethnographic research. His participant observations of pilgrimages—to the tombs of the saints, principally in the Negev and Galilee, the courts of their descendants and the sites of the newly venerated, together with his revealing interviews with custodians and devotees of these venues, offer a rich understanding of the cultural, social, and psychological forces that underpin this practice. Bilu examines the evolution and reinvigoration of this tradition through the proclamation of new heroes for worship and sites for veneration. His book is a necessary reading for anyone interested in the cultural and social dynamics that continue to shape Israeli society.
— Moshe Shokeid, Tel-Aviv University