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Zeji Ozeri: Rising celebrity in Jewish and Hispanic communities

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

COMMERCIAL BREAK—Zeji Ozeri, left, pauses with microphone in hand during
filming of a commercial of I-Chamba, owned by Vic and Lea Sefler, seated at right. Telemundo videographer is Nancy Castro

By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Zeji Ozeri is a man of three cultures—Mexican, Israeli, and now American—and as a singer, song leader, comedian, documentary film maker and an entertainer on the local Telemundo station, he has developed strong followings among Jews and Hispanic citizens of this city.

“What you have to understand about Zeji is that there are probably more than 1,000 Jewish kids in San Diego who have fallen in love with Jewish songs through him,” commented Todd Salovey, director of the Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival at the San Diego Rep.

“My kids have been taught by Zeji—and whenever Zeji comes to my synagogue (Adat Yeshurun) to pray, I feel as if a celebrity has come in—that’s the effect he has on so many people,” he said.

Rabbi Simcha Weiser, headmaster of Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, has a similar opinion:  “He communicates beautifully with children,” he said. “He is able to inspire kids to sing – and that is not as simple as it sounds.  He puts so much heart, feeling and emotion into it.”

Although Ozeri had learned his prayers at the Yavneh school in Mexico City, which he attended from kindergarten through high school graduation, he did not really learn the Jewish liturgy until after he came to San Diego.  His first job in San Diego as a song leader and later as a  shaliach at the Ken Jewish Community were not permanent, and while he was in the process of becoming a resident alien with a green card, other organizations—although they admired his work—were reluctant to hire him, lest they run afoul of immigration laws.

Rabbi Arnold Kopikis, who was then the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Ami – the forerunner of Ohr Shalom Synagogue – told Ozeri he wanted him to lead songs, and help with the services, at Adat Ami, where a large percentage of the membership was Spanish speaking.  Kopikis, an Argentinian rabbi, had served previously in Mexico City, where he had met Ozeri as a youngster.

Although Ozeri had friends who let him stay at their homes during this period of his life in the 1990s, he never wanted to stay with anyone too long—he was so embarrassed by his financial situation.  Occasionally, money was so tight, he had to sleep in his car.  So, while recalling in an interview how Kopikis had reached out to him in his time of need, Ozeri’s voice started to quiver, and he had to stop for a moment to regain his composure.  Rabbi Kopikis, now head of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, is one man to whom Ozeri says he he will be eternally grateful.

“I always like to call him ‘Broza,’”  Kopikis later told me, “because his singing style reminds me so much of (popular Israeli singer) David Broza.”

Besides as a singer, Ozeri became known to Salovey as an actor and a director—appearing at the Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival as a member of the Spanish-language repertory group, Teatro Punto y Coma, for several years.

A friend from Mexico City and the Ken Jewish Community also in the group was Robert Moutal, who then was head of production for the Telemundo television outlet in San Diego.  Moutal, a member of Congregation Beth El, subsequently was promoted to general manager.

When a position opened for a local morning host on Telemundo,  Moutal recommended Ozeri, but a woman from Texas got the coveted job.  Forty-five minutes after telling Ozeri the sad news, Moutal phoned him back.  The woman apparently had changed her mind.  “The job’s yours.”

For the last six years, on Monday through Fridays, Ozeri has prepared three 150-second segments per day—each of which typically is broadcast twice.  The segment may be a commercial, or a comedy sketch, a brief interview with a visiting celebrity, or whatever else Ozeri may dream up.

On a recent morning, Ozeri was doing a commercial in the studio for I-Chamba— a company whose name means ‘Got Work?’  Owned by Vic and Lea Sefler, whose children go to Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, I-Chamba is a web-based employment service for blue-collar workers.  As Ozeri ad-libbed a commercial, Lea Sefler couldn’t help but laugh off-camera.

“His personality is amazing,” she said. “He really has fun.  We tried to find some way to explain our service with the right slang word in Spanish, and he just picked the right one.  He is very funny, with his choice of words, and his energy.  He has a following in the Spanish market, and when he does the commercials, we get phone calls right away.”

Pitching products is just one part of his job.  Videographer Nancy Castro remembers that he “had a chimpanzee with one of his segments, and  the chimp kept on hitting his head like a coconut.  Zeji was playing off it.”

On another occasion, cameras whirled as Ozeri waited for his Telemundo-arranged blind date, zooming in as he realized that he had been “stood up,” Castro recalled.

Although Moutal is Ozeri’s boss, he says there is nothing he likes better than when his star asks him to appear in a sketch with him. “We do a segment in which he plays an Argentinian professor and I play a Spaniard, who says fallacies, and he corrects me,” Moutal said.  “It is a very light segment.”

Ozeri is physically recognizable – “slender, bald, with big eyebrows, he is easy to cartoon,” says Moutal.  “At the very beginning, we tried to dress him up, but it didn’t fly, so now he dresses casually and the clients like that.  They like his approachability.”

Viewers often recognize Ozeri as he goes about town, Moutal said. “They approach him as a friend.  ‘Hey, you’re Zeji.  How’s it going?’ like he’s their friend, and he is very nonchalant about it.  Sometimes they will ask for his autograph.”

Ozeri and Moutal traveled together to Israel to make a documentary film about the popular Hebrew song,  Erev Zavat Chalav U’Devash (The Land of Milk and Honey), and its composer, Eliyahu Gamliel, whom Ozeri describes as “our grandfather, everybody’s grandfather.”

The song, which almost everyone in Israel knows, has become something of a trademark for Ozeri, who will get requests for it if he fails to sing it at performances.  “He  personally brought the tradition of that song to San Diego,” Salovey says.

The documentary won three local Emmy awards for Telemundo; so far, Ozeri has won or has contributed to winning six such television awards.

He also has recorded two CD’s of Jewish music and that’s just the beginning—or perhaps the middle—of Ozeri’s story.  He says he has some other documentaries planned, is working on some English-language theatre productions, and expects to be recording more music.

So what is the background of this San Diego personality, who came to this city about 20 years ago?

Zeji is short for Zejaria in Spanish, or Zachariah in Hebrew and English.  His father, Aharon, was from a Yemenite Jewish family that ferried across the Red Sea from Yemen to Egypt and walked to Israel, where Zeji was born the eldest of four children.  His mother, Raquel Sefchovich, was a Mexican Jew who visited Israel on a year-long program, where she met and fell in love with Aharon, a soldier in a Nahal unit assigned to helping build a new kibbutz.

Coincidentally,  Kibbutz Erez, where his parents met, is one of the 10 kibbutzim of Sha’ar Hanegev, which became the partnership region of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County more than a generation later.

Ozeri’s parents settled in Mexico City, to which his mother had returned to help in her family’s business.  After Aharon came to visit, they were married.  Born and raised in Mexico City, Zeji attended the Yavneh Hebrew School from kindergarten through graduation—and remembers the school as being similar to Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, where today he teaches Hebrew songs, only Yavneh was staffed  by “fewer rabbis.”

The Yavneh School—named for the community in Israel where Torah learning was continued, even after the fall of the Second Temple—was an Orthodox institution, but many of its teachers and students were either secular or less observant, Ozeri remembers.

He recalled that while he was a student, a new headmaster came to the school – a rabbi who felt that morning  prayers for the students should be mandatory rather than optional.  Ozeri was among the children who rebelled over this change in schedule, hiding in the school bathroom with his legs above the toilet seat so he could not be spotted under the stall door.  It was no use; the rabbi would open the door of the bathroom and call out, “Okay, Ozeri, I know you’re in there, go to Tefilah (prayers)”

Insistent as the headmaster was, he also was tolerant, treating Ozeri’s rebelliousness as simply a youthful phase rather than outright disobedience. After a while, Ozeri started enjoying the morning sessions in which he learned his Hebrew prayers, and says, today, all these years later, he is glad that he had such grounding, because he can pray in fellowship with other Jews anywhere in the world.

The school was small, and students were regularly pressed into service for various school activities.  Ozeri found himself in the school choir, and in the Israeli folkdance troupe.  These experiences and active participation in the youth organization, Maccabi Hatzair, were important factors leading to Ozeri’s career.

Rising through Maccabi Hatzair from a camper to a counselor, he was chosen to spend nine months in Israel to learn to become a Jewish community leader.  Again coincidentally, he was sent to Kibbutz Or Haner for three months – it is also a kibbutz in the Sha’ar Hanegev municipality — and was surprised that kibbutzniks living in that section of Israel adjacent to the Gaza border still remembered his father. Ozeri spent three months on the kibbutz, another six months in Jerusalem at a school for leaders from abroad, and rounded out the tour with a stay in Ramat Gan for seminars at the headquarters for the Maccabi World Union.

At first, he admitted, he had a negative impression of Americans, thinking them hopelessly uninformed about other countries – Americans were surprised, for example, that there even was such a phenomenon as a Mexican Jew.  Furthermore, he said, Americans seemed to be more one-dimensional in their interests than his fellow Mexicans.  It was his impression that Americans picked one subject or activity—whatever it may be– to do very well, but didn’t try to distinguish themselves at anything else.  Mexicans, by contrast, did a lot of things well, but perhaps did not achieve the level of expertise that  Americans attained in their singular fields, he reflected.

Notwithstanding these differences, he made friends with the English speakers—and is particularly grateful to one American and one young Englishman with whom he went on an excursion to Mahane Yehuda market place in Jerusalem, where they began to play their guitars and sing Simon and Garfunkel songs, quickly drawing an admiring crowd.   Impressed, Ozeri decided he would learn to play the guitar at the first available opportunity.  It was a way to have fun, get in front of a crowd, “and, okay, it was also a great way to get girls” grinned Ozeri, who after two long-term relationships is still a bachelor.

In the Maccabi Hatzair program, there was an all-in-fun rivalry school boy rivalry between the Mexican and Americans, which took the form of water fights in which the Mexicans would spray the Americans with a hose, and yell “We want Texas back!  We want California!”

Ozeri was becoming hooked on Israel, but he didn’t know it yet.  He went home, graduated from Yavneh School, and started to enroll at Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City. After he told officials there he did not plan to attend the morning masses, he learned that the classes he wanted to enroll in somehow already had been filled.  ‘You know what,” he told his parents, “I’d rather go back to Israel  and go to school there.”

His father, in particular, agreed, and Ozeri was off to Tel Aviv University, where he majored in theatre and minored in Jewish Studies.  Ozeri came from a working class family—and as he tells the story, his folks gave him $500 and wished him luck in Israel.  Any expenses over and above that, he’d have to earn.

His previous certification as a Maccabi World Union counselor served him in good stead; he was chosen to be a counselor for students from foreign countries, many of them Americans.  Ozeri remembers meeting groups of them at Ben Gurion Airport and quietly shepherding them to the bus.  Then he would count them—loudly, enthusiastically, in Spanish!—and the startled students would wonder if they somehow had landed in the wrong country.

As counselor for the overseas students, he arranged trips to various parts of Israel as well as volunteer projects for them to participate in.  As their residence adviser, he offered a shoulder to cry on when students felt homesick or, in the case of some of the young women, mistakenly believed themselves to be pregnant.

One community service project he helped organize was the donation of old clothing to people living in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  Given his own economically needy condition, he became a recipient of some of the clothing himself.  In particular, he remembers obtaining his first-ever pair of Levi jeans.

Because his Hebrew was not good enough to merit parts on stage, Ozeri’s focused his theatre studies on backstage work—lighting, costumes, props, curtain.  All the while, his academic minor of Jewish Studies was becoming increasingly important to him, especially lectures by Survivors about the Holocaust and by pioneers about the establishment of Israel.  In Mexico, history had been something that happened long ago, to people he could not necessarily relate to, but hearing Survivors tell their stories in the new Jewish state—where never again would Jews face such humiliation and degradation—reinforced his parents’ teaching: “Zeji, always remember who and what you are.”

In Mexico, he reflected, people thought of him as a “Jew,” whereas in Israel, where everybody was Jewish, people thought of him as a “Mexican.”   At Tel Aviv University, one of the buildings in which he studied was called the Mexico Building, as money for its construction was donated by Mexican Jews.  Ozeri remembers looking at the Mexican sculptures associated with that building and thinking “I’m in a Mexican bubble.”

Graduation burst the bubble, and not long after visiting his family at home, he was off to Los Angeles at the invitation of his uncle to make movies for the Mexican market.  But his uncle got very sick with cancer, and Ozeri had to sell the movies the uncle already had made.  In Los Angeles, Moises Edid told him that his brother Abraham—whom Ozeri had known at Maccabi Hatzair—was living in San Diego County, so Ozeri decided to come down for a visit.

Edid took Ozeri to a party in the Eastlake area of Chula Vista, and “I opened the door, and it was filled with Mexicans.  I knew there were (Jewish) Mexicans in San Diego, but I had no idea there were so many.  I saw people who went to school with me—Joel and David Chayet – and there were even two first cousins who I hadn’t seen in maybe twelve or thirteen years.  One of them, the face looked familiar—the last time I saw her she was seven or eight, but now she was grown up—and I said, ‘is your name Sharon?’  And when she said it was, I said ‘I’m your cousin Zeji.’”

With his guitar, he led some singing at the party, prompting David Chait, who was working as a shaliach at the Ken Jewish Community (the Spanish-language JCC) to invite him to become a song leader at the Ken’s camp.

In turn that led to Ozeri eventually becoming the shaliach at the Ken, as well as to other jobs as a song leader at  San Diego Jewish Academy, at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, and at Ohr Shalom Synagogue, among others.

“I had a double identity as a Mexican and a Jew,” Ozeri reflected.  “Now as a San Diegan, I have a triple identity.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

  1. humus
    July 24, 2011 at 7:23 am


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