From Kuwait to Jerusalem

by Mark Halawa

I was born to a Muslim family in Kuwait, where I grew up. Though my family was non-religious, I had to attend Quran classes at school. Our teachers always told us that Jews were evil and responsible for all the problems in the world, and they were eternally cursed by Allah. So I believed that, but outside of school we didn’t have any religion.

Our neighbour, and my mom’s best friend, Rivka (or as we pronounce it in Arabic, Rif’aa), was married to a nice man from Gaza who worked as an English teacher at the local school. At times, I heard my mom telling my dad that auntie Rif’aa was teaching her children about Judaism. So I was curious, because I heard auntie Rif’aa tell accounts of the life of Joseph and Moses (Yosef and Musa, in Arabic), which I didn’t study in school.

One Friday, I went to a mosque with my grandfather. I remember the Imam spoke about how evil the Jews are, and how, like gangsters, they are willing to kill family members if they abandon the faith, giving an example of prophet Joseph’s evil Jewish brothers who threw him into a pit just because he told them he was the prophet of Islam.

After mosque, we went to my grandparent’s home. My siblings and I sat on the floor and watched as my grandmother served us course after course of our favourite foods…

My mother’s parents met in Jerusalem when my grandfather, an Arab from the West Bank, was serving in the Jordanian army fighting the Zionists. He was 18 years old and my grandmother was 16. Her father ran a school in Jerusalem – the same school where she would jump off the wall to meet my handsome, uniformed grandfather. They fell in love, got married, and lived for a number of years in Shechem (Nablus).

…I wondered why my grandmother turned her back on her Jewish family and roots to marry my grandfather. Was her family evil like Joseph’s brothers? The food was too delicious, especially the eggplant with sumac. But I kept on thinking, did her family want to kill her for abandoning Judaism?

Fast-forward 20 years.

My family are living in Jordan – to which they fled, via Canada, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion in 1990. I’m the only one who opted to remain in Canada, where I am studying at Western Ontario University. And I’m about to have an encounter that will forever change the course of my life.

I am at the university library, studying for my finals, when I discover that my cell phone service has been cut off, so I head down to the lobby to use the pay phones. While on hold, I notice an older man wearing a kippah and long black frock sitting at a table slicing a green apple. I hang up in frustration and go to talk to him.

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” I ask. He smiles.

“No,” he says. “I just like to dress this way.”

I didn’t know what to say. Was he joking? I didn’t think Jews could be funny. I tell him I was born and raised in Kuwait to a secular Muslim family, and that my grandmother was a Jew from Jerusalem, who grew up in Mandatory Palestine.

He invites me to sit down and offers me some apple, introducing himself as Dr Yitzchak Block, a retired professor of philosophy. He tells me that if my maternal grandmother is Jewish, as I had claimed, then, according to Jewish law, my mom is also Jewish, along with my siblings and I.

We end our meeting, and Dr Block extends an invitation to me to visit his synagogue.

After four months of shock, disbelief and heated conversations with my mom (in the intervening years, she had become a devout practitioner of the Muslim faith), I decided one Saturday morning to overcome my hesitation and go see for myself what Jews do in a synagogue. After all, I had a birth right membership card!

I called a cab and got dropped off at the synagogue. As I walked in, the first person I saw looked Indian. He shook my hand, said “Shabbat Shalom”, and handed me a kippah. Then I saw a black man, which really surprised me.

There were, in fact, Jews there from all corners of the world: India, Yemen, Hungary, Poland, and a senior couple from Egypt who spoke Arabic with me. I was a nervous wreck. I thought: “Is this a dream?” if it was, it was the wildest dream ever.

People were so nice, as if they all expected me to make this surprise visit. Everyone was interested in my story. At some point in the service, I was handed a prayer book, shown the proper page, and before I knew it, everyone was singing the Shabbat Kiddush:

"And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel, it is a sign forever that in six days G-d made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed."

Something hit me and I felt as though I knew this song. I just stood there taking in the sounds, the smells and the sights. Everything felt whole and perfect. It was the opposite of everything I'd ever heard about Jews or Judaism. At this point, my tears were streaming.

After Kiddush, I accepted Dr Block’s invitation to join him for lunch. I told him: “I can’t believe I'm here, singing and praying in Hebrew. I could never have imagined it.” He smiled and said: “It's not so hard to believe. Every Jew is born with a little Torah and a little menorah inside.” He then pressed his shoulder up against mine and said: “All it takes is for another Jew to bump into him and light it up.”

At Dr Block’s Shabbat table, I saw men and women, family and strangers, interacting in a way I’d never seen before. It was mesmerising.

Shabbat, as I grasped even then, was about liberation from time, from space, and weekday concerns. That Shabbat afternoon was about touching the eternal through nothing more than good company, a shot of vodka, and a few well-chosen words of Torah. I was hooked.

Today, I live in Jerusalem with my wife Linda and our beautiful daughter Atara Esther.

Our Shabbat experience usually starts on Friday morning with positive tension in anticipation of sunset, and the arrival of our guests.

When Linda lights candles, inaugurating Shabbat, I feel a wave of peace and quiet filling our home.

At dinner, I like to incorporate customs and experiences I have picked up throughout my travels on speaking engagements to different communities around the world.

Once, at a Chabad House in Long Island, New York, the rabbi started dinner sharing with everyone how his single mother did not eat meat for many years to ensure she had enough to feed her children. Then he asked all the men to rise, grab a booklet from the table, and sing Eishet Chayil (“Woman of Valour”) with him, and to dedicate the song to special women in their lives. “To our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters,” he said. As we all sang the ancient words, I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.

And I’ll never forget how, back in Toronto, when I was still finding my feet in Judaism, a rabbi from Aish HaTorah explained how, after Eshet Chayil, we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe, as they were the only two brothers among the forefathers who never quarrelled with one another.

Today, at my table, I bless my two-year-old daughter: “May G-d bless you like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah,” praying for the Almighty to endow her with our foremothers’ insight, selfless giving, kindness and wisdom.

Sometimes, at this point, I recall the image of my grandmother, sitting in the dark with her small prayer book with the Hebrew letters, and crying. It was she who gave me a Jewish soul, and in her own way, it was she who kept my Jewish spark alive.

Next time you’re in Jerusalem, I invite you to our table to experience the sweetness and peace of Shabbat.

Mark Halawa

Mark Halawa is a business conduit connecting Western companies with the Middle East, and a public speaker. He founded the Halawa Initiative to improve the understanding of Israel and Judaism among Arab speakers viaYouTube videos. Halawa is based in Jerusalem, and can be reached at mizrahi.yid@gmail.com.

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