Dreaming of Moshiach

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Arab Jew

To say that Salah Abdel Manam has yichus, or distinguished Jewish lineage, would be an understatement. On his maternal side, his great-grandfather was a famous Safed mystic. And his first cousin died heading a distinguished combat division in Lebanon while heroically defending Israel. On his paternal side, his great-grandfather was a famous Moslem cleric. And a first cousin is one of Arafat's close advisors, who this spring was holed-up with him at the Mukata compound.

Although Jewish activist organizations helped Salah's mother escape twice from her Arab village and her husband, she ultimately decided to cast her lot with them. While Salah's father was willing to marry a Jewish woman, he nevertheless continued to affiliate with the strictest strain of Islam. In time, 9 children were born to the couple, including Salah and his twin brother. Each was raised a devout Muslim.

Salah became proficient in the Koran at a young age, and knew large parts of it by heart. Adopting religious dress, he even wore a jalabiya. Hatred of Jews was a recurring topic in his home and at school. Though married to a Jew, Salah's father wasn't reluctant to proclaim openly his hated of all things Jewish.

His parents intermarriage impacted Salah's day to day interaction with the world around him. "Because my mother was a Jew, I had to show that I was more extreme than everyone else. I knew I was always being watched," Salah explains, matter-of-factly. But while going through the motions of being an "extremist," Salah was troubled by contradictions he found in the Koran. And then politics began to intrude into his life. He lived, after all, in the Middle East.

When the first wave of suicide bombings began, friends tried to draft Salah into the Al Aksa Brigades. The Koran, he was told, "requires me to become a shahid, a martyr." But being proficient in the Muslim holy book, Salah challenged the recruiters to find the source of this "teaching." They couldn't. "It was easy for them to convince the young and the ignorant, but they couldn't seduce me since I knew the Koran inside out. … I also knew that the Koran calls on believers to honor the Jewish people and not to scheme against them. They couldn't fool me," Salah recounts, proudly. As Salah was finishing high school, he was becoming more and more troubled by the way of life he had known since birth. Eventually, he joined his friends in search of work in Israel proper.

At the time, Salah recalls, "I didn't know I was a Jew, according to halacha, the Jewish law. "But whenever I would pass a synagogue, I felt a certain warmth emanating from inside. It was as if G-d was calling to me: 'Return my son.' I identified with my Jewish side. I'm not sure why."

Salah's parents soon began to notice the gradual change taking place in their son. They tried to convince him to join his 3 brothers -- including his twin -- who were studying Islam at a Mecca seminary, which propounds extreme Islamic views. They hoped that sending Salah there would put a speedy end to his interest in Judaism. But Salah refused. He continued working in Israel.

Salah's first encounter with religious Jews was at a Tel Aviv construction company where he found employment. But whenever he would attempt to ask questions about Judaism, his co-workers were evasive. When he eventually confided in them that his mother was a Jew -- which renders him 100% Jewish -- Salah was advised to enroll in classes at a yeshiva for those seeking to become observant. He did, but did not reveal his secret. One day -- almost two years ago -- Salah returned home to his Arab village near Carmiel and packed his few belongings. He has not returned since and intends never to step foot in the region again. All's well, that ends well? Not exactly.

Salah discovered that despite his sacrifice, his problems were only beginning. Initially, he decided to move to an Israeli city with a large religious population. But with suicide bombings and terror attacks escalating, Salah, who began to wear a yarmulke and other distinct Jewish garb, was regularly viewed by residents with deep suspicion due to his Arabic name and his orange Palestinian identity card. (In recent months, suicide bombers have donned Jewish garb in attempts infiltrate secure areas.) Worse, his return to Judaism was literally threatening his life. During a police sweep, Salah would be picked up and expelled to the West Bank. Israeli authorities would not believe that he wanted to become a Jew, thinking it was a ruse. Yet if he were returned to the Palestinian Authority, he knew he would be hanged and murdered for being a "collaborator" with Israel.

"I was going out of mind," Salah confides. "I was afraid to walk in the streets. I was afraid to go to offices. I was afraid to go to the Ministry of the Interior to change my status because my parents might find out where I was living and someone with a knife or a weapon might come after me." In the end, he finally decided to open-up to the rosh yeshiva ("dean") of his Judaic studies school. Once the sage verified Salah's astounding story, he took the truth seeker under his wing. The easiest way to solve Salah's problems, it was decided, was to have him officially be converted by the Rabbinate, who ruled that he had to undergo a Halachic circumcision.

To his amazement, Salah found out that he had been circumcised according to Jewish law. "When I was born, there were no local Arab mohelim," Salah explains. "There was no Intifada, and Jews freely entered Arab towns without fear. There was a mohel ("circumcisor") in one of the settlements near the village where my parents lived, and he did the circumcisions for our family. Afterwards, I understood why. My Jewish mother wanted her children's circumcisions to be authentically Jewish. She specifically asked the mohel to perform these rites quietly and make sure that no one heard or saw. He knew that my mother was Jewish and he gladly fulfilled her will. Who knows if I returned to Judaism in the merit of this."

In the past year and a half, Salah has been vigorously pursuing his studies in a yeshiva. His Arab accent has completely disappeared, and peyot ("sidelocks") and a beard now frame his face. He has also worked unceasingly on his pronunciation of Hebrew, and today it is flawless.

Salah has reconnected with his mother's Jewish relatives, who received him warmly like a lost son. He has taken the same last name as his illustrious great-grandfather, and says he is doing everything possible to forget his Moslem past. Now 24, Salah, who has taken the name "Yehudah," is recently married to an Italian-born Jewish woman who recently returned to her Jewish roots, although in a much more conventional manner. A chessed (benevolence) organization undertook to help pay for his wedding.

Yehudah says that there are hundreds of Jewish women like his mother who remain in Arab villages -- not because they have such a good life; many, in fact, are abused -- they stay because they feel they have nowhere to return to. Their families have already sat "shiva" (mourned) for them. He believes that if the Jewish people would open their hearts to these unfortunate women, they could save many of them.

[Edited by Yrachmiel Tilles from the translation of an article in the Israeli daily, Yated Ne'eman, submitted by David Devor.]




והיה השם למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה השם אחד - ושמו אחד ישתבח שמו לעד לנצח נצחים בכל העולמות Blessed is His name for eternity in all worlds אין עוד מלבדו