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Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Kuwaiti-born Jew

From JPost:
The most breathtaking panoramic view of the Old City opens up from the balcony of the Aish HaTorah yeshiva. The building is located almost at the foot of the Western Wall Plaza, which makes it a perfect location for viewing the holy city.

But 15 students, who are sitting right next to the big panoramic window, are not paying any attention to the view. They have completely lost themselves in study, listening carefully to the rabbi’s explanations, holding Gemaras in front of them.

The rabbi speaks in English, the common language among all the students, who make an incredible mix of cultures and origins.

One of the students, a smiling young man with a small beard and a black kippa, is totally focused on the lesson. It’s not the first time that he has confronted a complicated religious text: He did so many times back at school. Only back then the texts were Koranic verses in Arabic, and the school was in Kuwait.

Mark Halawa, 33, who now calls himself Mordechai, was born in Kuwait and grew up as a Muslim in a nonobservant family.

So how does a guy who grew up in Kuwait end up in a Jerusalem yeshiva? As a matter of fact, Halawa’s Jewish adventure began in Canada, where he traveled alone to attend university in London, Ontario. His family had wanted him to study nearby, but after a brief stint at a university in Syria, Halawa decided that the environment there did not suit him, and he made the move to Canada in 1998. There, he studied psychology and industrial organization, only realizing he was Jewish toward the end of his time there.

“There was a rabbi at my university, a professor of philosophy. I just felt I wanted to approach him and talk to him,” he says. “Although there is a lot of prejudice against Jews in Kuwait, I never felt that I hated them.

“I told the rabbi about myself and where I come from. Since my early childhood I have known that my grandmother on my maternal side used to pray in Hebrew. Her last name was Mizrahi. He asked me who my father was. I answered that he was a Muslim.

“So you are a Muslim, if your father is a Muslim, I thought to myself. And then he said, ‘Since your Mom is Jewish, you are Jewish.’ I was astonished at his words.”

After some searching and questioning he confirmed that his grandmother was in fact a Jew who married a young Jordanian soldier back in 1946, ran off to Nablus with him and converted to Islam.

Later the family emigrated to Kuwait, where employment opportunities were vast. The Jewish past of the grandmother was never publicly discussed.
Read the whole thing.

The funny thing is I found this story on the Arabic Firas Press site.