It’s always moving to read stories of people who convert to Judaism out of conviction and against all odds. But you will find few more extraordinary stories than that of Zipporah (not her real name), who was born a Tunisian Muslim. Zipporah came to Israel from the US with her Honduran husband Oscar, who converted from Catholicism. Here is an abridged, rough translation from the Hebrew feature in Maariv (with thanks: Sylvia) :
As the world marked a decade and three months since the September 11 attacks, Zipporah (full name kept confidential) recalled how in the midst of tragedy Tunisia, her homeland, changed for her in front of her very eyes. Like the rest of the world, the North African country was considered relatively moderate, but instead of having compassion for thousands of victims, a wave of religious extremism and hatred of the West washed over it.
Zipporah with her husband Joseph and baby Sophia (Photo: Reli)
“Tunisia before the attack was not a particularly religious country,” recalls Zipporah, who was still called by her Arabic name, Asma. “Most of my friends were secular, not people who pray five times a day. But in the days after the attack people on the street felt a tremendous sense of pride in Muslims. A sense of unity.
“Suddenly the world was divided between the followers of Islam on the one hand and Western countries on the other. It was amazing. A few days after the attack I came to school and I saw more girls wearing head coverings. Students went about with pictures of Osama bin Laden in their wallets. The blow the West took was a moment of elation for Tunisian people. “
Asma’s father, an economist educated at Syracuse University, New York, was employed by the UN and was working with international relief organizations. The relationship with Israel was characterized by an uncompromising disgust. “My father is a full-fledged antisemite,” she stresses. “On the one hand, an educated man who went to university in New York and on the other hand, he hates Jews. Deep down he believes that all Jews a bad smell, they are not clean. He watches the news on Al – Jazeera and keeps saying he does not understand why the world did not fight against Israel, why it allows it to continue the occupation, why it does not destroy them.
“Despite the hatred of Israel father was a true intellectual,” she says. “A curious man who travelled all over the world. Very open. He worked with many Americans. He knew them intimately and felt a great affinity for American culture. After the attacks he was afraid we were going for the hard bloodshed, polarization between East and West.
“We were a wealthy family. My housewife mother and three sisters. I had everything. We used to go overseas for holidays annually almost anywhere in the world. We lived in a two-story building in the capital Tunis, we had a dog. For seven years I studied violin.”
But the holidays in the Alps, violin lessons, took place in the framework of a strong Islamic faith and pan-Arab solidarity. “My mother was religious, one of those who pray five times a day, advocating for maintaining a religious lifestyle. In the heat she would fill bottles with cold water and go to the poor. At Ramadan, when fasting was over in the evening, she would fill pots of food and giving them to people the street. She was a woman of much grace. “ A nostalgic smile spreads over her face when she says the word “grace” in Hebrew without an accent.
How did you feel about the outbreak of the uprising in Tunisia last winter? “At first I was very happy that the Tunisian people were taking their destiny into their own hands at last. One of the reasons I wanted to leave Tunisia and study outside the country was like many other young people in the country, I felt suffocated as a result of the political situation. When Zine – Abedine Ben Ali left the country it was really surreal. The way in which he and his family came to prey on Tunisia is terrible. the way that they took over everything – mobile operators, airlines, the education system. They were sponsored by a Tunisian mafia. “
Were you surprised by the victory of the Islamic movement in recent elections? “I’m not surprised that the Tunisian people choose a religious party. This is the essence of democracy, people choose who represents them best. However, I was disappointed, as many of the liberal elite of Tunisia expected to establish a secular state. If you look at it realistically, we need to understand how the Arab world works – a Muslim Tunisian, even in liberal circles, values his tradition, religion, faith. The bottom line is that any party in Tunisia is anti-Israel, and it might soon pass a law making any contact with Israel a crime. Which means that my mother cannot talk to me on the ‘phone. It is very bittersweet for me “.
We meet a kosher pizzeria in a Jewish part of town in upstate New Jersey. Zipporah covers her head and a long skirt, apparently fittting well with the locals. Beside her husband Joseph, a black skullcap on his head, his ritual fringes out, holding his half-year-old daughter, Sophia – they are religious. The New Jersey family arrived three days ago along with hundreds of other Jewish couples who chose to leave the United States and to immigrate to Israel, with the assistance of “Nefesh B’Nefesh”.
Outwardly, their profile is different from that of other Jewish families who followed a similar path in recent years: young, in their mid-twenties, with a child or two, recently completed university, just before a career ties them to a permanent job. Like her husband, Zipporah sees herself a devout Zionist. “When Joseph and I wanted to get married the first thing he wanted to know is if I’m ready to move to Israel,” she recalls.
But underneath lies a human story of two exceptional young men who were born as far as possible from Israel and Judaism. She, Asma (her last name, like her, because she is afraid to reveal the great sensitivity of the situation), a Muslim family from Tunisia brought up to hate Jews, he, Oscar Hwarz (Juarez), a Catholic family from Honduras, a devout Christian who spent his adolescence active in the church. Both are educated, speak several languages and are equipped with unique experience. But instead of living in cosmopolitan New York, they chose to convert, become strictly observant and make their home in Israel.
Zipporah says the clues that she would undergo change appeared at an early age. “I remember watching TV at age 15. As always, the news channel was on Al – Jazeera, showing the IDF’s activity. My cousin responded angrily. She said she did not believe what Jews do to Palestinians, they put them through torture and cruel occupation. And I sit there and think to myself, all I know about what happens there comes from Al – Jazeera.n I have never met Israelis, have never learned about what happens there from anywhere else. No one let me hear what the other side feels. My father, with all his education and openness, never thought that maybe there is another side to the story. When it comes to Israel, to all Tunisians have one position – that Israel is the embodiment of all evil and must be destroyed. “
So how have you concluded it’s different? “Ironically, my father taught me to think for myself. He taught me not to accept what the media tells me blindly. Although I know he would not like it, my desire to learn about Israel, get to know the other side, came from him. It is curious he taught us to learn all the time. I remember at the age of eight, nine, I told my dad that it would probably takes forever to count to a thousand. and he, in turn, asked me to count, to see for myself how long it takes. So we sat together and counted from one to a thousand, without skipping a single number. He would not give up until I could see how long it takes. “