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Grandma Rowaida’s Dark Secret

Tzivia Schindler

Mumtaz Halawa, who was born in Kuwait and grew up Jordan, might have gone through life as a Muslim, if not for a “chance” encounter where he discovered an interesting fact: since his maternal grandmother is Jewish, he’s a Jew as well. Today he learns Torah in Jerusalem, where he recently shared his story about how “Mumtaz” became “Mark,” who became, at last, a Torah-observant Jew named “Mordechai.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

mark “Are you Jewish?”

            “No,” jokingly replied Dr. Yitzchok Bloch, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. Since he is also a Lubavitcher chassid, he was dressed in full chassidishe garb. “I just like dressing this way.”

The young man who had posed his question was not in any mood for jokes. He introduced himself as Mark Halawa from Kuwait, a student at the university who was studying psychology and computers, adding that he had recently discovered that he had been fed an aggressive diet of anti-Jewish propaganda throughout his life.

            “But it’s very hard for me to believe that the Jews are wicked, bloodthirsty people,” Mark explained. “In Kuwait, we used to have a Jewish neighbor. Her name was Rivka, and she was a friend of my grandmother. She was married to a Muslim from Gaza, and she raised a completely Muslim family. There were a few other women who everyone knew were Jewish, and not one of them gave off the impression of being a wild animal. I’ve met a few Jewish students as well, and I feel that we can achieve a peaceful coexistence with the Jews. In fact, my grandmother was Jewish before she converted.”

Dr. Bloch was silent, not only out of shock, but also because he didn’t know what to say. He had come to the university library to get some books, not to be cornered by one of the students. But he offered Mark an apple, listened a bit longer, and then asked delicately, “Are you referring to your father’s mother or your mother’s mother?”

“My mother’s mother,” Mark responded. “She was born as a Jew in Jerusalem.”

“If that’s the case,” Reb Yitzchok replied, offering up a silent prayer as he spoke, “if your grandmother was indeed Jewish, then you and your mother are also Jewish in every respect. A Jew who forsakes his religion is still considered Jewish.”

Mark was shocked. “According to Islamic law,” he told Dr. Bloch, “when a person converts to Islam, he and all his descendants are Muslim—forever.”

Dr. Bloch understood that their conversation had unwittingly thrust the young man into a thorny situation from a political, religious, and emotional standpoint. He decided not to pursue the subject further and contented himself with handing Mark a piece of paper with his telephone number. “Think about what I told you,” he suggested to the young man. “Try to find out if your grandmother is indeed Jewish. If you want to speak further, you will know how to reach me.”

“I called my mother in Amman right away,” Mark related in an interview with Mishpacha. “I told her about the conversation and I asked if Grandma Rowaida is really Jewish. It was a topic we never discussed at home. But once, when I was in my grandmother’s house, I found her birth certificate, which said that she was born in Jerusalem and that her family name had been Mizrachi.

“Sometimes,” Mark remembers, “she would go into the room behind the house holding a book written in large, unfamiliar letters—which I now realize was a siddur—and sit and cry. There was some sort of dark secret about her, and now I felt that I had to find out what it was.”

Mark’s mother did not deny the truth. “Grandma Rowaida is Jewish. But stay away from that man,” she hastened to admonish her son. “He’s definitely a Zionist who is out to brainwash you.”

“Mom, he’s a nice, religious old man,” Mark responded with a smile. “He’s totally harmless.”


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