From the Desert to the Living Water: The Odyssey of a Tunisian Jew
When I sit down and contemplate what I am about to tell you, it seems more appropriate to start at my beginning almost 48 years ago. I am a Sephardic Jew. I was born in Tunisia, a beautiful country located on the North African coast of the Mediterranean, bordered on the east by Libya and on the west by Algeria. The Tunisian people have a rich history and culture. It was there that the Phoenicians established Carthage, from which they launched many maritime and military expeditions. Remember the great general Hannibal who crossed the Alps with elephants to ransack Rome?
We Jews settled throughout the Mediterranean basin, much as had been done in Europe. We established large Jewish communities in the commercial centers of North Africa—from Egypt to Morocco. Over the centuries, many locals—including the Berbers of the Aures Mountains—intermarried with Jews who had emigrated from Israel. They eventually converted to a primitive form of Judaism.
The Jews of Tunisia were confronted with the demands of an established church on one side and by a conquering Islam on the other. Sadly, many were forced to convert to Islam, and they remain Moslem to this day. Others chose death rather than conversion. Still others were able to survive and thrive as Jews in the midst of adversities, escaping death at the hands of the religious rulers of the day.
My family stems from these survivors, people who knew how to cling to the faith of their ancestors! They were a vibrant lot who dealt in commerce of exotic fruit, perfumes, oil and colorful cloths. They also produced many rabbinical scholars who could and did hold their own with the dominating religious powers of the day. In fact, both my grandfathers were rabbis and well lettered, desiring to see their love of learning perpetuated in future generations.
However, my father did not become a rabbi. He saw his gifting in the arts. He carved the back of mirrors with arabesques and inlayed them with melted gold, silver and copper. He had a shop of his own where his considerable talent assured him a good living.
My mother came from a more liberated family, especially considering the Moslem setting in which they lived. Somehow she succeeded in becoming a lawyer, one of the very few women at that time to achieve such a feat.
Thus, this is the context in which I was born: within a people rich in history and culture; within a family steeped in religion and education; and within a country yearning for total independence.
Political uncertainly was brewing in Tunisia in the late 1940s and early ’50s as talk of independence led to a resurgence of persecution under Moslem rule. Many Tunisian Jews made their way either to the newly created state of Israel or to France.
Some of our relatives went to Israel, but my parents, who were well-educated, were sent as scouts” to France. They established themselves in Paris and started a new life for my sister and me.
We lived in a two bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a building that leaned so badly that it had to be propped up by huge telephone pole—like beams to prevent it from collapsing. We shared common toilettes (located on the landing between the third and fourth floors) with our neighbors. There were no bathtubs or showers and it was quite a feat to keep clean in the kitchen sink!
Typically, my days were divided between the local school and the Talmud Torah, where the basics of the Jewish faith were imparted to me. The North African Jews in Paris became a thriving community of exiles who longed for both the past and the future. Caught between two worlds, we created our own. Our music, speech, food and mannerisms were all reminiscent of our past. The little synagogues where the men worshipped daily became the focal point for many families who tried to hang on to what made them who they were. Within that context, one could almost forget that there was another world just a few metro stations away. But suburbia made its appeal and when I was age 11, my family moved.
For the very first time, we were no longer amidst people who spoke, dressed and cooked as we did. We were confronted and surrounded by goyim. Never before had I seen so many people who were not like us!
I also discovered the freedom the metro and bus system could afford. While my “Christian” classmates prepared for their religious confirmations, I prepared for my bar mitzvah. And as I traveled to and from my Hebrew classes every Thursday and Sunday, I began questioning who I was and what I was supposed to be. I knew I was a Jew, but what more was there for me? Could I not enjoy life a bit more?
My bar mitzvah was the event of the year in the Tunisian community of Paris. Here I was to perform and show to one and all that tradition had not disappeared. Here I was one of the first of the newly arrived Tunisian children to graduate and take a responsible place in the Jewish community. It does affect a young man when so much fuss is made about a special day in his life, even if he does not understand it all as he goes through the motions. And what motions they were! It started with my going up to the Torah at the big old synagogue on “Rue de la Victoire.” Then my family made a huge reception with live music, a gastronomic spread and presents galore. The memory of that celebration lingered in the synagogue for quite some time.
After my time in the spotlight was over, I purposed to discover who I really was. There was such a big world out there and I wanted to explore it. People, countries, food, music, literature, all beckoned me. So, at age 15, against my parents’ wishes, I fit what I could in a newly acquired backpack and hitchhiked to southern France. This was my first of many discovery trips.
Having survived this journey, I ventured a bit farther the following year. I signed up to go to Israel for two months with a group of pioneering Jewish young people called Hashomer Hatsair—a communistic leaning organization instrumental in establishing kibbutzim in Israel. My family was concerned that its left-wing political affiliation was a far cry from our Orthodox Jewish roots. But after much screaming, tears, promises and many debates my family relented.
It was an incredible experience. I discovered another aspect of Jewish life and culture; people who affirmed their Jewishness in ways other than prayers and synagogue attendance. These young people had such a contagious “joie de vivre” that I got caught up in it. How could I go back to my sheltered world? How could I simply act as though what we lived at home was the only way to express one’s heritage?
At home, I tried to be the good Jewish boy who would recite his prayers, go to synagogue and participate in the various festivals. Outside, I would explore various limits concerning food, music and ideas that I previously would not have been caught dead thinking about. I made friends with people with whom I had nothing in common. I traveled across Europe, hitchhiking most of the time. I went to university and took courses I had no interest in, simply to appease my parents.
Finally, I could take it no longer. Who was I, really? As an educated French Jew born in Tunisia, trying to define who I was and what I was supposed to be, I had some decisions to make. Should I accept my parents’ culture as the safe haven they maintained it was? Should I assimilate myself into French culture, as so many Jews had done, and simply become nominal in my Judaism? What was I supposed to do? I was torn between two worlds.
Exasperated and unable to find answers within my immediate context, I announced that I was immigrating to Israel. I reasoned that it was probably the best place to discover what it meant to be a Jew.
The Yom Kippur War was had just begun and Israel was right in the middle of this crisis when I found myself, along with a handful of other young French Jews, on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Because of the war, we were the only ones on the plane and the crew treated us royally. We landed at Lod Airport, were processed, given immediate landed immigrant status, along with a few shekels and bussed to the Metropol Hotel in Tel Aviv. The next day we moved into the kibbutz that was to be our home for the next six months.
Our French contingent was not the only group who had signed up for this six-month stint. There were young people from the United States, South Africa, Canada, Sweden, Russia, Australia and Argentina. What a cacophony of languages! For the first few weeks there was more talking with our hands than anything else (we French were quite good at that!). And this is where my story really begins!
While eating in the common lunchroom, I could not help but notice a girl who stared at her plate for a few moments before eating. Wondering if a fly or some other winged creature had seen fit to wade in the common mush, I too started looking at my plate. Failing to see anything that should not be there I simply proceeded to eat. And so did she.
However, next meal, I observed the same scenario. The meal following, same thing again. What was going on here? Well, I had to find out! Gesticulating like a puppet with no string, and using some Hebrew laced with heavy accented English, I asked her if perhaps some abhorrent creature was engorging itself on our tasteless food. To my dismay, after I had made a fool of myself, she responded in good French. It figured! She was from Canada, where French was one of the two official languages.
Judy explained that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the food. Actually, she found it quite tasty. No, what I perceived as her “staring” was simply a few moments of giving thanks to God for the food he had provided.
Now, what was that all about? I was on a secular kibbutz, among secular Jews from around the world, and this girl was praying over her food!
Her story was quite simple. She was a Christian who had just completed Bible College in Canada. Along with three of her friends, she had journeyed to Israel to discover the Land they had studied about for the previous three years. Because of the war they were not able to travel together and were placed on different kibbutzim. So here she was, amidst all these Jews, yet keeping some simple ritual rooted deep in her faith.
Now, she had bested me since she could speak French, but I was not going to take it lying down. After all, I had grown up in the synagogue. The Talmud-Torah was my second home. So, I asked some questions about her belief system. It became very evident that we were not speaking the same language. While she was trying to explain things to me from the Bible, I could only refer back to the Talmud. I knew some of the names of the books she mentioned; I even knew some of the names of the prophets she quoted. But we were not reading from the same text. In exasperation she finally told me to go and get myself a Bible, preferably in French so I could understand it, and start reading it.
What a blow! So much for being smart! Still determined to not be outdone, I took the bus to Haifa and hunted down a French Bible, complete with the New Testament. Proud of my new acquisition, I went returned to the kibbutz. On the bus ride home I started skimming through the book. All the names and passages that she had mentioned to me were scattered throughout. Not wanting to miss anything, I began with Genesis, chapter one, verse one. I got so entranced with the text, which I was reading in French for the very first time, that I almost missed my stop. And this is when the fun started! The more I read, the more questions I had. The more questions I asked, the more satisfactory were the answers I received. The answers made me hungry to read more, which raised more questions, answers, etc.
For instance, I had learned many rabbinic stories about these Bible characters, but those same talmudic stories were not in the Bible! I wanted to know why the oral tradition that I had grown up with was not memorialized in the written pages of Scripture. I wrestled with the fact that there was not a plethora of rabbinic interpretations from which to choose in the Scriptures. And that instead of the main characters having intermediaries in the form of angels or other heavenly creations, God regularly interacted with his creation. I noticed that the Scriptures depicted Abraham, Moses and David as relating to God without the regular addition of supernatural agents. This surprised, even startled me. It triggered the notion that I, a young Tunisian Jew, could possibly interact with my God, even have a personal relationship with the Creator.
At the same time, I had my understanding of Jesus, “the gentile,” shattered. I had never read the New Testament before. On its pages I discovered a different teacher than the one who had been depicted to me by my parents and the rabbis. I saw Jesus as loving the Jewish people. I recognized him as a rabbi with proper midrashic teaching who was speaking truth. He was speaking in a context that any Jew could understand, in a way that was striking to me. I was cheering him on in the gospel stories. He was a hero—the underdog but not the vanquished one. I sympathized with him.
At that point, having satiated myself in this study of the Bible, and being unable to refute the overwhelming case for Jesus, I declared to Judy that I was ready to become a believer in Jesus as Messiah. Her response surprised me. “Whoa! Not so fast! Between thinking that one is ready and being ready is a world of difference,” she warned.
While most Christians would have been happy to accept my decision, Judy put me through the third degree. She really wanted me to be sure that I knew what I was doing. She didn’t want me to decide on the wave of an emotional high, on the experience of the moment. In addition, she understood the kind of reaction my Tunisian Jewish family would have to my faith and knew that I needed to be able to withstand the pressure. She knew I was not there yet.
With renewed vigor I tackled the text of the Bible and made up my mind that if there was any truth in the claims of Christianity, I would find it. After a few more weeks of reading and asking questions, I finally announced that I did believe in Jesus as the Messiah and counted myself a believer in him. My tutor told me that I had given the right answer. I had finally arrived! I did not need a special ceremony or special revelation, but the simple faith I found within was it—the assurance of belonging to the One who had died so that I may have eternal life was now mine.
Now, believing in Jesus in Israel in the early seventies was not easy. I did not know where to turn for support and nurturing, so I decided to go back to France. But there, the atmosphere was even more stifling. My parents in Paris reacted quite badly to my new commitment. As far as they were concerned I had betrayed them and a long Sephardic tradition. I had turned my back on their hopes and aspirations for me. As the oldest son, I was expected to become the rabbi of the family and from their perspective that would never happen now. In order to grow in my faith, I needed a brand new start.
Remembering that my guide and early mentor was from Canada, I decided to begin this new start there. Instead of moving to French-speaking Montreal, I decided to move to Alberta and renew contact with the girl who had led me to faith in my Messiah. The fact that she was pretty was a great incentive, though not my main motivation! Her family and her home church welcomed me and for the first time I started to study systematically and grow in my faith. I found that Sunday school and Bible studies were not enough. Also, my relationship with Judy had evolved and I wanted to propose to her. I did so with one condition: that I would start Bible College the following fall so as to deepen my understanding of Scripture and my relationship with Jesus. She agreed and we were married on June 26, 1976.
I wish my parents could have been there. They stopped talking to me after I became a follower of Jesus. Though I wrote, they did not communicate with me in writing or verbally for 11 years. It wasn’t until my children were born that they were willing to renew the relationship—and I am very grateful for that.
But since I have committed my life to Jesus, I have not looked back. My studies have taken me from Bible College to a Christian liberal arts college for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I am currently completing Ph.D. studies in Old Testament Ethics and teaching in a college in the province of Ontario.
My journey is not over. I have journeyed from Tunisia to Paris to Israel to Canada, but most importantly I have journeyed to Jesus (Yeshua) in whom I have found the answers to the important questions of life.