Sunday, September 20, 2009

Machmud the Jew

You know there is a story told…

On his way out from shul in Jerusalem, Dan approached a young man in
Dungarees, backpack, dark skin, curly black hair -- looked Sephardi, maybe

"Good Shabbos. My name is Dan Eisenblatt. Would you like to eat at my
house tonight?"

The young man's face broke in an instant from a worried look to a

"Yeah, thanks. My name is Machi."

Together they walked out of the shul. A few minutes later they were all
standing around Dan's Shabbos table. Dan noticed his guest fidgeting and
leafing through his songbook, apparently looking for something. He asked
with a smile, "Is there a song you want to sing? I can help if you're not
sure about the tune."

The guest's face lit up. "There is a song I'd like to sing, but I
can't find it here. I really liked what we sang in the synagogue tonight. What
was it called? Something 'dodi.'"

Dan paused for a moment, on the verge of saying, "It's not usually
sung at the table," but then he caught himself. "If that's what the kid
wants," he thought, "what's the harm?" Aloud he said, "You mean Lecha
Dodi.Wait, let me get you a siddur."

Once they had sung Lecha Dodi, the young man resumed his silence
until after the soup, when Dan asked him, "Which song now?" The guest looked
embarrassed, but after a bit of encouragement said firmly, "I'd really like
to sing Lecha Dodi again."

Dan was not really all that surprised when, after the chicken, he
asked his guest what song now, and the young man said, "Lecha Dodi, please."
Dan almost blurted out, "Let's sing it a little softer this time, the
neighbors are going to think I'm nuts." He finally said, "Don't you want to
sing something else?"

His guest blushed and looked down. "I just really like that one," he
mumbled. "Just something about it - I really like it."

In all, they must have sung "The Song" eight or nine times. Dan
wasn't sure -- he lost count. Later Dan asked, "Where are you from?" The boy
looked pained, then stared down at the floor and said softly, "Ramallah."

Dan's was sure he'd heard the boy say "Ramallah," a large Arab city
on the West Bank. Quickly he caught himself, and then realized that he must
have said Ramleh, an Israeli city. Dan said, "Oh, I have a cousin there. Do
you know Ephraim Warner? He lives on Herzl Street."

The young man shook his head sadly. "There are no Jews in Ramallah."

Dan gasped. He really had said "Ramallah"! His thoughts were racing.
Did he just spend Shabbos with an Arab? He told the boy, "I'm sorry, I'm a
bit confused. And now that I think of it, I haven't even asked your full
name. What is it, please?"

The boy looked nervous for a moment, then squared his shoulders and
said quietly, "Machmud Ibn-esh-Sharif."

Dan stood there speechless. What could he say? Machmud broke the
silence hesitantly: "I was born and grew up in Ramallah. I was taught to
hate my Jewish oppressors, and to think that killing them was heroism. But I
always had my doubts. I mean, we were taught that the Sunna, the tradition,
says, 'No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that
which he desires for himself.' I used to sit and wonder, Weren't the Yahud
(Jews) people, too? Didn't they have the right to live the same as us? If
we're supposed to be good to everyone, how come nobody includes Jews in
that? "I put these questions to my father, and he threw me out of the house.
By now my mind was made up: I was going to run away and live with the Yahud,
until I could find out what they were really like. I snuck back into the
house that night, to get my things and my backpack.

My mother caught me in the middle of packing. I told her that I wanted
to go live with the Jews for a while and find out what they're really like
and maybe I would even want to convert.

She was turning more and more pale while I said all this, and I
thought she was angry, but that wasn't it. Something else was hurting her
and she whispered gently, 'You don't have to convert. You already are a

"I was shocked. My head started spinning, and for a moment I couldn't
speak. Then I stammered, 'What do you mean?'

'In Judaism,' she told me, 'the religion goes according to the mother. I'm
Jewish, so that means you're Jewish.'

"I never had any idea my mother was Jewish. I guess she didn't want
anyone to know. She whispered suddenly, 'I made a mistake by marrying an
Arab man. In you, my mistake will be redeemed.'

"My mother always talked that way, poetic-like. She went and dug out
some old documents, and handed them to me: things like my birth certificate
and her old Israeli ID card, so I could prove I was a Jew. I've got them
here, but I don't know what to do with them.

"My mother hesitated about one piece of paper. Then she said, 'You may
as well take this. It is an old photograph of my grand-parents which was
taken when they went visiting the grave of some great ancestor of ours.'
"Now I have traveled here to Israel. I'm just trying to find out where I

Dan gently put his hand on Machmud's shoulder. Machmud looked up,
scared and hopeful at the same time. Dan asked, "Do you have the photo

The boy's face lit up. ""Sure! I always carry it with me." He reached
in his backpack and pulled out an old, tattered envelope.

When Dan read the gravestone inscription, he nearly dropped the photo.
He rubbed his eyes to make sure. There was no doubt. This was a grave in the
old cemetery in Tzfat, and the inscription identified it as the grave of the
great Kabbalist and tzaddik Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz.

Dan's voice quivered with excitement as he explained to Machmud who
his ancestor was. "He was a friend of the Arizal, a great Torah scholar, a
tzaddik, a mystic. And, Machmud, your ancestor wrote that song we were
singing all Shabbos: Lecha Dodi!"

This time it was Machmud's turn to be struck speechless. Dan extended
his trembling hand and said, "Welcome home, Machmud."

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