Jerusalem mix, Part II – From Islam to Judaism, with love

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Salma, 25, emigrated from Morocco to Belgium at the age of 14 when her father remarried to a Belgian woman. Born and raised in Casablanca to traditional Muslim parents, her childhood was tragically interrupted at the age of 10 when her mother passed away of cancer. Salma’s father is a Saudi “Sharrif“, meaning that he can track his ancestry back to Mohammad. The fact that Salma is a direct descendant of the founder of Islam makes for an even more interesting conversation considering that she has almost completed the process of converting to Judaism. Just in case you hadn’t noticed her Hebraic affinity, a small Hebrew tattoo on her fore-arm reads “חופש טהור”, Hebrew for “pure freedom”.

“Growing up I had never even met a Jewish person before. We moved to a neighborhood in Belgium where many Muslims showed animosity towards Jews, and to this day I don’t know why, but I would always speak up whenever I heard anti-Jewish comments. So eventually people from my neighborhood started calling me the “Jewish girl”.

“I grew up in a relatively open minded family, but even so some of my relatives don’t like Jews. I grew up in this environment but I always felt an affinity to the Jewish narrative when learning about the Holocaust and Israel. In school I did my leaving projects on Jewish history and the Shoah, and I got the best grade in my class”.

After graduating, she started studying architecture (her father is an architect), but soon quit and began practicing as a social worker.  It was at this time that she decided to move out from her family home in to her own apartment, and began to study Jewish books independently, because she couldn’t find a Jewish teacher who would support her. In the back of her mind, it was becoming clear that she had already made the decision to convert to Judaism.

“It was really hard to find a Rabbi in Belgium who would agree to convert me, I sent a letter to the Rabbinate asking to convert but they would say “We don’t do that here, we are not comfortable because you are Arab, it could cause problems for us”, but I wouldn’t give up. I found a rabbi who agreed to take responsibility for my conversion under the French rabbinate, and I will have to go to Paris to finally convert. In the meantime I have to endure many obstacles, but it never stops me. Whenever I go to Jewish centers or synagogues they always check all my stuff and interrogate me, they don’t understand what I am doing… but I hope one day it will stop.

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Apart from the suspicion from the Jewish community, Salma had to deal with the consequences of her decision on her relationships with her family.

“When I decided to convert I lost a lot of my friends, and some of my relatives won’t talk to me anymore. I have a crazy uncle in Holland who even said he wants to kill me, but so far I’m not too worried.  When I called my father and told him “lets meet up at a café, I have something to tell you” at first he freaked out, he was like “are you homosexual? what is it?”, but once he calmed down he had already guessed what I wanted to tell him – he said “I know what it is, I am your father, I can feel what it is”.
“Any family finds it hard when their child changes their identity, I think it would be the same experience for Christians or Jews, but my father accepts me as his daughter even if he isn’t happy with my decision. To me that is the most important thing”.

Despite opposing Salma’s choice to convert, there was a limit to how far he could push her to remain within Islam, because he himself had been close to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in his youth. From this perspective, Salma is loyally continuing the family tradition of multicultural exploration.

Salma has been an active couchsurfer for just over a year, has hosted more than 10 couchsurfers in her apartment, and sees the couchsurfing experience as being an authentic learning experience.

“When you come to another person’s home and discover what they do it changes how you perceive them. I once hosted an Israeli girl from couchsurfing for a whole week, but I found it strange that despite the fact that I have a mezuzah and Jewish books, she didn’t even ask me about it once.  One day she took a siddur (Jewish prayer book) from my shelf and started reading it like there is nothing unusual about an Arab girl having Jewish religious books”.

“On another occasion, I was supposed to be hosted by a Turkish guy through couchsurfing in Istanbul, and when he met me at the airport he started to embrace me, and I was like “hey I don’t know you yet”, he started saying that he was sorry he forgot to tell me but he only has one bed in his apartment and we’ll have to sleep together.  As you can guess I told him to go away, what a creep”.

Before coming to Israel for the first time, Salma learned about Israel from books but was unsure what to expect when she arrived in Israel for the first time.

“I imagined Israelis would be more like Arabic Moroccan people – but I was surprised when I found people to be more cold and reserved. Maybe it’s because I’m comparing Israel to Morocco where people are smiling all the time and are incredibly warm and hospitable”.

Despite her initial reaction to Israeli people, Salma hesitantly expresses her intentions to move to Israel once she’s kosher, and plans to study culinary arts with the aspiration of one day opening a bakery.

About the Author
Zak Yitro is a Dublin-born, Jerusalem-based, world-aspiring freelance photographer, visual artist and public speaker.