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Friday, 20 April 2007

Jewish Converts to Islam: Amalia

Before the sun appears over the eastern horizon, Amalia Rehman gathers her husband Habib, 14-year-old daughter Ilana and 11-year-old son Moosa in the living room for the day's first prayer. "Allah who'akbar," Moosa chants, extending the "r" in a trill as everyone files into two rows facing east toward Mecca. The room is simply furnished with bare walls, save two plaques with Arabic inscription on the mantle. "Allah who'akbar," Moosa repeats and the family begins their rhythmic prostrations. After the prayer, Amalia rouses the two younger boys, 7-year-old Mikail and 4-year-old Daaniel, to ready them for school (while not required to pray until age 10, children may choose to join the family during any of the day's five prayers). After combing their hair, tying their laces and thwarting the general displeasure toward another school day, Amalia sets off to the Islamic school in North Austin where she volunteers as a teacher to cover the cost of tuition for the boys; Ilana attends public school in Leander. Before stepping outside, Amalia covers her hair with a green satin hijab, and covers her clothing with a long black jilbab, the traditional attire for Muslim women.

This may be a typical morning for Muslim families across the United States, but Amalia's story is anything but typical. Now 43 and residing in Leander, Amalia is an Israeli-born Jew who converted to Islam over 20 years ago. To her, it is not Muslim versus Jew, not Israeli versus Arab and not political. It is a matter of faith. She has had to struggle against her family, against fellow Muslims and against society to practice her religion. But she says it has all been worth it. "At age 7, I used to pray to God to be the smartest person in the world, to know everything," she says sitting down later that day to an afternoon snack of homemade brownies and Diet Coke. "I can say for the first time in my life, not that I know everything, but that I know the truth." She found her truth in Islam.

Amalia was born to an American Jewish mother from Mattapan, Mass and an Israeli father. As a teenager, her father, Abraham Zadok, fought with an underground army that aided in the creation of the nation of Israel in 1948 . Now a 70-year-old man of slight stature, Abraham wears a ragged, green conductors hat and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes in his shirt pocket. As he speaks, his wide, bushy moustache dominates his small, timeworn face. "Back then Jerusalem belonged to the Arabians," he says in a raspy Israeli accent. "We had to caravan food to Jerusalem. The Jews had no food, no water; they were suffering."

"You grow up Jewish, so you have this low opinion [of Arabs].
It's like a filmy residue from childhood," Amalia says.

Although her parents came from religious families, they raised Amalia and her two brothers as traditional, non-orthodox Jews; they attended synagogue only for the high holidays, and they ate pork. At age 13, Amalia decided she wanted to be a more religious person. "She was an ambitious child," Abraham says. "She always liked to be the best, the smartest." Tenacious in all her endeavors, she set out to learn about Judaism; however, she says she never found the answers she sought. She attended Hebrew boarding school but felt estranged from Judaism and challenged tenants of the religion. Still seeking a religious connection, she later enrolled in Talmud classes while pursuing a degree in psychology at the University of Chicago. She recalls this as a joyous time in her life, feeling the possibility of true connection to the religion of her ancestors. Eventually, though, she hit the same walls she first encountered as a teenager. "Jews don't quote the Torah; they follow the rabbis, not the word of God. It was all based on who you thought was right. This was too ambiguous. It wasn't real faith. It wasn't the truth."

To this day, friends and family maintain that she converted to Islam on the suggestion of her current husband, Habib. Amalia, however, begins her story much earlier, just after college when she moved to California to be with her family. She befriended a group of Arab men who used to visit her father's dried fruit and nut stand at the San Jose Farmer's Market. "I had a very low opinion of Arabs," Amalia says, pouring a glass of milk for her youngest son to wash down his brownies. "You grow up Jewish so you have this low opinion. It's like a filmy residue from childhood."

Despite these ingrained feelings, she found herself drawn to them and their faith and began to spend afternoons with them at their apartment. "One thing I had noticed about the people I had met, even though I had all these prejudices about them in my mind, they were very good to each other—and oh, how much I wanted to be a part of that, a part of this feeling of belonging to something so wonderful." In her own life, Amalia felt anything but acceptance. The Judaism of her past left her without a deep religious connection, and upon returning from Chicago, relations with her mother were strained. "People say that I only became Muslim because that was the only place I found any comfort, the only place that was open to me, that everything that was familiar was closed." Amalia admits to some truth in this but credits Allah for putting her in a position where she would be open to Islam.

As Amalia and her friends watched television one afternoon, the news reported that a female mule had given birth to a baby mule. "This is a sign of the end times," one man said. This one statement opened Amalia's mind to an aspect of Islam she had never known—the quest to prove tenants in the Qur'an as the truth. Her scholastic fire rekindled and burned once again. "Allah approaches people in the way they need to be approached. Allah approached me in the way I needed to be approached by piquing my curiosity, my hunger for knowledge, my hunger [for] the secrets of life and death and the meaning of life."

One day she uttered the words, "I'm thinking about becoming Muslim." The amazement and joy on the faces of her Muslim friends sealed her decision. Her family, however, did not share in the joy. Although her parents may not have fully understood that Amalia had already taken shehada, the oath to become Muslim, they did witness her befriend one particular man. Amalia and the man known to her family as "the Arab" were married for six years and had one daughter together, Ilana.

"I don't like Muslims. They low-class society. They throw rocks at Israelis. They kill the Jews. I don't trust them," Abraham explains in choppy, staccato-toned English. Amalia says everyone in her life thought she had literally gone crazy. Her mother never spoke to her again and died years later without reconciling. "Amalia's mother thought of him as an enemy," Abraham says. "She was very Zionistic and really against Islam."

Ascertaining what happened during this period in her life is difficult. Amalia doesn't discuss Ilana's father or what actually occurred in those years. There are only the faintest whispers of abuse. "She has always been open and outgoing, but she doesn't show her inner sadness. It seems like she doesn't have any worries," says Emma Barron, a close friend from California.

Years later Amalia met Habib, a Muslim-born Pakistani. "I remember her saying that Habib does seem older [nine years her senior] but that older men treat women better," Barron says. With the separation in time and space from those early years and with the sanctuary her new marriage provided, Amalia's faith began to blossom.

Familial relationships improved slightly but remained strained; contact with her brothers was kept to a minimum. "In their minds it's too much of a betrayal; they don't see it as a person of faith. They could probably take me being a nun better than being a Muslim. They see being Muslim as being anti-Jewish, anti-Israel." Abraham took the situation quite personally. "She is like my enemy. Well, I guess you eat what you cook. I tried the best for my family, but I failed," he says with a sigh.

Amalia concludes that her mother's fervent anger towards her conversion influenced her father in the early years and stunted their relationship. Today, she and her father classify their relationship as "good" crediting Abraham's new wife, Annette, and her peacekeeping efforts. "It was much harder for them when Amalia's mother was alive," says 38-year-old Annette, who converted from Christianity to Judaism before marrying Abraham. "Now they are close and enjoy each others' company. Abe still doesn't like Habib."

Amalia and Annette (who is five years her junior) share a close friendship. Over the years, Annette has witnessed changes in Amalia as her faith developed. "She has grown as a person. She had to really look inside herself when people around her started treating her differently." She describes her as strong-willed but calm in her faith, able to slough off Abraham's snide comments.

Amalia's story, while certainly not typical, is not completely unique. Mohamed Ghounem, a Muslim-born Egyptian now residing in the United States, officiates a Web site called "Jews for Allah." He boasts a membership of over 400 individuals, mostly American, who have followed a similar path as Amalia. "Families and peers have the hardest time with someone who converts from Judaism to Islam," Ghounem says. "Many lose family and financial support."

Within the Jewish community, the question of conversion sparks differing religious and societal responses. Rabbi Yosef Levertov of Chabad House-Lubavich, an orthodox congregation at the University of Texas at Austin, states that strict Jewish law regards converts as remaining Jewish in the eyes of God. "It doesn't revoke their obligations as a Jew. You still have to answer to God." Rabbi Samual Barth, who heads the conservative congregation Agudas Achim of Austin, says that that converts are seen as "living in error," but that they can still be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Levertov disagrees again citing strict Jewish law, but says it may be considered on a case-by-case basis. "In the olden days people used to sit shiva [mourn for the dead] for a convert but not so much today."

Religiously speaking, converting to Islam may be viewed by Jewish leaders as slightly less of an infraction because of the monotheistic nature of Islam. Had the individual converted to a polytheistic religion, for example, reactions could potentially be much harsher. Socially, however, the opposite seems to be true. "There is a suspicion toward Islam. It is seen as anti-Semitic, as being at war with Israel," Barth says. Levertov agrees, adding that he believes with today's political climate reactions toward conversion to Islam might be more punitive.

In a time that greatly lacks communication between two outwardly opposing forces, here stands a woman who, in her own quiet way, seems to have bridged the two. But, that's not how she views it. "I don't see converting as joining two disparate factors. I see it just as a person of faith." Amalia divides that which is political from that which is religious, like a separation of church and state. To her, the turmoil in the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam as a faith. "There are Muslims over there but you can't tell me that the Palestinian movement or al Qaida or anybody is Muslim because they're not. Half of those people don't even know what Islam is about; they don't even know their own faith."

Tenacious in all her learning, Amalia spends the evening reading from the Qur'an.

On most issues pertaining to the Middle East she sympathizes with the Israelis and sees a lot of blame being placed on them. "People just don't understand the history of the place. Zionism doesn't mean killing anyone or not letting anybody live in your country; it means having a place where you can live the way you want to live and not worry about pogroms and about Nazis. I would say that is what it means to 99 percent of Jews." Jerusalem, as the second holiest site for Islam, poses a difficult problem for her. "I as a Muslim, as I am today, am the inheritor of Jerusalem, not me as I was as a Jew," Amalia says as she begins preparation for the evening meal. "I believe there should be a place for the Jews, but Jerusalem should be in the hands of the Muslims. It should be like Mecca is." This, of course, is the same Jerusalem that her father, decade's earlier, had risked his life to liberate.

Despite the admitted complexities of her life, Amalia has found peace within herself; she has found her religious connection. She has found her truth. "Funny that this was the prayer of a 7-year-old girl, now in her 40s…what a long trip it has been to get to that ultimate dream that you had as a child."

Nicole Williams, a friend and co-worker at the Islamic school, told a recent story that typifies Amalia's comfort with her uncommon situation. A card was passed around the school for everyone to sign. Amalia apparently wrote in very large letters taking up all of the available space. One of the teachers, who happened to be Palestinian, came to Amalia and Nicole and jokingly complained that there was no more room for her. Amalia defended her actions. A repartee continued for a minute or so until Nicole exclaimed, "I'm going to have to build a wall between you two!" The three women broke into roars of laughter.

Children are not required to pray until age 10. Already at 4, young Daaniel knows how to lead the family in the evening prayer.



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