Staff Post: Exodus, Identity & Freedom

The holiday of Passover is a time when the Jewish community commemorates the exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the “Jewish Identity.” The Jewish Identity can be defined as both the communal experience of establishing and living in the ancient Israelite Kingdom, and chronicling the experience of families living in the exile. My Jewish Identity has been formed by my privileged upbringing in Boston’s Jewish community, while appreciating the sacrifices my parents made in order to preserve their heritage. My dad was born in Tripoli, Libya and was a member of the Jewish community there. My father’s time in Libya was marred with discrimination, poverty, and persecution. Similar to the “poor men” in Egypt, the small Jewish community living in Libya during the 1960s was an impoverished and alienated community. Before Israel’s establishment, the Jewish community did not suffer from this level of discrimination and persecution. However, by the late 1960s the Libyan government enacted measures to relegate Jews to second-class citizens. Jewish communities, homes, and businesses were boycotted and forced to be marked with the word “yahud” (Jew) to indicate Jewish ownership. Jews’ citizenships were revoked and replaced with highly regulated travel documents.

In addition to institutionalized persecution, there were individual incidents of anti-Semitic violence as well. Two specific experiences, amongst countless stories of hatred, have remained forever engrained in my father’s memory. My father recalled how during his upbringing, the Jews in Libya were held to a strict curfew. One of his close family friends lost track of time and left his house just a few minutes after the curfew to buy meat from the local butcher. On his way to the butchery, this innocent Jewish man was attacked and killed by a group of Libyans.

The second incident happened in my father’s small, cramped family apartment--the door to which was labeled “yahud” and meant to shamefully publicize that they were Jews to the community. One evening, my father’s youngest brother heard the Libyans approaching the apartment and alarmed the rest of his family. My father’s uncle quickly hurried all of the children to hide in the basement of the apartment, while the oldest brother set a ladder in front of the door to block the Libyans from entering the house. Although they were fortunate to not have been attacked, the trauma of such incidents left an irreversible, emotional mark on my family. Like the slaves in Egypt, the Jews of Libya needed a wake-up call that their lives were actually in danger.

In June 1967, with the help of the Red Cross and the Israeli Consulate, my father’s family was granted travel documents. They left as penniless and stateless refuges. They were graciously welcomed by Italians waiting for them at an immigration center in Naples, Italy, and as many Libyan families stayed in this “camp” for a few months, they created a strong sentiment of community, taking turns cooking, cleaning, and caring for each other's children.

During his time in Italy, my father exchanged letters with a friend of his from Libya who had arrived in Israel before them. After a few months in displaced persons housing, my father and his family arrived in Israel. Upon my father’s arrival in Israel, he was reunited with his friend, who he later served with in the Israeli army.

Similar to my father’s family, my mother’s family also escaped Jewish persecution from the Middle East. On April 10, 1968 my mother and her family celebrated their arrival to the U.S. Like many other Egyptian Jews, my mom and her family were very wealthy and had a great deal of political influence--my mother’s grandfather was a partner of a prestigious law firm that worked in tandem with the Egyptian government. However, the increased anti-Semitism fueled by Gamaal Nasser’s Pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric led to state supported anti-Semitism.

As the anti-Semitism worsened, the Jews in Egypt gradually lost their jobs, wealth, and ultimately their freedom. In 1967, the Egyptian government began a campaign of imprisoning affluent Egyptian men, because they feared that they were supporting the state of Israel. Unfortunately, my grandfather was one of them, leaving behind my grandmother, my mother, and her younger sister. The Jewish family services began a campaign with international support that worked to free many of these imprisoned Jews. Luckily my grandfather was one of the Jews that was freed. Like my father’s family, my mother’s family also left Egypt penniless and stateless.

Upon leaving Egypt they made their way to Italy, and later France, where they were placed in a transition camp for a few months and reunited with my grandfather. After a year and a half of refugee status, they were granted entry into Boston. Members of the HIAS (formerly known as Jewish family services) graciously provided my mom and her family with shelter, food, and basic stipends in Boston. My mom’s family recalls being overwhelmed by the hospitality and care they received from Boston’s Jewish community. The support from members of the Jewish community and the donations received in a drive held for them allowed my mom’s family to rebuild new and prosperous lives in Boston.

In the recitation of the Haggadah, my mom’s family has a custom of holding the afikoman (portion of the matzah) over their shoulder like a sack. One seder participant will then ask another, “Me’ein gay?” (Where did you come from?), and another will reply, “memitzrayim” (from Egypt). This is followed by saying, "We are going to Jerusalem". This custom serves as a reminder to them of where my family has come from and where they are going to.

My family was able to escape hardships and persecution in the Middle East and now live privileged, free lives in America and Israel. We have learned to be grateful and appreciative of our reality, but we have not forgotten our heritage and history. Passover serves a dual purpose, first, to remember Jewish slavery and celebrate our freedom, second to embrace and to retell our story, appreciate our heritage, practice our traditions, and spend time with our extended community.