Each of the links below leads to a personal page with video and photographs that reveal what it was like to grow up Jewish in an Islamic land, and what it felt like to be forced to leave.
Moshe Labi Interview
Interviewee’s Name: Moshe Labi
Reference Number: SEPHARDI VOICES-NY003
Interviewer: Dr. Henry Green
Date of Interview: February 1, 2013
Location of Interview: New York
Camera: Simon Degen
HG: My name is Henry Green, I am here with Moshe Labi, it is February 1st, 2013, this is an interview for the Sephardi Voices project, and the camera is Simon Degen.
HG: I’m here today, February 2013, doing an interview with Moshe Labi, my name is Henry Green.
HG: Can you please state your full name?
ML: My full name is Moshe Labi.
HG: And where were you born?
ML: I was born in Benghazi, Libya.
HG: And how old are you?
ML: I am 82.
HG: So let’s begin by—just tell me something about your family’s background.
ML: Well, I was born in Libya as I just said, in Benghazi, and my father was also born in Benghazi, and his ancestors go back all the way to about 1500, when Rabbi Shimon Labi came to Tripoli from Fez, he was born in Spain, and I’m one of his descendants. My father was a jeweler and during his trips to Italy to buy merchandise, he was visiting my grandfather’s pensione, it was a [inaudible] pensione Rome, and there he met my mother. My mother was born in Merano, in south Austria, and she came to Rome with her family in 1922 and she was 12 years old. Her father, my grandfather was a rabbi, he was doing all the things required by the professional rabbi, shohet, [mosher], and he mostly ran the pensione. And my father wanted to eat kosher so he went to the pensione, and met my mother, they got married in Rome in 1930, and she came to Benghazi. And I was born nine months later. I have a brother who is alive, his name is Eldad Aldo, he lives in Israel, he’s a lawyer. I also have two siblings, one of them died of pneumonia, [Tianlige], was less than one year old, and a sister who died during the war, also at a very young age, was 11 months old, malnutrition, hardship, and so forth, so that was really a cause of her demise.
HG: One of the things you just mentioned was that your family came to Libya from, was it Morocco or Spain? Could you briefly describe a bit of that background?
ML: Yes, my ancestor was born in Spain, most likely Zaragoza, 1400s, like 1480, and in 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, he moved to Fez in Morocco. He became a rabbi. And he was a cabalist, he was famous for one of his [spiultin], called Bar Yohai, which is sung every Friday night by many communities in Africa, and by all those visit, uh, the sight of Bar Yohai in [svot], [mirron], essentially, they were, supposedly [barrakof] was there and Labi Simon, Bar Yohai, and the dispute became part of the event. It is sung in many melodies, but it is close to the original one. It’s a cabbalistic [byut], and it’s very nice, but I’m not going to dwell on it because that’s not the purpose of this. His descendants—what happened was when he came to Tripoli, on his way to Israel, he found that the Jewish community of Tripoli was in bad shape, because they were just coming out of a twenty-year occupation by the Spaniards, Isabella the 3rd and the Catholics, and they deprived the community of all the people that were import to the community, rabbis, merchants, and so forth, and they completely, almost completely forgot about the way to pray and to practice Judaism. And he realized it was much more import to stay in Tripoli and bring back the community to Judaism than to go and move to, and die in Eretz Yisrael. He lived 100 years, he was—he died in 1580, was buried in a place called Dara, and his tomb was also revered by the Muslims, because they realized that he was a great person, a great rabbi. Unfortunately today, the site of the tomb is covered by parking lots, where the memories, a remnant of the Jewish cemetery, is being erased by the Arabs.
HG: Did—so, this song that you mention, is still sung today. When you grew up did you learn it in synagogue?
ML: We were singing it or praying it or saying it every Friday evening, when you do—before the Kiddush, when you say [Eshet Chayil], and all the other—[Eshet Chayil], after [Eshet Chayil] you sing Bar Yohai, [n’mshratah], [sheha], [unintelligible], and so forth. It’s a beautiful [byut] because it’s a poem, really, and it has a lot of meanings, a cabbalist poem, and it is also taken as an example of the cabbalist literature of that period.
HG: Are you able to sing a few phrases for us?
ML: I was not really prepared for that for two reasons—I am a bad singer, and—let me see—[Bar Yohai, n’shaltah sheha n’mitzai, anna sava rei ha Bar Yohai, shema Mishra toh deshnim, mitaha, n’shah sata se nizara kodesh, nim shachtah, rosh habere, ha Bar Yohai]. I think that’s enough.
HG: Thank you, thank you. That was, I think very indicative of the history and tradition. So they come, they stay, and your grandparents, do you remember meeting them, do you remember having contact with them?
ML: Well they, Simon Labi was the father of the Labi line, but my mother was Ashkenazi, and she was born as I said in Merano, in the south of Austria. Her parents, my grandfather and my grandmother, were born in Eastern Europe, my grandfather was born in Ruzhany, which is in Belarus, and my grandmother was born in Bialystok, in Poland. My grandfather was born on July 17th, 1873, my grandmother was born February 19th, 1876.
HG: Your grandfather and grandmother’s names were…?
ML: My grandmother’s maiden name was Ginzburg, her father was a [dayan] in Bialystok, and she was a descendant of a very illustrious family, her mother, Rahel Ginzburg, was the daughter of Elka Haperin, who was the daughter of Yon Tovlipa Haperin, who was a very famous rabbi, he was the rabbi of Bialystok for over twenty years, they were calling him [rabbya] [lipoley], and this great grandmother, mother of my grandmother, was married to Arya Leib Horowitz. He was the son of Rabbi Israel Salanter, Rabbi Israel Salanter was the founder of the movement called the Musar movement, the Etikah movement, and he was known for the fact that on those days there was a, a strong tendency toward assimilation. The Jews felt uncomfort to continue to live the lives they were living in the ghetto, so many Jews felt that being Jewish and practicing the religion was a little bit degrading compared to the outside world, and he was—rabbi Israel Salanter’s purpose was showing that Jewish life and religion had a very ethical concentrationept, and you can live by them even though you don’t have to live in the ghetto and live outside the world. And that has caught the mind and attention of many Jews that were quote unquote more liberal toward religion. And to this day the Musar movement is still a movement, it’s recognized as one of the basic tenets of the new style of Jewish religion.
HG: And your grandfather’s name?
ML: My grandfather’s name was Izsak Peines, he was born in Ruzhany, Ruzhany is a city in Belarus, the city was famous because there was a blood libel in 1659 against the Jews of that town, and they were accused of having kidnapped and killed a Christian boy, and the community wanted to take revenge for that, but on those days the towns during the feudal regime were really run not by the population but by the baron or duke, and these people were very interested in having the Jews because they were collecting the taxes and were the intermediary for the population. And if the people hated to pay taxes, they didn’t hate the duke or the baron or the graft, they hated the Jew, because the Jew was the one to collect money.
So when this happened the, owner of the—he belonged to the family of ratzweil, it was the family of Jacqueline Onassis, Kennedy Onassis, and he said no, you’re not going to kill my Jews. I’m paraphrasing, but, you have to do something else. So they said alright, give us the two prominent rabbis of the community, Israel ben Harav Shalom, and Bahrach, and they burned them at the stakes. And what’s really sad is that the following day the boy was found alive. So, the community and the children of these rabbis, wrote a [kinach] that was read in Yom Kippur among the [kinnot], among the [yesharyab], among the [kinnot], and of course now nobody knows that and does it but for many years it was one of the examples of martyrdom and truth. I have a family tree that shows that I’m in in an indirect way a descendant of this Rabbi Israel ben Harav Shalom, he had three children, each one of them had descendants, and I’m taking too long now if I start mentioning all the names of the descendants.
HG: So your—when you were born, your father, your mother, what was your father then, what occupation did he have?
ML: Ok, my father was a jeweler, but he didn’t get there in the easy way, he was one of eight children of my grandparents. His father died when my father was 13 years old, and his brothers, each one of them had to care for himself, so my father was essentially self-made. And he decided to become a jeweler, and Italy is known for one of the best places in the world to produce beautiful jewelry, and that’s why he was traveling to Italy periodically to purchase merchandise, bring it back, and sell it in Benghazi, was one of the two jewelers competing with one another. One was across the street from one another. And because of his travels to Europe, as I said before, he married her and brought her back. It was not an easy life for the Jews in Benghazi, it was—the community was not very large, it was the second largest community after Tripoli, but it probably was a community of about 2-3,000 members. And in a sense it was a necessity for the town, because the Italian occupation of Libya that started in 1911, found that the Arab population was basically illiterate, Libyans are a tribal nomad population, and very few lived in cities. And the Jews on the other hand, by nature of things, Jews had to be educated, they had to know how to read the prayer book, they had to know the [tefillot], and that put them at the center level, at least culturally at the level above the Arab population. The Italians came to a place where they didn’t know the customs, didn’t know the language, and they needed someone to be in between. The Jews needed the Europeans because that was the only way they could safeguard themselves from the sometimes abusive treatment that could occur by the local population. And they were, you will find that there were many Jews that were French subject, British subject, Italian subject, because with the Ottomans that were ruling Libya those days, they were more careful about how they were treating them.
The Jews therefore were the bridge between the authorities, they were all Italians. The mayor was Italian, the police was Italian, the government was Italian, and the Arabs that as I said were mostly doing menial jobs, they were farmers, and so the Jews were necessary, a nice tier binding the two populations. The Jews, and they went also certain chains, because before the Italian occupation they were mostly, not dissimilar from the Arabs, they were much better to them but their clothing and their habits, they #2were not necessarily learning foreign European languages. The event, the occupation of Italy, was a tremendous change. The Jews became more European-minded in many ways, they were dressing now with European dresses, clothing and fashions, and they were traveling to Italy, they were sending children to schools in Italy, the Italians built public schools, Italian public schools, and you studied Italian in Italian with Italian teachers. And the Jews, then, there was a dilemma. How do we become similar to the Italians and still stay Jewish? And they kept the tradition of Judaism very well, they were very proud of it. And therefore the children now were going to public schools in the morning, and in the afternoon they were attending Talmud Torah, Talmud Torah, that’s the name of the school, was run by Jewish teachers, Jewish principal, and we were studying Hebrew, we learned the Hebrew alphabet, we learned the prayers, we learned the [cantilena], how to pray the prayers, and usually it was about three hours every afternoon, and the day would end by having the [Minha] prayer in the yard, and we all participated, and then we went home . I attended that school for three years, and most of the things that I know about religion I learned there.
HG: The—you said you were born in 1931, so in your house, was it a European house, what languages did you speak, could you describe this?
ML: Yes, it was a European language. My mother of course spoke Italian, because she came from Italy, she came from Rome. She spoke German for the first 12 years of her life, before moving to Rome, so she had perfect knowledge of German. In Italy, she went to Italian public schools, and she took as her second language French, so she spoke German, French, and Italian. Being religious, she had to go to school on the Sabbath, but she would not carry the books, so she had an Italian friend who would carry the books to school for her, and she would not write, so that’s the way she was fighting the tendency of many others to assimilate. Because it may seem a little uncomfortable, but she didn’t care, she preserved that. She spoke Italian, my father spoke Italian, my grandmother from my father’s side didn’t speak Italian, she was born in 1864, so she’s already too old to learn a new language, so I had to speak with her in Arabic. And the Arabic that was spoken in Libya, it was a Jewish dialect, it was not exactly Arabic. If a Jew spoke Arabic, you know he was a Jew. Jews could of course speak the Arabic of the local population, but among themselves it was the Judeo-Arabic idiom or dialect. I learned it, and these are the things that when you learn at a certain age in your life you never forget. Today if you start a conversation with me in that dialect I will have difficulty to express myself, although I will understand everything that you say to me. And it will take some time, but then I can go back into it. So we spoke Italian, the manners, the habits, everything was Italian. Once a year we would go to visit my grandparents in the boat, we would take the boat in Benghazi, after 36 hours we would arrive to Syracuse in Sicily, take the train to Rome, and spend the summer with my Grandparents. Couple of times we went to Switzerland to visit, so—and one time, I don’t know why, I think I know why but maybe I’ll later say it, we saw the snow for the first time in my life. I remember getting off the train, taking the snow, and within minutes, within seconds I had to throw it away because my hands froze.
The reason for that trip was because the Italians were pretty well oriented toward the Jewish population, until the racial laws that started 1937, ‘38. At that time we started to realize that we’re different than the Italians, we were Jews. One of the things the Italians did in 1938 was the racial laws, and Italy was dismissed of the professors from the university, they limited the ability to practice all kinds of professions, and in Libya one of the things that was most traumatic for the Jewish populations was that they were forced to open their stores on Saturdays. It was just unacceptable that a Jew would open his store to work on Saturday, but if you didn’t do it you would be fined and you may end up in jail. So the Jews were opening the store, and sitting on a chair, and if a client comes in asking for something they would say, we don’t have it. So there was no business, the only thing they had to do, they would open the store and sit. And this was traumatic, I realized for the first time as a child that I was different from the others. It was uncomfortable, and maybe I didn’t understand the magnitude of these racial issues because I was a child, but you perceive that something’s different. I also remember that, when I was going to Talmud Torah, after lunch, I had to pass through a street where Italian boys were living, and I was always scared that someone would hit me. So I developed that kind of internal antagonism, that I wasn’t going to let anybody do anything to me, and these are the kinds of things that imprint your personality when you grow up, you never forget.
The war broke out, in 1939 Germany occupied Poland, Sept 1st, the Italians were very—Mussolini liked Hitler, Hitler learned from Mussolini. Mussolini was the first fascist, in 1922 he occupied Rome, and Hitler came up 11 years later and he learned from Mussolini a lot of the things. The war started in 1939, Italy did not get into war until June of 1940. At that time they realized that the Germans were winning, so why not be with the winner? It was that kind of calculation, the biggest mistake they made. My parents, my father had a British passport, we were British subjects. I had a birth certificate that said British subject by birth, I never spoke English, I had no idea what English was, so why did we have a British passport? During the Ottoman Empire, the countries needed information about what was going on in the Ottoman colonies, and they had to put consuls, and the consuls were essentially spies in disguise, but to be a consul—the purpose of the consul is to safeguard the citizen of the country where he lived. So they had to create British citizens, French citizens, and they went to the Jews and the Jews were very happy about it, my father was very happy about it. So when the war erupted, he was taken to a concentration camp in Zueitina, it’s a place that lately, because of what was happening in Libya, it was not far from Adjabiya, and Adjabiya was mentioned in the news sometimes, it was there and we were left really without support of the head of the family. The relations that we had with the Italian and Arab population was kind of peculiar. It was always kind of respect and deference towards the Italians and towards the Arabs. As a child, your father is the image of the strong man, the one who does everything, can do everything. You grow up, you change your mind, but at that time as a child that’s what I remember. And I will never forget that time, he was talking to an Arab, there was a slightly different tone, as they say the tone makes the music, it was different than the way you would talk with a Jew or a member of the family. Same thing with the Italians, and that was something again that imprints on your memory.
#3 They—when the war broke out, the Italians, the best friends of my father, all of a sudden saw us as enemies. My father was taken to the concentration camp, my mother was left alone, it was difficult but I don’t know how she managed to care for the family. This was in June, in December the British forces from Egypt were able to dislodge the Italian army, and they pushed westward all the way to occupy Benghazi, occupied Zueitina and Adjabiya, and they stopped there. And it was amazing how the Italians just fled in front of the British army, which was much smaller. The Italians (Transcription note: misspoke, meant British) took 250,000 prisoners, supplies, trucks, it was unbelievable. And they freed my father, my father came back. The elation of the Jewish population in Benghazi was overwhelming, for the first time they are coming out of slavery into freedom, we welcomed the British soldiers, they were mostly Australians and Indians. There was the Australian division and the Indian division, the 4th Indian division that occupied Benghazi. My father returned, and unfortunately, this did not last long.
#4 By the end of March, Rommel landed in Tripoli, and he repelled the British forces. Benghazi was reoccupied, we didn’t have time to flee, and there was a pogrom. The Italian population came out with all their anger toward the Jews, because we were happy that the British were there. They looted all the stores of the Jews, my parents were trying to get a car to escape, just to describe the desperation, neither my father nor my mother ever drove a car, and they still went to go find a car. And they put down money, to an Italian guy, and when they started the car, the starter was not running. So they lost the money and they lost the car. While they were away, the pogrom was taking place in the street, we were children inside the house. We barricaded the doors, we were scared to death that something would happen to us. Out of habit, my younger brother, who’s two years younger than me, took the Italian flag, and went to go put it down, because that’s the way to show that you are with them, and they shot, and the bullet really came over his head, and there was a hole in the wall, he ran back inside. With all that, I don’t know how my parents were able to come back home. This was Passover, and we spent Passover in the house, I’ll never forget the plainclothes detectives came and took my father back to concentration camp. My father was sick, he had diabetes, and his health deteriorated considerably.
While he was in second time concentration camp, my sister, again we were suffering from malnutrition, the ration was half loaf of bread a day per person, so you can imagine, how can you survive from that? And she died from an infection, my mother was really devastated. I’m not going to tell you the whole history of the Second World War, but the British came again, they were able to repel Rommel, and they stayed until close to Christmas, 1941, and the second time, later, they retreat, this time we did not stay. This time we decided that we had to go with them. We boarded a ship, and we were taken to Alexandria Egypt. To board the ship was a story itself. Can you imagine those landing craft, because the ships could not come close to shore, and then they had all those big nets, made of ropes, and you see the soldiers doing it, can you imagine children, and my grandmother was close to 80 years old, climbing these things, but out of desperation we did it. Three days after that, we were in Alexandria, during the trip we got attacked by airplanes, and so it was rather difficult, but as a child you see it as an adventure, you don’t realize how serious it was, how close to death. We stayed in Egypt—
HG: Can I just go back to Benghazi, to—before we talk about the experience in Egypt. When you were growing up in Benghazi, and you were talking about the languages, your mother—did she know Arabic?
ML: She learned it. She had to deal with her mother-in-law, and she learned Arabic. My mother learned Arabic, the Jewish, Judeo-Arabic dialect. And she conversed. She had a very good ability to learn languages. When she came to Israel she learned Hebrew.
HG: Did you have help in the house?
ML: Yes, we had a young girl, Jewish girl, she was probably 15 years old, and she was there mostly to help my mother to deal with the children, my younger brother. And interestingly enough, she was a sleep in, she had her own place, slept there, and ate with us. And I remember, and their family lived not far from us, but the family lived in the “Jewish” area, and I remember her taking me to this place, and it was an adventure by itself. This is the way the Jews lived before the Italian period, which means that during the Italian period Jews continued to have the same amenities or difficulties that they had before that. You go into a, a courtyard that has rooms around it, and every room is a large room, and a family lives in this room. So in this courtyard there were four or five families. In the center of the courtyard there was something called a [tanoor], which was a mound made of clay, and it was used to make the [matzot] for Passover. We didn’t eat the [matzot] that we did today, they were very much like pita, the pita bread of today. The only thing they made sure that it doesn’t leaven more than eighteen minutes, and it was kosher, for us. So I was able—and they did not have running water, there was a well in the center, and for me it was unusual because I had a faucet in the house, and so I saw how they were taking water from the well, and it was really just like going back a couple of centuries, not more than that. And this help, her name was Fortuna, her original name was Mizal, or Mizala, and Mizal in Hebrew means luck, Fortuna is luck. So we were lucky to have Fortuna.
HG: Was the language Judeo-Arabic that she spoke also?
ML: No, she—again, because of her interaction with us, she learned Italian. So she spoke Italian with us, and again, the bridges, this is how they connect, with families, and then most likely, I don’t remember, but her father, her mother—they spoke the Judeo-Arabic, but I think they also spoke the Italian.
HG: And did they—your mother, you said, spoke French. And your father, did he speak French?
ML: No, my father spoke Italian and the Judeo-Arabic. My mother was the one who spoke French, German, and Italian at the time and then Arabic.
HG: And you—I guess I’m just trying to clear in my mind what’s going on. You spoke Italian and Judeo Arabic…
ML: Right. And I could read Hebrew, because I could read the prayers in Talmud Torah, but I didn’t know what I was reading.
HG: And you—when you went to school, what was the name of the school you went to, and what language did you learn in?
ML: The school name was Regina Margarita. Regina Margarita was the wife of the king of Italy, she was born in Montenegro, and so the school was named after her. All the teachers were Italian, the principal was Italian, and everything we learned was in Italian. Maths, science, Roman history—we learned Roman history, and so therefore was all Italian. I just have to make a comment that I forgot about. We didn’t have kindergarten, so my parents sent me to kindergarten with the nuns. I essentially started my career of studying with the nuns. And there were many Jews that were sent because this was the best place. And it was interesting that it didn’t bother them, because they were so strong with their feeling of Jewish religion, and here they are sending their children to the nuns. And I started the day with a prayer, and I was allowed to stand up but not to say anything, out of respect for the guy hanging on the wall [laughs]. So for one year I went to a catholic nun kindergarten, and after that I went to elementary school.
HG: And in that elementary school, were there Jewish children—
ML: All Jewish. This school was built for the Jews, all Jews. We really did not interact with the Italian boys that were studying. Because the Jews lived in a—it was not a ghetto, it was kind of like self-imposed isolation. Nice quarter, nice streets, but of course at the periphery there was a kind of intermingling between the Italians and the Jews, but the street that I lived in was all Jews. There were Italian stores, there was an Italian café, but they did not live there, they worked there—it was their business that brought them there.
HG: So what you’re expressing is sort of two Jewish communities—one that was still living in an area that was more traditional, and then another community that you lived in that was more affluent, more European. And in your community you would be dressed more like the Europeans, and in the other community—
ML: Same thing. It didn’t bother them. Every newborn was European, even if he was born to the traditional part of the—they went to schools, because going to schools was obligatory, the Italians forced it—not that the Jews needed to be forced to go to school, but it was by law to attend school. So all the Jews, the new generation was Italianized.
HG: Your neighborhood was Jewish, you were saying, so did you have non-Jewish friends at all?
ML: No, I didn’t. The only Italian I had was the guy that was trying to hit me when I was going to Talmud Torah. No, we didn’t. I don’t remember. I remember the owner of the store that was selling candies, Mr. Costa, because we were going to buy candies, and he was a friend of my father, but later on, when the pogroms happened, my father tried to salvage anything he could from the store. We lived above the store so, through the rear window, we descended into the store, the jewelry store, and were able to grab whatever we could, and that really saved us in the following years, because we could survive by selling some, we were able to keep gold and diamonds and so forth. And I remember when finally everything quieted down, and the store doors opened, and this Mr. Costa came in with an Italian stash, and met my father, and thy were supposedly friends. And my father fell on his shoulder crying, and Mr. Costa moved back, just like saying, I want nothing to do with you. And that again, is imprinted in my memory, like a picture. Costa is the guy I was buying candies from, and all of a sudden he’s not a friend of my father. These are painful experiences that you carry throughout your life.
HG: The—in your house, if you would take Shabbat, what would that be like, and who would come over, and what kind of food?
ML: As a child, your memories are pictures, not a movie. So you have spots. I remember the Shabbat, mostly Friday evening was in the family. My father would read the Kiddush, the [shadhai], and the Bar Yohai. These were everything. The following day, we would go to the synagogue. Benghazi had 3 synagogue. [Sak Kabira], Kabira is “big” in Arabic, there was another synagogue called [Bramli], and there was a third but I don’t remember. Oh, the third one was in Talmud Torah, during Shabbat. And we had the Shabbat services during Shacharit. After Shacharit, everyone would go back home. And those families the I mentioned before that were Italianized European families, we would all go to the public garden. In Italian it’s called “gardenia publica.” And there, the women would sit together and gossip, the kids would play around, we weren’t allowed to ride bicycles, they didn’t let us ride bicycles on Shabbat, the bicycles, the bicycle the my brother and I had, we brought back from Italy during one of our trips, and we were very proud to have a bicycle. And we landed at the port, and we tried to get on the bicycle and the tires were flat. So we had to carry it by hand. So during that Shabbat morning, the intermingling, and the stories were going around, and that’s how the community really kept together. This community was really—especially this class that I was talking about—very concerned about things. They had what was called the [bikor halim] women, that would go around and visit the poor, there were all kinds of charitable organizations, they had one that was called the “Aday Associacion don Hebrai Italiano,” the Association of Jewish Italian Women, and the “aday” was the [vizzo] of Israel, and America, and they were taking care of the poor, in the real sense of the word, they were helping the Chevra kadisha, those that could afford, they were very generous, and the community was able to keep itself in good shape because of the fact that the rich Jews helped the poor ones.
HG: Were your parents members of any of these organizations?
ML: The community was too small. The community was an organization, you lived in an organization. Usually when you have an organization there is always a competing organization, and that was not the case here. Of course I’m going to tell you a joke about the Jews and the organization, about the two Jews on an island. Two Jews on an island, and they had three synagogues. And someone visits them and asks, why do you have three synagogues? And he says, one is for me, one is for him, and the third one I never set foot in. So, this was not existent in Benghazi because there was only one community, although there were three synagogues but only because of the vicinity, too far to walk from one to another, but there was no competition.
HG: Was there a governing council, a kind of—
ML: Yes, it was amazing, and I was about to talk about that. There was an elected member, elected maybe not the right word, selected might be more appropriate. And he was the president of the community. And he was in charge of making sure that everything was done the right way, he had no power. Although he was recognized as an officer by the Italian authorities, if they had to deal with the community he was the spokesperson for the community, also the guy who they would ask for info. There was a rabbinical tribunal, and they were very strict about keeping everything according to Jewish tradition, Jewish law, and the president was serving without salary, therefore he was most of the time from the people who could afford that. It was not a difficult thing but there was always some conflicts, and you needed someone who would put in the last word and settle it, so that was the president of the community.
HG: You said your grandfather, your father’s father, was he a rabbi?
ML: No, my father’s father, he was not a rabbi. From my mother’s side, he was a rabbi, he was the guy who—he was Ashkenazi, born in Ruzhany in Belarus, he was born an orphan. His father died before he was born. His father’s name was Eliyahu, he was named Izsak Eliyahu. He went to a very famous yeshiva, the [relojin] yeshiva, and I know this only because I heard from time to time these names thrown around, and then he ended up somewhere, somehow in Bialystok, and that’s where he met my grandmother, most likely was arranged, and they lived there. They married in Bialystok, they lived in Bialystok, they had two sons. One was named [Argyelev], he was born 1900, and my grandparents married in 1898. The son was born in 1900, the second one was born in 1904, and then there were pogroms in Bialystok in 1906. Large part of the community left its city, and many left Belarus. The vast majority came to United States, mostly settling in NY area, there is a Bialystok synagogue in Lower East side to this day. But my grandparents went to Austria, and he, being a rabbi probably had something to do with why he was there. And it was a kind of resort in the Alps. People those days, it was not infrequent to have tuberculosis, and they would go to the mountains to heal. And there were many Jews, rich Jews with tuberculosis that would come to that area. And, the First World War, they were there. They suffered relatively little because the war bypassed them.
But in 1922 they moved to Rome, most likely because he was offered a job, I don’t know why he was there. I have documents that are the papers he needed to fill, and as a Jew, not being born in Italy, he didn’t have citizenship. It was so typical for Jews, they didn’t belong anywhere. He was born in Belarus, lived in Belarus, lived in Poland, lived in Austria, lived in Italy, and only when he died in Israel he was a Jewish citizen, an Israeli citizen. He didn’t belong anywhere, so if he had to travel, he had to get a special permit from the authorities, a traveling document. In Rome, you had the pensione, and being the only pensione in Rome, anyone who had to do with Judaism or wanted to eat kosher would pass by. Most people that were going to Palestine would pass by, and other that, even if they were not religious or kosher, would sit there. For instance, there was the famous author Sholem Asch, that was an American, and he was born in America but lived here, and he stayed for a while in Rome, and he lived in the pensione with my grandfather. And there were others too that were there, he was a famous—became famous, almost became the president of Israel, and his name was Urbach, and he came to study religious studies and he stayed in the pensione with my grandfather, and he mentioned his works. So my grandfather was there, and unofficially the Ashkenazi of Rome for 1922 to 1941.
HG: So when you talked about visiting as a child, your grandparents, this is where you would go visit. And what happened to your grandparents during the war?
ML: Ok, I have a whole story, but I’m not going to tell you the whole story. We wrote a book about it, and there was a presentation in [Yav Hashem] just a week ago about this. For a long time I didn’t know, but I found out that they were hid by Italians, non-Jewish Italians, and they were there and they saved their lives. So when you speak about Italians, you have to be careful. Not all of them were bad. I would even say that the majority of Italians, if they were not related to the authorities, they were good to the Jews. And it was the authorities that had to follow the examples of the Germans, that sent many of them to gas chambers. Birkenau and other places. But my grandparents were saved by Italians. After the war, he came to Palestine, and he settled in Palestine. He came in 1946. My grandmother died a year later, 1947, and my grandfather lived with us, and he died in 1951, at the age of 79.
HG: Now, your other grandparents, your father’s grandparents, they lived in—
ML: My grandfather died in Benghazi in 1910. My grandmother was able to come with us throughout all our traveling, which I didn’t mention all of that, and she died in Palestine in 1945.
HG: So your grandmother lived with you in the house. And you were—how many children were you? You and your brother, but you mentioned others. What are the names and the years of birth?
ML: The first brother I had was Armando Shalom, and he was born and died in 1937. The sister was Liliana, and she was born and died in 1940, at 11 months.
HG: And this house that you lived in, the apartment above the store, do you remember what your bedroom looked like?
ML: That’s an interesting question, because I do remember that. We lived on the other side of the street. My father liked to do everything, so he purchased an old house across the street. He took two Arab workers, Ali and Muhammad, and they tore down the house. But they kept everything, all the bricks and wood, and then he hired an Italian architect, and they worked and built a beautiful building with the store downstairs, the jewelry store. First floor was an apartment for us, the second floor was an apartment for his brother, my uncle. The store was really gorgeous, he brought specialists from Italy to do a marble floor, all multicolored. The apartment we lived in had four bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and there was room for my grandmother, room for the maid. And my room, and my brother’s room, I’ll never forget, because my mother hired an Italian artist, and there was Mickey Mouse on the walls. Yes, it was nice.
HG: And were there books in the room?
ML: Well, there was a piano, because my grandparents wanted my mother to play piano, she couldn’t do anything with music, but she bought a piano in Benghazi. And the piano was there in the living room, and nobody played, and we had an old radio, I didn’t say much about the—one day, before the British occupied Benghazi, we were eager to find the news, the news going on the world, so we had an old radio, one of the big boxes, and we were listening to the BBC, because that was the only reliable source of “true news.” And we were afraid because the police at any time could come and get you if you were listening, so I was posted outside the apartment. And I was supposed to, if there were the police or the detectives coming, ring the bell, and they knew they had to change the station. During those years, Benghazi was a main port, it was bombarded every night, by the British when the Italians and Germans were there. And the first night, my father was exultant, he went up to the roof and said bring the champagne, the British are bombarding the Italians. This was before he was taken to the concentration camp. And then he realized that it was very unsafe to be up there, because every time they shot anti-aircraft, the shrapnel would fall and come down, and you could be killed. For us it was difficult, because very night, being bombarded was not an easy thing. We had to live with a stool and a coat by the door, and many times the siren would sound and you had to run to the door. As children, we were so sensitive—we were hearing the planes before the sirens even went off. We would run to the doors, still sleeping, take the stool, take the coat, run to the shelter, and wake up in the shelter. And that was—again, for us it was like fireworks, but it was dangerous. Then when the Brits occupied Benghazi, then it was the Germans bombarding them. So for over a year, every night we were under bombardment. And when I hear about people talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I say to myself, I went through that, and I did realize—the first time I realized it was deep in my head, it was when 9/11 happened , was in Texas, San Antonio, watching what was happening to the Twin Towers, and all of a sudden I was very sick, feeling like I was there, and for the rest of the day I was literally physically sick.
So these things leave an imprint in you, even though they may be very far down in your conscious or subconscious. And when it went down we went to Egypt, and we stayed in Egypt, in Cairo, for three months, and then we had to move because Rommel was advancing, and everybody was sure that Egypt would fall, and the Egyptians were favoring the Germans. And we demanded from the British to take us further down, so we went to the Sudan. The Sudan, it was a trip of eight days by train and steamboat, the steamboat went down the Nile River, we stayed in the Sudan eight months, and when finally the British beat, at El Alamein, Rommel, we came back to Cairo. In Cairo we stayed a couple of months, and the authorities asked us what we wanted to do. You want to go to Benghazi or you want to go to Palestine. And there was an “argument” between my parents, my mother wanted to go to Palestine, and my father wanted to go to Benghazi. And thank God my mother won, and we were going to Palestine. We got certificates—in those days you needed certificate to go to Palestine. We crossed the border, and we were in Tel Aviv June 3rd, 1943. And we settled in the Bet Olim, the house of the new immigrant, and I can continue the story but I think it’s going to be a long story.
HG: I still want to focus on Benghazi. When you talk about going to synagogue, do you have any memories of—did you play with your friends, or did you stay in the actual sanctuary, or did you—what your memories or it?
ML: Go to the synagogue. The Libyan synagogue, don’t assume that all African synagogues are the same. The Libyan synagogues are a little different. They have the benches on the walls, you sit along the walls. In the center of the synagogue you have the [bima], separated from the [Aron Kodesh], the [Aron Kodesh] is on the wall. And I remember we were—my father was not really a strictly religious guy, it was my uncle who was more religious, and when you get into this synagogue, my uncle was sitting in the right side corner. The benches were just very uncomfortable, no cushions, no nothing, and you had to wear a tallit, and his children were wearing a tallit, and the tallit that the Libyan Jews, I think after the Italians came, were slightly different. They were mostly made of a silky light cloth, and you would wrap them like a shawl around the neck, but not around the shoulders, just around the neck. And I noticed because I have pictures as a child—and there was—as a child of course you cannot follow the whole service, but we were playing with other kids of our age as all children do to this day in synagogue. And the only thing you do, you have to come in when there is the [Birkat Kohanim]. The Sephardim have the [Birkat Kohanim] twice on every Shabbat, because it is for the Shacharit, and for the Mussaf, during the Amidah—So they have the father, he puts his hand over your head, the tallit, and the Kohen recites the prayers and so forth, and at the end of you have to kiss the hand of your father, that’s obligatory
HG: And if there were daughters, would the daughters come to the father at that time?
ML: The daughters, either Sephardim or Ashkenazim, were relegated to [Ezrat Nashim]. [Ezrat Nashim] was always a place where—and not only that, I would say that even with that very few of them came to the synagogue. The synagogue was really only made—there was a place for [Ezrat Nashim], because certain things you have to do, but it was a male-dominated society, the females were not part of it. Very important because they kept the tradition, but the men were the ones who controlled it.
HG: Did your family have any kind of special customs or superstitions that you remember at all? Objects that—
ML: Yes. As I said I’m a little bit peculiar, because my mother was not local. But she tried to adjust, and whatever happened was always either my grandmothers, or my aunts, that they would help me go through what was necessary. So there was a—I mentioned before the place where our maid was living, the big yard that had the families living there, and one room, there was an older gentleman, and he was supposed to do all kinds of things that relieve you from the evil spirits. He’d give you an amulet, this guy. I remember once, I was sick and maybe that’s why I had to go there, or maybe I was a bad boy and they had to correct me, whatever the reason, they take me to this guy, and he does all kinds of things, and then he takes a handkerchief, and he makes a knot, puts it over my head, turns around, and then—it opened up and you hear the splat of the handkerchief, and he said, everything is ok, from now on you are alright. This is one of the things I learned. And there was a lot of fear of [einaran], or evil spirits. And everything was their fault, if you wore something new you put a red collar, if you had a—the number five was against the evil spirits, and the fish was against the evil spirits. So when you said something good about somebody and you didn’t want him to be hurt, you would say [fijjalad]. Now, this was—my mother was saying [fijjalad], and I don’t think she knew what she was saying, but now I know what that means. [Fiwaj el adu], “In the face of your enemy,” but for me it was [fijjalad], I thought it was an Italian word.
HG: Did you wear any special amulets yourself?
ML: Well, we had all [shaddai], and my father being a jeweler, we had the best gold [shaddais] we could get! Yes, everybody had [shaddai]. I believe in part it was to counteract the fact that the Christians were wearing the cross, and the Italians were very “Catholic,” and everywhere you went there was a cross hanging around their necks or whatever. By the way, I have to say a few words about the Italian population of Libya. Italy was a poor country because it was very poor in raw materials. There was no iron, there was no carbon, there was no coal, and they couldn’t have steel. They were great painters, and great sculptors, they had a lot of stone, a lot of marble, and that was their greatness, they were really very—but the southern part of Italy was really underdeveloped in many ways, even culture. Sicily and south of Naples were occupied by Muslims, by Arabs, for long periods, and some of it probably sank into their attitude, behavior, and the kind of [unintelligible] that they had in their head, to do, the Mafia, and Camorra and so forth.
So the poor Italians—and the Italians had large families, one of the reasons that you have such a large community of Italians in the US and other parts of the Americas, because the Italians at some point had to emigrate. With a lot of heartache—they really loved their country, but they had to move. And so, when Libya was occupied, the Italian regime brought in Italian citizens, mostly from Sicily. And they were hardened—they were really hardened in many ways. They were less educated, and being the rulers, they became harsh rulers, in many ways, difficult to deal with, and not pleasant. And when there was the other pogrom, on April 3rd, they were the ones who really did it, they were—they had the power but they didn’t have the money, and they were envious of the Jews, the Jews had no power but they had the money, and in French they say [le jean fie], If you have money you can do what you want, so the Jews were—they were jealous of the Jews from every aspect. The Jews tried to accommodate them because—don’t argue, don’t argue with them. So it was a mixed kind of relationship with the Italian population.
HG: What about when you were growing up—Israel and Zionism. Was that at all part of your upbringing in Benghazi?
ML: Absolutely, because of my age I can’t remember. But I know they had a place in the Talmud Torah, with Jewish themes, Jewish songs. We know they had [tikvah], and I know from reading later that there was a very strong Jewish Zionist movement in Libya, very strong. There was the Maccabi, and they even participated in the Maccabia in 1936 in Palestine. So the Jews of Libya were very good Zionists.
HG: Were your parents involved in any way, do you remember?
ML: No. I would say that the younger ages were more involved, my father didn’t belong to that category anymore. When you have a family and so forth, your enthusiasm about these kinds of things subsides, you know, and so I cannot say. But my mother’s brother, he made Aliyah, and he was a pioneer.
HG: When did he make Aliyah?
ML: In the 20’s.
HG: Mid 20’s. From—
ML: From Italy, from Rome.
HG: And you had an uncle though who was in Benghazi with you. That was your father’s brother?
ML: From my mother’s side, no. That was from my father’s side. And during the first British occupation, somebody came and said there is a soldier who is looking for Mrs. Labi. That soldier was her brother. He volunteered in the British army in Palestine. He volunteered, he arrived, and he looked for his sister.
HG: And you met him?
ML: We met him, it was really an elation, and it’s interesting because he was a sergeant, he came with his driver. His driver was a Palestinian Arab, so there was no problem of interacting with them. Later on he retreated—Churchill made a big mistake, he sent the British army to help the Greeks in Greece, because they were being beaten by the Germans. And my uncle became a prisoner of war, for the rest of the war he was a prisoner of war in Poland where he was born, but because he was a British soldier, even though he was a Jew the Germans didn’t do anything to him.
HG: You said that your father was in a labor camp, or a prison, or—how would you describe it?
ML: It was a concentration camp, which means there were barracks of an Italian army. I know this because on time we were allowed to visit him, so I have a visual memory of the barracks, but only Jews were there, only Jews that were either French or British citizens. This was the first time. The second time, during the second reoccupation, my father was very sick, and they didn’t send him to concentration camp, but they sent him to prison. He had diabetes. From the prison, he went to the hospital. He was in the hospital, and the guard happens to be an Arab Italian soldier, they had a contingent—the French did the same thing. Not the Foreign Legion, but something like that. And I remember every day, at five o’clock, I would walk into the hospital to go see my father. Why five o’clock, well that’s because it was dinnertime, and the hospital was run by the nuns. And the nuns were very nice, and they would bring my father double portions of macaroni and cheese, and I would eat macaroni and cheese. I think, from what my brother said, I think he came to visit too a few times, but these I don’t remember. I remember—what I remember was the picture of me eating macaroni and cheese from my father’s dish.
HG: Were you afraid, when you were leaving your house and going to visit your father, that something would—
ML: At that age, there is really no fear. Because you are not able to evaluate the danger that you might be facing. But it’s an interesting question because, to this day, people say that I’m fearless. And I, I don’t think that I’m irresponsible, but it takes a lot to make me fear something. And I believe that those years have inculcated in me a feeling that the worst thing that can happen is you die. And we didn’t see that as—we were seeing that all the time, so we didn’t see that as terrible. I don’t want to be misunderstood, I’m not saying that anybody wants to die, but I’m saying that seeing the bombs every night, and nothing happens to you, and being pursued by an Italian boy, nothing happened to you. So you learned, maybe if a lion rushes you don’t have to be afraid either [laughs]. So yes, there is fear, but the fear is probably suppressed or controlled, because it’s impossible that you’re not fearful. And fear is a good human reaction. So the adrenaline would be shooting up, but you’re still able to control whatever you could control. But there were unpleasant situations.
HG: Your mother, with your father in prison or in the camp—did you start taking on a more mature role because of this?
ML: Yes, we—I never talk about it that way. It’s a good point, because we became semi-independent. We had to fetch for ourselves, we had to go to this bakery to get the half loaf of bread every day, she would not come. Every day we get sometimes vegetables, I think, of this kind. So we were the one, I know you’re talking about, children that are 10, 11 years old, my brother was even younger than that. And my brother was a good businessman from the day he was born. So we were connecting razor blades and other things and we would stand in the streets trying to sell them to whoever wanted to buy, and someone would come by with a dollar, well of course it wasn’t a dollar, but someone would come by with money, and my brother would not accept a dollar, he wanted 100 cents, because it’s more money. So you develop that—you learn to deal with what is necessary, just to survive. And I must admit, a lot of the stores were broken up—the owners were not there, we would break in and open safes. And I broke in and opened a safe, I remember—we found things that were some money and something else, I don’t know what it was, but there were a few and we broke into them. And you learn how to do it.
HG: So the pogrom comes that evening, when the Italians riot in the streets, and—can you try to go back in your head of what your experience was?
ML: Yes, that was an experience that you cannot say I did not have fear. I did experience fear, because my parents were not home, I was with my brother and my cousin who’s two years older than me, but we were same age. And you looked through the shades and you see the street full of men and women carrying guns, carrying the Italian flag, the tri-color, breaking into the store. I’ll never forget the picture of the Italian woman, she was wearing a white coat, she was pregnant, and she was breaking into the store of Mr. Minoon, and taking out his stuff. I’m surprised that I get emotional, because it never happened to me before. So this woman—it was a store with clothing, and she was taking it out and throwing it into the street, and I know Mr. Minoon, and I told you that my brother got out on the balcony and they were banging on my father’s store, it had iron doors—metal. And it took them about four hours, and we hear the banging—four hours to break into the store. And during this period, I told you, my parents went to look for a car, nothing happened, they came back, and we barricaded ourselves, brought down tables and chairs against the door when our parents came. And the Italians were so busy breaking in that they didn’t realize my parents were at the door.
So they come in, and we had all our—we had three suitcases, because we were ready to go with the car. So all the most valuable clothing and things that my mother cherished were in suitcases. And as I said, my father goes down while they’re still banging, my mother’s yelling, “No, don’t, you’re killing my family,” out of desperation, she knew that this is life. It goes down, and he brings up the jewelry that he could collect, and they finally break into the store. And the houses were built side by side, so we go up to the roof, and the next house was the house of the president of the community, Mr. Chuba. What he did, he hired an Italian, and he posted him downstairs, behind the door of his house, and when the Italians were banging on the door, he would say, “What do you want, this is my house!” And the Italians and the Jews were separated, as I told you before, so they did not know if this was true. So this man saved the life of Mr. Chuba. We climbed on the roof, over the wall, and stayed with Mr. Chuba, as it was the Passover, our Passover.
A day later, my mother wanted to see if anything was left in our apartment. The riot was finished, they took everything, everything was normal, so she asked this gentleman to go with her to the apartment to see if anything was left. And she had a mahogany box with silver cutlery, heavy silver cutlery, because my father was a jeweler so he got the best there was. And my mother said, “Oh, they didn’t take it, good.” And she comes back. And the following day she comes back to look for the box, disappeared. Who do you think took it? [laughs] So these are the pictures, the individual pictures that you, that are imprinted in your memory, and it comes with a pain because we know that—I know what was meant in that box. Because on Friday evening, this was the set that we used, the silver spoons, the cutlery. And other things that happened during the bombardment, again, that I’m alive is also a miracle. When the airplanes drop bombs, they drop in clusters of three. This is the street, and there is a house on the right, and a house on the left. And we hear “bomb bomb bomb,” when we are in the shelter. So one bomb fell in front of the right house, one fell on the left side of the house, and our house was untouched. So we got to the stairs, and I told you that we had a piano. The piano was on the wall that was facing the stairs. So the wall fell down, and the piano was in the stairs. So, I mean, you see things that, you can imagine, when I see the pictures of destruction I can feel sorry for those people because I know exactly what it is to all of a sudden, all of the things that are neat, clean, and organized, everything becomes rubble. And the most cherished things that you have are just worthless.
HG: When you—when you left, you said that the British evacuated you? How much time notice did you have?
ML: No notice. First of all, there was nothing to carry. We didn’t have anything. There was no suitcases, nothing. We left with our clothing. But, on thing we had was the jewelry that my father was able to—he had a can that was for oil, and I don’t know how he did it, but he put everything in it. So that was our only belonging, and he made clear that we should make it to look oily and dirty and greasy, no one would even touch it, no one would even want it. But before that, as I said my father was really good at—he was creative. He bought a wooden box, about this size, and he built a double bottom. And I remember because it took nails that were rusty, not new ones, so you cannot see that it was double bottom. And he put all this jewelry in the box, closed it, nailed it, and then reopened it, and we filled it with all the dirty pots and pans we had at home, greasy and oily so that nobody would even want to touch them. And these were the only belongings we had, so as refugees, every authority would see us carrying nothing but our pots and pans, they didn’t even think that this contained so much value. And for essentially over eighteen months, we were carrying this wooden box with us, until we got to—no, before we got to Egypt, he took part of it and started selling it to the local jewelers, because we needed some money. And at the end, it ended up in Palestine. And that money, that gold, was what enabled me to become a doctor one day, because that was survival.
HG: Did your—did your father own the store?
ML: Yes, he owned everything.
HG: What happened to it?
ML: It is there. I was able to Google it, Google Earth, I found the street, I can see where it is. I found the street, I cannot see the sign, but the building is still there.
HG: And it’s sort of—
ML: It’s lost property.
HG: And how much time did you know in advance that you were leaving? Did he tell you in advance?
ML: No, no. First of all, again, I was a child, and the parents know more, but I remember there was no—the thing that I remember we heard, I was on the roof and I heard the guns shooting at each other, which was mostly German against the British, you can hear it at a distance. So these I remember, and I remember that in the following days, we were in a truck to the port, and boarding the landing craft and then boarding the ship. So there was probably, maybe half a day.
HG: And the people on this ship, were they mostly Jewish?
ML: Yes, only the British citizens, on the truck. There were also a couple of Greek Cypriots family. I had a cousin of mine, that she tried to climb the truck, but she was not British subject, and the captain—his name was Vega, I remember his name, Captain Vega, he said, “Get off the truck.” And she said, “No.” So he pulled out this gun, and she said, “No no.” And she got off the truck. Because only British subjects—and that’s how—
HG: And how many people do you think were on that ship that took you?
ML: The ship was a troop carrier, so it was soldiers. And we were on the upper deck, near the captain’s quarters, whatever. We were four or five families, all in one place. It was three days, two nights.
HG: And you went to Alexandria, and then to where, to Cairo?
ML: Then they took us to Cairo, yes. And in Cairo we lived in a very nice place, it was called al Jazeera, nothing to do with the radio station. And it was a site of an exhibition before the war, and so they had all kinds of buildings that they were able to locate us, and we were there for a couple of months.
HG: And were you in contact with the Jewish community at all?
ML: Yes, yes. That was the nice thing that happened there. It was good to be a Jew, because we were welcomed with such warmth, and we come to a place where there was no war. Cairo was a place that didn’t know war, there was plenty of food, everything was normal, within three days from hell to paradise, and it was nice, and we meet the Jewish community, we were not many so it was no big deal. I think there was a distant cousin of my father by marriage, and they introduced us to the community, and for the first time I met Jews that are Karaites, the Karaites, we didn’t have in Libya Karaites. They were very nice, they were also many of them jewelry traders, and they appreciated very much what my father brought. We were invited to the Seder, these went down to second Seder, in Cairo, in the house of family, and when Rommel advanced, the Jews didn’t feel anything just because they didn’t realize how dangerous it was. That’s it, we just came out of hell, we didn’t want to stay again. And we left, and then when we came the second time, after the eight months in the Sudan—
HG: Where were you in Sudan?
ML: El Obeid. El Obeid is the second largest city in the Sudan, I said third because Khartoum is the capital, and the capital of Khartoum is on the Nile River, the other side of the Nile River is called Omdurman, so they are really one city but two different names. But El Obeid is the second largest. It was desolate, there were no paved roads, no Jews, the only Jew there was the director of the bank, everybody else was—
HG: So why did your father choose that spot?
ML: We didn’t choose, we went to the British authorities and we said, “We don’t want to stay here, we want to run,” and they thought they were going to send us to south Africa, I believe so because why—so anyways, it was a fantastic trip. The first part was not pleasant because it was in cattle cars, but who cares. The second part was in a river boat, and we passed these things, and it was really—
HG: Down the Nile?
ML: Yes, and then we took again a train, because the British were very smart. The Sudan was an Anglo-Egyptian protectorate, but they have two different sides of rails, so the Egyptian could never go to the Sudan. The British were very smart. So we stayed in the Sudan in El Obeid for eight months, and we didn’t’ have a minyan, but I remember we had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, of that year, and we prayed all the prayers, they knew them by heart, and I learned them from them. It’s really amazing how you can learn at that age everything in no time, and then from there—the population of Sudan was really primitive. If you go to the market, the women, they did not have—they were topless, I mean really, you know, in the heart of Africa. They were wearing the gowns with the—it was an interesting experience, and my mother had a large diamond ring, and that was one of the things her mother gave her, and we were hiring locals, young men that were helping us cleaning the dwelling, and on day my mother doesn’t find the ring. And it happened that we hired another guy, and we were really devastated. My mother was—it was not something easy to lose, and Osman was the guy, we tell Osman, go and fin this guy, we take a policeman with us, and we go and find the guy, and he gave us the ring back. To show you what kind of experience we had in these kind of places. And that’s it, I don’t think they did anything to the guy anyway. And I don’t think the guy realized what he was doing—because right away, I was with them, he went and took out the ring and said, “Here it is.”
HG: And what language did you speak?
ML: Arabic. I, now—In Egypt, my Arabic is not anymore the Judeo-Arabic, it’s the Egyptian Arabic, the vernacular. Because the more—I don’t know until today, but the vernacular, and I was conversing in Arabic very easily without any problems, I spoke through it. The same thing was in the Sudan, of course the Egyptian accent was slightly different, and it was Arabic.
HG: And then you come back to Cairo—
ML: And then I came back to Cairo, and then we went to Palestine, and I don’t speak Hebrew.
HG: You arrived in Israel, and how old were you?
ML: June ’43, I was 12 years old.
HG: And where did you go when you arrived in Israel again?
ML: It was another experience, we arrived by train, we crossed the border at Cantarra, which is on the west side of the Sinai, because believe it or not, the Sinai never really belonged to Egypt. It’s only then, after the ‘67—but we arrived to, by train to Tel Aviv station, which was located near Holyu David, and then we didn’t have any suitcases or anything to carry, and they came to pick us up with a cart driven by horse, and because it was time of war, the wheels were made of truck wheels. So, we sat on this taxi, and we arrived to what is called [Bet’Olim], the [Bet’Olim] is the refugee house for refugee newcomers, in Tel Aviv, [hovaliah], the end of [hovaliah], the upper street, and obviously 1943, there are no immigrants, we are the only ones, another couple of families in the whole place. And it was better than anything else, but it was not the greatest place to stay. And we moved, I don’t know how long it took, couple of weeks, whatever, to a place that was always considered kind of a slum, [Shunat Hatikva], but during this period between June and September, this is now the vacation time from schools. And I must admit that the social workers were really phenomenal, they did everything possible to make our lives easier and more pleasant.
So they took my brother and myself to a day camp, summer camp, it was [Hova Yakon], where the present Dan Hotel was located, the name of the hotel was [Katedan], it was a German name associated with [Katedan]. I say this because when she said you have to go to [Katedan], I didn’t understand what she meant, and it was in a school, [Dihon Hadash], was the high school of the socialist movement in Israel, it’s not there anymore. And they were taking us to the beach every day, it was really nice, for the first time we felt the way children should feel, you know—enjoy yourself, you run, you—and for them, we were a curiosity. We were dressed differently, we were—we bought a few things from the Sudan, kind of hats made of straw, and then we were wearing them, we put them there because we wanted to wear what we had, and so what was more interesting than anything else was that we didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. But we managed, sign language, so forth. That lack of knowledge lasted only three months. After the third month we were fluent in Hebrew, we would speak with everybody, and this is not unusual—because I remember when I was in medical school, there was a Israeli guy who came to study medicine in [unintelligible], he was Israeli, didn’t speak a word of Italian, within three months he spoke it. So, three months is probably the time you need to learn a new language, if you have no choice. If you have choice you’ll never learn it.
#6 So here we are now, in [Shunat Hatikva], in a house where the toilet is outside, outdoors, again, it’s better than anything we had until then. And we go to school, there are no school buses, we cannot afford to pay the bus fare, so we walked to school. And it’s about 25, 30 minute walk to school, day in and day out. And the fall is in, the weather is cooler, and my teacher one day asked me, don’t you feel cold. And I was wearing only a shirt. Only then did I realize that I felt cold, but we couldn’t afford a jacket. So I remember not knowing and telling this to my mother, and I can assume how bad she felt, but finally we got a jacket from somewhere. The school—integration in the school was difficult. Again, we were foreigners, we didn’t know the jokes, we didn’t understand the jargon, and—because if you don’t—there was a book that somebody wrote that said, everything I know I learned in kindergarten. And if you don’t go through kindergarten, then you really don’t know it. But I had a few things that were in my favor. I was good in math, I was good in geography because during the war you had to learn geography, or at least I was interested. I knew where Poland was, where Germany was, where Egypt was, and so forth and so that helped me. And I was able to—I was first in the class at geography, and math. And for the first time, we studied the Nevi’im, the Tanakh, and it was really an eye opener, because until then I read it but I didn’t understand it, and I started to appreciate the beauty of it, [Y’shayahu] and [Ishmayahu], and that was—I must admit, stays with me until today, when we read Torah in the synagogue, all this comes up. We were abused by the other children, and the reaction was very simple. I was big, and I was older than the others, I would hit them back physically. But I was fortunate, one of the teachers understood the way we felt, and he gave me all the support that you need. And here it is, he said, you’re becoming a criminal. I became a good student and I ended up being the valedictorian of the class when the year ended.
So I was in sixth grade, seventh and eighth grade which means that I was in third grade essentially in Benghazi, and for three years, I did nothing, and then I went to sixth grade. My family—my father could not work. He didn’t speak Hebrew, he was sick. My mother didn’t work, so after the elementary school, I had to go to work. And I worked in the—I became a messenger in town halls, Tel Aviv town halls. And again, was an eye opening experience, I saw for the first time the real Israelis, how they get dressed how they come to work, and I learned also a lot about how an office is run. And I’m saying this because later in life, this was one of the things that helped me achieve what I achieved later. I learned how to file, I learned how to answer the phone I learned how to take a complaint, because I was the lowest in the department, the messenger boy. And the department was department of sanitation, which was the lowest department in the city, but I learned a lot about garbage, waste collection, street cleaning, and so forth.
This lasted one year, and through—I was going in the evening to school, to high school night classes. It was not easy, because you would finish school, go to work, then it’s 10 o’clock and you have to go back to live where you live. And the years are—this was 1946, we know what was happening in general with the Jewish people at the end of the war, deportation camps and so forth, and in Israel there is a lot of fervor, foment, because everyone felt kind of guilty about what was going on, what had happened to Jews in Europe and we didn’t do anything about them. I say we because really, everyone felt that way. And I became a—I joined the Maccabi club, and while I was there, somebody enrolled me #7 in the Hagenah, which was the underground militia of the Jews in Palestine. And in 1947, I was 16 years old, I went to a training course for squad leaders, and I am totally completely an Israeli. I speak like an Israeli, I act like an Israeli, the past was nonexistent for me anymore, I closed the book or turned the leaf. After finishing the course which was about six weeks, in a beautiful place called Juara, until then or even after that, all day, members of the Israeli underground trained. Rabin and everybody with a name went through that course, and Moshe Dayan, and others.
And, so—I’m now part of Israel, the [Yishuv]. I come back, now this is already the end of ‘47. The turmoil starts, and my—I have to interrupt my studies, because there is a curfew, the British do not allow the Jews to be out after 10 o’clock at night, and I am now enlisted—I am becoming now an instructor in the underground, and the Arabs start a war. It’s really a civil war, as we see today, in Syria or other parts, it’s Palestinian Jews against Palestinian Arabs. In Tel Aviv, we have a border with Jaffa, Jaffa is the Arab part and Tel Aviv is the Jewish part, and there are riots at the border between the two, so at night I am now the guardian, we have certain positions in houses that were emptied of Jews that couldn’t live there anymore out of fear. And we have one rifle, and five bullets. Downstairs, hidden. And we are three men, standing guard. I say this because, tongue in cheek, what can you do with five bullets. But that was the reality, because the British would come around, and they find you with arms, you go to jail. And this is the end of 1947, 1948, the beginning of ‘48, I’m now enlisted in the “Israeli” army, the Israeli army was really founded later on in May, but there was already an army, and I become a trainer, an instructor, and I now instructed squad leaders and so essentially, I’m integrated in the Israeli army. I loved it, that was one of the best periods of my life. You feel like you’re doing something that’s really worth it, that’s a cause that you’re fighting for, and considering my past, it was only a few years before that how I felt, and now you really feel that you are powerful, that you have a cause to fight for.
And the Israeli army is founded, and I now am going to the officers’ course, infantry officers course, I’m chosen from among many of my friends, and the course ends after 6 months, the course had about 120 people, cadets that graduated, ten of them are left to train the next course, and I’m one of the ten of them. In 1950, I finish my military service, December of 1950, I look for a job, and somebody gives me a job, meets me in the street, says what are you doing, I say nothing, and he says “Alright, I have a job for you,” and I work now in the—there was a censorship, all the letters coming out of Israel were censored. And because I knew Italian, I knew French, I was there. I really didn’t do very much. One day somebody calls me up there, he says, we have another job for you, and you are going to be working at Lydda Airport, now it’s called Ben-Gurion, as a security, part of the security team there. There were three people there that were doing all kinds of jobs that I don’t want to talk about now, but essentially this was part of what would later on become the Shib Bet, and during this period I continued to go to night courses, I passed the high school equivalency test, and I got a diploma, and I don’t know what to do with myself. So my mother said why don’t you go and study medicine, and so it was, my mother had a brother in Italy, Milan, that lived there, and so I tried to enroll at the university of Milano, and I don’t have expenses because I live with my uncle.
When I was in Milano I continued to do some job for my previous employer, and I was also the secretary of the Grupa Zionistica, which meant the Zionist group, and I helped all kinds of affairs, and I had a certain responsibility in collecting dues, and part of this was because of my attachment, because everybody knew that I was an Israeli and they expected this from me. I returned to Israel in 1959, and I’m working now in a hospital called [Assara Fei], it was an old military, British military barracks. I go through the internship residency, and in 1966, ‘65, ‘66, the financial situation in Israel was really in bad shape. The economy was bad, Israel multiplied its population in 1950’s from 600,000 to 1.2 million with an influx mostly of the Jews from the Arab lands, and then—whatever was left from the European Jews. And it was not easy for any country to double its population in such a period of time. Israel was storing raw materials, they didn’t have anything, I’m not going to go into the economics of Israel. So I decided, I finished now my residency, my training, and I decided now I wanted to specialize. Because, doctors in Israel, were cheaper than cab drivers—there were so many physicians, because of the Aliyah, in the 1930’s, of German Jews, all the German immigrants were either lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, and there was not enough full-time, so doctors were really not considered anything special, and I don’t want to go and become just a general practitioner, I wanted to become more than that.
And I decided to train as gastro-enterologist, so I wrote to many universities, and only one university medical school answers me, and this happened to be Albert Einstein College of Medicine. So the [goyim] didn’t want me but the Jewish institution did. I arrive here in, oh, let’s see, 1966, I train in the hospitals of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and in the meantime I’m already married, I had a daughter who was born in Israel, I had a son who was born here, and it’s much more difficult now to move your foot from one place to another. It looks like you start having roots, and the prospect again, even going back to Israel, you know, not really enticing, and so I stayed here, always feeling that one day I’m going to go back to Israel, and to this day I feel sorry that I didn’t do it. But for practical reasons I didn’t do it. And I joined a group of pre-paid health practice, I say pre-paid and I mean, whoever pays the premium, pays a monthly fixed premium and gets the services no matter what, and this was for me easy to understand, because I was coming from Israel where [Kupot Cholim] was the norm. For many American physicians, they didn’t understand it—I saw it as an opportunity, really just good things. I joined the group and within a few years, I became a partner of the group, and in 1978 I’m elected by the group as a medical director of the group.
Now, you have to understand I’m an immigrant. All the doctors are older than me, they’re more experienced and they’re Americans, but for whatever reason they chose me and I became the administrator of the group. Other doctors were afraid of the job, because it involves administration, finances, and other things. For me, I learned to help run an office when I was a messenger boy, I learned to have a chain or table of organization because I served in the army, so it was essentially utilizing all these experiences, and I happened to be a good medical director. The group had forty doctors, in the Bronx, and within five years I integrated, merged all the other groups in the Bronx into one group, and they elected me again as their medical director, and now I had a group of 180 doctors. A few years later, I integrated the groups in the Hampton, and I now have 250 doctors. I am the second-largest medical group east of the Mississippi, and it was a nice experience, for 22 years. I practiced medicine, I practiced administration. I don’t mean it to brag, but the income of the group was 80 million dollars a year, so this was a considerable number, from every perspective, and this was 14 years ago, so right now it will be even more. I had a third daughter who was born in 1970, now I have grandchildren, one of them is already out of college, two are in college, and the youngest one is 18 months old.
HG: Your names of your children and the year they were born?
ML: Erit was born in 1965, May 27th, in Tel Aviv, and her name is Erit because the mayor of Tel Aviv had a daughter, Roshan Erit. Victor was born here in the Bronx, April 3rd, 1967, and if anybody believes in symbolism, April 3rd was the day of the pogrom in Benghazi, and for me, it was just like, “Wow, it’s never a bad date, you can always recover from it.” And that was the only son I had. And Lenore was born on August 28th, 1970. Erit has three children, two boys and a girl, the older boy is now 24, and the two younger ones are in the University of Michigan. Victor has two children, a daughter and a boy, and Lenore, the youngest one, has three boys, and the youngest one is 18 months old. The first one, his name is Emmet, the second one is Ness, the third one is Jesse—she wanted to name him after my grandfather, Izsak Eliyahu, but her older brother Emmet says, “No, my worst friend, his name is Izsak, I don’t want you to name him,” so his name became Jesse Eliyahu.
HG: The—when you were in Israel, and you went into the Hagenah, and the military, this was when the [Yishuv], when Israel was transitioning from being a part of the British colonial empire to becoming an independent state. What did your parents think about this, did you have conversations with your parents at all—here their son was in the Hagenah, and, was this—
ML: It’s a very good point, because immigrants in the new country distort the general structure of the family, and of society. If you don’t move, your father is the top, and you’re at the bottom, and I’m not saying this in a derogatory way, it’s natural. When you move to a new country, all of a sudden, the roles are reversed. Your father doesn’t speak the language, you know the language, you are all of a sudden the breadwinner and your father is not working. There is a kind of equalization in the roles. My father was always opposed to all these things that I was doing, and in retrospect, I can understand him. He was afraid of me putting myself at arm’s length. My mother, on the other hand, was more understanding, so if I had to go—we were training every other weekend, and we had to wear boots and khakis and so forth, so my mother would take the boots and put them outside the house, so I would leave in normal shoes and my father would think I was going to sleep over my cousin’s, this was one of the things, examples of how things were. Unfortunately, my father as I said was very sick, and he died in 1948, so he really didn’t have much to know, and I remember that before the army was officially instituted, the Israeli Hagenah or army did not have ranks. The officers and the soldiers wore the same thing, the only thing you know is the [unintelligible] is the commander, and nothing else. But, slowly, there were tending to become an army, and you needed it, to know that a sergeant was a sergeant and an officer was an officer.
So I started having three stripes, and I remember the first day I came home with that, and my father was very sick in bed, and when he saw that, you should see how happy he was. So in many ways, at the end, he appreciated it, he admitted it. I say this because—everywhere that process went on, as I say, the poor guy became the rich guy, and the rich guy became the poor guy, in any country where you go. One of the best examples is because, my sister-in-law is a Syrian, and I was learning about the Syrian community. They were unique, because the Syrian community, in a short period of time, ended up becoming a very prosperous community in Damascus and Aleppo, and because the opening of the Suez Canal closed the Silk Road, they became destitute. So they came to the United States as a whole, they were almost transplanted, and they kept the same hierarchy, the rabbi was still the same rabbi, and the porter was the porter, and so forth, and they were able to keep the structure and that kept the community from disintegrating, and to this day the community is well established, I believe, because of the continuation of that hierarchy. Every other community that came to the United States or that came to other countries as immigrants loses this structure, and that’s the reason for disruption. That’s why people that were not successful become suddenly very successful, and the opposite is the truth. So in many ways, that happened to my father when we came to Palestine, which became Israel.
HG: Do you remember when Israel was—when Ben-Gurion declared Israel as a state, where were you that evening, and what do you remember?
ML: That was also emotional, something that you cannot forget. I remember exactly, we were leaving by then and living in another place, not [Shunat Hatikva] but [Shunat Tapira], which was one notch higher. And we were living, I was living on the third floor, we didn’t have a radio, but the neighbor downstairs had one. And it was Friday afternoon, and I came down, and we were listening to the radio and it was unbelievable, unbelievable. I remember exactly how I stood, who was with me in the room, and how things were going. And of course the following day, Tel Aviv was bombed by the Egyptian airplanes, and it was—but the whole thing was really pleasant, it was really fantastic, because I remember all the demonstrations that we were having in the streets, [Aliyah Hofshrit], [Medivah Hafrit], because—the pain that we felt for the European Jews, it was measurable, it was physical, it was not only emotional. And the British were harsh, the British were punishing, putting in jails if they found arms, anything like this, and we are in the Hagenah, and we had the black card that we had to put information, it was called the [hama], the wall, and so we were going at night, two at a time, one carrying the glue and one carrying the posters, and attached them on the street, and ran away as fast as you can because if you were caught you were going to jail. So this is what, when you’re 15, 16, and 17 years old, it’s an excitement, you’re doing something for a cause.
HG: What was your attitude towards the Arabs?
ML: Well, we didn’t have personal contact with the Arabs, but one thing I can say. Throughout the inducement and the training, one thing was always a base. And it was called [Tahara Nachtisch], the “purity of the arms.” You were not supposed to harm your enemy unless there was a reason for that, unless you were in danger of dying. And it’s amazing how it was inculcated without anyone thinking about all this lofty idealism, it was just that, you don’t do, you don’t kill an Arab just because he’s an Arab, and you’re not supposed to harm anybody unless it’s absolutely necessary. And this was part of us—and the famous case that can maybe illustrate this attitude, there was a kibbutz that was not far from an Arab village. And the Jewish girls that you were seeing would always wear shorts, and you can imagine how the Arabs would feel when they would see this kind of thing, and one day one of these girls was on a bridge, and she was raped by an Arab. And it was really outrageous, everybody was angry, so a member of the Hagenah knew who he was, they went to his place, they took him out, they took him to the bridge, and they didn’t kill him, they castrated him. I’m bringing this as an example that even when you punish, the punishment was essentially balanced. You don’t kill him, even though he did what he did, but castrating, for some men may be worse than being killed, but I’m just showing you this as an example, that really inculcated, that you have to be careful, Arabs are not your enemy, if they kill you or if they harm you then you have the right to defend yourself.
HG: In terms of your religious life, you were twelve when you went to Israel… did you have a bar mitzvah when you went to Israel?
ML: No. No, and yes. I didn’t have an American bar mitzvah, a big party. [laughs] The bar mitzvah that I had, my father I think, asked the rabbi to come three times to the apartment, and he taught me how to put on the tefillin, and went through the prayers, and what Schacharit means, and then one day on Thursday morning we went across the street, and there was a synagogue, and we went to the synagogue. I think I had Aliyah, but I don’t even remember if that was Aliyah, probably that was Aliyah, and that was my bar mitzvah. The great thing about it is for the first time they bought me a new jacket, a new pair of pants. [laughs] That’s why I remember the bar mitzvah.
HG: In the years that you lived in Israel, which was from 1943, 1944—until you went to Italy, which was ‘53, ten years—were you involved in anything to do with religion, did you go to synagogue, do Schacharit, daily, did you put on the tefillin, did you go to Shabbat, did you—
ML: Yes. We—Friday evening, we had to go to the synagogue. Not had, nobody would tell us. There was a Sephardic synagogue of Jews from Salonica, Greek Jews, and I love their melodies, to this day. And Friday evening, we went to the synagogue, yes. And Saturday morning also, Saturday morning we went to the synagogue. Maybe the summer, no. I think in summer we were going to the beach. But we were going to the synagogue, and it was a minyan of Libyan Jews—and later on I found, it was a cash for arms for the Irgun, because the Libyan Jews, as most of the Sephardic Jews, were more towards the right, Irgun, rather than the left, which is the Hagenah. I was in the Hagenah maybe because of my mother. And yes—but religion was not an imposition, religion was voluntary, was nice, was enjoyable in many ways. It was not something that—of course, there was no problem keeping kosher, because Israel was kosher, there was no issue of what you were eating, but my mother always made sure that we didn’t mix meat and milk, all these things.
HG: What about when you went to Italy and studied medicine?
ML: When I went to Italy, things were slightly different, I must admit. My uncle had no children, and he was married with a non-Jewish woman. The reason he married her was because during the war, she saved his life. And when they were in the honeymoon, bad luck, she developed polio and became paralyzed, and she didn’t have children. So, at home, she tried as much—and she was successful, we never had pork, but the meat was not kosher. But we also didn’t have meat and—because of her, by the way, she never, I don’t think she ever became Jewish, but she was not observant of anything. Her father was socialist, anti-religious—you know, only an Italian can be anti-religious and go to church on Sunday. [laughs] But that was a fact, and—I was very close to the Jewish community. All my friends were Jewish, I had Italian friends too, I mean there was no issue, but I attended—and as I told you, I was secretary of the Grupa Zionistica, and Friday night, there was a family from Benghazi, she was my wet nurse when I was a child, and they lived in Milano, so Friday night I would eat with them, and we had a Kabbalah Shabbat.
HG: What about when you came to America. Were you enrolled in Jewish life, were your kids brought up Jewish—
ML: In America, when you are an immigrant that has no family, like probably everywhere, every other place, you are lost. Fortunately, I don’t know how, when on family that we knew—and he was a journalist, a reporter at the United Nations, his name was Moses Shaufel, his wife, her mother was first cousin of my grandfather, so there was some kind of—and they were very nice, they lived in Mamaroneck, they were well to do, and they were strictly religious, in a more modern Orthodox way. So all the holidays, the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot, we were invited to be with them there, in a very big house on the water in Mamaroneck, and we were—I learned a lot from them, I must admit, because the way I was religious in Israel was, I would say, only going to the synagogue. And then, they looked religious more scientifically, I may be exaggerating a little bit, but they looked a bit deeper, with nicer meanings to it. I’ll never forget the Seder, it was always an opportunity to connect with examples of, either other faiths, or other events, it was always an interpretation, it was not just reading the Haggadah and closing the book. So that gave me a lot of basic background in understanding the religion in a different way. And when my children grew up, all of them went to MDS Day School, which is a yeshiva, and they brought back religion into the house.
HG: Ashkenazi, or—
ML: Ashkenaz. They brought back religion into the house, because it was—we just had to be religious, I had to go, I had to do, and I had no choice, I had to work on Shabbat.
HG: So your children, were they brought up with Ashkenaz tradition, or with Sephardic—
ML: Ashkenazi. Later on in life, when I became a little more free for Shabbat and so forth, I took them to Sephardic minyan and so forth so they had a feeling about it. And it’s interesting, because you know, my daughters prefer the Ashkenazi rites, although they like many things about Sephardic rites, and my son prefers the Sephardic rites. So it’s a question of choice. And I can find myself easily in an Ashkenaz minyan as easily as I can find myself in a Sephardic minyan.
HG: And are you now a member of Sephardi or Ashkenaz, or—
ML: I’m a member of both. The synagogue of Scarsdale is mostly Ashkenaz, but we have a small number of Sephardic, we have a Sephardic minyan, and I am a part of that minyan.
HG: Do you—are your friends today, or through the years, were there any—also Libyan refugees, or North African, when you came to America, or were they mostly American—
#10 ML: Mostly Americans, no. I don’t remember having Libyan friends and so forth. My Libyan reattachment came much later, when I was in Israel, the new Israel, and there were so many Libyans coming in, and I was really not part of it, even though I had so many uncles and aunts, and in retrospect I feel sorry, because I could have learned a lot of things, learned from them.
CALL TO ACTION
But that was the reality of it, because I was in Tel Aviv, and they were living in the [Ma’abarot], where they were living. Later on I connected with them, but it was already too late. The one who really brought me back to Libyan culture was my brother, who lives in Israel, and is a lawyer. He became a representative of Libyan Jews in Italy. Libyan Jews in Italy are well to do, and good Zionists, and when they were making a lot of money, instead of buying property in Italy they bought property in Israel, and my brother was the one who managed their property. So it got closer and closer and closer to the Libyan Jews in this way, also. And then, only later in life, I saw the name of Vivian Romani, and I got in touch with her, and—but I don’t have “Libyan” friends, in the United States. If I go to Tel Aviv, I find cousins and others, and I start eating the Libyan food, the couscous and other things that are characteristics. My mother learned to cook Libyan food, and—so that’s really part of my basic cultural structure.
HG: So how do you see your identity?
#8 ML: First of all, foremost, I’m a Jew. I’m an Israeli. Obviously, I’m an American too, because that’s where I am, I’m a citizen. By the way, I have three citizenships. I was born a British subject, by birth I had a British passport, I have an Israeli passport, and I have an American passport. I feel Israeli from every point of view, I really live what’s going on in Israel. I’m up to date constantly, every day, on the Internet I read the Jerusalem Post—and when I read the New York Times, the first thing I do is look for things that have to do with Israel, from editorials or reports—so I feel Israeli, I never disconnected. I think I was able to transfer this feeling over to my children, they really feel—and they’re American too, from every point of view. And in New York, it’s not difficult, you can be like that without necessarily antagonizing one side against the other. We feel very strongly Israeli, we identify 100% with Israel.
HG: Do you feel any more North African, Libyan—does Arab culture play anything in your life in terms of identity?
#9 ML: Yes, especially when you are interviewing me today, I have to speak about Libya so much—I am back a Libyan. Yes, because there is a stage in your life when you start to realize, and maybe it’s during the downhill phase, that’s—“Wait a minute,” there is a lot in you that belongs to the past, and you have to go back there if you want to be what you are, you’d better look at that and see what you can get from that. And all my memories, as painful as they are, they are pleasant memories, because as a child my life was pleasant, it was nice, it was good, and so yes, Libyan up to a certain point, as far as memories are concerned, but for a long time I was not a Libyan.
HG: What about your perception of yourself as refugee or a migrant—do you see yourself as a refugee, or a migrant, or a displaced person—how do you see yourself?
ML: I think I was lucky that, because of my profession, I had to integrate almost immediately. To deal with patients, you have to learn the language. When I was, when I came back to Israel from Italy, I was in a hospital, serving the periphery of the new immigrants, so I learned how to deal with them, so I—I was already Israeli by then, but I came to the United States, I was working, training mostly in the Bronx, in Bronx hospitals, I had mostly Spanish patients, so I learned Spanish, and I became part of it, and for them I was more American than they were. So you—my integration, I would say, was seamless in many ways. I never felt either a second-class citizen, or anything that was—and I must admit, that America was really great, from every point of view, I had all the abilities and possibilities to integrate, and to make a good living.
HG: What impact do you think the refugee or migration experience has had on you?
ML: What impact? Well, first of all, you—you can understand better, the—what happened to somebody who is really an immigrant, you can identify much easier. And because of that, if there is a need for you to be involved, you do it with understanding, it’s not because of idealism. No, it’s practical, that person is a human, needs your help to find his way in a new place. But beyond that, you act like everybody else. If you are a good person, you act like a good person. If you are good person, that’s just what you are.
HG: Have you ever gone back to Libya?
ML: No, but that’s always been my wish. The only way that I did it is by going on Google Earth, and focusing on Benghazi, and finding where I live, and it’s a nice street, it’s much smaller than it used to be.
HG: Israel, you go back to though, you visit—
ML: Oh yes, I would say I visit Israel almost yearly.
HG: And your children, did you take your children, or—
ML: My children will go, my grandchildren went, and they liked it, they enjoyed it, when they are in Tel Aviv they feel like they are in Manhattan from every point of view.
HG: Do they speak Hebrew, your children?
ML: Yes, my three children speak fluent Hebrew without any accent. We spoke Hebrew at home, and we made sure that when we spoke to them, either we spoke English but only English, or Hebrew and only Hebrew, never mixing the two languages. And because people would say, “Oh, you bring up children, they’re going to be confused,” I say, “They’re not confused if you don’t confuse them.”
HG: And let me end with this. What message would you like to give anyone who would listen to this interview?
ML: The message is that, to feel strongly about what you believe gives you a lot of capabilities to do whatever you have to do, because you feel strongly about it. You feel that your base is solid, and you can face any event, any eventuality with just fortitude. For instance, there is the issue, that when you read about so many Jews that left their religion and became, whatever they became, Christian or Muslim and so forth, and you ask yourself, “Why is that?” You are missing something. There is no need, if there is a religion that really you should be proud of, and not because of idealism but because of practicality, it is Judaism. Judaism is an intellectual religion, if you just take away almost the impositions that are sometimes extreme, Judaism is a beautiful religion that, you live with it, you live in it. When you read the scriptures and you realize that this is the only one that shows you the failures and the achievements of the figures that it records—Moses had failures, and achievements, Abraham had failures and achievements, everybody—and then you realize that this is life, this is a kind of structure that you can feel part of.
HG: Well, thank you very much for taking so much time to share with Sephardi Voices your stories, and we really are grateful.
ML: Thank you for dedicating so much time to me!