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September 25, 2015  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Born a Kuwaiti Arab, man to tell story of ‘dark secrets’ that led him to Judaism

Mark (Mordechai) Halawa in Jerusalem. Mark (Mordechai) Halawa in Jerusalem. Mark (Mordechai) Halawa was born in Kuwait, raised Muslim and taught as a child that Jews were the source of all evil, but there was a secret in his family – one that led him to Judaism.

That is what he will talk about when he speaks at the Chabad Jewish Center of St. Petersburg on Monday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. The speech, entitled “Grandma Rowaida’s Dark Secret, From Kuwait to Jerusalem,” is open to the community.

Halawa said his family grew up wealthy enough for piano lessons, swimming and trips all over the world because his father had a successful construction business. “Although we were Muslims like everyone else, we were totally secular and my father always aimed to shield us from religious people whom he described as crazies.”

Yet he also said, “I grew up being told that Israelis and Jews were the lowest type of creature in existence, put on Earth only to kill us Arabs. In math class the teacher would say, ‘If one rocket killed X number of Jews, how many would six rockets kill?’”

He added that his father supported Yasser Arafat to the point of having deductions from his paycheck taken out to support the PLO.

When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the world for Halawa, who was 12 at the time, turned upside down. Fortunately, his family was on vacation at the time, so they were spared from physical harm, but when his father’s business was ravaged, the family immigrated to Canada. Halawa wound up remaining in Canada while various family members, including his parents, eventually moved back to Arab countries.

As a college student in Canada, Halawa met a Chabad rabbi serving as a professor of philosophy. During a casual discussion, Halawa mentioned that he believed his maternal grandmother was born Jewish but later converted to Islam. The professor told Halawa that in the Muslim world, religion is determined by the male side of the family, but in Judaism it is by the female side, so he could be considered both Jew and Muslim.

Halawa explained that his maternal grandmother lived in Jerusalem and at age 16 jumped off the school wall to meet Halawa’s handsome uniformed grandfather who lived in the West Bank and at age 18 was in the Jordanian army, fighting Zionists. They fell in love, moved to Kuwait when he got out of the army, and got married.

For years, Halawa said he had heard vague family legends about his grandmother being Jewish and said he recalled her having a small prayerbook with Hebrew letters and that often she would pray and cry in the dark. Halawa said eventually he called his grandmother and asked if she was Jewish and never got a direct response, but he felt there was enough evidence to convince him she was.

Before long Halawa found himself worshiping in a synagogue in Canada, traveling to Israel and affirming his Jewish identity.

“I still keep in close contact with my family and old friends,” Halawa says in a story titled ‘The Jew from Kuwait,’ adding, “They’re wonderful people and I love them very much. Yet it’s hard to relate to them on many levels.”

With much misinformation in the Arab world about Israel, Halawa says he is working to develop a program to educate Arabs about Jews and Judaism. “I hope that my unique background can help bridge some of that divide,” he said.

In his story, Halawa says he’s also working to counter Holocaust denial within the Arab world. “This past summer I went to Auschwitz, and I am working to produce the first-ever Arabic documentary about the Holocaust. I want to explain to Muslims in their own language exactly what happened,” he said.

Cost to attend is $10 per person in advance and $13 at the door.

To RSVP, go to or call (727) 344-4900. The Chabad Center is located at 4010 Park St., St. Petersburg.

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