February 24, 2020

A Remarkable Life: From Arab Sahara to Jewish Los Angeles

As I read Ed Elhaderi’s powerful memoir — “Nomadic Soul: My Journey From the Libyan Sahara to a Jewish Life in Los Angeles” — I kept hearing the words God said to Abraham, our Biblical father: Lekh lekhah, “Go forth from your land, the land of your birth, the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” A Chasidic master once pointed out that the phrase lekh lekhah, ordinarily translated as “go forth,” has a more literal meaning: lekh means to go or walk, and lekhah means “unto yourself” or “for yourself.”

Elhaderi’s journey outward is also a journey inward. As he discovers a new land and language, a new world and people, a new sense of inner tranquility and direction, he also goes on an inner journey of discovering how to stitch together the world from which he came — the rural, primitive, poor village in Libya of the 1950s and early 1960s — with the world in which he now lives, as a Jew-by-choice in Los Angeles.

I must confess that I thought I knew Elhaderi. We attend the same synagogue each week and greet each other as friends. He is always respectful and courteous, even a bit shy. It is apparent his manners were shaped by a different culture, one more traditional than the avant-garde world of the city in which we live. But the more I read of his life, the more I understood that I had only glimpsed the surface of his story and the length of his journey.

Elhaderi was raised with little contact with the outside world. His family occasionally read newspapers and books, but they had no television and limited access to radio broadcasts. His world was oral — words were spoken, stories were told.

In his book — written with the critically acclaimed memoirist Tom Fields-Meyer of Los Angeles — he is able to convey that world, to depict his distant father and his loving mother, his extended family and his brother, the friends that shaped him and the restrictions of that world.

Elhaderi’s work reminds us of how diverse the Jewish community is today, how many stories we have to tell, and how in our synagogues and communities we must remember to discover one another.

Education offered him an opportunity. His intellect took him from his village to the big city and ultimately to the United States. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi wanted to transform his country and bring it into the modern world, so he invested in the education of his most gifted youth. The nonathletic and lower-class Elhaderi took advantage of the opportunity by studying at the University of Tripoli and then pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Qaddafi believed that the young people like Elhaderi who were now educated would return home, but education changed Elhaderi, making him realize that he could not return to the land of his birth and the house of his father.

In Libya, Elhaderi had been raised to distrust Jews, even to despise them, though he never met one. Nearly all of Libya’s Jews had left after Israel achieved statehood in 1948, but after Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment (one and the same in Libya) intensified. Raised in that atmosphere, Elhaderi came to the United States and almost immediately experienced cognitive dissonance between the Jews he was taught to hate and those he encountered in his university’s classrooms and laboratories. They were accomplished men and women, gifted and dedicated teachers, helpful colleagues, not the horned monsters he had been led to expect.

Author Ed Elhaderi

He was smart enough and hard-working enough to succeed in his education, and open enough to let his journey take him where it was to take him — to encounter the enemy as a person. That courageous openness transformed his life in ways he could not have imagined, in large part because he encountered a Jewish woman who was equally open to him, and a rabbi and a community that welcomed him with open arms. 

William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” distinguishes between the “once born” and the “twice born.” My Judaism is that of a “once born,” a natural inheritance from my parents and theirs before them; a tradition transmitted to me by teachers and community, from my land, the place of my birth, and the house of my father. Jewish tradition was the first language of depth that I encountered; the melodies of my childhood were deepened by the adult sensibilities I have developed. At times, particularly in those moments when the theology of the prayers I recite challenges the world I inhabit, I return to the native belief of my childhood, suspending disbelief, at least for a time.

Elhaderi is a “twice born” — at least a twice born; perhaps many more times than that. He stands at a distance from his childhood, the world of his youth, the community and tradition that shaped him. He came to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people as an adult, already with a family and a sense of self. He experienced that community and that tradition as the goal of a long journey. He encountered it as transformation and not just continuity.

The Talmud wisely states that “In the place of one who returns” — teshuvah means repentance but more basically return — “even the righteous cannot stand.” I am certainly not righteous but I am deeply indebted to Elhaderi, whose story has enriched my experience and deepened my community. I cherish him as a man and revere the place where he stands.

Elhaderi’s work reminds us of how diverse the Jewish community is today, how many stories we have to tell, and how in our synagogues and communities we must remember to discover one another. I know for certain that we will be enriched by that encounter.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.