Part 1: My Moroccan-Israeli family
I am the child of a family of Moroccan Jewish refugees who found refuge in Israel. My mom was 16 on the day in 1956 when her entire life in Morocco abruptly ended — the day that her father was tipped off by an Arab friend that he was marked for death by the Moroccan liberation fighters (who were trying to oust their French colonizers) because he was discovered to have assisted other Jews to emigrate to Israel. She and her many siblings and their parents packed what they could take with them in suitcases and left their home in the middle of the night, taking their place in steerage on a ship loaded with livestock and other Jewish refugees. They headed to a refugee camp near the southern French coast, penniless and waiting to figure out their future.
Israel gave them that future. The Israeli government settled them, at first, in a small town just south of Tiberias called Poria. After some years, they moved to Shkhunat Hatikvah, which at the time was a heavily Mizrahi Tel Aviv neighborhood known for poverty, rat infestations and street gangs. The family grew — a new baby almost every year until there were 12 siblings in all. My grandfather rebuilt his furniture-making business in Tel Aviv. My mom, who had avoided being married with kids by age 20 like many of her sisters, valued her independence and ventured to America in 1961, eventually marrying my Midwestern American Ashkenazi father in 1966. He helped her parents finally move out of the slums and into an apartment in Bat Yam. Over the next two decades, most of the rest of the family made similar treks, moving into apartments in Bat Yam, Holon and Azor, residential enclaves of southern Tel Aviv. Today, the Elkouby family is a classic Moroccan-Israeli clan, a multigenerational web of 80-plus people mostly still centered in Holon and Bat Yam, but with branches in Rishon Letziyon, Herzliya, Eilat, Los Angeles and Miami. The reigning matriarch of the family is my Aunt Soulika, now in her 80s, who lives on the second floor of a house in Azor above her daughter and son-in-law, and their young-adult kids below.
Part 2: Azor
Since my high school days, I’ve spent lots of time at my Aunt Soulika’s house. Many of my happiest memories took place there — afternoon al ha-esh (barbecue) gatherings, late nights eating fresh fruit on the balcony with chain-smoking cousins, the first time my wife came to Israel with me. I’ve walked all around the neighborhoods of Azor, past the mini-grocery stores that are open at night, past the schools and community center, and along narrow streets with cars half-parked on sidewalks. It’s not a particularly beautiful part of Tel Aviv, but I love it, and it is one of the places on earth where I have felt most loved.
The name Azor has its origins in antiquity. There is an archeological tel (hill or mound) at the town’s center and a layered history, including battles between Crusaders and Muslims. The town’s current name is the Hebrew version of its pre-1948 Arabic name, Yazur, a Palestinian village of 4,000 residents that was attacked by Irgun forces and forcibly depopulated in April 1948, about two weeks before the British Mandate formally ended and Israel declared independence. In 2000, the Israeli historian and political scientist Meron Benvenisti published Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, in which he noted that at the time, a synagogue in Azor was meeting in a building that was a former Muslim shrine, and that an adjoining Muslim cemetery was in disrepair and was being used as a garbage dump for local yard waste.
This is the intersection in my life where my growing awareness of the Nakba meets my own family’s story of survival. I struggle to hold this dual consciousness and these competing emotional impulses every day — in my conversations with my relatives, in the Israel-related parts of my job, in my activist choices and in my private thoughts.
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