After 68 years, a Syrian great-grandmother comes home… to her Jewish family in Israel

She was 16 when she disappeared from pre-state Israel, and had been assumed dead. This week, Rachel Elkayam was reunited with her relatives, closing a heart-wrenching circle

Rachel Elkayam with her family at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)
Rachel Elkayam with her family at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

Sixty-eight years after she last saw her family, an 85-year-old, silver-haired, Jewish great-grandmother returned home to Haifa in northern Israel this week — having spent her entire adult life living as an Arab woman in the neighboring enemy state of Syria.

Rachel Elkayam, the third of 10 children, was a 16-year-old girl living in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa in 1947 when her parents moved the family to Tel Aviv. Conflict between pre-state Israel and the Arab world was escalating, ahead of the following year’s declaration of Israeli independence and the full-scale war that then erupted, and the Elkayams believed they would be safer in the center of Israel than the north. But Rachel, a rebellious child, had fallen in love with one of her Arab neighbors, Fuad, and was pregnant with his child. “I loved him, and he loved me,” Rachel Elkayam told Israel’s Channel 2 news in a report on her remarkable life story, broadcast on Friday night.

Fuad’s family came to Tel Aviv to find her, and she went back to Haifa with them, and married her young love in a ceremony that she kept secret from her parents. In fact, from the day she disappeared in Tel Aviv, the family never knew what had befallen her, and always presumed that she was dead.

What actually happened was complicated, heart-wrenching, and almost defies belief. Not long after their secret marriage, Fuad was shot in the streets of Haifa by a sniper — “I never saw him again,” said Rachel — and he died in a local hospital. Her parents-in-law decided to flee Israel, for Syria, and insisted that she come with them; she was, after all, carrying their grandson in her womb. “I didn’t want to go,” Elkayam recalled tearfully, in the mixture of Arabic and halting Hebrew with which she spoke throughout the report.

The young Rachel Elkayam (Channel 2 screenshot)
The young Rachel Elkayam (Channel 2 screenshot)

Later, in Syria, Fuad’s family told her she could leave if she wanted to, but without her son. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I loved the child.”

And so she stayed in Syria — a Jewish mother, with her Jewish child, as part of her new Arab family. The family then married her to one of Fuad’s brothers, and she had eight children in total over the years. When she and her second husband would fight, she confided gleefully in the TV interview, “I would curse him in Hebrew: ‘Kiss my butt.'” She’d also call other members of the family “a bunch of old shoes” in Hebrew, she said. It was a small pleasure, she smiled, to be able to insult them in a language they couldn’t understand.

Rachel Elkayam at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)
Rachel Elkayam at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

Elkayam said she “always wanted to come back, but I couldn’t” and that she had tried to at least establish contact with her family in Israel — a difficult task given the relentless hostilities between the two countries. She once gave a visitor from Germany, who said he was eventually traveling on to Israel, a note to her parents assuring them that she was alive and well, but it was apparently never delivered. Her parents passed away assuming she had died, never knowing that she had become a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother just a few hours’ impossible drive away — across the northern border.

When major wars broke out — notably in 1967 and 1973, she said — she would secretly listen to Israel Radio on a transistor, praying not to hear the name “Elkayam” read out among the dead. As a minor act of defiance, she also kept her personal phone book updated in Hebrew.

Three of Rachel Elkayam's sisters (Channel 2 screenshot)
Three of Rachel Elkayam’s sisters (Channel 2 screenshot)

She would have died in Syria, her story never known to her family in Israel, were it not for the actions of one of her grandsons. In London last year, he went to the Israeli Embassy and told a staffer that his grandmother in Syria had told him that she was actually an Israeli Jew from Haifa. And so it was that Geula Elkayam, one of Rachel’s siblings, received a phone call from London asking her if she had a sister named Rachel.

Rachel Elkayam with her family, kissing the Israeli flag, at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)
Rachel Elkayam with her family, kissing the Israeli flag, at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

This past Tuesday, December 8, Rachel Elkayam, now 85, was flown to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, via a third country and by means of an undoubtedly highly complex and sensitive diplomatic process. Waiting in the arrivals hall were members of her family, some of whom she had not seen for 68 years, others whom she had never seen at all. They cried over her as she was pushed out to them in a wheelchair, and wrapped her in an Israeli flag, which she kissed.

Then they drove her home to Haifa, where her brother Amnon, 71, a toddler when she disappeared, took her on a small tour of the neighborhood and the city. She visited her parents’ graves, and was wheeled to the view she said she most wanted to see, of the Mediterranean coast — with Syria, where she had spent her life, to the north.

When major wars broke out — notably in 1967 and 1973 — she would secretly listen to Israel Radio on a transistor, praying not to hear the names of her relatives read out among the dead

The TV report ended with a scene of Rachel and her old-new family together in Haifa celebrating this week’s Hanukkah — the Jewish festival of lights, a festival also resonant with tales of triumph over the odds. Soon Elkayam plans to travel to Europe, where some of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren live.

The report, understandably, did not specify where she had lived in Syria, under what name, or whether any of her children and descendants still live there. It also did not detail how she got to Israel, beyond acknowledging the help of the Haifa municipality, the Israeli Interior Ministry, and the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which is centrally involved in Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews.

Rachel Elkayam, the report said, has already re-registered as an Israeli citizen and been given her new Israeli identity card. The clerk at the Interior Ministry had assumed, speaking to her, that she was a Muslim, the report said. She had proved that she was a Jew by reciting the first words of the Shema, the central Jewish prayer: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

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