JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
Isaac Hasbani is a Chicago based Engineer. He was born in November 1947 to a Syrian Jewish family in Beirut. Both of Isaac’s parents came from Damascus and fled Anti-Semitic riots before he was born. His mother was on vacation in Lebanon when her father called and told her “Don’t come back,” he had decided to abandon his clinic and follow her to Lebanon which was considered much safer for Jews at the time. In 1948 the Syrian government had sent many Jews to prison, accusing them of being Zionists. Although his father had been a candidate previously running to be the Jewish Member of the Syrian Parliament and his grandfather had served in the Syrian Army.
Isaac grew up in Wadi Abu Jamil, the Jewish neighborhood of Beirut. He distinctly remembers how there were few Muslims and Christians around but the area was not a ghetto. There were no walls and most synagogues in the area were small, merely houses converted to synagogues although there was one big synagogue known as Maghen David.
Education for many Jews in Lebanon was in French, as Lebanon had been a French colony up until 1943. Isaac attended the Jarden D’enfant Kindergarten and the Alliance Elementary School.
In the days when Isaac was a student in Lebanon, there was no electricity in his house. At night, if he wanted to study he would have to use a kerosene lamp but kerosene was expensive at the time so sometimes if the moon was bright enough he would go out and use the moonlight.
It was rare at the time for a Jew living in Wadi Abu Jamil to know many non-Jews but Isaac’s father knew many because he was a doctor who would travel around and visit patients in every area.
Life began to get more difficult for the Jews in Lebanon after Israel’s War with Egypt in 1956 known as the “Sinai Campaign.” In 1958 Isaac’s family flew to Cyprus to get together with his grandparents who were living in Israel. His parents had not seen his grandparents since 1946, before he was born. Everyone in Lebanon knew about Israel but Jews did not talk openly about the country. If a Jew left Lebanon and was never heard from again it was known that the person probably had moved to Israel.
In 1961 Isaac’s parents decided that Isaac should move to Israel and live with his grandparents. His parents stayed in Lebanon until 1968 when after the 1967 Six-Day War life began to become more difficult for Jews in Lebanon. Jewish life was still possible until the Lebanese Civil War started in 1975 at which point the Jews left Lebanon in a massive wave. Living in Israel was a culture shock for 14 year old Isaac, there were many things he did not expect about the country, it was a stark contrast to Beirut. His school in Ramat Aviv had students from all over the world. Since he was living with his grandparents he never had to deal with the Misrat Aliyah- Israel’s Immigration Agency, notorious for being difficult to work with. Isaac left Lebanon as a high school student and did not see his parents until he was almost finished with his University studies.
In University, Isaac studied Mathematics and Applied Math. He worked in Israel until 1984 when the financial situation became quite bad. He managed to get a job in Chicago for what he thought would be a short period but became a permanent position so he bought a house and settled in Chicago. While his father was Syrian and became Lebanese, Isaac never felt Lebanese. Being in Israel was the first time Isaac felt like he was in his own country. His two children are Sabras and sometimes he goes to the local Sephardic synagogue in Chicago to keep up with the melodies he remembers from childhood.