How Did a Kid Raised as a Catholic and Mentored By a Rabbi
End Up as a Muslim?
Reform Judaism, Fall 2009
“I have been an American Muslim for almost fifty years, and built two mosques. At the same time, the old rabbi remains one of the finest mentors of my life. And so, I have given great thought to the question: Why do many Muslims and Arabs so hate Israel and the Jews?”
The basis of most prejudices is ignorance.
The ignorance of most young children stems from a lack of education, or miseducation.
Born into a Roman Catholic family in 1938, I was baptized shortly after birth, took first communion at about age seven, attended Catholic parochial school in first and second grades. I was an altar boy back when the Sunday Mass service was in Latin. We ate no meat on Friday, went to confession Saturday night, fasted until Sunday Mass and communion.
When I was eight, my older cousin Marcus, ten, moved in with my family. (The courts would determine his next steps. My uncle had deserted the family and my aunt had become an alcoholic.)
Less than a block from our Chicago apartment stood a large synagogue headed by an old Chasidic rabbi dressed in a black hat and black clothing. Long white curls draped down the sides of his face, and his white beard hung to his midsection. Bent by age, he used a cane to walk to and from his basement apartment to the synagogue across the street.
By this time, Marcus and I had been brainwashed by the Catholic school nuns to hate Jews. The Jews, they told us, “persecuted and crucified Jesus…defiled Catholic churches at night…spread excrement on the altar…urinated in the sacramental wine…defiled the body of Christ by spitting at it and crushing it underfoot.…” They also “formed cliques in banking and business to cheat Catholics and impede their efforts to earn a living.”
Sometime in late January or early February of ’46, we decided to punish the Jews for those horrendous acts. As the old rabbi struggled through the snow on his way home from the synagogue, we threw snowballs at him. “Dirty Jew!” we yelled. “Christ killer! Defiler of churches!”
The attack, we reasoned, was totally justified—so the next night we repeated it.
On the third night we were outsmarted. The old rabbi had called on the assistance of a young rabbi, who grabbed us by the backs of our collars. When we tried to break loose and run he just picked us up off the ground, our feet flailing in the air.
He took us to our home. Because the old rabbi couldn’t negotiate the stairs to our second-floor apartment, he waited on the street while the young rabbi took us up the stairs and knocked on the door.
“Are these your boys?” the young rabbi asked my father.
“Yes, they are. What have they done?” my father asked.
“You had better come downstairs and speak with the rabbi.”
My cousin and I stood silently as the old rabbi told my father how we’d persecuted him. My father’s neck and face grew red and then almost purple. He apologized to the rabbi profusely, thanked the young rabbi for bringing us to him, shook their hands, and expressed his sorrow.
“You don’t need to worry about these two idiots ever bothering you again, rabbi. I’ll take care of this,” my father said.
“Please don’t hurt the boys,” the old rabbi replied as he left. “They are just boys. Boys do get into mischief.”
* * * * * * *
"Office!" my father barked, ushering me into what was otherwise known as the bathroom. He lowered the toilet lid and sat upon it.
“Drop your pants and get over my knee!” he snapped. Now, my father was about 5 foot 10 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, all of it bone and muscle. He had fought as a semi-professional boxer, and I doubt if anyone in history ever matched his bare-hand whipping talents. My rear end felt on fire, and I feared the beating would never end.
Then it was Marcus’ turn.
Afterwards, as Marcus and I stood weeping, my father poured himself a glass of beer and lit up his once-a-night five-cent cigar.
“Now that I’ve got your attention,” he said, “I am going to teach you two idiots something by telling you a true story. In the war I just got out of a few months ago, I fought Germans from the beaches of Normandy across France, Belgium, and Holland. When my squad got into Germany, looking for more enemy soldiers, we came upon what is called a concentration camp. That’s where the Nazis sent Jews like those two rabbis, and women and children just like your grandmother, your mothers, and your sisters, along with little boys just like you.
“In those concentration camps the Nazis starved, tortured, and killed those poor people. They herded them into gas chambers made to look like a big shower room where they got poison gas to kill them instead of water to wash with. I saw piles of dead bodies and monster furnaces just like the one in the basement here but ten times as large, where they burned the bodies. I saw piles of those ashes so high you couldn’t make them go any higher.
“That old rabbi probably came here from Germany. He was one of the few lucky ones that could get out before he ended up in one of those furnaces. He’s got a German accent. He’s a man of God, you idiots. He’s probably only here alive because he’s a good man and God himself saved him mercifully so he could go on teaching others about God.
“Now you two know about guardian angels from your catechism classes. You are going to become that rabbi’s guardian angels starting tomorrow morning. You will escort that rabbi from his home to his synagogue every morning and back every night. You will prevent any other young idiots like yourselves from harassing or harming him. If anybody bothers that rabbi who is too big for you to handle, one of you will stay with and defend him as best you can and the other will come and get me and I’ll handle it.
“Besides that, you will shovel the snow off the synagogue property. You will dust, scrub, and mop the floors, polish the furniture, wash the windows, and do anything else that rabbi wants done. Do you both understand?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” we answered.
“Now go to your bedroom and ask God’s forgiveness for your criminal conduct. Also, ask God to forgive me for usurping his authority. I just made you two Michael and Gabriel on earth, the guardian angels of that rabbi. Oh yeah, boys, I’ll be checking on your performance. If you fail in any manner, that whipping you just got will seem like nothing compared to the one you’ll get.”
I’ll never forget those instructions from my father, or that whipping. Since then, as a professional soldier I’ve been shot, stabbed, and blown up. None hurt as much as that session in my father’s “office.”
* * * * * * *
On the first day of our guardian angel duties, my father woke us up before dawn.
“It snowed last night. Grab the two snow shovels and follow me.”
The synagogue stood on the corner, its sidewalks along two streets.
“Get the snow off the sidewalk, ten feet past the property line on both sides. Then, get the snow off the stairs and entrance porch. I’ll be back to check on your progress. I’m going to eat breakfast. If you do a good job, I may even let you idiots eat some too.”
The snow was ten to twelve inches deep, and in no time we were both sweating like plow horses on a hot summer day. About an hour and a half later, before sunrise, my father returned to inspect the sidewalks, stairs, and entrance area. Using an old kerosene lantern, he pointed to areas that needed more shoveling.
“OK,” he said when we’d finished. “There’s some oatmeal on the stove. After breakfast, we’ll continue with your duties.”
By the time we got to the rabbi’s basement apartment, daylight was just breaking.
“Sorry to trouble you so early, rabbi,” my father said when the door opened. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, Mr. Hill,” the rabbi answered. “Old men don’t sleep well and they rise early.”
“I understand, rabbi, that as it’s the Jewish Sabbath, you are forbidden to work, even to turn on your lights. So the boys would like to prepare your coffee or tea, fix breakfast, anything you need.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hill, but the congregation has arranged for a gentile woman to take care of all that for me,” the rabbi replied.
“Good congregation you have. May I ask what time you leave for the synagogue? The boys would like to escort you there, rabbi. You see, they have been promoted from delinquents to guardian angels of yours to prevent any other bad boys like they used to be from bothering you.”
“Is that so? Very nice. I will be leaving for the synagogue in about an hour, Mr. Hill.”
“Good. In the meantime the boys would like to clear the snow away from your door, stairs, and sidewalk, if you don’t mind. Later, after they see you to the synagogue, they’d also like to clean up inside, sweep, mop, dust, anything needed.”
“That is also done by the congregation.”
“Well, maybe next week the boys can check with the ladies and do anything they couldn’t get taken care of before sunset,” my father replied. “The boys will be here when you are ready, rabbi. Goodbye, shalom.”
* * * * * * *
From that day on, being the rabbi’s guardian angels was our life. Every minute we weren’t in school we were guarding him, cleaning, shoveling snow. After the snow stopped in April we swept the sidewalks, cut grass, etc.—all subject to my father’s inspection.
In time, the duties evolved from toil to pleasure. The old rabbi became sort of a grandfather figure to Marcus and me. He helped us with our homework and fed us matzo ball soup and gefilte fish with horseradish. The congregational women also kept the rabbi well stocked with confections. That’s how I became addicted to icebox cake and coconut macaroons.
The rabbi also taught us all about the Torah. A great actor and entertainer, he would tell and act out stories of Samson and Joshua, blowing on a ram’s horn and swinging his cane about like a sword. An old coffee pot became the jawbone of an ass in Samson’s hand, his belt David’s sling when he defeated Goliath.
Eventually, being with the rabbi became the high point of my day: I looked forward anxiously to the final bell at school so I could rush to the synagogue to see him. It was he who told me of my namesake, Daniel of the lions’ den, which destined me to be a man of courage and a devoted servant of God.
I remember the great disappointment I felt in mid April 1946 when the courts took my cousin from our home and put him in an orphanage. The old rabbi was heartbroken over losing one of his boys, as he had come to call us. On the day Marcus left, as the rabbi was consoling my father, he said, “Mr. Hill, about Daniel. I should have said this long ago. I didn’t say anything because I came to enjoy the pleasure of having Daniel and Marcus around so much that I fear I have taken advantage by not saying this. It is enough, Mr. Hill. Daniel learned his lesson within a few days after the incident. He is a good boy, a fine young man, as is Marcus. Both boys will do well in life and grow to be fine men. Please, release him from the obligations you have put upon his young shoulders to care for me.”
It didn’t end there. The rabbi and I spent time together until that summer, when my father moved our family to Wisconsin. He was assigned as a non-commissioned officer to supervise about sixty prisoners at a military disciplinary barracks/farm outside Milwaukee.
I never saw the rabbi again; yet, he has never left me to this day.
* * * * * * *
I became a soldier like my father. When I returned from my first combat tour to Vietnam in January 1967, I was stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia. That June the entire infantry school all but shut down to watch news reports on Israel decisively defeating the Arab armies in the Six-Day War. Americans love a winner, and the brilliance of Moshe Dayan and the Israeli army gained Israel a cheering section in the hearts and minds of the entire U.S., especially within the military.
Six years later, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, I was stationed in Germany commanding a tank company. We were ordered to overload our tanks with extra ammunition, fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, rations and water, and drive them to the rail head. There, we loaded the tanks on flatbed railcars and sent them with two men each to Bremerhaven for loading onto a ship for transport to Israel.
I never saw such enthusiasm from my men as when they loaded and shipped those tanks. There were messages to the Israeli soldiers on every tank with all sorts of advice about that tank’s little quirks and attributes—things like, “Make sure the tank commander checks his coincidence frequently, especially after firing two or three main gun rounds; she heats up and the heat expansion throws off your accuracy if you don’t check and adjust for the expansion,” or “Tends to pull to the right in soft sand,” or “I put extra electrical fuses under the gunner’s seat in case you blow any.”
Bottles of wine and cognac, cookies and candy cluttered the tank interiors along with Playboy magazines. The troops felt a camaraderie with the Israeli soldiers who were to receive those tanks as strong as if they were shipping them to a sister American unit engaged in combat.
Israel did not stand alone.
* * * * * * *
Today I am known as Abdullah Al Amin.
How, you might ask, did a kid raised as a Catholic and mentored by a rabbi end up as a Muslim?
In the spring of 1958, as a 19-year-old paratrooper, I was shipped to Beirut. Syria had engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Lebanese government, and my unit was assigned to link up with a Marine force; secure the airport, government utilities, and the press; and reinstall the legal government.
After a few months, once the Syrians were back in Syria and the legal Lebanese government running the country, I was given some time off. My first stop was a mosque in Beirut, to find out what the Azan, the Islamic call to prayer, was all about.
Regardless of what one’s personal attitude is toward Muslims and the Islamic faith, most will admit that the Azan, which is sung out five times a day from a mosque’s minaret, is a beautiful, haunting refrain. Even Hollywood is enchanted by it; you’ll hear the Azan in practically any scene about the Middle East, Arabs, or Islam.
Such was the case with myself as a kid watching the Ali Baba movies. For years I’d wondered what that call meant.
Inside the mosque I met an English-speaking young imam who translated the Azan for me and answered my questions about Islamic history and traditions. When we parted, he gave me a present: a two-volume set of books, The Meaning of the Holy Quran, written by Yussef Ali, which contained the Quran in the original Arabic, an English translation, and an extensive commentary.
Soldiers spend a lot of time reading, or did in those days. The Army is all hurry up and then wait for fairly long periods. I spent many an hour in my bunk reading the Quran—and, from that time on, books on the history of the Middle East, Arab culture and tradition.
The Quran’s teachings made more sense to me than the Catholic dogma I’d been taught since childhood. I never could reconcile there being three entities in God: the Father (creator), Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost. Whenever I asked a priest or nun to explain the Trinity, the answer always came down to: “It is a mystery; it is an act of faith to just accept it.”
I found Islam much more logical and accessible. Muslims believe that God is the one, the only, the Creator, Master of the Universe and all the worlds, and one’s relationship with God is part of one’s every day manner of living. One speaks to God directly and, I believe, receives guidance in his or her mind almost immediately.
Whenever I was tempted to do something wrong, dishonest, dishonorable, or in violation of the Ten Commandments given to Moses, an inner voice spoke in my mind, chastising and counseling me toward greater self-control. You could call it conscience.
In combat, too, as a leader or commander, I often called upon Allah for aid, strength, control, wisdom, and the voice always came through—not only in suppressing my fear, but telling me how to control the situation, where an enemy’s weakness existed, how to deploy my unit, what orders to give. The same was true in life’s other challenges, as a husband and father, in daily work, in relations with others.
Islam is a soldier’s religion—direct, uncomplicated, rewarding for faithful obedience, meting out sure punishment for disobedience in this life and the next. And so I accepted Islam as my faith.
* * * * * * *
I have been an American Muslim almost fifty years now. I have lived, worked, eaten, slept, prayed, and fought alongside Muslims for about thirty years. I have visited mosques and Muslim communities throughout the world and have built two mosques/Islamic centers in the U.S.
At the same time, the old rabbi has remained for me one of the finest mentors of my life.
And so, I have given great thought to the question: Why do so many Muslims and Arabs hate Israel and the Jews?
Many Muslims have told me that the big contention is the establishment in 1948 of the State of Israel.
The Muslims I know do not refute the fact that, as the Torah states, God gave the land that became Israel to the Jewish tribes. In fact, the Quran contains many of the stories in the Torah and holds it to be a holy book of God.
In Islam, however, events are considered to come to pass by the will of God. Many Muslims have shared with me their belief that the Roman exile of the Jews in 70 A.D. would not have occurred had it not been part of God’s plan. They see Israel as a case of God giving the Jewish tribes the land to be Israel, but then taking it away, using the Romans as His instrument to do so. Then, after the coming of Mohammad and Islam, that land came into permanent possession of Muslims.
Using that same logic, one would have to take the position, as I have, that in 1948 Israel came to be by Allah’s will. But most Muslims I know do not admit to this contradiction.
* * * * * * *
I’ve also learned from the Quran why Muslims in many nations wish to wage war against Israel. In the Holy Book, there are two times when a Muslim is instructed to go to war. First, all Muslims must engage in war against anyone who attempts to prohibit another individual or group from worshiping God, whether the worshiper is a Muslim, Jew, or Christian.
The second is if somebody seizes or occupies a Muslim’s home or land.
Thus the entire Nation of Islam, every Muslim in the world, is obligated to go to war against Jews in possession of land in Palestine.
From my perspective, this creates an unsolvable situation.
On the one hand, Jews say, “This land is mine; God gave this land to me.” On the other hand, a sixth of the world population, about 1.3 billion Muslims, feel obligated by the Quran’s teaching to fight until death to end what they view as occupation of Muslim lands which, in essence, means destroying the Jewish state.
Not much room for negotiation in those two opposing positions.
If only both sides followed Allah’s/ God’s teachings of salam, shalom (peace), compassion, and mercy….
* * * * * * *
Many of the comments I hear Muslims make about Jews have more to do with resentment than religion. Israel’s military successes in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 humiliated Muslims. With a population of about 4 million, the Jewish state defeated Arab armies drawn from nations with populations totaling in the hundreds of millions.
Then there’s jealousy of Jewish unity. Although Muslims are required by Islam to be one unified people, great conflicts exist among Muslim factions to the point of embarrassment.
Muslims also tell me how much they resent Jewish talent. Fundamentalist Muslims in particular, who know little or nothing of the countless persecutions, expulsions, and mass murders of Jews over the centuries, are amazed when I say that in Europe Jews were forbidden to own land and barred from trade guilds. I explain that Jews had to become financiers (the practice of money lending was forbidden by the church but open to Jews) and doctors because these were among the few ways they could earn a living.
Still…many Muslims remain resentful, fearing that they will never be able to catch up to the Jews.
* * * * * * *
As a soldier, I have seen a fair amount of combat. But I’ve never experienced anything like the hate I see among Muslims in response to the Arab/Israel conflict.
When a Muslim comes to hate so much that he is willing to violate the Quran’s teachings in his quest for revenge, the point of no return has been passed.
The Quran says, “Suicide is usurping the will of Allah. One should die the death Allah has willed and not take one’s own life. To commit suicide is damnation in hell for eternity….In war you do not harm women, children, the old or any non-combatant; you do not destroy churches, mosques, synagogues or any house of God; you do not destroy crops, cattle or tear the earth asunder.”
Terrorism violates these laws. When hate so consumes a person that he willingly violates the word of God, he is no longer a Muslim. Islam means “submission” (to the will of God). Muslim means “one who submits” (to the will of God). Terrorists have submitted not to God, but to hatred. Terrorists are not Muslims.
Jews and Muslims are both God’s people. Maybe such is Allah’s test of both. Maybe God wants to see if we, as humans, have progressed enough to accept each other in peace.
Daniel J. Hill, aka Abdullah Al Amin, is a retired Airborne Ranger and Special Forces Captain of Infantry in the study and practice of special operations, guerilla, and insurgent warfare. A convert to Islam, he has worked with Homeland Security elements to uncover fundamentalist agents and demolition caches in the U.S. Hill planned and organized an assassination operation aimed at Osama Bin Laden, but it was called off only weeks before 9/11/01. In 1992 his daughter, Georgene Berger, converted to Judaism; she and her husband Eric Berger now belong to Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, Florida.