Since this is a story about lies, it’s worth emphasizing that the opening anecdote of this article absolutely happened, and that I personally witnessed it.
I had just arrived to meet Eliyah Hawila, whose legal name is Ali Hassan Hawila, at his fifth-floor chain-hotel room, a pocket of anonymous nonreality off a dismal highway near a demoralized city in upstate New York. Just days earlier, the Lebanese-born Hawila had been kicked out of Brooklyn’s famously tightknit Syrian Jewish community when it was discovered he had been lying about his Jewish heritage, a fib that smoothed the way to his recent marriage, conducted exactly one month earlier under the auspices of a respected Orthodox rabbi. Upon discovery of Hawila’s true name and origins, which were radically different from what his bride and her family and nearly all of his Jewish and non-Jewish acquaintances over the previous three years had been led to believe, rabbis and family members prohibited his wife from living with him in the basement apartment they shared, which belonged to the grandson of the rabbi who had written their ketubah. Hawila was given around $1,500 and told to leave town.
The story set off a firestorm in Jewish religious media, where debate erupted over whether the young man was a misguided would-be Jew, or a grifter, or maybe a Hezbollah operative. The soon-to-be 24-year-old’s deceptions seemed to combine a con man story with Middle Eastern political intrigue. He posed the kind of mystery people love unravelling, namely the question of who or what someone really is—except this time with a religious Jewish twist, along with various dark undercurrents.
In the first moments of what turned out to be our very long meeting, Hawila came across as a sullen figure, a young man stuck in a depressing room where all the curtains were drawn and dirty clothes were heaped over a large rolling suitcase. “I feel safer in the dark,” he whispered.
He wore a gray shirt and a pair of athletic shorts and went barefoot the entire day. A black velvet kippah swallowed most of the upper hemisphere of his head. A thick, short beard covered the lower half of his reassuringly round face, which could stay jarringly placid even when he was on the verge of crying. He never said anything about needing to eat over the course of an entire late morning, afternoon, and early evening, and betrayed no physical cravings of any kind. He had a vape pen at the ready and a row of liquid refills, but never once used any of it, which is either a freakish act of self-control or the sign of a psychic rupture—a kind of total destruction of appetites, in this case for one of the world’s most addictive substances, that often comes from a place of genuine despair.
The first thing Hawila wanted to show me was the minifridge, which became notable in light of his indifference to consuming any of its contents. “Gefilte fish,” he pointed out. He highlighted the kashrut icon on a package of pita bread. “For Kiddush,” he said with perfect Sephardi pronunciation, brandishing a bottle of Kedem grape juice. And that’s when the unbelievable happened, something so perfect that it strains belief: Some grape juice had dripped into an empty plastic food container, and at that moment the purple bilge seeped onto perhaps the most precious item in Hawila’s increasingly ruined life.
“Grape juice dropped on the tallit [the woman] and I got married under,” he said, stunned. The scarlet-colored staining of an item under which Hawila told his boldest and most destructive lie—the lie he thought would finally liberate him from a life of almost nonstop chaos and angst—was almost too perfectly symbolic a thing to happen within five minutes of meeting this alleged serial fabulist. But the look on his face was one of devastation, as if he was surprised to find that a deeper and even more horrible level of cosmic punishment existed for him. Grape juice stains wash off, I said, not quite believing myself, eager to steer him toward a more talkative state of mind.
“Whatever,” he muttered in reply. “Whatever.”
I had been warned by numerous people from more than one era in Hawila’s convoluted life not to trust a single thing he told me. “Well that’s not true,” a Texas A&M student said of allegations that Hawila was a spy or a terrorist. “But I know for a fact he isn’t a very honest guy.” Others emphasized the enormity of the lies he told. An incomplete list of things he lied about would include: His country of birth, his parents’ country of birth, his employment in the National Security Agency, the names of his parents and grandparents, and his own name. Lying about your Jewish status to marry a religious woman is no small matter either.
Still, the ultimate bias in journalism is toward whoever’s willing to talk to you. And Hawila was remarkably willing. “I want to get out my story so that people know I don’t mean any harm,” he said. He walked me through the entire arc of his life, admitting to a litany of dishonesties along the way. He claimed his only goals now are to get back with the love of his life and to become Jewish. When pressed, though, he said he’d still remain Jewish even without her. “I don’t want to eat or drink or do anything without a bracha,” he said. “It’s the only way I know how to live.” I watched him pray every time he drank water or went to the bathroom. He’d left his tefillin in Brooklyn, with the rebbetzin of the rabbi who married him, because he now understands he isn’t allowed to wear them yet.
A picture emerged out of our conversation, as well as from interviews with a number of other people who got to know Hawila in recent years. He is a brainy young man with an unstable home life and a burning discomfort with his origins who found that Judaism was the only thing capable of soothing his bitterness and alienation. Religion and community offer an escape from a world increasingly shaped by the factors that determined much of Hawila’s life—at different points in his story, armed conflict, political tribalism, familial dysfunction, and American social chaos have helped drive him deeper into an imagined Jewish identity, which served as a way of asserting some basic level of control over an existence that was often intolerable to him.
But it is insulting to Hawila, to religious people in general, and also to God to default to crude psychologizing when dealing with someone’s conversion. “I didn’t become Jewish because I wanted to rebel,” he recalled of his religious awakening as a teenager in Lebanon. “I became Jewish because of my belief in the Torah and HaShem.”
The likely sincerity of Hawila’s need for and belief in Judaism doesn’t make his story any less unsettling. The terrorism allegation even began to look like a deliberate evasion of the saga’s recognizable human dimensions, which should discomfit anyone who takes belief and community seriously. Hawila ruined people’s lives, including possibly his own, in a quest for happiness and meaning. He isn’t a terrorist sleeper agent, but an embodiment of the destructive potential contained within any spiritual yearning. “It’s weird to say, but my love of Torah prevented me from doing Torah the right way,” he said about three hours into our long and lightless conversation, as the sky shaded into a dull orange through a thin slit of heavy hotel curtain.
Hawila was born Ali Hassan Hawila in Tyre, in south Lebanon. He was at his most animated when he talked about how much he hated the country of his birth. “The Dahiya in Beirut,” he exclaimed at one point, seething at the mention of the neighborhood where Hezbollah is headquartered, and which was heavily damaged in various wars between Israel and the Iranian-backed Shiite terror group. “I want to see it in ruins again. Look into my eyes. Look into my fucking eyes”—he took off his glasses for the only time in our entire conversation, and leaned forward—“I want see it in ruins again.”
Burj el-Shemali, the suburb of the southern coastal city of Tyre where Hawila grew up, is 15 miles north of the Israeli border. Historically it is a hotbed of support for the Amal movement, the political mafia that positioned itself as the voice of the country’s secular Shiite community. In recent decades, Amal has been an ally of Hezbollah, which dreams of turning Lebanon into a Shiite theocracy and exterminating Israel.
Hawila grew up in a nonreligious Shiite household and attended an evangelical Christian private school as a child. “Hazing” at the hands of an older female classmate resulted in his being transferred to an English-language international school where a majority of the students were Shiite. The Sunni kids weren’t bullied, but the Shiites would still “treat them differently: ‘Oh, he’s a Sunni, stay away from him. Oh, he’s a Sunni. We’re better.’”
A nerdy and sensitive nonreligious kid in Burj el-Shemali might have grown up with a frustrating feeling of being at the mercy of ideological thugs. As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Tablet’s Levantine affairs columnist explained, Lebanon is a claustrophobic environment whose social and political dysfunctions are inescapable. “The whole place is tiny,” he said. “You can draw concentric circles”—around the people and places and political factions that drive the country’s affairs—“and they get smaller and smaller and smaller.” The Tyre area has “long been home to young men who have joined Hezbollah.” That fact alone doesn’t implicate Hawila in anything, since sectarianism often breeds disgust among moody, independent-minded types. “Might he have found it suffocating? Yes, of course. It’s very suffocating.”
For Hawila, frustration curdled into an intense revulsion at Lebanon’s sectarian system. “It’s unbearable, man. It’s scary. It’s a scary place,” he said of the country of his birth. “It’s unbearable the amount of hate and resentment they have for everybody. And the amount of arrogance, especially among the Shiite community. They’re like, ‘Oh, we’re the best. We’re the best. The whole world was created for us.’ The level of arrogance—you’re nothing!” He says he finds even the sight of Arabic script “repulsive” now. (If he was putting on a performance for me, it wasn’t a new one: “He would say really hurtful things about Arabs,” one Texas A&M student recalled.)
Hawila was 8 years old during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel; he remembers hearing Israeli warplanes and bombs detonating in the near distance. His father was friends with a Druze man who lived in a village in the high mountains, where his family waited out the monthlong conflict. From the mountains, he could see and hear Israeli attacks on Beirut. He remembers being scared at first, but by his early teens he came to feel far more disgusted with his own society than with the country whose jets flew overhead when he was a boy.
The experience of growing up in Lebanon was characterized by dishonesty, Hawila said. In a preview of lies that Hawila would later tell about himself, he said that his father tried to make him believe that he was actually born in the United States, meaning he already possessed American citizenship. It’s unclear what his father’s motives were, but the claim was false: “I realized later in fifth grade or fourth grade from my uncle that I wasn’t born in America. That’s the level of how someone’s mind could be controlled in that country. You don’t even know where you were born.”
Hawila’s first feeling of connection to Judaism came from an especially stark insight into the dishonesty of his environment. It happened in sixth grade. In world history, he read that Judaism was a monotheistic and Abrahamic faith, just like Islam and Christianity. “To me, that was a shock,” he recalled—he had always heard that Jews were evil quasi-pagans, not the close relatives of Lebanon’s fractious sects. This information was more than just a surprise. It produced such an intense epiphany that Hawila’s voice dropped to a quavering whisper as he recounted that first moment of spiritual longing. “I can feel it in me right now. I can feel it in me.” Then, a moment later: “I’m feeling goosebumps right now. I’m not joking. Look.” In the dark of the hotel room, I could in fact see little dunes rising across his forearm. He nearly cried. Hawila has fooled much smarter people than me, but in the moment, none of this seemed remotely staged.
“I never felt like I could connect with anybody and make dear friends,” Hawila recalled of growing up in Lebanon. “People who were different clicked with each other, but the rest—the entirety of that fucking country was disgusting. At least in the area where I lived.” Hawila did eventually meet people like him: He had a best friend who was a pro-Israel atheist, along with a high school principal that covertly supported gay students and held dangerously warm views toward Lebanon’s southern neighbor. Amal dominated the school’s board, Hawila said, meaning the principal had to be careful to keep his ideas secret.
Hawila’s second religious epiphany took place in the ninth grade classroom of a teacher who held graduate degrees in law and civil rights, a dynamic free-thinker who would openly mock Lebanon’s sectarian obsessions. In a history class, the teacher used a decades-old textbook that included a nationalist boast of an earlier era that had since become a political heresy: The book taught that the Phoenician king Hiram had provided cedar wood for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple’s existence bolsters Jewish historic claims to the land of Israel, making Temple-denial a common anti-Zionist slander in the Arab world and beyond. “The guys here don’t even believe in it, and it’s mentioned in a history book printed by the Lebanese government—There was a Temple! Like, things don’t fucking add up,” Hawila recalled.
At the end of ninth grade Hawila got his first smartphone, an iPhone 4. Phones offer more privacy than the internet, he noted. In tenth grade, Hawila had what he described as “a revolution in my brain” which pointed him toward the one Abrahamic faith that had been all but wiped out in his home country. He started reading the Torah, and found an Arabic-language PDF of the Babylonian Talmud. “Okay, they’re arguing—where’s Jewish law?” he wondered. This led him to the works of Maimonides and to the Shulchan Aruch. Ironically for someone who would later gain notoriety as a Halachic scofflaw, the legalism of Judaism seems to have appealed to the scientifically minded Hawila. When he became more religious during the summer of 2020, he “started keeping Rabbeinu Tam zmanim for Shabbat.”
Tyre became ever more chaotic during Hawila’s high school years, when he excelled at physics and engineering and learned fluent English (he speaks with a recognizable accent that, in an American context, doesn’t obviously track as foreign). The Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, inflaming the region’s sectarian tensions and sending waves of Sunni refugees into a largely Shiite section of Lebanon. Hawila recalled a story, well known in his neighborhood, of a refugee woman and her children who were kicked out of their host’s home when one of the kids boasted of his father’s participation in the anti-Assad movement.
In one of the many unsettling ironies of Hawila’s story, family chaos offered him his ticket out of Lebanon. Hawila’s father had obtained American citizenship through a brother who had moved to Texas decades earlier. Hawila’s parents had been separated for a number of years, during which his father had lived in the United States. His father became a fluent English speaker with American bank accounts and, as Hawila remembers, “a high credit score.” The Hawilas were in the enviable position of being able to plan a life in the United States, where the son could study aerospace engineering in college and explore his new sense of Jewish spirituality, which had made him a pariah in Lebanon. “Relationships with friends were awful,” he recalled of a period when his curiosity about Judaism deepened, and he lost all inhibition about sharing his interest in Judaism, even voicing admiration for Israel. Was it worth it? I asked. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “I was happy. I don’t want to fucking have any friends. They’re not for me, I’ll make friends in America. I’m going there soon.”
Nothing’s ever so simple, though. Merely being in the Houston suburbs, where Hawila and his family arrived in late 2015, didn’t solve all of his problems. In May of 2016 he ordered a kippah and an IDF T-shirt on eBay, with the logo of the Israeli army’s elite Golani infantry brigade. He befriended Israelis at a local mall and ate kosher shawarma at Saba’s, where he learned that Israelis liked their shawarma with tahini rather than garlic sauce, the preferred Lebanese topping. He sent email inquiries to explore options for conversion in December of 2015, only a couple months after his arrival in Texas, but received no replies. Entreaties to a local reform shul—the only one within easy public transit distance—went unanswered.
Along with this sense of rejection, Hawila’s first year in America saw a string of familial misfortunes that would be indecent to recount in a public forum, but which included constant conflict between his parents and the suicide attempt and assault of a close family member. The United States wasn’t turning out to be an automatic bastion of safety and happiness.
What’s worse, his new environment offered no easy answer to what Hawila was supposed to do with his inchoate sense of Jewish identity. The lie about his Jewish origins, which would eventually spiral into a kind of alter ego and consume his entire life, began with a nonobservant Jewish friend of his at Lone Star College, where Hawila started to go by Eliyah. (His voicemail still says the caller has reached Eliyah HaLevi.) The friend was delivering kosher food to him—chicken with quinoa, Hawila recalls. He asked his friend about the conversion process. The friend replied that he didn’t know much about it, but that he heard it was pretty complicated. “So I said, you know what? I don’t want to bother him. Let me just keep doing what I’m doing and practicing what I’m practicing. I thought I was doing the right thing. Because in my brain it was more like: God knows what’s in my heart.”
Hawila transferred from Lone Star College to Texas A&M in 2017 to complete a four-year degree in aerospace engineering. This was the first time in his life that he had easy access to a Jewish community. He took full advantage: “Ninety-five percent of the time I was by Chabad and Hillel,” Hawila said. (Hawila’s frequent use of “by” as an all-purpose preposition reveals him to be far along in becoming an American Orthodox Jew, whatever else he is or isn’t.)
One A&M student remembered Hawila as being obsessed with his studies, as well as boastful and given to dishonesty: Hawila said he had been valedictorian at a high school in Houston, though it was easily discovered that the high school didn’t actually exist. Luckily Texas A&M was a welcoming campus, and few seemed to actively dislike Hawila’s company.
He began inventing a background for himself that erased any Lebanese heritage. His parents went from being Lebanese to being Israeli. He never discussed his life before arriving in Texas—as far as everyone knew, including his future wife, Hawila had been born in the United States. Today, the story of an ambitious young person who fudges his ethnic or national origins for personal advancement within America’s diversity-obsessed elite value system is a familiar one. Hawila is a striking mirror image, even something of a throwback: He lied to make himself more fully “American,” to erase his true origins, and to ease his way into a decidedly nonwoke personal vision of belonging, one based on traditional religious practice and membership in a group with little moral status or advantage within the American social justice regime. (Hawila’s personal politics are deeply conservative—he isn’t shy about admitting his support for Donald Trump.)
There were gaps in Hawila’s stories that were hard for anyone to ignore. He invited friends to an expensive birthday party his mother had thrown for herself. Attendees from Texas A&M noted that everyone there was Arab, with no sign of any Jewish heritage anywhere.
As he became more and more involved in Jewish life, attending classes at Chabad and drawing deeper into religious practice, Hawila grew more convinced that he couldn’t come clean about his actual background. In mid-2019 he began turning his phone off on Shabbat. But as he became more religious, the lies kept compounding: He told the campus Chabad rabbi that both of his parents were Jewish. “I was literally stuck psychologically,” he said. “Whenever anybody asked something, I had to make something up.” Every time he was counted in a minyan, for instance, the lie would grow deeper. He convinced himself it was a lie he had no choice but to perpetuate. “I used to have nightmares of my friends finding out, and my friends finding my legal name,” he said. “That’s why I used to hide my student ID. No one ever saw my student ID. So I felt guilty, but at the same time, I said, ‘If I tell the truth, everybody I care about here, all my friends ... I’m going to lose all of this.’”
He was hurtling toward an inevitability that should have been obvious to anyone studying Jewish law in any depth, as Hawila was. As you learned more about Judaism, I asked him, didn’t you realize that there were very specific rules about conversion, and about who does and doesn’t count as Jewish? Wouldn’t the cognitive dissonance become overwhelming? For the second time in the conversation, he said that “in my head, I still had the idea that HaShem knows what’s in my heart.” There were moments when his conscience attacked him: He remembered meeting an African American convert to Orthodox Judaism, and becoming acutely aware of his own dishonesty in the face of someone willing to jump through every conceivable hoop to become fully Jewish. “I can’t tell you how much guilt I felt when I saw this guy,” he said. But it’s guilt he never acted upon.
One of the remarkable things about Judaism is that while God certainly cares about what’s in our hearts, HaShem’s judgment isn’t the only thing that matters in the end. Part of what sets Judaism apart are its rules. Nothing is left to pure metaphysics: We have to follow Halacha, or at least care about Halacha, or at least violate it in the knowledge that we’re breaking what are supposed to be the highest and truest laws in existence. Hawila’s case might reveal the oppressiveness of Jewish legalism, but it also shows why that tendency exists in the first place. “I thought, I don’t need an official conversion,” Hawila explained. “I think God will just consider me Jewish.” As it turns out, someone willing to leave basic Jewish legal constraints behind is willing to ignore a lot of other things, too.
Late 2019 was an especially unstable stretch in Hawila’s life. That winter, a dispute between his parents resulted in his father returning to Lebanon. This was good news, as Hawila saw it: “I cannot describe to you how much relief I felt when I found out my dad went to Lebanon. I’m like, finally, he’s out. He’s out of our life.” At the same time, he says his mother didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of a new boyfriend and sent her son to live with a Lebanese acquaintance over the holiday break, a cruel man who made Hawila clean the bathrooms as a condition for having a roof over his head. It was in a state of profound despair that he matched with a woman in Brooklyn on SawYouAtSinai, a dating site for religious Jews. He talked about the moment they matched in a hush, as if recalling a profound and sublime event rather than merely a happy one, an event on which his whole life turned.
SawYouAtSinai works partly off of a shidduch, or arranged-marriage, model: The men submit resumes that are read by the site’s other users, which include shadchans, or matchmakers. Hawila’s resume said that he was “confident, motivated, successful, hard working” and that he “liked traveling, liked to cook and host Shabbat meals, sing, and make Sephardic food.” His guiding lights were two Sephardic giants, the Ben Ish Chai and the Rambam.
The woman with whom he matched was in her mid 20s, from Brooklyn’s Syrian community. Her family had arrived in New York from the Middle East fairly “recently,” as one community member put it—which in this context means the last 30 years or so. They spoke Arabic at home, and did not have lucrative business connections the way many in the community do. The woman fit the profile of someone who was almost Haredi—she had gone to seminary, followed by Touro College. She has a day job and professional skills, and also listens to rabbis and rebbetzins. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. The point is that Hawila, in full knowledge of the gaps in his own Jewish identity, had found himself a devoutly religious woman from a very specific and traditionally minded community. She was also a divorcee, something that might have made friends, families, and rabbis more open to her marrying a mysterious newcomer.
Hawila and his future almost-wife first met in January of 2021, about three weeks after they matched online. He traveled to New York and they ate at Izzy’s, the kosher barbecue joint in Crown Heights, ordering wings, mini tacos, and a brisket sandwich. By then, about four years after he first sought out kosher food in the Houston suburbs and a year after he started to intensify his Shabbat observance, Hawila had resolved to become a frum Jew, wearing black pants and a white shirt every day. In May, five months after their first date, he shocked acquaintances at Texas A&M by dropping out of four classes short of his aerospace degree and moving to Brooklyn, where his wife-to-be found him an apartment on Avenue R with a group of similarly aged men described to me as “yeshivish Orthodox.”
Hawila spent every Shabbat at a table with people from the Syrian community, sometimes delivering a dvar and leading Birkat Hamazon, the labyrinthine prayer after eating. “He was a very nice guy—he spoke Arabic, my language,” recalled Sarah Mann, a member of Brooklyn’s Lebanese Jewish community who often hosted Hawila for Shabbat. Hawila’s Arabic was noticeably different from hers, and from that of most Syrian Jews. But no one was quick to be suspicious of him: “We didn’t say anything because a lot of Arabs look Jewish too,” she said. “The whole Jewish community believed him. They loved him for real. He’s very intelligent.” Mann was still broadly supportive of Hawila when I talked to her. “He really wants to become a Jew,” she said. “He’s smart. Now he will move on with his life.”
Several sources said Hawila was a frequent presence at Ateret HaTorah, one of the leading yeshivot in the Syrian community. “I hear that when he’s called up to the Torah his reading of the Torah is better than people who were born Jews,” said Zev Brenner, the Jewish radio broadcaster who hosted Hawila for a Nov. 13 interview that went viral in the Orthodox world. In addition to holding an oddly cynical view of the appeal of their own religion and community, the people who accuse Hawila of being a spy have perhaps forgotten how hard it is to fit into a religious environment over the course of weeks and months if you don’t really mean it on some level.
Hawila mounted an astounding performance, built precariously on both heartfelt truths and a flimsy edifice of lies. The woman flew to Texas A&M over Passover; as a Chol HaMoed activity they went to a shooting range to fire .45 caliber handguns. The woman caught a glimpse of Hawila’s passport, which listed his name as Ali Hassan rather than Eliyah. Hawila, a talented computer programmer, had participated in a National Security Agency hackathon for college students. He used the email about the NSA event to convince the woman that he was an undercover agent. The lie ended up being useful for controlling her: He could say that any discussion of his alternate identity, which was in fact his true identity, could land him in prison. When Hawila and the woman were married, he fabricated a congratulatory email from the NSA. “May you build a patriotic and American home,” the message read, Hawila writing his own hopes and dreams in the voice of a major American spy agency.
Hawila said his father was a Levi named Chayim and that his parents were married in Israel. He said he couldn’t locate his father in Israel, and was chutzpadik enough to ask community members for help in finding him. It wouldn’t have taken much to blow his whole persona apart, and indeed it collapsed in a matter of days after his wedding later in the year. He couldn’t produce his parents’ ketubah, or a location or image of his grandparents’ graves. But he did speak Arabic and had a knack for telling people what he believed they needed to hear. For instance, he said that his mother no longer practiced Judaism because she resented having an Orthodox life imposed on her as a child by her Ashkenazi mother. The Syrians, either out of a sense of Sephardic pride or because they, as Orthodox Jews, had an acute awareness of the way that clumsy overdoses of religion can alienate the young, bought the story entirely.
Hawila’s invented family history should have been easy to disprove. He had submitted a fake family tree to his wife and her rabbis in order to establish his Jewish identity. But New York’s Syrian community is unique in preserving its actual family histories. Rabbi Jacob Kassin, the leader of the New York Syrians from the 1930s until his death in 1994, kept an extensive archive of genealogical information about his community. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rabbi Kassin helped reestablish the community’s ban on marrying converts.
Hawila claims he was acting out of love and that he fibbed out of idealism and romance. What did he like about this woman? I asked. “Everything. Her personality. Just how religious she is, how she’s right on top of everything. Everything about her—she spoke Arabic as well. She knew all the food that I liked. She’s just amazing, everything about her. We understand each other more than anybody understands anybody else. We understand each other very deeply. So I lied to her.” He believed the lies would work forever. At their Brooklyn wedding, he said, he had no inkling that things were about to fall apart, even as people seemed to notice that he had no family in attendance, only a couple friends from Texas. He claimed that once he stepped under the chuppah he thought he’d found permanent happiness. But the couple never obtained a New York marriage license, perhaps because it would have had to include Hawila’s legal name, which he was hiding from his wife. Because Hawila isn’t Jewish, their wedding is Halachically invalid. Within a couple of weeks, he was told he couldn’t see his wife again unless he could produce evidence he was Jewish. Then his story was all over Orthodox media.
Why didn’t anyone see the warning signs? Why, for instance, did it take until the days after the Oct. 17 wedding for the bride’s father and brothers to contact Hawila’s father in Lebanon?
Hawila fully inhabited his imagined identity as an Orthodox Jew of Middle Eastern descent. It became as real as it could possibly be: He had Shabbat dinner with the bride’s Brooklyn rabbi and rebbetzin, David Zafrani and his wife, which the bride considered a condition for their marriage. Hawila passed every one of their tests. The couple’s ketubah was prepared by the 85-year-old Ezra Zafrani, one of the pillars of the Lakewood Syrian community and a former teacher of Eli Mansour, perhaps the most famous and respected Syrian rabbi in New York (according to multiple Syrian community sources, COVID prevented the elder Zafrani from conducting the wedding himself). Hawila came to believe his own lies, and the community was never very eager to confirm or debunk them.
Hawila is an extremely convincing Jew. I learned from him that you can cook kosher food in an unkosher microwave by double-wrapping it. During a digression in our conversation, I wistfully recalled a series of angry protests mounted by sectors of the Jerusalem Haredi community against the city operating a parking garage on Shabbat, back when I was studying abroad in Israel in 2009. “Here’s the thing,” Hawila interjected. “It’s Eretz Yisrael. Anything against kiddushat HaShem in Eretz Yisrael, the [Haredim] are going to go against it.” Well put, I said.
But the Syrians aren’t just any Jews, and their standards are higher than that of a mere journalist. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of us haven’t assimilated,” one member of the community boasted to me. The Syrians also have a longstanding edict against accepting converts into their community, including by marriage—even if Hawila got the most shtark conversion on earth, the woman would have to leave her community in order to marry him. Communal closeness allows for the rigorous investigation of a potential shidduch’s background, or used to, at least.
The Syrians are among the most successful of America’s Jewish subcultures, maintaining a distinctive identity, strong religious and educational institutions, and thriving businesses. If someone needs a loan to start a business, the money is there. Nobody’s allowed to suffer or go hungry, at least in theory.
But growth comes at the expense of cohesion. There’s less wealth to go round as the community balloons—closeness becomes less of an advantage, perhaps even a burden, as numbers sharply climb. One of the unexpected drawbacks of Orthodox demographic success is the so-called “shidduch crisis”: the shortage of marriageable men that can match with marriageable women. The larger the community, the easier it is for people to fall through the cracks, and the more incentive there is for families, rabbis, and individuals to lock down potential mates for people in danger of falling out of the shidduch pool. Whether by luck or by design, Hawila had come across people who were eager to believe who he was. He also stumbled into a community that would experience his deceptions as uniquely hurtful.
There is still a debate over who Hawila really is and what he wants. Perhaps I’ve been suckered, but he offered a self-analysis of his own dishonesty so withering that it might actually have been genuine. “I was stuck in my own mind,” he said. “Again, there’s the initial fear of you telling someone. So when you are scared of telling someone, you’re not going to tell ... it grows, and grows, and grows. And you’re just stuck in your own head, and you don’t have someone to think for you.” That’s a real step towards self-awareness, perhaps, this idea that he might have been better off with some wiser and more morally centered person doing his thinking for him. But he believed he had no one.
That’s no longer the case, though. Zev Brenner said that in response to his podcast, numerous Orthodox rabbis have offered to guide Hawila through the conversion process. “People are upset that he told a lie ... there’s no question about it,” said Brenner. “But the feeling is that he is sincere about becoming a Jew.” Besides, a Jewish soul—a neshama—can emerge within the most unexpected of places. “I once had on the Prince of Swaziland who became an Orthodox Jew,” said Brenner. “He lives in Tzfat—we had him on years ago. He speaks Yiddish with a Lithuanian accent that’s such a pleasure to hear.” Brenner says his interview with Hawila is the most popular in his show’s history, with 50,000 downloads and counting.
Conversion would be a satisfying outcome for Hawila, even if it isn’t guaranteed to restore his Halachically fraudulent marriage. But conversion, like marriage, is a legalism—a box-ticking exercise, maybe the spiritual equivalent of refinancing a home loan. It does not make you a better person on its own, just as strict adherence to Halacha can’t make you a better person. The resolution to this story, if there is one, will come long after Hawila converts, and will have far more to do with his ultimate character than his religious status. It all depends on what he takes away from this.
As the parking lot outside the hotel was engulfed in late afternoon winter blackness, I asked Hawila to imagine the day of his conversion to Judaism—the moment when his true and false identities would at last be reconciled, in spite of the very real cost of finally merging them. What did it look like?
“It’s one of the happiest days of my life,” he replied. “I’m going to finally live a Jewish life without stress. Without the stress of being caught with anything, because I wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. It’s going to be a beautiful Jewish life.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.