S.Y. Agnon's Relatives: The E. Jerusalem Nashashibis

Not many people know that the great Jewish author S.Y. Agnon has a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem. The story sounds strange at first, but after meeting the family members, the picture becomes clear.

In Jerusalem of the British Mandate such stories could happen, and did. Agnon had two brothers and three sisters. One of them, Devorah, married the furrier Moritz Wiener in Germany. The couple had two daughters - Esther (named after Agnon's mother) and Milly.

Wiener, Agnon's brother-in-law, continued working as a furrier in Jerusalem. An open-minded man, he used to host both Jews and Arabs in his home. One day in 1940 the members of the famous Nashashibi family from East Jerusalem called. Young Jawad Nashashibi accompanied his aunt - the wife of Fahri Nashashibi, a central political activist in Jerusalem - who wanted to buy a fur coat. That is how Jawad Nashashibi met Esther Wiener, Agnon's niece.

The two fell in love, married (Wiener converted to Islam) and had three children - Suheila, Suheil and Siham - each of whom has a large family today. Esther's family, says her son Siham Nashashibi, shunned her. Uncle Agnon had difficulty accepting the marriage. "He didn't know how to swallow it," says his daughter, Emunah Yaron.

After her marriage Esther Wiener-Nashashibi kept in touch with her mother Devorah, Agnon's sister, and with her sister Milly. But after the War of Independence in 1948 Jerusalem was divided in two and Wiener and her husband and children moved to the Nashashibi family's house in East Jerusalem. The meetings with her mother and sister were restricted mainly to the Mandelbaum Gate - the border that divided the city

In 1955 Jawad married another wife and divorced Esther. After the Six-Day War Esther moved back to West Jerusalem, to the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. She died in 1989 and was buried in Givat Shaul, apparently in two burial ceremonies - Jewish and Muslim

Wiener-Nashashibi spoke Arabic, not Hebrew or German, with her children, to avoid causing her husband's family discomfort. "The grandmother and aunt used to send us chocolates from Israel, we'd eat them and mother would burn the wrapping, so no one would see the Hebrew writing on it," recalls Nashashibi.

"Mother continued to light candles on Sabbath and fast on Yom Kippur," he says.

In 1969 Esther and Siham attended Seder night in Emunah Yaron's house, together with Agnon, who had agreed to take her back.

Most of Esther Wiener-Nashashibi's descendants live in East Jerusalem. Siham is looking for his Jewish roots; Suheil shuns them. Suheila, his elder sister, died just over a month ago.

Suheila Dakak (she married Yusef Az al-Din Dakak) left eight children - many of them highly educated, open and extremely impressive. They know of their uncle Agnon, but have not read his books.

Despite being Jewish according to the halakha (their grandmother and mother were Jewish) and related to Agnon's family, they cannot get Israeli citizenship and improve their condition as permanent residents.