David Gerbi, Peripatetic Sephard, October 13, San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center

7 Oct

In its present manifestation, San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, California at Presidio, has vastly expanded its performance capacities since Leslie Friedman danced her portrait of Johannes Kepler. The JCCSF is also the oldest such center on the West Coast of the United States, serving the Jewish community since 1877, 136 years to be exact. October 13 it will present Dr. David Gerbi in his performance From Fear to Faith in the 474 seat Kanbar Hall. The C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco will co-present. Following the performance a panel discussion will ensue. The afternoon promises to be one of the special events the JCC consistently provides the Bay Area community.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Sephardic tradition, the term embraces those who trace their Hebraic heritage not just from its noted sojourn in Andalusian Spain during the Arabic caliphate which came to a cruel and crashing end in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella finally drove the last Arabic dynasty from Spain. The term Sephard embraces the Jews who lived throughout the Middle East in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and Hadrian’s expulsion of the Jews from Israel in CE 135. The Diaspora had commenced earlier, the date given as 597 BCE for the Babylonian Exile. When Cyrus enabled the return of the Jews in 538 BCE, undoubtedly some remained in Babylonia. Hadrian’s expulsion, however, forced dispersion throughout the Mediterranean. After the exile from Andalusia, David Gerbi’s ancestors settled in Libya.

Growing up in Libya, Gerbi, fourth of six children, experienced a pleasant post World War II atmosphere when King Idris was the titular head of a country formerly under Italian hegemony after the Ottoman Empire had ceded it in 1911. Gerbi’s native Tripoli had been under Italian control since 1914 and Gerbi’s father enjoyed a prosperous watch and jewelry business in one of the affluent areas of the city whose name figures in part of the U.S. Marines’ anthem .

The Gerbi family life and their Jewish circle were totally disrupted when Israel won the Six Days’ War against Egypt in 1967; Nasser pressed Jews resident in North Africa to leave. Pro Western King Idris appealed to the crowds, “Brother, Brother, go home. It will damage our reputation and he instituted a curfew.” There was carnage for forty days.

Qaddafi seized power in 1969, confiscating property, cancelling loans and forcing Idris out of the country. During this time, the family stayed at home; it was David that his mother sent to procure bread and milk. “I was small, dark enough to pass, and I could be invisible.” Fifty per cent of the remaining Jews went to Israel, but the Gerbi family opted to go to Rome, father, mother, a sister and brother. Young Gerbi made the fifth. Father Gerbi hoped and thought they would return.

Only twelve, in Rome David became a major source of the family income. “I started at below zero.” Early chores made him a good waiter “I took the job so I could get food for the family.” He graduated to being a short order cook briefly before he began selling postcards and slides to tourists. Shortly he moved into small souvenirs. This step took him to the sources of shells, stones and where a good, cheap supply could be found. This search brought him face to face with the fashioning and selling of the pill boxes which helped to feed his family. Early in this process, David prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, aged 13, a source of joy for his Roman Jewish mentor.

As he grew older, David involved himself in the Jewish Youth Movement, spending time on a Kibbutz . “I finished high school, but didn’t enter university; I was too impatient.” At the same time he was taking cameras to Israel, exchanging them for stamps, which he sold to collectors. He learned that Spain was the biggest market for philatelists. For the semi-precious stones for his boxes, he found the best source in Taiwan where he discovered video games, which he added to his merchandise.

While in Spain, he met a young American woman who asked him whether he was the person she was supposed to tutor in English. “I wasn’t, but I didn’t tell her that.” Love entered David’s landscape, though, was fraught with difficulty since she was Catholic.

While still in his early twenties, David and his family experienced six deaths within a six-month period. First it was his grandfather, then an uncle and his best friend before his father fell into a coma. Called back from Taiwan, David did not believe his presence registered with his parent until he recited the creed traditionally said at Yom Kippur and saw tears on his father’s cheek. “I learned the soul can really listen. I held his hand, watching as his breath became labored, then paused and ceased; I experienced for the first time the difference between life and death is only a breath.”

Then his brother-in-law’s father died; as a final blow, the six- month old baby of his sister suffocated with its saliva.

Finally, David broke up with his girl friend, partly out of guilt and his Orthodoxy. Depression ensued leading him into psychotherapy with a Jungian analyst. His therapy led him to decide to study psychology and to become a Jungian analyst. His family objected, citing his success as a business man. “I studied at night and worked during the day.” Enrolled at the University of Rome, he remarked “It was easy to get in, But there are certain heavy exams at the end of the second year which eliminate a lot of students.” It took David six years, until 1988, to acquire his Ph.D. in psychology. “I was 28 and then there was another 200-400 hours and four years before I qualified as a Jungian analyst at 33.”

As for the rest of us, 9/11 was a cataclysmic event for David Gerbi, and he vowed, “I may be a drop in the ocean, but I can no longer be invisible. I must speak up.” He began to write; a book was published in Italy; two articles have appeared in the Jungian journal Psyche, only the launching pad of what were a bizarre series of events.

In 2002 David Gerbi learned that a solitary Jew, an invalid woman, was living in a Qaddafi-supervised clinic. The woman was 80; she was his aunt. Already responsible for the welfare of the family’s widows, he decided to return to Libya and try to bring her to Italy.

“I found myself in the political sphere, “ he related, “which took me first to Elie Weizel, and, on his advice, to the U.S. Congress.” Qaddafi had said to David, “Get this regime recognized and you can have your aunt.” Over a three month period of visiting one Congressman after another, David Gerbi encountered Tom Lantos, the U.S. Representative from the San Francisco peninsula who also was the only Congressional member who survived the Holocaust.

The Lantos connection worked; in exchange for normalization with the Libyan regime in 2003, the United States received restitution of the Pan-American tragedy and the deaths of its 380 passengers. Out of it, David Gerbi got his aunt; in 2003 he flew her to Rome to reunite with the extended family after thirty-five years of isolation.

Invited back to Libya in 2007, as a gesture of gratitude, Gerbi decided to restore the Synagogue in Tripoli; for the beginning of this project he carried six mizzuzot and $10,000. He enjoyed a warm reception from people and was invited to participate in activities at the Bengazi Hospital, only to be summoned to leave Bengazi. Interrogated by Qaddafi’s secret police, Gerbi had his funds and the six mezzuzot confiscated. After twenty-two days of psychological torture, he was placed on a plane to Malta. accrued air miles enabled him to return to Rome.

Because of his treatment David Gerbi decided to go public about his experience and in March, 2008 his story was carried in The Jerusalem Post. The public revelation resulted in the return of his funds and luggage, but not the mezzuzot. In 2009 when Qaddafi visited Rome, David Gerbi met him, dressed in traditional Libyan clothing with the Star of David around his neck. “I shook hands with him and held his hand until I was ready to let go. I was his equal and saw him as a human being. I was no longer a hostage and I had my power back.”

With the uprising in 2011, David Gerbi left Rome for Egypt; by taxi from Alexandra he joined the revolutionary forces, working with the fighters with stress disorders. When Tripoli was freed, David Gerbi broke through the barricade surrounding the synagogue and gave thanks wearing the ritual accessories worn by orthodox Jews in prayer.

From those momentous days, David Gerbi has toured South Africa and Eastern U.S. universities with his story and now will present it to San Francisco. He also will relate his saga October 23 at the Sephardic Synagogue in Los Angeles.


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