Elias Botto (left) and Len Traubman do a reading during the wedding of J. contributing editor Alix Wall in 2006. (Photo/Joyce Goldschmid)
Elias Botto (left) and Len Traubman do a reading during the wedding of J. contributing editor Alix Wall in 2006. (Photo/Joyce Goldschmid)

Remembering Elias Botto, the Bay Area Palestinian who became my friend

Earlier this week, I attended the memorial service for Elias Botto of San Mateo, who died a few months short of his 90th birthday. For many Bay Area Jews, he was the face of the Palestinian perspective — a friendly face who was often invited to speak at Jewish institutions. For some, he was the first and possibly only Palestinian they ever met.

In 2000, during my first or second week on the job at J. (then known as the Jewish Bulletin), I had to call some local Jews and Palestinians to ask for their reactions to the Camp David negotiations falling apart. I had come from a Jewish newspaper in New Jersey where we never interviewed local Palestinians, so this seemed like a radical idea. The first person I talked to was Elias. I still remember being totally charmed by him and his statement, “Jerusalem doesn’t belong to any one people; we belong to it.”

After that article was published, I joined a Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, wanting to hear more from local Palestinians, rather than hearing their voices filtered through the media. I can’t put into words how impactful this group was for me. While sometimes certain members infuriated me with the way they spoke, I felt my heart opening and expanding, too. Elias was part of that, and I began to consider him a friend.

Born in Jerusalem in 1932, Elias fled with his family to Bethlehem in the aftermath of the founding of Israel. After attending Beirut University, he arrived in the U.S. in 1954. He was later able to bring his siblings and other family members to the U.S. as well. He also became successful in the garment industry — how Jewish!

Elias was an avid reader of J., telling me that he thought it was important for him to learn the Jewish perspective. Once, he even tried to set me up on a date with a Jewish friend of his. It was hard not to think of him as a Palestinian zayde.

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He first joined the dialogue group at the behest of co-founders Len and Libby Traubman, “so he could tell those Jews what they did to his family,” Libby recalled recently. In the end, Elias was transformed by the group. He saw the effect he had when he spoke to Jewish audiences, and that motivated him to keep going.

Elias spoke at many Jewish institutions and synagogues over the years. There was something about his delivery, his moderation and his “elder statesman” vibe that allowed people to hear him in a way they couldn’t hear others. Many hearts and minds in the Jewish community here were more opened to the Palestinian perspective because of him.

When it came time to plan my wedding 16 years ago, we asked Elias and Len to read from Khalil Gibran’s “On Marriage” in English and Arabic. His reading of the poem in Arabic beneath our chuppah (wearing a kippah, no less, when my own Israeli cousin wouldn’t wear one) was a highlight of our ceremony.

At Elias’ funeral, his grandson played Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor.” Elias had requested the song because of its use in a scene in the Holocaust film “The Pianist.” In the scene, hearing this piece of music transforms a Nazi, who decides to help save a Jew rather than turn him in. The music opens the Nazi’s heart and makes him see the humanity in the other — which is what dialogue is all about.

Rest in power, dear Elias. Thank you for all of your amazing work.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."