Michael David Lukas’ first book, The Ora­cle of Stam­boul, is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing’s Author Blog.

I’ve been think­ing a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just grad­u­at­ed col­lege and was liv­ing on the out­skirts of Tunis. Offi­cial­ly, I was there as a Rotary Ambas­sado­r­i­al Schol­ar and was sup­posed to be study­ing Ara­bic while bridg­ing the gap of under­stand­ing between the Unit­ed States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the Unit­ed States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture, and towards the end of the year I start­ed writ­ing what would lat­er become my first nov­el, The Ora­cle of Stam­boul. Those first few months, how­ev­er, were full of lone­li­ness and alien­ation. I missed my fam­i­ly and my friends, I missed my girl­friend, I missed being in col­lege, and I missed those small Amer­i­can com­forts (peanut but­ter, dry­ers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the inter­net cafe around the cor­ner, and my East­ern Euro­pean room­mates — Ozzie and Petr — were good guys, though I had dif­fi­cul­ty con­nect­ing with them at first. One rea­son for this was that I got up ear­ly for Ara­bic class and they stayed up late par­ty­ing, drink­ing cheap Tunisian beer, and play­ing hair met­al at the high­est vol­ume Petr’s tin­ny lap­top speak­ers could bear.

In those ear­ly months — before I met Nomi Stone, a Ful­bright scholar/​poet who will fea­ture promi­nent­ly in the next post — the only Jews I saw were those in the ceme­tery I passed on my way to school. I didn’t real­ize how much this absence of Jews both­ered me until I found myself lying in bed one night with the pil­low clutched over my head and the sounds of Whites­nake drift­ing through my door. Here I go again on my own. Going down the only road I’ve ever known.” Those melan­choly lyrics, accom­pa­nied by Ozzie’s war­bled har­mo­ny, hit me like a sledge ham­mer, clar­i­fy­ing the alien­ation I had felt for months, the yawn­ing dis­tance between my cur­rent life and every­thing I knew myself to be. It wasn’t that I was liv­ing in a Mus­lim major­i­ty coun­try with two uncir­cum­cised East­ern Euro­peans. Rather, the absence of Jew­ish­ness in my life was like the absence of peanut but­ter. I nev­er knew it exist­ed until it wasn’t there.

And so, to cheer myself up, I decid­ed to make a list of my top ten favorite Jews of all time. I slept on it, woke up that next morn­ing, and wrote the list out on a small yel­low piece of paper, which I still keep in my wal­let. It is a very per­son­al list and arbi­trary by nature. In the past eight years, my list has changed quite a bit, but I share this 2003 ver­sion (in alpha­bet­i­cal order) because it speaks to where I was at the time.

My Top Ten Favorite Jews of All Time [2003 Version]

Wal­ter Benjamin

Mar­tin Buber

Jacques Der­ri­da

Albert Ein­stein

Emma Gold­man


Franz Kaf­ka

Rosa Lux­em­burg

Moses Mai­monides


Michael David Lukas has been a Ful­bright schol­ar in Turkey, a late-shift proof­read­er in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary schol­ar in Tunisia. His first book, The Ora­cle of Stam­boul, is now avail­able. Check back all week for more posts from him on the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Author of The Last Watch­man of Old Cairo and The Ora­cle of Stam­boul, Michael David Lukas has been a Ful­bright Schol­ar in Turkey, a stu­dent at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Cairo, and a night-shift proof­read­er in Tel Aviv. A recip­i­ent of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, the Sophie Brody Medal, and a Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts Fel­low­ship, his writ­ing has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Jour­nal. He teach­es at San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. He’s very close to fin­ish­ing his third nov­el, a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic retelling of the bib­li­cal Book of Esther called Scroll of Stars.