Wednesday, September 08, 2010

For Syrian Jews, culture trumps politics

The synagogue at Dura-Europopos in eastern Syria is reputedly the oldest in the diaspora

This Forward magazine article by Brooke Anderson on Jews from Syria is long on nostalgia, but barely touches on the horrific persecution that eventually drove the Jewish community from the country. The Syrian ambassador to the US, with breathtaking arrogance, still wants these 'expatriate Jews of Arab culture' to play a part in the peace process. But culture is one thing, politics another. (With thanks: Gina)

Even though most of Syria’s Jews have never seen their home country, they haven’t lost touch with their roots.

“You can never forget,” says Joey Allaham, a Syrian Jew who left Damascus with his parents at the age of 18 in 1992, the year a nearly 45-year travel ban was lifted on Jews. “The Syrian customs never left – even for people who left Syria a hundred years ago. We still eat the same things; we’re still Syrian. There’s nothing missing.”

This statement might be truer for the Syrian Jews than for almost any other immigrant community in the world. Their proud and stubborn cultural preservation nearly mirrors their ancestral home of Syria. The community is largely suspicious of outsiders, yet shuns stereotypes that they’re insular; there is even a rivalry that continues between those from Damascus and Aleppo – both claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. (For example, in Argentina and Mexico, Damascus and Aleppo Jews go to separate synagogues).

“I am amazed to see that even if the migration occurred about one hundred years ago, they still maintain most of their customs and traditions,” says Jacobo Sefami, grandson of Syrian Jews who migrated to Mexico in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Although he has never seen Syria, he says, “I can easily identify and feel many similarities in common with a Syrian Jew from Argentina, from Brooklyn, or from Brazil. In Jewish holidays, and in Shabbat, it is common to have Syrian dishes. Many people enjoy Arabic music and dancing. Most first-generation immigrants kept the [Arabic] language, and their children spoke it as well.” He adds, “Even though my religion is Jewish, I am also culturally Arab [Syrian]. In that sense, I identify with many Syrians, regardless of their ideology or religion.”

It might seem ironic for Jews to keep an attachment to a country that has never recognized its next-door neighbor Israel as a Jewish state. For the Syrian Jewish Diaspora, their ties to the area long predate the modern political entities of the Middle East – and for many of them, culture trumps politics.

“We are Jews of Arab culture, and we are proud to be Yehudi-Arabi. It is in our veins,” says Carlos Zarur, 38, an Oriental Jewish researcher from Boulder, Colorado, whose grandparents hail from both Damascus and Aleppo.

Historians believe that Jews have inhabited Syria since before Roman times. According to legend, King David built the area’s first synagogue in Aleppo. Dura-Europos, a Greek colony on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, built in 300 BC, is considered the site of the earliest known Jewish Diaspora synagogue. The ruins can be visited on the road between Deir ez-Zor and Abu Kamal, and the frescoes of the synagogue are at the National Museum in Damascus. In 34 CE, Saul became Paul, when he converted to Christianity on Hanania Street in Damascus. In the 900s, the Aleppo Codex, the earliest known manuscript containing the entire bible, was written.
It is with this rich history in mind that many Syrians of all faiths feel an attachment to their country’s Jewish community, even though all but around 100 have long since left.

From the empty streets of Damascus and Aleppo’s Jewish quarters, comes unexpected nostalgia. Locals still refer to the Jewish Quarter as just that; Jewish businesses bought by non-Jews years ago often still carry the name of the original owner; proprietors of boutique hotels and restaurants renovated from old Jewish homes are quick to tell guests the history of the building; and Palestinians living in the Jewish Quarter speak with pride about their friendships with their former Jewish neighbors.

“Politics is one thing, and friendship is another,” says Ahmad Ghaneim, a Palestinian resident of Damascus’ Jewish Quarter. “Some people think it’s strange that I have Jewish friends, but I don’t think it’s strange at all.”

In fact, 25 years ago, he named his son Zaki, to honor his Jewish friend, who had died while his wife was pregnant. Several years later, in 1992, most of Ghaneim’s Jewish neighbors would leave in the last Jewish mass migration from Syria. He recalls, “Our friends knocked on our door at 5 am before going to the airport. That was the last time I saw them.”

From their close-knit communities in Damascus and Aleppo, most of Syria’s remaining Jews, having never been abroad, left for an uncertain future. They entered a world where both Jews and Syrians were often viewed with suspicion, and the Syrian Jews didn’t always find acceptance from other Jewish communities. Many found homes for themselves in the already-established Syrian Jewish enclaves, most notably that of Brooklyn, the birthplace of a rabbinical edict from 1935 that places strict restrictions on Syrian Jews, forbidding intermarriage – even in the case of conversion.

For Syrian Jews, such strict social rules have been both a blessing and a burden – a devotion to tradition, sometimes at the expense of progress. Yvonne Saed, a third-generation Syrian Jew from Mexico says that Syrian Jews “value family much more than any other culture I know, to the point that it can sometimes be difficult to move on or innovate. There is a much deeper fear of assimilation than in other Sephardic or Ashkenazi communities.” (...)

Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, also hopes Syrian Jews will play a role in the peace process. Noting that the Syrian government still considers them expatriates, he says, “They understand that such a deal would ease tensions in the Middle East and the world, and help create a new paradigm in our region divorced from cycles of violence, and rather grounded in human exchanges.”

For now, Syrian Jews continue to maintain their culture in their well-established expatriate communities – with a certain pride and defiance leaving no doubt they are indeed Syrian. “To be a Syrian Jew, you don't need to be in Syria,” says Carlos Zarur, who grew up in Mexico, Brazil and the United States, and whose grandparents hail from Damascus and Aleppo. “My connection with Syria is my self! I'm a Syrian Jew. It doesn’t matter that I was born in another country.”

Read article in full


Juniper in the Desert said...

Syria's ambassador to the UN cosiders these Jews forced out of their ancestral lands, "ex-patriates"?

They cannot breathe without lying and insulting Jews!

Dina @ Israel said...

As usual this is another part of the sad Jewish history. It looks as though now even Jews themselves seem to be against Syrian Jews for the reasons unknown.

bataween said...

These sort of articles do mislead by suggesting that the differences between Syrian Jews and other Jews are much greater than between Syrian Jews and Syrian Arabs. All it takes is for a few 'token' interviewees - some of whom have never even been to Syria - to say how 'Arab' they feel. There is this common misconception that just because you speak a common language with your oppressors and like their music, you are somehow one of them. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all know that speaking German did not help German Jews under Hitler.

Heather said...

All it takes is for a few 'token' interviewees - some of whom have never even been to Syria - to say how 'Arab' they feel.

And to take it a bit further, the token Arabs who say how much they love/loved their former Jewish neighbors (even better when saying it in formerly Jewish-owned buildings), and have absolutely no idea why they could possibly want to leave such a paradise, especially in the middle of the night.

bataween said...

Exactly, the article does not point out that Palestinians took over Jewish homes in Damascus, and that the Aleppo Jewish quarter was razed.

Adam K said...

I am not sure why Jews continue to act like they are part of a culture that hates them so much and most Jews who at one point lived there have not lived there for multiple generations.

I mean Jews of other groups don't label themselves Hungarian Jews as my father was born in Hungary. I can understand at one point to maybe help those who were trapped in Syria but now there are less then 50 Jews living in Syria.

The only reason (which is a legit one) is to care for their dead and others who lived there in the past but it seems to be more then that.

aryeh said...

I also though want to relate a friend who worked for someone who is not Jewish and is married to a woman who claimed to be religious. At first he thought it was Jews for Jesus or something but later from talking to him found out this woman seems to be an upstanding member of this Syrian Jewish group in Brooklyn and Deal, NJ that he also found out their ban on any converts.

As it is a 2nd marriage for him and the wife (the 1st husband of the wife was a Cohen who she pushed him to divorce her which of course he can't marry a divorcee) and this boss of his that is non-Jewish married to this Jewish woman has his own home that he can go to but is invited by his wife and friends to Shabboth and other holiday events and her camp in Deal, NJ. Jokes that his wife could kick him out but big deal. Has his own home as my friend relates.

He is not sure the husbands agenda's are for good reason (as even the husbands first wife seem to be on good term at this time. It really seems creepy) as some want to pry and learn about Judaism to try to harm and bait other Jews in many ways and he is just shocked that a community or at least some members of the community have no problem with this which he just couldn't fathom but now saying that is an extremely insular group their hatred seems to be developing of other Jews that members have no problem with marrying a NonJewish man and they are part of the community and this woman is invited by friends with her husband to various camp events in Deal NJ with children and to Passover and Shabbos meals.

This doesn't make me think highly of this community and makes me think their insular mentality and hatred of anyone different is actually causing them to hate their own people most who may be from different backgrounds to the point the woman will marry a Non-Jew who may even share their hatred of other Jews for different reasons.

He also told me that his boss did grow up in a Jewish area but more of an upscale area of mostly European Jews and who knows maybe he resents how he was treated by them growing up so he marries a Jewish woman with a similar hatred to European Jews or even other Jews who didn't emigrate from Syria. A marriage based on a shared hatred not a shared love.

bataween said...

I think you will find that the Syrian community abhors intermarriage with non-Jews even more than marriage with non-Syrian Jews. It sounds like this couple is not very typical.