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.
Pride back home
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.”
Establishing a name, good and bad
Despite their reputation for being insular, a few Syrian Jews have become celebrities. Pop singer Paula Abdul’s father was born in Syria and grew up in Brazil, actor Dan Hedaya’s father was born in Aleppo and comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s mother’s family is also from Syria. It was perhaps his Jewish humor with familiar Arab themes – intrusive families, guests showing up at people’s homes unannounced and petty arguments with neighborhood merchants – that made Seinfeld the most popular American comedy on Syrian TV.
Other well-known Syrian Jews have been those who have gotten in trouble with the law. Until recently, the most famous was Eddie Antar, better known by the name of his electronics business Crazy Eddie, who spent time in prison for money laundering and fraud. The latest have been three Syrian Jewish rabbis in New Jersey who were arrested along several dozen others in July for organ trafficking, money laundering and bribery.
For the Syrian Jews in New York and New Jersey, who typically avoid the spotlight, the media frenzy surrounding the arrests came as a shock. The close-knit community runs its own social network reminiscent of traditional societies in the Middle East. Their children and seniors get free education and healthcare, and Sabbath (Friday) dinners often total more than 100 guests.
Because of their Eastern traditions and the fact that a significant number of Syrian Jews fled Spain following the inquisition, many people refer to Syrian Jews as Sephardic, the term normally used for North African Jews who arrived from Spain 500 years ago. But Jews from Asia, known as Mizrahi (meaning Eastern in Hebrew), and who can trace their ancestry back to ancient times are keen to emphasize their cultural distinction from Sephardic Jews.
“Being a Sephardic Jew is different from being a Syrian Jew. We are very much connected via our Judeo-Arab culture. Being Arab Jews separates us from most Sephardic Jews. Our very ‘Arabness’ is a part of who we are – our music, our superstitions, our food, our traditions,” says Sarina Roffe, a businesswoman from Brooklyn, whose grandparents emigrated from Aleppo in the early twentieth century.
Staying in touch
Even with the Syrian Jews’ strict adherence to tradition, some still worry about losing their connection to Syria and the Arabic language. Most Syrian Jews born outside of Syria have never visited the country of their ancestors, and these days very few from the community grow up speaking Arabic. Roffe explains, “Because we did not have a professional class for two generations, our children were taught by Orthodox frum, and this has had an effect on the maintenance of our Judeo-Arabic culture. There was a decline in the use of Arabic, until the recent resurgence by the last of the Syrian Jews to come from Syria in the 1990s.”
Allaham, 34, one of the few Syrian Jews with memories of Syria, says he speaks Arabic with his children and hopes to bring them for a visit to Damascus one day.
But even he admits it’s not always easy to keep his ties with Syria. In the nearly 20 years since he’s been gone, he has visited Syria only once – in 2008, on a tour arranged by the Syrian ambassador to Washington. “Many times I wanted to go back,” he recalls. “But I needed time to adjust (in New York). Ten years go by really fast.”
Then there are the politics. Most Syrian Jews interviewed, despite their cultural attachment, cited Syria’s state of war with Israel as the reason they haven’t visited. They worry they wouldn’t be welcome as Jews in Syria. Both Syrian Jews and the country they left behind hope that will soon change. “I want to be part of the peace process,” says Allaham. “We’re tired of not having peace.”
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 myself! I'm a Syrian Jew. It doesn’t matter that I was born in another country.”