REMEMBERING SYRIA’S ANCIENT JEWISH COMMUNITY

We welcome your comments to this and any other CIJR publication. Please address your response to:  Rob Coles, Publications Chairman, Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, PO Box 175, Station  H, Montreal QC H3G 2K7 

 

Contents:

 

Tales of a Convicted Jew’s Escape From Syria: Michelle Devorah Kahn, National Post, Dec. 1, 2014— All it took to get from one end of the room to the other was a slight step forward.

The Woman Who Saved Syria’s Jews: Emma Beals, Daily Beast, Mar. 17, 2014— In Syria's three-year war, which is becoming more sectarian by the day, much has been made of the fate of the country's minorities.

One Muslim’s Quest to Save a Revered Syrian Synagogue: Adam Entous, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2014 — Maj. Avichay Adraee, an Israeli army spokesman, was taken aback when he received a message from a mysterious man writing from the heart of Syria’s bloody civil war.

Jewish Heritage Sites in Arab Counties Face Extinction: Ksenia Svetlov, Israel Hayom, Oct. 31, 2014— A large group of tourists gets off the brightly colored bus.

 

On Topic Links

 

A Brief History of the Syrian Jewish Community: Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2014

The President's Plucky Persian Pal: Parody, Weekly Standard, Nov. 24, 2014

Right-Wing Ukrainian Leader Is (Surprise) Jewish, and (Real Surprise) Proud of It: Vladislav Davidzon, Tablet, Dec. 1, 2014

Back in St. Petersburg, Former Refusenik Encourages Jews to Emigrate: Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA, Dec. 1, 2014

                                                  

                   

TALES OF A CONVICTED JEW’S ESCAPE FROM SYRIA                                 

Michelle Devorah Kahn                                                                                                 

National Post, Dec. 1, 2014

 

All it took to get from one end of the room to the other was a slight step forward. Every couple hours, a man would walk by his cell and spit on him. There was no food. There was no water. There was no light. There were no comforting words, only brief moments when hopeful thoughts would fleetingly pop into his head. From 1948 to 1950, my grandfather had one job: He was a prisoner; a convicted Jew. Joseph Avraham Esses was born on Oct. 16, 1919, in Aleppo, Syria. His father was a textile merchant and he was the eighth of 14 children. Although he enjoyed a happy childhood — filled with love, laughter and an abundance of Baklava — living side-by side with his Muslim Arab neighbours, things would take a turn for the worse. This was the point in his life he never spoke about; the point I was most curious about.

 

So in 2007, for a class project, I set up two chairs, directed a camera at my grandfather and interviewed him. My grandfather was a very closed and cautious man at the time, and after much debating and negotiating with him, I began to understand why. He explained to me that as the end of the 1940s approached, everything changed and the attitude towards the Jewish people, who were once the “brothers and sisters” of the Muslim Arabs, shifted greatly. At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, my grandfather, then a young adult, owned and managed his own shop, selling clothing and incidentals (perfume, cologne, accessories, etc.).

 

One evening, after closing up his shop, he was walking home when three young Muslim men cornered him in the middle of the street and began beating him with their fists and whatever pathetic weapons they had (sticks, rocks, etc.) and shouting, “You want a country? You want a country?! Here is your country!” Along with the entire Jewish community of Aleppo, he witnessed many atrocities. Friends and family members often disappeared, never to be heard from or seen again, or were slaughtered during broad daylight for all to see. One incident involving a Jewish family man who was hiding from the Muslims, lead to his three young daughters being kidnapped from the marketplace and held captive for days, where they were tortured and ultimately killed. A few days later, their cut-up bodies were delivered to the family’s home and left on their doorstep in a sack.

 

Being Jewish became a crime and my grandfather was convicted of it. Men, women and children were often hung for this crime in the town square, as the Arabs cheered. My grandfather was luckier than most. He had established strong, positive relationships with both the Arabs and Jews over the years (professionally and socially), and boasted about having the son of Syria’s chief of police as his best friend. But, at the risk of appearing disloyal, everyone had no choice but to put aside their personal feelings for political ones. So my grandfather was allowed to live, but he was thrown in jail. Many were left in there for days on end, starved, tortured and belittled, and left to stand in dirt and feces. Even luckier for him was that his relationship with the Arabs secured him a nightly release, but each morning he was put back into that same jail cell. Never knowing if things would improve, or if they would continue to worsen, his family had no choice but to leave. Slowly, he began securing the escape of his younger siblings and his dear mother.

 

One night, being the final family member left, Joseph turned on all the house lights, left the radio at full blast, unlocked the front door and left forever. He escaped across the border into Lebanon with a fake passport, which listed his birthplace as Philadelphia. He left behind all his cherished family heirlooms, belongings, money and memories. When he crossed the border safely into Lebanon, he ran out from the vehicle, kissed the ground and began singing a song of freedom. This was not an easy interview for me to sit through. It was the first, and maybe the only, time he had ever spoken about this in his life. Most of my family didn’t know what I did. I knew he was in pain and I knew he was afraid of people knowing the truth. But I also knew I had a duty to my ancestors and my heritage to learn what really happened. I began interviewing other family members and gathering stories and photos. In the end, I had a full-length documentary on my grandfather’s life titled, Wanted: The Joseph Esses Story.

 

Recently, the Israeli Knesset designated Nov. 30 as Jewish Refugee Day — a national day of commemoration for the almost one million Jewish refugees forced to flee Arab lands and Iran. This date was chosen to commemorate the onset of anti-Jewish riots that began in November 1947, following the UN Partition Plan. Earlier this year, Canada formally recognized the plight of the 850,000 Jews who were expelled, or fled, from Arab countries after Israel’s founding. It is thrilling for me to know that my own grandfather is one of the many Jews who will be honoured. I am also grateful that I can share this day with him and remember all those who never made it out. My grandfather and I have become very close. We regularly get together for coffee and I tell him about my films, my friends and the dating scene in Toronto. Sometimes I think that I must sound so immature to him. I am complaining about mediocre things, such as how I hate the cold and wish I didn’t have to take the bus. But he always has this grin on his face; this chuckle waiting in the back pocket of his navy blue suit. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but maybe it’s because one of those brief fleeting hopeful thoughts he had in his jail cell was that one day he would have the chance to worry about mediocre things, too.

 

                                                                       

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THE WOMAN WHO SAVED SYRIA’S JEWS                                                         

Emma Beals

Daily Beast, Mar. 17, 2014

 

In Syria's three-year war, which is becoming more sectarian by the day, much has been made of the fate of the country's minorities. Christians, Druze and Kurds in the country have enjoyed more column inches dedicated to their plight over the last three years than ever before. But one Syrian minority is almost never spoken of—the Syrian Jews. “If they were there now, what would have happened? I know what would have happened. It would have been the slaughter of the Syrian Jewish community, that is for sure," says Judy Feld Carr matter-of-factly. Delving into why this slaughter never happened uncovers a story of spy-craft, subterfuge and tightly-kept secrets.

 

In the late 1970's, Feld Carr, a Canadian mother and musicologist, was reading a newspaper when she was struck by an article about 12 Syrian Jewish men who tried to escape into Turkey overland from Qamishli, in the north of the country. They stepped on a land mine and Syrian border guards watched them die. She was so moved by the story that she decided to track down members of Syria's Jewish community. She began cold-calling numbers in Syria until she eventually hit upon a contact. "I sent a telegram to the Rabbi in Damascus asking if he needed religious books and prepaid [for his response]." she explains. "Who would have ever believe, an answer came back with a shopping list! That was the beginning, the first opening since 1948."

 

In the decades following the creation of the state of Israel, Syria's Jewish community had become isolated, says Sarian Roffe, a historian of the Syrian Jewish community. "After Israel's creation that was it. They shut the doors because they didn't want people to go to Israel and fight against them," she says. "So the doors to leave Syria were closed and there was increased persecution."  There was also enforced segregation—Jewish residents of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli were forced to live only in certain neighborhoods and initially had to seek permission to travel further than three kilometers from their homes. Feld Carr's relationship with the Damascus Rabbi started to develop into more frequent coded telegrams and secret messages written into religious books. Eventually, she says, some members of the community managed to leave the country and meet with her. To do so, they had to leave family members behind as 'collateral'. "This one older couple came to meet me and told me what was happening in Syria." she explains. "Then somebody went to Aleppo in the north and asked me, 'Is there any way to get my brother out?' And that's how I started. It was crazy. I ransomed him. I started buying people!"

 

Now in her 70's, living in Ontario, Feld Carr tells the story with a delightful sense of astonishment that it ever took place. "Even I when I look back on it, I think the whole thing it was wild. But it worked, it worked!" she says about the mission that consumed 28 years of her life. One person turned into two and eventually she gave up her career to undertake the rescue operation, which saw her smuggling 3,228 people out of Syria before she finished—coincidentally on the day of the World Trade Center attacks. "I finished in 2011. The day of the Trade Center tragedy was my last family. The last ones who wanted to leave," Feld Carr says. For years her mission was a closely guarded secret. Even her close friends didn't know what she was doing. Funding was collected from private donors and people had to find her themselves; she never contacted them directly. They'd track her down through friends and family once they had exhausted every other available option. "I would be getting calls: 'Mrs. Judy, I have a mother, I have a sister, I have a child, can you do something to help? What can you do to get them out?' That's how these people came to me," she says. Even then, she was careful not to raise their expectations: "I never gave a promise that I was going to be able to do it, 'cause quite frankly, how did I know I would be able to do it? It depended about the secret police, it depended about the army, it depended on all kinds of situations inside the country."

 

Once they made contact, individuals left their fate in the hands of a Canadian woman they'd never met. Eventually, if they were lucky, they'd get a call. "They got a message, and my messages were all through an underground: 'Go now. In the next hour'. That's how it worked. They would leave everything they owned behind; their pictures, their clothing, everything. 'Just go now.'" The stress of having strangers' lives in her hands was immense. "You can imagine dealing with somebody's life that you don't know. What if I made a mistake? One mistake and somebody would be caught because of me. This was very difficult to deal with emotionally," she says. Despite the anguish, she was careful to maintain her responsibilities to her own children and ageing parents. She kept meticulous files on each person. An individual rescue could take months and she often had many in progress at once. As such, she needed to keep detailed records of everything she did. Each story was harrowing and she often had to split up families as she went. "I'll give you one example, it's like a Sophie's choice," she says. "I got the mother, father and kid into New York. The kid had cancer behind his eye. There were two little kids left behind. Then she had a baby in New York. She kept calling me and saying she's going back to Syria. She'd call me at least twice a week with a translator sobbing on the phone."…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

 

                                                                       

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ONE MUSLIM’S QUEST TO SAVE A REVERED SYRIAN SYNAGOGUE          

Adam Entous                                                                                             

Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2014 

                            

Maj. Avichay Adraee, an Israeli army spokesman, was taken aback when he received a message from a mysterious man writing from the heart of Syria’s bloody civil war. The man, a Sunni Muslim who created a Facebook page called “Jobar Synagogue,” said he was on a mission to preserve his town’s crown jewel, a centuries-old religious site venerated by the three major religions. Merely contacting the Israelis was an act that could have put his life in danger. “If we do not move fast to protect this historical heritage, it will be lost forever,” he wrote to the Israeli major, via Facebook.

 

The exchange last year was part of a frantic mission to rescue the synagogue, located in the battle-worn Damascus suburb of Jobar. The man behind the Facebook page, who uses the nom de guerre Abbas Abu Suleiman, got the attention of rabbis in Israel and New York, Syrian exiles in Washington and a Manhattan diamond-district salesman who visited the synagogue as a boy. Mr. Suleiman hoped the Jewish community would intervene with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not only to save the site, but to halt the bombardment of his hometown. Safeguarding a part of Syria’s multicultural religious heritage, he hoped, might help the country rebuild whenever the war was over. Maj. Adraee gets as many as 18,000 Facebook messages each day, many berating him for Israel’s policies toward its neighbors. After receiving Mr. Suleiman’s plea, he didn’t know what to think. Was this man an ally? An opportunist? He replied to the Facebook message with a question mark. Others contacted by Mr. Suleiman had a similar reaction. Jewish leaders on two continents worried about, among other things, whether intervening would endanger the tiny community of aging Jews remaining in Syria.

 

This account of Mr. Suleiman’s quest is based on interviews with him on Skype, transcripts of his Facebook chats and discussions with Muslim and Jewish leaders in the U.S., Syria and Israel. Mr. Suleiman asked The Wall Street Journal not to disclose his real name. The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Jobar has been part of Jewish life in Syria for centuries. An inscription that for years was part of the synagogue’s wall described it as the shrine of the Prophet Eliyahu Hanavi since 720 B.C. The synagogue has been rebuilt many times over the years, according to the chief rabbi of the Syrian Jews, Avraham Hamra. Of Damascus’s 22 synagogues, the one in Jobar is the most revered because it was built atop a cave where, according to religious teachings, the prophet Eliyahu concealed himself to avoid persecution. Muslims and Christians regard Eliyahu as a prophet, making the site one of the few in Syria revered by all three religions. Before the civil war, Jews, Muslims and Christians would visit the synagogue and take turns descending into the cave to pray. Inside was a stone chair believed to have been used by Eliyahu. Syrians of different faiths believed saying a prayer in the cave would bless a new business venture and safeguard their health, Rabbi Hamra said. In the early 20th century, an estimated 25,000 Jews lived in Syria, split between Damascus and Aleppo, according to Abraham Marcus, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Texas at Austin. The Jews of Syria began to leave in the early 1900s. The exodus accelerated before the founding of Israel in 1948.

 

Today, Rabbi Hamra said, there are 17 Jews left in Damascus and probably none in Aleppo, making it Syria’s smallest known religious minority. Nine are men, one short of a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish male adults required for certain religious obligations. All the Jews in Damascus are 60 years old or older.

Syria’s Jews have a complex relationship with the Assad regime. Many see him as a protector, and the opposition, dominated by groups aligned with al Qaeda, as the real threat. Government agents monitor the nation’s Jews, according to rabbis and government defectors, which circumscribes what they can do or say.

When Mr. Suleiman started his quest, Jobar was under the control of opposition forces, as it still is. Groups operating there included the Western-backed Free Syrian Army as well as the Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda. Jobar and other eastern Damascus suburbs are strategically significant as gateways to the capital, and have seen heavy fighting.

 

In the security vacuum, thieves in Jobar looted the synagogue, taking prayer books, scrolls and the ornate interior doors, local activists say. On one occasion, members of the FSA rescued some of the stolen items. Local activists set up a special committee to protect the synagogue. Mr. Suleiman says he volunteered to take the lead. In peaceful times, the synagogue had attracted visitors from Syria and beyond. More than just a religious site, it put Jobar on the map. For the sake of the town, residents believed they needed to save it. Before the war, Mr. Suleiman had worked as a manager at his family’s factory. He had lived in Jobar for his whole life but had never gone inside the synagogue until the summer of 2012, when he decided to help protect it. Local Jobar leaders locked the doors and posted guards outside. On June 10 of last year, Mr. Suleiman posted a message, using his Jobar Synagogue account, on the Arabic-language Facebook page of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He explained what leaders in Jobar were doing to secure the site and asked whom they could contact about the antiquities. He got no response. He messaged Maj. Adraee, the Israeli Defence Force’s Arabic-language spokesman, later that month. “I tried to connect to many different entities and sources but with no luck,” he said in one message. Next, he contacted Amine Helwani, one of Damascus’s 17 remaining Jews. Mr. Helwani and his brother used to visit the synagogue to make sure everything was in order, according to Rabbi Hamra. Mr. Helwani replied in a series of Facebook messages. He said the war prevented anyone making the drive across town. He asked about an old Torah scroll and about the condition of the rugs. Mr. Suleiman said he couldn’t find the Torah scroll, and that he had rolled up the rugs to protect them…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

 

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JEWISH HERITAGE SITES IN ARAB COUNTIES FACE EXTINCTION       

Ksenia Svetlov                                          

Israel Hayom, Oct. 31, 2014

 

A large group of tourists gets off the brightly colored bus. The waters of the nearby Euphrates River flow gently in the shade of the palm trees that adorn both banks. The local children run over to sell souvenirs and water bottles to the tourists. Welcome to Al Kifl, a small town southeast of Baghdad and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where tradition says that the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel is located. After a brief visit, the bus takes you to the northern part of the country, to the Assyrian city of Kush, where the grave of the Prophet Nahum is said to be located. Then it will take you to Mosul so you can pray at what is believed to be the final resting place of the Prophet Daniel, according to Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition.

 

This could have been the picture of Jewish tourism in Iraq, the ancient home to many of the Bible's characters. Until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was still possible to dream of a celebration at the grave of Nahum, or of prayer services at the grave of Ezekiel and a visit to the Jewish quarter in Baghdad.

But those who had dreamed of a better future in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein have had a rude awakening. The new Iraq has treated its own heritage — the Babylonian, Christian, Muslim and, of course, Jewish — with sheer brutality, and far worse than the old Iraq ever did. Terrorism on a daily basis, religious fanaticism and a weak and corrupt government — all these have led to the utter ruin of human life and of important heritage sites all over the country.

 

As the sound of an explosion rips through the air, another golden dome of an ancient Shiite mosque falls into the building. Another museum is looted by Islamic State terrorists; another ancient Jewish home is consumed by flames. The mosques in the important Shiite city of Najaf were demolished countless times by Sunni terrorists; the Baghdad Museum was looted; and the remnants of American tanks now riddle the ancient city of Babylon. This chaos has made the fate of the Jewish sites all too predictable. While several synagogues are still standing in Baghdad, Ezekiel's Tomb has been turned into a mosque. Most of the ancient Jewish inscriptions there have been destroyed or covered with cement. Daniel's Tomb in Mosul was blown up by Islamic State, which opposes worship at tombs in general, whether they are the tombs of Jewish prophets or relatives of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. In other areas, Islamic State and other jihadist groups are destroying sites held sacred by Shiites, including magnificent mosques, as well as Christian churches.

 

The atmosphere destruction has reached Syria as well. Aleppo's historic market suffered severe damage recently, together with the Umayyad mosque in Damascus and many Jewish sites. The Jobar Synagogue in Damascus, also known as the Prophet Elijah Synagogue, was demolished in May 2014. The site is in ruins, and no one will do anything to save what remains of the beautiful building that the Jewish community constructed in the Middle Ages. Almost 20 years ago, the manuscripts known as the Damascus Codices, books of the Hebrew Bible that were written in Tiberias in the 10th century C.E., were removed from the Hosh al-Basha Synagogue in Damascus and taken out of Syria in a daring Mossad operation. They are now in the National Library in Jerusalem, far from those who dream of the destruction of books and people alike.

 

In a time when large areas of Iraq and Syria are controlled by fanatics, at the peak of a bloody civil war, it is hard to get a clear picture of the state of the Jewish heritage sites in those regions. Still, Professor Shmuel Moreh of the Hebrew University, an Israel Prize laureate in Arabic literature, a native of Baghdad, and the author of the book "My Beloved Baghdad," speaks of a group of courageous Iraqis who took on the difficult mission to document the damage done to Jewish holy sites, synagogues and cemeteries, and to the residential neighborhoods of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East. "Our friends, Shiites and Sunnis, most of them academics employed in universities in Iraq, writers and poets, are documenting what is going on in their country for us," Moreh said. "When news about 'renovations' at Ezekiel's Tomb appeared in the Arabic press, we sent a few friends to Al Kifl, and they brought sketches and photographs of the place. As it turns out, the Shiites destroyed the Hebrew inscriptions under the guise of renovations, and turned the place into a mosque."…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

 

CIJR Wishes All Our Friends & Supporters: Shabbat Shalom!

 

Contents           

 

On Topic

 

A Brief History of the Syrian Jewish Community: Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2014—Syria used to be home to a vibrant Jewish community.

The President's Plucky Persian Pal: Parody, Weekly Standard, Nov. 24, 2014—Dear Barack: Peace be with you, too!

Right-Wing Ukrainian Leader Is (Surprise) Jewish, and (Real Surprise) Proud of It: Vladislav Davidzon, Tablet, Dec. 1, 2014—My meeting with Right Sector’s Borislav Bereza, newly elected member of the Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, took place on a sunny Friday morning.

Back in St. Petersburg, Former Refusenik Encourages Jews to Emigrate: Cnaan Liphshiz, JTA, Dec. 1, 2014 —hrough the backseat window of a black KGB car, Yosef Mendelevitch could see university students his age hurrying to take their finals.

 

 

 

               

 

 

 

                      

                

                            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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