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IN THE BEGINNING… BROOKLYN’S SYRIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY: THE EARLY YEARS

By: Sarina Roffé



The Jews in Damascus, Aleppo, and their satellite communities flourished for over one thousand years. Worldwide politics began to have an influence on Ottoman-controlled Syria in the late 19th Century, when European powers sought equal treatment for Christians and Jews. For generations Jews had been hired for contractual positions with the government, but those positions were now forbidden for Jewish workers. However, alternative civil service positions were created.

The Ottomans lost control of their empire in 1908, when the Young Turks, a rebel group, overthrew the Ottoman sultan, ended dhimmi status, and began conscripting Jewish men into the Army. For the first time, Jewish men were conscripted into the army to fight in the Balkan Wars. Overnight, Jewish men secretly began leaving in order to avoid military service.

Much of the Ottoman Empire was divided into areas controlled by France and Great Britain. Palestine was under the British Mandate. The area that became Syria and Lebanon was under French control.

The Syrian Jews emigrated in the early 20th Century for three primary reasons. The first was due to economics. The economic decline in Syria in the aftermath of the 1869 Suez Canal opening crippled Syrian Jews’ ability to earn a living. Second, in order to avoid compulsory military service. Third, due to anti-Semitism. The worldwide Zionist movement led to an increase in anti-Semitism across the Middle East.

As the Middle East suffered economic depression in the late
19th Century, many Syrian Jews began to look for a better life for their families. Syrian Jewish émigrés began arriving in New York City and the Americas in the early 20th Century, beginning in 1900. While many settled in Manchester, England, Egypt, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, the majority settled in New York City, creating the largest Syrian Jewish population outside of Eretz Yisrael.

The Syrian Jewish community in New York originally consisted of two distinct groups, from Aleppo and Damascus. The first migration occurred in the opening years of the 20th Century. At first, the two groups kept apart. The Aleppans, or Halabis, followed the traditions of Aram Soba. The Damascene Jews or Shammies, prayed in a different house of worship, although the two groups lived side by side and socialized together.

As the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn grew, it established its own clearly defined infrastructure, including a cemetery, synagogues, religious schools, ritual baths, social services, senior citizen housing, and a community center. At the same time, Syrian Jews became assimilated into American society, adopting the local dress and language, and sending their children to local public schools. However, the Syrian immigrants continued to nurture and preserve their heritage, values, and culture, as they knew them in Syria.

While members of the Syrian community conducted business in the secular world, there were clearly established parameters under which they operated. Parents, concerned that their culture and religion would be compromised by secular influences, controlled social liaisons and marriages, although arranged marriages were no longer in vogue. Intermarriage with non-Jews was banned.

Community members were expected to abide by the accepted religious practices and moral values, including religious observance of kashrut and the Sabbath, giving to tzedekah, performing acts of hesed and other mitzvot. Most Syrian children attended public school, and boys received their Hebrew education from a Talmud Torah (an after-school program for Torah learning), at the k’nees (Arabic for synagogue).

When the Syrian Jews came to America they were limited in what they could do to support their families. Most men had no more than an eighth-grade education, and for the most part, women had no education. Many men became peddlers. This occupation permitted them to observe the Sabbath. They sold household items, linens, doilies, curtains, and tablecloths. Both commercial and family ties bound the immigrants from Aleppo with those who remained in Syria.

In those early years, the New York-based Hebrew Immigration Aid Society helped to settle the new Jewish immigrants. The Syrian arrivals were often placed in apartments on the Lower East Side, along with Ashkenazi families. Linguistic, cultural, and religious differences made it difficult for the different types of Jews to mingle. The Ashkenazim did not understand the Arabic language and Arabic accented Hebrew, and often discriminated against the Syrian immigrants. The Syrians were unaccustomed to the foods served by Ashkenazic Jews. The practices, tunes, and halachic interpretations of the Ashkenazim were unfamiliar to the Syrian immigrants, and sometimes the Ashkenazic halachot were the opposite of the classic Syrian and Sephardic traditions.

Syrian Jewish men generally emigrated alone. When they could afford it, they sent for their families. The Arabic-speaking Jews were uncomfortable with their Eastern European brethren, and found solace and comfort in the kitchen of Rose Cohen Misrie of Beirut. Rose, and her Aleppan husband, Israel Misrie, opened The Egyptian Rose, a Lower East Side restaurant that was a haven for Syrian Jews arriving from the Levant.

The restaurant was not only a place for eating. There was also talking, bargaining, trading, card games, and toleh. Rose spun her tales, and her storytelling made the restaurant feel like home. A different menu of Middle Eastern cuisine was prepared each day and customers all enjoyed the daily selection. The Egyptian Rose was the place to be, especially for men who came to New York without their families.

It was common for Aleppan men with rabbinical training to work as merchants, rather than as judges or full-time scholars, since it was considered preferable to earn a living through secular means, according to the Sephardic and Middle Eastern traditions. Trade was the road to upward mobility.

Eli Hedaya, a Syrian Jew, came to the United States in 1905 at age 12, and immediately became a peddler. "I used to buy supplies from Natan Labi, who was then on Washington Street. I would buy a dozen or a dozen and a half pieces at a time, which I sold as a peddler.... Working at age 12 or so was common in Halab. At that age a boy went to work to help feed the family, [sic] among the poor."

Syrian Jews owned a number of retail ventures. Some opened stores at beach resorts along the East Coast where they sold souvenirs, jewelry, sweatshirts, and T-shirts. Many merchants sold linens, doilies, handkerchiefs, and tablecloths.

Before long, the Syrian Jews began praying in their own separate area. In 1911, a dozen or so Syrian Jews united under the name Kehillat Shaare Sedek and opened a synagogue on the Lower East Side. The Rodfeh Tzedek Burial Society was formed, and took its first group of plots at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. A Talmud Torah for children opened from 3pm to 6pm daily and on Sunday mornings. Members of the community, most of them businessmen, taught the classes. There was no rabbinic leadership until the arrival in 1910 of Rabbi Yitzhak Shalom, zt”l, who helped and supported thousands of Aleppan immigrants as they established themselves in the New World.

Over time, the Syrian Jews opened more and more retail establishments, selling merchandise similar to what they sold when they peddled door-to-door. The businesses were family operated and the merchants favored employing other members of the community. Some Syrians banded together and formed wholesale establishments, and began to manufacture clothing. Importing children's clothing from the Far East became a tremendous source of income, particularly after World War II.

The Sea Beach line of the New York City Transit system opened in 1920, providing public transportation to Bensonhurst. This was the catalyst for Syrian Jews to move out of The Lower East Side and relocate to Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. There they founded synagogues, a Talmud Torah in 1925, and a mikveh on
67th Street near 20th Avenue.

The Damascene Jews were led by Rabbi Murad Maslaton. They prayed at Ahi Ezer Synagogue on 64th Street and 21st Ave until it opened its building on 71st Street, off Bay Parkway. The Aleppan Jews prayed at Magen David Synagogue, built in 1921, on 67th Street. The Egyptian Jews later formed Ahava d Ahaba. The Rodfeh Tzedek Burial Society soon established a second cemetery, United Hebrew Cemetery, in Staten Island.

A souk or shopping area that specialized in Middle Eastern imports developed in Bensonhurst, with all the stores the Syrians needed. The stores carried an array of ingredients similar to those in Syria. The souk had food shops, grocery stores, and kosher butchers operated by community members. Here, women could purchase imported spices, grains, dried fruit, and other Syrian specialties.

Meyer’s Ice Cream Store on Bay Parkway and 69th Street was a common hangout for Syrian teenagers and young adults. Summers were spent on the beach in Coney Island, then a popular summer resort.

During the first half of the 20th Century, weddings and bar mitzvahs were simple. Usually the ceremony was held in the synagogue, and the reception held in the family home, with food cooked by the women. Guests squeezed in together, dancing to Arabic music, and enjoying homemade Syrian pastries, all the while enjoying the homelike atmosphere, enhanced by being among family and friends. One single photo of the bride and groom recorded the event for posterity. Those who could afford it held wedding and bar mitzvah receptions in Ahi Ezer Congregation on 71st Street in Bensonhurst, and hired professional musicians and a photographer.

Many Syrian Jewish families who hosted receptions in their homes purchased food from Esther and Selim Salem, son of Rabbi Abraham Salem. In the 1940s, the couple built a commercial kitchen in their backyard garage on 63rd Street, just off 21st Avenue. There were huge ovens, trays, and freezers to store the food. The family’s seven children, Esther’s younger brother Joseph, and Rabbi Abraham Salem all helped in the family business. The basement was converted into a storage area for gallons of pickles, grains, and imported Syrian spices.

Salem Catering was the first kosher Syrian catering available for the small community. The Salem’s catered weddings, bar mitzvahs, sebits after Shabbat morning services, and numerous events throughout the growing Syrian Sephardic Jewish community in Bensonhurst. Members of the Sephardic community would trek up the narrow side alley to the Salem’s backyard kitchen, especially before holidays and special events, to purchase their goodies. Delicious aromas emanated from the kitchen and greeted people like a breath of fresh air.

Most community children attended public school in Bensonhurst with fellow Syrian and other Sephardic Jews, along with the Italian children in the neighborhood. Unlike in Syria, attending school was mandatory in America. Many first generation Syrian immigrant children were the first in their families to graduate high school. They spoke Arabic at home, but learned English in school, which enabled them to help their parents navigate life in America. In the first and second generations, most parents did not consider a college education necessary or even desirable for their children. Most sons went into family businesses. Parents did not want their children exposed to secular influences in order to prevent assimilation.

Early leaders in the community were Aleppo-born Raymond Beyda, Rabbi Yitzhak Shalom, and Shlomo Grazi, who led a committee at Magen David Congregation, now known as Bnei Yosef Congregation.

By 1932, many in the community had been widely influenced by secularism and the desire to fit in as Americans. It was the era of the Great Depression and community members needed to survive economically and feed their families. As a result, many Syrian immigrants’ religious observance was compromised. Some Syrian immigrants opened retail establishments in cities where there was no organized Jewish community, or where assimilation was advanced. Outside of New York, Reform Judaism captured the hearts of large numbers of American Jews. The influence of Reform Judaism took its toll on Syrian Jews who had businesses in communities where Reform Judaism flourished.

In 1932, community leaders invited Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin of Jerusalem to come to New York to become the chief rabbi of the growing community. Rabbi Kassin had established a reputation in the bet din. He was a kabbalist, teacher, and a gaon (brilliant Torah scholar). He was also the son of esteemed Rabbi Shaul Kassin, a Syrian rabbi from a long rabbinic dynasty. Rabbi Jacob Kassin agreed to become the community’s chief rabbi, and moved to Bensonhurst with his family in 1933.

Rabbi Jacob Kassin’s philosophy was to never close the door on a fellow Jew. He always believed in keeping the door open, allowing a Jew who strayed to come back into the fold. Rabbi Jacob Kassin’s leadership, tolerance, and guidance were instrumental in bringing many members of the community back to observant Judaism. Rabbi Kassin was instrumental in the shaping of the Syrian and greater Sephardic community in Brooklyn for the next six decades.

Portions adapted from “Branching Out From Sepharad.”
Community member Sarina Roffé is the author of Branching Out from Sepharad
(NY, Sephardic Heritage Project, 2017); Backyard Kitchen: Mediterranean Salads
(NY, Sephardic Heritage Project, 2016), as well as hundreds of articles published in journals, newspapers, and magazines. She is a recognized academic expert in Sephardic history.