The Sephardic Heritage Museum Explores THE LIFE AND ESCAPE of the JEWS OF SYRIA

Past Articles:

By: Sophia Franco

I remember my grandpa, Ezra Mishan, my father’s father, so well. Born in Aleppo, he spoke with a heavy Syrian accent, peppered with many words I didn’t recognize. But he was warm and loving as he bounced me on his knee and sang to me, and that is a language anyone can understand. All four of my grandparents were immigrants from Syria, and it saddens me that I never took a moment to think about what their stories were.  I’m sure many of your grandparents were born there as well. Do you know what their life was like in Syria (or Egypt or Lebanon or Mexico)? Do you know why or how they left and traveled here? How they were treated when they arrived? As modern Syrian Jews it is very tempting to look forward and to become “Americans” through and through. We aspire and we move, we learn and keep learning, looking toward technology and innovation for the answers. All of this advancement is wonderful, but not without a full understanding of where we came from. Our heritage is the foundation on which our lives are built upon, and in order to move forward with strength, we must always remember to look back, first.

Holding on to History – The Sephardic Heritage Museum

About fifteen years ago Joe Sitt, marveling at the brilliance and fortitude of this community and the men and women in it, took it upon himself to research and preserve our brilliant history, creating the Sephardic Heritage Museum in Lakewood, NJ. The museum is unlike any museum we know. There are no marbled hallways or pillared vestibules. Its walls are not built yet. But the knowledge, writings, artifacts, and information gathered thus far is vast, incredible, and important.

Together with Rabbi Raymond Sultan of Sephardic Food Fund and a team of archaeologists and investigative historians, Joe has put together massive amounts of rich Syrian history for generations to study and enjoy. “It is truly a race against time,” Joe explains. “Number one, who knew when we went into Syria in 2008 that most of it would be bombed and destroyed today? We have videos and intricate photos of the homes, the magnificent synagogues, the graveyards, and the city of Aleppo itself. These things don’t exist today. This information is precious. Number two, the first wave of Syrian immigrants came to America in the late 1800’s. Most of them are long gone, and the only witnesses we have left to the old days in Syria are now in their eighties and nineties. Their eye witness testimonies to this glorious time in our history are priceless.”

Rabbi Sultan explains, “This all started with just a few artifacts we were auctioning off to raise money for Sephardic Food Fund. Mr. Sitt got wind of these priceless items set up in a small curio display at Magen David and he became interested. When a whole library from Aleppo came into our possession we knew that we couldn’t separate it book by book. Joe asked me to continue to collect what we could; he knew how important it was. To date we have gathered over 600 handwritten manuscripts, from over 4-500 years ago and never printed, plus over 50,000 loose documents, including marriage documents, funeral speeches, etc., plus book collections, artifacts, and much more in our archives. It has taken years to accumulate.”

Nobody else has such a concentrated collection under one roof. It is a tremendous responsibility for this team. The work is not just to collect everything, but also to weed through it, to curate it, and to maintain it in good condition. The rabbi continues, “These are all pieces of a puzzle. To understand the larger picture there is much work to be done, and we are seeing the hand of Hashem helping at every step. Understand that each paper from hundreds of years ago must be repaired and restored, first and foremost. We have professionals from the Smithsonian Institute handling that. Once that is done, we need to have everything transcribed and digitized so we can read, translate, and access it. From there the work is still not done. In order to be true to the history we must then study the documents, to do the encyclopedic work. Then genealogists must go through it so that we can follow the family trees. We can now put any name into the computer to search for relevant documents, gravestones, deeds, or any other information. The work is still not done. We now must investigate the laws and customs that are referred to in each record. Different historians are studying the information, examining it, and documenting it. There are universities and museums that have been set up for a century that have not been nearly as thorough as we’ve been in just fifteen years. Our history has never been so accessible.”

Film Series Dedicated to Preserving Syrian Jewish History

Together with Joe Sitt and Director Lisa Ades, Marlene Mamiye co-produced the seven-part film series based upon the heritage of our Syrian Jewish community. Over the course of ten years, they interviewed over 300 community members about their unique experiences immigrating to this country. They asked interviewees how they succeeded in keeping their Jewish religion, community, and Arabic culture intact while settling into a new American life. Each interviewee presented precious old photos and reels of film, thousands of which were scanned and archived within the museum’s digital files.

On Thursday September 28, Episode 6, The Life and Escape of the Jews of Syria, 1930-1967 premiered at Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn, NY to a packed house. Marlene explains, “This episode reveals some of the most shocking stories ever told to me by any of our community members. Nothing else compared to the raw emotion of our interviewees describing the Arabs rampaging through the streets with gasoline and swords, looking to destroy everything in their path. Listening to their memories, recalling the way they felt watching their synagogues burning, and describing bombs killing children in the Damascus synagogue, all in protest of the partition of Palestine and subsequent creation of the Jewish state, was horrifying. I’m so inspired, and it makes me very proud to see that as Jews we are always able to emerge from the rubble and move on with a determination, dignity, and success.”

Just to give you a sense of time, this installment in the series picks up in 1930. My grandparents and many others had already left Syria and began settling here. The community was thriving in America, but still many had stayed in Syria, for financial, personal, or sentimental reasons. For hundreds of years the Jews in Syria were treated reasonably, but that was coming to an end. Whatever beauty they found in Syria was shattered. In America we celebrated the birth of Israel, a homeland for the Jews, but our families in Syria and in the other Arab countries were facing tremendous hardships and challenges.

Anti-Semitism Rages after UN Partition of Palestine Vote

At the time of the United Nations vote to partition Palestine on November 29, 1947, roughly 850,000 Jews lived peacefully in the various Arab states of the Middle East. The Jewish community in Aleppo numbered around 10,000. Basically, seven Arab countries went to war against the Jews, and lost. Syria was a government of Arabs, and so anti-Jewish riots were widespread. The Syrian government aided, abetted, and organized the Arab inhabitants to attack the city's Jewish population. Riots ensued, and destruction followed. We hear so much about “Kristalnacht” which took place in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakiaat the start of the Holocaust. But many are unaware that Nazi ideology was infiltrating into Syria in those years as well.

Elie S. Sutton recalls in the film, “Our house was in a conspicuous spot, being on one of the main streets of town. And of course, we couldn't hide the fact that it was a Jewish home. So the mob started to burn it. My family was able, fortunately, to get out from the side door and run away from the house, but everything was destroyed.”

Joseph Faham recalled, “All the people of the courtyard that lived with us and some other houses next door came to my father for help. They decided that we should go up to the roof, and we started jumping from one roof to another to get to the safe place. My father would take a person, throw him down, and my brother would catch him downstairs. All the neighbors went and I was standing and watching all this when I told my father, ‘You’re going to leave me here? You’re not going to take me?’ He saved everybody else and then of course, he took his family. This is the kind of person that my father was.”

Yvette Marcos Dabah recalled, “We were hiding in the house when they came in like animals. We closed the door and we saw a small child holding a piece of the Sefer Torah. We said, ‘We are finished; they must have gone to the shul.’ We stayed in hiding and every time we looked out the window, I said, ‘We’re gone. They’re going to kill us!’”

Maurice Silvera recalls sadly watching the mob burn the shul his father built.  “During the fire we were home, and my whole family was watching them break the metal door of the Silvera Synagogue, and pour gas, and started burning it. I saw what my father felt when he saw it start burning. I mean, because he built it himself.”

Jews were stripped of their citizenship, deprived of employment, and had their property confiscated in almost all Arab countries. Subsequent laws barred Jews from purchasing and selling land, and froze their bank accounts. Jews were not allowed to own businesses or conduct business in their own names. They were not allowed to travel, and even to go from one city to the next, one had to fill out vast paperwork and endure months of red tape. When Jews walked in the streets people called them dogs or worms or worse. Overnight, Jews became hated, as an anti-Jewish sentiment flowed throughout the Middle East.

This film portrays the new lot of our community members in Syria, and it was not an easy one. Because the Syrian government felt that every Jew in Syria was a spy for Israel, and any Jew that left would potentially go to Israel and fight against their brethren, they basically held us hostage there. They made it unbearable to stay, but did not allow us to leave. Many tried to escape on foot or by boat from Turkey or Lebanon, but if caught, they faced imprisonment, torture, or death. If miraculously they escaped successfully, they risked their family’s safety as their families would certainly pay the price back in Syria if a son, daughter, or brother got out. There was no easy solution.

Throughout the different Arab countries the treatment of Jews varied, but nowhere was it good for us. Many were expelled from their countries, penniless, with only the shirts on their backs. Many escaped from Syria and ended up in Israel, Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Geneva, Milan, Beirut, or Egypt on their route to the United States. This movie gives us a picture of their journeys, how they were lost, how they were saved, and how they survived. Rabbi Sultan recalls the words of a viewer discussing the film afterwards. He was ashamed. He said, “I was here in America at that time. I had made my money already. Why didn’t I try to help these people? Why didn’t I know what was happening to them?”

Seeing Hashem’s Hand in History

It is also crucially important to recognize the hand of Hashem in our history. In the 1940’s the Grand Mufti met with Hitler. Hitler’s army was at Syria’s doorstep, but we were spared. Fifty years later civil war between ISIS and the Syrian government itself led to the destruction of much of Syria. But again, we were spared, because thankfully there is hardly a Jew left there. Was it Gd’s plan for us to leave Syria, which was our home for so many years, to protect us from harm now, in this century? Here we sit, thousands of us together, watching and discussing this film, far away from the fire. You think about it.

Recognizing the Strength and Uniqueness of Our Community

Joe Sitt continues to marvel at the strength of this community, “In studying our community’s history we can see that it is built upon seven values that have stayed steady for 2,000 years: religion, hard work, charity, family, honesty, Sephardic culture (food, pizmonim, hakafot, etc…) and ‘suffe,’ which is difficult to explain, but a key element of our individuality as a community. The movie series is a tremendous testament to the constant existence of these qualities. But it is becoming increasingly tempting to be inculcated into America’s aspirational culture. Many Ashkenaz Jews will marry goyim (non-Jews) and leave their Judaism behind. As Sephardic Jews we are the minority. No other community has relocated from one side of the world to another and stayed intact. Our intermarriage numbers are much lower than Jews worldwide, and so is our divorce rate. We need to stress these values to our children and grandchildren, incorporate them into our way of life and in our actions, to keep these values strong. Hopefully the work we are doing with the museum will further that cause.”

Joe continues, “The movie series, The Syrian Jewish Community, Our Journey Through History, is tremendous but it is only a small part of what we are trying to accomplish. The books we have saved, the manuscripts, audio and video files, the photos and the artifacts; are all so important. It is crucial for us to capture and chronicle these items for future generations 50, 100, and 200 years from now. We have written and continue to update history books for the schools, databases and family trees; we are documenting our history to the utmost degree. In addition, we have also saved many, many people, bringing them out of grave danger to safety against all odds. It is so important for all of us to get behind this project because this is the heart of what will keep us solid and resilient for generations to come.”