Sunday, August 30, 2015



The Syrian diaspora in Israel watches its once-vibrant ancestral home fall to ruin in the country’s civil war

August 23, 2012

Jewish family in Aleppo (left) and the Aleppo Citadel seen from the southwest, c. 1910. The original stereographic images have been altered into an anaglyph. When viewed through red-cyan glasses, the above image will produce a stereoscopic 3D effect. (Anaglyphs Tablet Magazine; original photos Library of Congress)
The northern Syrian city of Aleppo, once a pillar of Jewish existence worldwide, is slowly being destroyed by the fighting that has engulfed Syria for the past 17 months. Last week, a Free Syrian Army rebel warned that soon “there will be nothing left to destroy in Aleppo.” Imagine Rome or Paris destroyed by civil war in the social media age.
Coincidentally, Aleppo had already been in the news thanks to a new book and a lengthy New York Times Magazine article about one of the city’s most famous claims to recognition: the Aleppo Codex of the Hebrew Bible, said to have been complied in Tiberias in the 10th century and ransomed by the Jews of Cairo from the Crusaders after their conquest. After a short but monumental stay in the hands of Maimonides, it wound up in Aleppo, where it was kept hidden in a crypt lining the walls of the city’s great synagogue for the next 600 years. The codex, believed to be the oldest manuscript containing the entire Hebrew Bible, was smuggled out of Syria in the 1950s thanks to the courageous efforts of a handful of Aleppine Jews. Like a segment of Aleppo’s Jewish community, the codex found a home in Jerusalem, where it sits under lock and key at the Israel Museum.
What made Jewish existence in Aleppo so unique and vibrant? For thousands of years, Aleppo was an unofficial capital of the Sephardic Jewish world. Fueled by wealth from international trade and waves of Jewish immigration, the city’s Jews sustained a pious community revered for educational excellence and as a guardian of traditions with roots in ancient Israel. Aleppine folklore—some even say that one of Kind David’s generals personally laid the foundation for its great synagogue, now located at the heart of fighting—hints at the prestige of the city in Jewish history.
But the city is lost, and Jewish existence has been all but erased from its cobbled streets. Remarkably, what has not disappeared is the Aleppine way of life in diaspora communities spanning the globe.
“I would say without any hesitation that the [community of Jews from Aleppo] is the strongest Jewish community in the world in the sense of solidarity,” Yom Tov Assis, a professor of medieval history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told me in his book-saturated office. Assis was born in Aleppo and briefly experienced the violence in the city that accompanied Israel’s independence. He recently founded the center for the study of Aleppine Jewry at the Hebrew University in an effort to preserve and study the traditions of his vibrant community. “There is hardly any Jewish community apart from the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, that is so strongly attached to its past and traditions,” he said.
Outside of Israel, few cities in the Middle East have a richer history of Jewish cultural activity, education, and trade than Aleppo. Legend has it that the city, which is referred to as Haleb in both Hebrew and Arabic, derives its name from a story of Abraham guiding a flock of sheep through the fleecy shrubbery of the surrounding mountains. He is said to have distributed his sheep’s milk (halev in Hebrew) to the local residents of the city, nestled in Northern Syria’s rolling hills, which thereby was known as Haleb.
Starting in the late 10th century, Aleppo grew to serve as a passageway between the Jewish communities of the Babylonian center and Israel. Its geographic position and impressive sphere of influence bridged the divide from Persia to the lucrative markets of southern Europe. The city held an almost mythic or legendary status among Jews worldwide. Visiting the city in the late 16th century, Italian monk Pietro Della Valle observed in a travel journal that, “Here, in one district [in Aleppo], converges all the Orient, with its jewels, silks, drugs, and cloths; and it is also joined by the Occident, namely France (in force), Venice, Holland, and England.” Aleppine Jews also used their wealth to establish prominent educational institutions and were recognized for their carefully kept traditions in line with the biblical practices of ancient Jews. In a letter to the Jewish community of Lunel in Southern France, Maimonides noted that “in all the Holy Land and in Syria, there is one city alone and it is Halab in which there are those who are truly devoted to the Jewish religion and the study of Torah.”
Historically, Aleppo found itself at the crossroads of two of Jewish history’s major developments: the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the rise of the Zionist movement. As refugees from Iberia flooded the Eastern Mediterranean in the early part of the 16th century, Aleppo became one of the most important centers of absorption. When Aleppo fell under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, the Caliphate maintained a relatively warm relationship with the Jewish community. Provisions ensuring that synagogues were not built taller than mosques and that Jewish religious behavior was performed quietly—part of their status as Dhimmis—meant that Jews found a fragile entente.
In 1947-48, after the United Nations voted to implement a two-state solution in Palestine, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Aleppo. False rumors spread that the codex had been destroyed in an attack. From this point until the late 1980s, the community dismantled itself, and the Aleppine Jewish diaspora began to take shape—mainly in Israel, Brooklyn, and South America. “We used to summer in Lebanon near Beirut,” Assis told me. “One summer my parents rented a large bus with other Jews from Aleppo, and only after we crossed into Lebanon did they inform us that we would never return to Aleppo.”
They were not alone. Some Jews do remain in Muslim countries, from Morocco to Iran. Their numbers, however, are too small to legitimatize the notion that outside of Israel there are still vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East.
What, then, is the best way to remember Jewish life under Muslim rule in the Middle East? It’s a question that has floated through the halls of Jewish academia for at least 30 years, alternately provoking idealized versions of peaceful life in the Arab world and dramatic tales of persecution. Especially among those dedicated to European Jewish history, which still struggles to understand the tragedy that befell European Jewry in the 20th century, there is a tendency to view life under Muslim rule as exceedingly peaceful, marked by co-existence and even mutual respect. Outside of academia, the question tends to adopt political contours, with people seeking to place blame either on the Zionist movement or the Arab populations that expelled their ancient Jewish communities after the creation of the state of Israel.
Whichever side one falls on politically, it is clear that, for Jews, Aleppo was lost in 1948. The recent destruction of the city’s ancient monuments is merely a reminder of what had already been lost. While the Aleppine community in Israel is not nearly as numerous or powerful as their brethren in Brooklyn—the largest Aleppine Jewish community in the world, covered widely for their financial success and excess—their proximity to Syria and relationship with Jews from other Arab countries give the events in their lost city a more immediate feel.
Like for the Aleppine community in Brooklyn, the idea of Aleppo lives on in schools and synagogues in the exile community in Israel. During our conversation, Assis relayed stories of his adolescence moving around the Middle East. “When I arrived in Beirut and Istanbul, I found myself far more learned than any other kid my age,” he said. “We had a very strong Jewish education, we used to read the Bible and translate it on the spot to the astonishment of our teachers.”
Aleppine synagogues, especially in Israel, have tried hard to protect the unique aspects of their religious observance. On winter Shabbat mornings, tucked deep in the serene streets of Jerusalem’s Nahlot neighborhood, Syrian Jews sing Bakashot, Kabbalistic poetry originating in Spain. The Great Synagogue of the Aleppo Jewish community in Jerusalem, established in 1901, maintains these and other traditions, such as liturgical singing heavily influenced by Arabic, known as the Sephardi Hazanut.
For people like Assis, maintaining this tradition in the face of the winds of history is nothing short of an obligation. “The Jewish world under Islam has vanished,” he said. “You can mourn the whole Jewish world under Islam, there is nothing left. What happens to the cemeteries, to the synagogues, to the books, to everything? Well, God knows.”
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Correction, August 29: Due to reporting and editing errors, a number of inaccuracies appeared in the original version of this text, which has been updated. The Aleppo Codex was compiled in Tiberias, not near it, in the 10th, not the 6th, century. The Codex was not smuggled out of Cairo, nor was it ever in Europe. It is now at the Israel Museum, not the Ben Zvi Institute.

A swimming lesson at Camp Walden in 1961, with the author in the center. (Photo courtesy of Frances Brent)
When my friends and I went to the 100th reunion of Camp Waldenin late July, we stopped at the camp “museum”—a hut festooned with memorabilia, photographs, letters, albums, notebooks, schedules, and recipes going back decades. Not far from the entranceway, we paused in one of those disorienting moments that happens at such events: There was a 1961 photograph of us—me and the woman I was standing next to, and the rest of the ragtag band from our long ago Bunk 4: nine 11-year-old Jewish girls in a half-docked canoe, two bashful, non-Jewish counselors standing in the background. The image showed us in starchy white shirts and Bermudas, balancing in the hull of a wooden boat as calm water was beginning to pick up into small waves.
When one comes back as an adult to a place that held significant childhood meaning, it raises questions: Who was I? Who am I?
Camp Walden Canoe
The author (center) with friends at Camp Walden in 1961.
I spent six summers at Walden, eight weeks each. I returned to visit when I was in college and my sister was a camper, when my nieces were little girls and designated “future campers,” and then when my nieces were campers. And last month, I was one of 524 alumnae and counselors returning for the reunion, a group that ranged in age from girls in their late teens to 92-year-old Felice Klau Shea (who was elected Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in 1982).
Walden was one of those “happy places” that become unconsciously part of an interior structure of comfort and security; it made me feel at home in myself to know it was still there. With each visit I was a slightly different person coming from a slightly different surrounding world.
If you look at photographs of Walden’s founders, Blanche Hirsch and Clara Altschul, you see a family resemblance to Etta and Claribel Cone or Gertrude Stein, who were their Victorian contemporaries and came from the same milieu: German Jewish women born in the United States in the 1860s or 1870s, upright, buxom, portly in middle age, progressive, and secular. The mother of one of my friends, who began at Walden in 1931 at the age of 12, described Miss Hirsch and Miss Altschul (they were always referred to this way) as “two ‘old maids’… but they were truly interested in education and girls.” Miss Hirsch, who had majored in mathematics, was a suffragette. She went to Italy to meet Maria Montessori and to Paris to meet Gertrude Stein, and she was a friend and colleague of the behavioral psychologist Edward Thorndike, who taught at Teacher’s College. Miss Altschul was interested in art and aesthetics. She was a teacher at the Alcuin School, which stressed “simplicity of life, indirect moral teaching, interpretative dancing, and art as a means of self expression.” Miss Hirsch was Alcuin’s headmistress.
The women were partners in every sense. When they purchased 45 acres and a mile of lake frontage in Denmark, Maine, the document for incorporation had both their signatures (as well the signature of Fred Herz, Blanche’s brother-in-law). Like many of the pioneers of American camping, they had the idea of introducing young people to the simplicity of nature. The Great War had begun, and its cruelties must have been in the back of their minds. When they named the camp Walden, they hoped “to remove their campers from the pressures and tensions of civilization,” as was noted in the 50th yearbook, Splash, and again in the 100th.
If Miss Hirsch and Miss Altschul were transcendentalists, they were also committed to Ethical Culture, and it turns out, so were the families of many of the first Waldenites who also attended such schools as Alcuin, Ethical (which is now Fieldston), Horace Mann, or Birch Wathen. The New York Society for Ethical Culture was started by Felix Adler, the son of the rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanu-El in 1877, and it combined elements of Reform Judaism, Emersonian ideas about the sacredness of the individual, and Kant’s doctrine of moral freedom. Sometimes summarized as “Deed Before Creed,” it was particularly appealing to Jews who had experienced religious discrimination.
The underpinnings of Ethical Culture and the belief system established by Miss Hirsch and Miss Altschul were still in place when I was at Walden in the 1960s. At least four of the parents of my bunkmates had gone to Ethical, but it wasn’t anything we thought to talk about. We knew almost all the campers were Jewish—secular or Reform—and almost all the counselors were Protestant or Catholic. It was deeply ingrained for our camp director Miss Herz to feel that religion was divisive (and so was politics, which is why the ceremony of raising the flag was stopped at the time of the Vietnam War). It was her responsibility to be in charge of a camp of close to 150 girls as well as a large staff whom she was mentoring. The grace we sang to the melody of “White Coral Bells” was universalist, and Friday fish was customary everywhere.
Perhaps the place where Miss Herz’s upbringing in Ethical Culture shone through the clearest was during Sunday morning discussions when we sat on the floor of the recreation porch and she’d open a topic in Socratic fashion, raising her question, giving campers a chance to explore their ideas, and then adding her own thoughts. Here are some of her observations collected by a counselor who was there for many years—you get a sense of her secular and unsentimental directness: On self-awareness: “Who you are today is important. Not what you were yesterday or will be tomorrow.” On the environment: “The environment is a big thing. The land we live in isn’t going to be such a great place unless we are conscious of it.” And on Watergate (her husband was in the Nixon Administration): “It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you hold an office or a position or not. If the bottom is rotten so will be the top … that’s how you get a Watergate.”
Camp Walden’s Main House surrounded by campers, 1920s. (Camp Walden)
How was it that a shy bookworm like me, reader of Little WomenMy Ántonia, and the Diary of Anne Frank (and who had not heard of Archie or Veronica and never readLittle Lulu), enthusiast of jacks andSpit, tetherball and Nok Hockey, kept coming back to this place for “land and water sports, wood lore, and arts and crafts”? Partly it was the beauty of the surroundings. On the mountain trips, even at the summit of Mount Pleasant, our first hike, I remember thinking the panoramas looked like the glittering cliffs and valleys in the Heidi books. Some of the early campers—Ruth Krauss and Muriel Rukeyser, most famously—had become authors, and I was charmed by their adaptations of popular hits and Broadway tunes, the lyrics they had written and we still sang (“Of thee I sing, Walden,/ Summers here mean everything, Walden!”). I loved being part of a chain of tradition. Wearing old-fashioned orange ties for bunk shows and decorating birthday chairs with ferns linked us to those girls from the 1920s with their sailor collars and pleated brown bloomers. Since it was a place where daughters followed mothers, sisters followed sisters, and cousins followed cousins, Walden was a mosaic of families, and I found it easier to make friends because of the intimacy of the community.
Walden had an intricate honor code with ethical and intellectual components that fascinated me. When Miss Herz was interviewed for the 90th reunion in 2005 (the year before she died), sheexplained its beginnings: It was started, she said, when co-founder Blanche Hirsch, her aunt, was warned by other camp directors that she was going to have to open every package that was mailed, keeping watch on the campers at all times, “And Aunt Blanche said, ‘If I had to run a camp like that I wouldn’t want to run it. So, she installed honor system in the camp the day she opened it.’” The honor system, as I understood it, was two-tiered. There were the general precepts: respect, trust, consideration, cooperation, and honesty. Miss Herz recalled her aunt’s integrity with fondness: “Honesty was like a religion to Blanche. She believed in being honest at all costs.”
In my time, the specifics of honor system were the following: You had to have your feet on the Main House steps before the morning whistle for color guard, you couldn’t say even one word after taps, you had to hand over all food that came in packages (I think my father once sent a salami), and for the older girls, there was the additional prohibition: Never to smoke cigarettes, except in the Campers House. Whenever you broke the rules you had to report yourself to the Council President, and after a number of misdeeds you were assigned a job like removing gum from under the meeting hall benches.
On top of that, there was the conundrum of sportsmanship. At the beginning of each summer we were assigned to either the Brown or the Tan team, and we were supposed to play our hardest, to put our hearts into each game. Paradoxically, we were told that the happiest outcome at the end of each summer would be a perfect tie, as our unity song put it: “Take the spirit in command, show them that you’ll lend a hand,/ There’s no difference now between the browns and tans.” The goal was to be competitive only within ourselves, not against others, which would be divisive.
“Where did we get this value system?” I asked my friends at the July reunion, over a few glasses of wine. “Is it because it was a Jewish camp?”
“That had nothing to do with it,” someone said. “Our parents sent us there to get out of the city, to get fresh air. Sure, it was owned by Jews and had mainly Jewish clientele, but it had nothing to do with Judaism.”
“We had no idea we were at a Jewish camp,” said someone else.
And she was right; there was never a word. When I think back, we had a better chance of hearing Miss Herz say something about sex (as I recall, she did once, after a few of us made a list of sexual and scatological terms and she called us into her cabin to talk about the meaning of everything we had written down) than about religion.
The author (left) at the reunion in July, 2015.(Courtesy of the author)
The reunion lasted two and a half days, the right amount of time to retrace footsteps and catch up with our cohort. I kept looking at faces as if I were seeing two layers, the one that had been full of expectation and not quite formed and the one that was imprinted with what happens in life. Using an unscientific sampling, I would say there was a significant amount of divorce and intermarriage among our peers, but that had already begun in our parents’ time. It turns out that some of our friends (or their daughters) are gay, some are widowed, some have disabilities, some have children with illnesses or children who tragically died. There has been more than a fair share of breast cancer. In general, I don’t think we are as well-off as our parents, many of whom had prosperous family businesses that were sold a while back.
A lot of us have been surprised by how affiliated we’ve become as Jews (the full gamut from running Jewish film festivals, teaching at spiritual retreats, or working with Jewish philanthropies to one of my friends who has two daughters who are rabbis). Interestingly, while our brothers didn’t have bar mitzvahs, often our daughters and nieces had bat mitzvahs. I was told that the annual contribution to Main Idea (the camp for disadvantaged girls that was founded at Walden in 1969) correlates to who’s coming up for bat mitzvahs during the current year.
“But Walden is non-religious, just like we’re non-competitive” a recent alum told me. Perhaps it’s always been a camp for (mostly) Jews, but not a Jewish camp? I thought with relief about one of the very few non-Jewish women who had gone there, a friend from my camp years 50 years ago, who said, “Never once did I feel out of place, ever.” Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Still, more than a few of us commented on a new song written by current campers: It was set to the tune of Dayenu, something that couldn’t have happened 50 or 100 years ago.

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