Jewish Aleppo, Lost Forever
The Syrian diaspora in Israel watches its once-vibrant ancestral home fall to ruin in the country’s civil war
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 visit with Georges Moustaki, whose ballads are an epitaph for the French-speaking Jews of the Middle East