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Digital Memories of Jewish Syria

The Sephardic Heritage Museum stitches together a community separated by land, sea, and thousands of years

Esther Levy Chehebar
July 28, 2021
Sephardic Heritage Museum, courtesy of Gabe Haber
Bottle of wine made in Aleppo in the late 19th century by Rachel Haber and her family before they emigrated to the United States. They planned to open it when they arrived.Sephardic Heritage Museum, courtesy of Gabe Haber
Sephardic Heritage Museum, courtesy of Gabe Haber
Bottle of wine made in Aleppo in the late 19th century by Rachel Haber and her family before they emigrated to the United States. They planned to open it when they arrived.Sephardic Heritage Museum, courtesy of Gabe Haber

Among the 2,000 artifacts in the Sephardic Heritage Museum is a New York Times article from Aug. 10, 1949. It reads: 11 Seized in Damascus Bombing of Synagogue That Killed 12 Jews. “The young men in the group, according to official information, were not registered members of any political parties nor were they known previously for any political activity,” reads the article. “Some of them had become known slightly for their activity during the Palestine war and were known to be strongly anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish but without showing any particular political tendency.” One of those arrested was Mounzer Midani, the son of the dean of Damascus University Law School at the time.

Beside it is another Times clipping, this one from almost exactly a year earlier in 1948: Jews in Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands. Nearly 900,000 Jews lived in Arab lands at the time, with the highest concentration in French Morocco and the smallest scattered across Sudan and Bahrain. Jews had flourished in Syria for centuries, but that population had precipitously declined, especially following the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 that brought antisemitic attacks on Arab Jews to a boiling point.

In December of 1947, the Associated Press reported that an ancient Bible, “one of the most valuable known to exist,” and which Jerusalem’s Hebrew University had intended to use as the basis for a new modern Hebrew Bible, was burned in an anti-Jewish riot in Aleppo. The Sephardic Heritage Museum has that AP report archived as well, along with a Palestine Post article that claimed, “the burning of 10 other synagogues, five schools, 150 houses, an orphanage, a shop and a cafe are of little consequence compared to the loss of the bible.” The 1,750-year-old Bahsita Great Synagogue of Aleppo burned with it.

At the time of the article’s publication, there were an estimated 11,000 Jews remaining in Syria. My maternal grandfather, Nissim, was one of them. In 1949, he and his brothers escaped Syria for Beirut, where they were placed in holding for six months. From there they traveled to Israel and lived in a refugee camp for two years. My grandfather served in the Her Ragli Golani brigade of the Israel Defense Forces and drove into Syria nearly every night. In 1961, he set his sights on America. My grandfather on my father’s side, Maurice, fled Egypt for Paris and then the United States around the same time. Their paths crossed in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, where expelled Arab Jews were knitting together a new immigrant community like a patchwork quilt.

According to its mission statement, the Sephardic Heritage Museum, founded in March of 2006 by Joseph J. Sitt, “is actively working to salvage, rescue and repair the remnants of our Jewish past in the Middle East, before they are lost forever.” Today, the museum houses the largest known collection of artifacts and archives documenting the history of the Jewish communities of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and other regions dating back some 3,000 years. Rabbi Raymond Sultan, one of the museum’s two executive directors, is largely in charge of collecting them. When it comes to bidding on artifacts, he is meticulous about research, citing an uptick in fraudulent sales over the years. “Ninety percent of the time I’ll only buy from people I know, or whose names I can trust,” he told me.

Over the past decade, the museum has been working to restore the Great Synagogue of Aleppo. Sitt described the initiative as “one of the greatest archaeological adventures anyone could dream of.” A 2019 video clip shows the moment diggers uncovered the gravesites of Tannaim, rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishneh Torah.

The museum, which safeguards its mass of artifacts in a storage space in Lakewood, New York, is not a museum in the brick-and-mortar sense. But its impressive collection conveys a complex narrative often overlooked in the annals of Jewish history and in the American conception of Jewish culture: Sephardic Jews, as well as the descendants of Jews from North Africa. Today, the community whose history is preserved in the museum is largely concentrated in Brooklyn; nearly two generations removed from life in the Middle East, our customs and traditions remain the same.

You can see it in the old and modernized Turkish coffee sets in the houses that line the southern tip of Ocean Parkway, or the personalized pots engraved with the owners’ family names (the enamel may have changed, but the recipes haven’t). A mortar and pestle to grind spices; cumin and allspice and Aleppo pepper. A bottle of wine, like the memorable one donated to the museum, made in Halab in 1910 by a mother in honor of her son’s bris. The inscription on the bottle reads, “Made in Aram Soba before our trip to the United States of America,” along with a promise to drink it only when its makers had Lady Liberty in plain view. That promise would be fulfilled for this family four months later.

The Sephardic Heritage Museum also passionately preserves more quotidian items, mementos that capture the essence of daily life in Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. Photographs in the museum’s archive number in the thousands; a group of men laughing over nargila at an Aleppo cafe; an adolescent class picture from the Collège-des-Frères in Cairo; a brit milah in Damascus; a wedding in Halab. And then there are the family photos, each with the last name scrawled across the bottom, the same names you see today on invitations, paper receipts, and the arms of synagogue chairs in Brooklyn.

The inscription on the wine bottle reads, ‘Made in Aram Soba before our trip to the United States of America,’ along with a promise to drink it only when its makers had Lady Liberty in plain view.

“I love to look at their faces. They can say so much about what they were going through at that time,” said Marlene Mamiye, the museum’s other executive director, who also runs the museum’s Instagram account. What began as a means to engage the community’s younger generation has matured into a digital memory coffer. To scroll through its page is to walk the path of our ancestors, from Syria to the tenements of the Lower East Side, to Bay Parkway and then to Midwood, where Syria’s last remaining Jews found a mecca of sorts in the 1990s, when Hafez al-Assad finally permitted them to emigrate after an intense pressure campaign led by Brooklyn’s Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews. Bulletins collected from various rallies draw hundreds of “likes”: “Free our brothers now,” “Freedom for Syrian Jews.”

Black-and-white photos are frequently posted on the Instagram feed, with relatives and descendants connecting the dots in the comments section. Mamiye will often upload a portrait with the caption, “Can anyone identify the person in this photo?” Within minutes, invariably, someone will: “That’s my Uncle Hiram,” “My Grandmother Lena’s parents,” “Lorraine Missry’s wedding to Lou Shamie,” and so on.

The speed and intensity of engagement in these comments sections reflect the larger cohesiveness of the Sephardic community, which despite being separated by land, sea, and thousands of years, managed to reunite and thrive in the latter part of the 20th century. The museum is a testament to its success. It’s also a reminder to younger generations that move with relative ease and privilege throughout their new world. While it may be difficult for us to imagine, there was a time not so long ago when the heritage we hold in such high esteem was quite literally a death sentence. The opportunities afforded to us were carved from the sacrifices of our ancestors, most of whom are no longer with us. The Sephardic Heritage Museum reminds us of the importance of protecting our past, which is never far behind.

Esther Levy Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.