A Jewish Story of Jews in Middle Age Syria

            October/November 2012    
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A Jew in Syria

By Mervyn Mingail

The talith cover was of blue satin, with embroidered gold letters in Hebrew. Shalome remembered back to ten years ago, when he had only just received it from Palestine and was looking forward to using it at the next High holiday, Rosh Hoshanna, at his synagogue. It was a brand new treasure, and inside was a most beautiful, silk talith, with highly styled weave from a loom that was just invented by a man named Jacquard, with a contrasting pattern of floral design. He held it close to his side. So much had happened since then.

"Halab,"he muttered."Halab." Shalome repeated the old name of Aleppo to himself as he gazed upward at the 13th. Century Citadel perched majestically on top of the cliff of this city, and overlooking the great expanse of blue ocean beyond. Some of his Aramean friends had told him that this city, Aleppo, which used to be his city, was the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, dating back over 5000 years."And they should know, "he thought," as their Aramean forebears were the first settlers in this land, and had come from Canaan, bringing the Hebrew alphabet with them. "Beautiful, wonderful Halab. Beautiful, wonderful Aleppo," he thought. "And I had to leave it for ever because of one man, the Governor of Syria."

He looked back to his childhood in his father, Aharon`s house, not far from the Gate of Antioch. He remembered playing in the garden with his brother, Abraham, and his cousins, in the early mornings and late evenings while the loud wails of the horns of prayer announced by the muezzins atop the minarettes of the surrounding mosques called the faithful to prayer. The calls to prayer from the Jami Zakariyeh Grand Mosque, built in the 12th. Century, was always the loudest, and the children would sing out loud, trying to imitate the calls.

"In those days Jews were respected. There were five thousand of us living in the city out of a total population of twenty three thousand five hundred." he mused.

"We were looked up to by the Muslim dwellers for our wisdom and our wealth. Not now, though"

Shalome mused about the well- known fact that Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith, lived here, and possibly milked his cows close by.

Service to the state used to be the surest avenue to economic self-betterment. By maintaining senior positions in the customs, the mint and in tax farms Jews maintained a foothold in economic trade. The Farhi family, for years, were the financial advisers to the pashas or governors of Syria. Lately, though, this Jewish family had lost their influence, to be replaced by Syrian Catholics, who looked down on the Jews. This situation was exacerbated when the new pasha, governor and wali of Baghdad took over. Now Jews were persecuted, hounded by this man and his henchmen. Not always overtly, but slyly, covertly; fining them heavily for "non-payment of taxes". Imprisoning them for "breach of laws", for defiling sacred Moslem customs. All trumped up charges!

Shalome had then thought of leaving the city, and, indeed, Syria. Though many Jews were still willing to stay. "This troubling time won't last," they said. They refused to accept reality. "It will pass," they said. "The governor will change his policy, will relent of his treatment of us. Or, another friendlier government will take over. We will outlast him. Things will revert to normal." Hiding their heads in the sand!

Shalome had done well in Aleppo in those years. A jeweller by profession, he had taken advantage of the fact that Aleppo was a stopping off point for caravans and travellers, a trading centre, a stop on the famous Silk Road, and the second largest city in Syria. He was clever enough to understand the value of the large port, connecting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Mediterranean sea and he bought and sold gold, diamonds, mirrors, copper, silk, cotton,spices and coffee to ports in Africa, Egypt, Russia, Turkey--and now India. He travelled often to the capitol city, Damascus, which was only one hundred and ninety five miles south. He had amassed a fortune and respect for him had grown.

In his early twenties he realized how lonely he was. He felt the need for a wife. Now, the centre of his social life was his synagogue, the Al-Bandara Central synagogue, rebuilt in the 15th century from the ruins of an earlier temple. Aleppo was the centre of Torah learning, and Shalome had tried to spend some of his time in the crypt of the synagogue, studying the Aleppo Codex, which was considered to be the template of the Torah, and perusing the synagogue records the history of his Jewish people that had been recorded by rabbis over several centuries.

He knew the Duek Cohen family, who were members of his synagogue. On leaving the synagogue after the Rosh Hoshanna service he had noticed that old Duek Cohen had joined two women who had just

come down from the upstairs gallery. Men and women could not pray together, so while the men prayed in the main sanctuary, the women had to sit in the gallery above them. Shalome`s heart skipped a beat as he looked at the younger of the two women.

She had long, black hair, which she tossed from side to side as she talked, and her deep blue eyes peered inquisitively out of a mischievous though innocent face. The movement of her lithe little body was spellbinding to the young man. As he looked at her she turned and their eyes met. She gave him a little, coquettish smile, then turned away and continued her conversation. He decided that he must meet this girl.

On the second day of Rosh Hoshanna, just before the end of the service, he looked at his brand new, silk talith, gathered the four ritually knotted and wound strings of the tzitzit in his hand, kissed them, folded the shawl, carefully placed it in its blue satin cover, put it under his arm and left the synagogue. He waited outside for Duek Cohen,and when the old man left the doorway Shalome approached him, hand outstretched in greeting, and wished him in Hebrew,"Leshana tova teecotave - may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." Duek Cohen, slightly surprised, smiled, accepted the outstretched hand, and replied, "Gum atah - the same to you."

They shook hands perfunctory, and then, one hand holding their talith cases and the other hanging awkwardly by their sides the two men looked at each other. What should they discuss? The train of people streaming out of the synagogue in their colourful variety of festive clothing ,the men in their long, coloured coats reaching to their knees, with turbans or tall hats covering their heads, clashed with the sombre back drop of the synagogue wall and the dark silhoette of trees whispering in the late evening.

They exchanged desultory conversation for a few minutes, until the two women broke away from the throng and joined them. Duek Cohen said, "Let me introduce you to my family. This is my wife, and this is my thirteen year old daughter, Sathy."

The young girl was dressed very much like her mother, in a long, flowing skirt of intricate design, which hid her ankles. She wore a wide belt, filigreed with golden flowers. Her white blouse was modestly covered with a loose fitting blue coat that ended four inches above her knees. Her raven-black hair was partially covered by a long, lace head dress. She smiled at Shalome and then demurely lowered her gaze.

Introductions completed, Shalome walked ahead with the father, while the two women followed behind. Shalome hemmed and hawed and then, in a low voice, asked for permission to visit the family and talk with Sathy. This permission was immediately granted, for it was well known that Shalome was a well respected,wealthy bachelor, and a good match for his daughter.

It was important that a good match be found for Sathy. The Duek Cohens were very important members of Jewish society in Aleppo.The family had immigrated to Syria from Spain shortly after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella began their reign and the subsequent persecution of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. Their name was Duek because they were nobles in pre-Inquisition Spain, and so had kept their title.

As soon as Shalome had received the permission he sought, he shook hands with the old man, bowed courteously to the two ladies, and hurried home. He did not let the grass grow beneath his feet, but briefly met the family outside the synagogue a week later, after the evening of Erev Yom Kipur, the Day of Atonement, and was invited by the mother to break the fast with the family at their home the next evening.

A large group of people were at the dinner, which was held in the magnificent dining room, dominated by an ornate table, dazzlingly covered with shiny, silver cutlery and crystal dinnerware. Above the centre of the table hung a chandelier, blazing with candle power. Duek Cohen smilingly directed the guests to the places he had arranged for them, and then took his place at the head of the table, while his wife sat at the other end. Shalome found himself seated next to a portly gentleman with a great appetite and a booming laugh. On his other side sat a wrinkled, old man in a white gown, covered by his long, grey beard. He kept his eyes downcast and busied himself with eating whatever was put before him. Shalome looked around for Sathy and saw her seated four or five people away from him, and he could only get in an occasional glance at her.

The fast was broken initially with sweet cakes like babaar, a date-filled patty, and sponge cake. Men servants came around and poured the guests generous glasses of sweet wine, and conversation was dominated by how well everyone had kept the fast. Shalome did manage ,however, to talk to Sathy for a few minutes that evening and he promised to see her again, and she smiled her encouragement.

The courting process began the next week. Shalome asked Duek Cohen for Sathy`s hand in marriage and permission was given. A month later the engagement was announced and the Henna party was made. This is a ritual whereby the bond between the man and the woman is sealed forever by the symbolic joining of hands pasted with henna, a dye made of Egyptian privet leaves.

Six months later a large wedding party was held, befitting the importance of the two families. A beautifully decorated Kituba, made of the best parchment and written by one of the foremost scribes in Syria, was signed in the synagogue. The bride and groom stood together under the Chuppa, wrapped in Shalome`s new talith. Since ‘tal’ means tent and ‘ith’ means little, the two were, in effect, under two tents, the talith being their own private tent or sanctuary, where they met with G-d and intoned the vows of marriage, and under which the glass was ritually

broken by Shalome pressing down on it with his foot.

The reception was magnificent. The honeymoon was short and sweet and then Sathy moved in to Shalome`s large home. She was a shy girl and at thirteen, found that controlling the large retinue of servants was difficult for her. But she tried. Then, "Mother, I`m in a panic. The house is in a shambles. The servants laugh when I tell them what to do. And Shalome now goes around the house with a frown on his face, though he is too sweet a man to tell me what a messy wife I am. What shall I do?"

Her mother was secretly pleased that her daughter still needed her. She moved into the house, and got everything under control. Sathy took a back seat, more than willing to give over control of the household to her mother. She again became the dutiful daughter, and Shalome`s frown disappeared.

A year later, in 1786, when Sathy was fourteen and her husband, Shalome, was twenty four, a new Governor of Syria was installed and the troubles for the Jews began. The governor had never liked the Jews, thinking that their wisdom, wealth and power far surpassed their minority status. He thought that they were a danger to Syria. After all, they were ‘dhimmi’, of lower and humbler status than the Muslims, according to religious law. What was more important to him was that he felt they endangered his hold on power. He was determined to remove this menace, and he began by enforcing ‘Jizya’, tribute money that had to be paid by ‘non believers’, a debilitating tax on their goods, property and business. Jews were imprisoned until this tax was fully paid.

The Jews tried to reason with him , but he sneeringly ignored their requests, and he sent soldiers to demand immediate payment, or they were dragged off to prison until the money was produced. Those that could afford to, paid. But the wealthier businessmen met secretly and decided to form a group to fight these taxes. Shalome was one of the leaders. At the meeting he said,

"Gentlemen, the governor controls the army and the police, so he can do as he likes. However, The ‘Quadi`, Chief judge, controls the religious law of the land. Therefore, let us take our plea to the courts for judgement and redemption."

The governor heard of this secret meeting, and who the spokesman was. Shortly after, a gang of ruffians broke into one of Shalome`s business buildings, destroyed everything on the property and burned the edifice to the ground. Shalome knew who was responsible, and was hot-headily going to reciprocate, but was held back by his Jewish compatriots.

"You can do nothing about this, Shalome. Under the rules of ‘dhima’, the restrictions imposed on tolerated non-Muslims, we are considered unclean, and our property can be destroyed with impunity." As a marginal group in Syrian society, the Jews had no power base and no hope of independent political action as an unpopular religious minority they could count on no sympathy or support from the general population.

They were placed in Jewish quarters, called ‘mellahs’, which, according to the governor, was not as punishment or humiliation, but for their own protection against the hostile populace.

A year later, in 1787,a great plague broke out in the Jewish quarter. It lasted four months, and the streets were congested with the bodies of the dead and dying. The stench of death was everywhere. When it eventually petered out in July many of Shalome`s friends and relatives had died, including his mother and father.

Shalome became increasingly morose. He felt that he was now alone in the world. His continuous tries to halt the governor's evil actions kept failing. Jews scarcely ever dared to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly. The Muslim attitude to non-Muslims was not of hate, fear or envy but of contempt. Many Jews were put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Koran or the prophet.

Particularly apt for this time was the anti-Jewish poem of Abu Ishaq, written in Granada, Spain in 1066:

"Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them
the breach of faith would be to let them carry on.
They have violated our covenant with them
so how can you be held guilty against the violators?
How can they have any pact
when we are obscure and they are prominent?
Now we are the humble, beside them,
as if we were wrong, and they were right!
Do not tolerate their misdeeds against us
for you are surety for what they do
God watches His own people
and the people of God will prevail."

Many Jews were beginning to accept their fate. Shalome decided to travel to Basra, to visit his married sister, Rachel. At the back of his mind was the thought that he would move to this city to escape the perfidy that was beginning to escalate in Syria. While in Basra he heard that a few Syrian Jews had emigrated to India, and were very happy there.

"Maybe,"Shalome thought at that time, "Maybe India is the place for me." He did not give this idea a great deal of thought at the time. After a stay of about seven months in Basra, Shalome decided to return home to Aleppo." Let me give it one more try," he thought.

On his return to the city of his birth he saw that conditions had now become even worse. He wrote some letters to the Governor, and in the name of the small Jewish community, complained of the worsening situation. He did not receive a reply.

A few days later, however, while wandering through the large bazaar, seven kilometres of sprawling souks, covered shops which sold everything from apricots to silks, incense and perfumes, three thugs jumped out of a darkened doorway and attacked him. Shalome was a powerful young man and his anger increased his strength. He fought off three hooligans. Two of them skulked away when they discovered that they were no match for him, but he held on to the third, and while his powerful hands were around the man's neck, throttling the breath out of him Shalome, gritting his teeth, hissed, "I will kill you with these hands unless you tell me who sent you." The man gasped and squirmed and tried to get away but to no avail. Shalome only tightened his grip around the man's throat.

Eventually he whispered, "The, the Governor sent us. Now let me go."

Shalome released his hold and the ruffian skittered away like a drowning rat. Some of Shalome`s Aramean acquaintances, who had witnessed the attack, but had been too frightened to intervene, now surrounded him and helped him home. One of them commented, "You realize, Shalome, that the authorities will not listen to your complaints. You are a dhimmi after all, and they will send out more men, and they will get you soon."

At the door to his house Shalome thanked them all for their help,and then asked one of them, the one he trusted most, to stay behind after the others had left.

"Will you do me a big favour, my friend, "he said,

"Will you contact some of my friends and tell them what happened?"

When the Aramean nodded his acquiescence, Shalome asked him into his house, wrote down the names of some of the most influential Jews in the city and handed the note to him.

"Tell them to meet me at the Baron hotel tomorrow at six in the evening, so we can decide what we can do to protect ourselves."

Shalome went to the hotel at the appointed hour and sat in the lobby. He waited there for over an hour, but not one of the Jews appeared. He returned home in a very dejected state. Sathy tried to comfort him, but he just kissed her and told her to go to bed. He, however, sat up all night, thinking things through. By the time the sun began to raise its weary head above the horizon to start another day, Shalome had come to a fateful decision.

"In order for anyone to live happily in this world," he thought, "he must have freedom. Freedom to go where he wants. Freedom to live in any area he chooses for himself. Freedom to speak his mind. Freedom to choose who governs him.Freedom to achieve financial stability. And, above all, freedom to practice his religion. Without these freedoms man was impeded from living his life to the fullest extent that G-d put him on earth for."

In Syria today, these freedoms had disappeared for him, and, indeed, for all Jews. He must find a place where he and his family could regain these liberties.

At breakfast that morning he told Sathy and her mother what he had decided to do.

"Sathy, you will have to pack most of your clothes and say good bye to your friends and family. We are going to leave Syria for a while. Maybe for a long while."

Sathy`s mother was shocked. Shalome was going to take her daughter away from her! She did not say anything to Shalome, but sent someone to fetch her husband immediately. When he heard what Shalome wanted to do, he, too, was aghast.

"I cannot allow you to take our only daughter away from us. I forbid her to go!" Shalome tried to explain why he had come to this fateful decision, but his father-in-law would not listen.

Sathy, at seventeen, was still very much under the influence of her parents. Besides, she did not want to leave the comfort of her home for a strange land, even for a short time. Duek Cohen was still powerful in Aleppo and felt that he and his family were safe. Shalome felt that there was a possibility of danger for her, too, in any new, untried country. and since he loved his wife and wanted her protected, he bowed to his father-in-law`s wishes, and said that he would come back for her later, when he was settled in his new land.

He had heard a great deal about India, and some of his Aramean friends and business acquaintances had raved about the opportunities for trade in that country. He asked them what the Indians were like, and was told that they accepted foreigners with open arms, especially traders and merchants.

"They have allowed Europeans to freely enter their country, and The British East India company now has control of most of the trade."

"In fact," another acquaintance added," The British have taken control over most areas, and they are a freedom loving people, as long as their tails are not pulled! Many Arameans live in Surat, now, and are doing well." Shalome wanted freedom, and so decided to move to India.

Luckily, since he was a trader, when he approached the port and made arrangements for a sailing ship to take him and his belongings out of the country, no suspicion was aroused. By 1789 he was ready.

Shalome had booked his passage on a sailing ship a few days before and on the morning of his departure he rode through the port gates in a horse drawn carriage, together with his shohet, Jacob Sittone. Behind the carriage were five horse drawn carts with his personal belongings and large cases for trading. He was stopped at the gate by a Muslim inspector, but this was normal practice, as they knew he made several trips to foreign ports on business. Shalome exchanged a few jokes, threw him a purse with money in it, and then had his belongings and cases safely stowed on board the ship. The dock was bursting with activity. Men were hauling sail ropes, hand wrenching nets of cargo on and off other ships, shouting, jostling ,and seemingly getting in each others`way.But the work was done, and soon the ropes were removed from around the bollards on the dock,the first mate gave the order to raise the anchor and the ship gently eased away from shore. Shalome heaved a sigh of relief.

"This is my first step away from the land of oppression"


from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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