The Jews of Aleppo
The abstracts below are from a longer research written by Ms. Sarina Roffé. Please click here for the full report. Sarina is a career journalist and holds masters in Jewish Studies. She is considered an expert in Aleppan Jewry. She is a member of Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community and the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc. of New York.
Main photo: Mr Ibrahim Lisbona, a Damascene Jewish, and his family in 1875
Few cities can match the glory of Aleppo, Syria, a city that spans Jewish history from the days of King David over 3,000 years ago. Aristocratic and noble, Aleppo was the crown of Jewish splendor in the Sephardic world. The Jewish presence in Syria dates back to Biblical times and is intertwined with the history and politics of Jerusalem. According to the book of Samuel and Psalm 60, Aram Soba, the Biblical name for Aleppo, was part of the extended area of Israel. Throughout the millennia, great Talmudic sages record Aleppo’s unbroken record of communal peace and spiritual productivity. The foundation for the Great Synagogue in Aleppo is believed to have been constructed by King David’s General, Joab ben Seruya (circa 950 BCE), after his conquest of the city (2 Sam 8:3-8); it is still sometimes referred to as Joab’s Synagogue.
With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome, the Romans placed restrictions on Jews. These were lifted with the Arab conquest in 636 CE, when Islamic caliphates began ruling the region. From the seventh Century until the end of Ottoman rule, the Jewish community was self-governed. Self-government entitled the Jews to freedom of religion, a separate court system ruled by local rabbis to handle internal disputes, and military protection. By the tenth Century, many Jews emigrated from Iraq to Syria, due to political unrest. This brought about a boom in commerce, banking and crafts in Syria. For many years, the Jews lived comfortably under Muslim rule, secure in their place as dhimmi , a protected people. Living in a non-democratic state, both Jews and Muslims remained apolitical. There were two classes of Jews in Aleppo. The wealthier members of the community were bankers or merchants, while lower class members included brokers, grocers or pedlars.
Following major persecution in the 15th Century, Jews left Spain for the Mediterranean countries, many found themselves in areas of the Ottoman Empire that welcomed them. At the time, the Ottoman Empire included Palestine and what is now known as Syria, including Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut. The Ottomans believed that the Jews would inspire trade and encourage economic growth in the region. Many Jewish families settled in Aleppo, as it was an established center for great rabbinical learning. During the initial settlement period, the Spanish Jews who had emigrated from Spain, remained separate and apart from the indigenous Aleppan Jews. The Spanish Jews spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish that was not understood in Aleppo, where the population spoke Arabic and read Hebrew with an Arabic accent. Added to the mixture of native Syrians and Spanish Jews from Sepharad, were Italian Jews, who were commonly referred to as “Francos.”
Until the end of the 19 th Century, Culturally, little changed among the Syrian Jews in Aleppo, except their rulers. People became poorer or richer. Aleppo rabbis were learned in Kabbalah and Talmudic legal tradition. The rabbis dealt with cases of Jewish law ranging from spiritual to civil cases including marriage, inheritance, business contracts, torts, building regulations and Jewish rituals. Aleppo Jews had a well known reputation for respecting rabbinic authority. Then, just prior to World War I, the Ottomans lost control of their empire. For the first time, Jewish men were being sought to serve in the army to fight in the Balkan Wars. Overnight, Jewish men were secretly being sent away to avoid military service. The first wave of Syrian Jews who went to America escaped military service in a conflict with which they did not agree. Syrian Jews arrived in Mexico City, Mexico, Buenos Aires, Argentina, New York, Chicago and other American cities, although most came to New York.
Emigration from Syria halted during World War I and many families were separated. After World War I, the French took control over Aleppo and it, along with Damascus, became a French Mandate. Travel required a French passport or travel paper. Jews who had passports from European countries were exempt from local taxation, which was a drain on the finances of the local Jewish community. Massive emigration from Syria occurred again during the period after World War I and continued until the mid-1920s, when the Great Depression began. The emigrés from the early 20th Century migration populate what is known today as the Syrian Jewish communities of Brooklyn and New Jersey. Syria gained its independence from France in 1946. Attacks against Jews, who remained in the Syria after World War I, increased. Pogroms in 1947 left Jewish shops and synagogues destroyed. Thousands of Jews left the country for America and Palestine.
After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, persecution of Jews remaining in Syria was common. The Jews were no longer permitted to own property, travel or practice their occupation. Jews who tried to leave the country were persecuted. Those Jews who were permitted to travel for business purposes could not travel with family members because the Syrian government feared that they would flee. The Syrian government feared that Jewish men would join forces with Israel and fight against them in the Israeli Army.
During a 10-year period in the 1980s, a collection of Jewish Holy objects was smuggled out of Syria through the efforts of then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra. The collection included nine ancient Bible manuscripts, known as the Ketarim , each between 700 and 900 years old. In addition, there were 40 Torah scrolls and 32 decorative boxes in which the Sephardic Torah scrolls were held. The collection was taken via Turkey, in stages to the Jewish National and University Library of the Hebrew University in Israel. The smuggling was necessary since official requests for permission to take them out of Syria were denied.
Never forgetting their Syrian brethren, community members from Brooklyn, New York often bribed Syrian government officials to help get those relatives still in Syria out of the country. Negotiations between America’s President George H. Bush, with heavy lobbying from Jewish Americans of Syrian birth, and Syria’s President Assad, resulted in Syrian Jews being granted exit visas to America as tourists in the early 1990s. Ironically, Assad’s demand that they not leave the country as emigrés gave the Syrian Jews whom entered America yet another ten years of persecution. In the United States as tourists, they could not practice their chosen profession, obtain licenses, and apply for public assistance or travel outside the United States.
In the year 2000, Brooklyn’s Syrian community, led by the Sephardic Voter’s League and the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, was able to gain passage of federal legislation to change the immigration status of the immigrants. Their new legal status allows them to work legally in the United States, obtain working documents (green cards) and apply for citizenship.