Aleppo's Destroyed Synagogue, first built around 1000 BC

Testimony from my great-grandfather Avraham on Jewish life in Aleppo, Syria

I hated learning history back in high school, it was always about dates and names of people that I forgot the day after my exams. Family history though has always fascinated me, especially because I have the coolest grandparents and great-grandparents who lived during historic times and did some pretty amazing things.

Remember when I told you that I am half Syrian, on my Dad’s side? Well, my great-grandfather Avraham was born and grew up in Aleppo Syria. He died a month after my older sister Sara was born. I have always wondered what life was like in his hometown.

Saba (grandfather) Shlomo recently showed me a tape recording (first time I ever saw a tape recorder!) of an interview he did with Great-grandfather Avraham. He made it so that one day he would be able to share it with Sara and I.   Here is the translated transcript (the original transcript is in a mixture of Hebrew, French and Arabic).

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In Arabic, Aleppo is called Halab. This is Aramaic for milking a cow or goat. The legend is that Avraham our forefather spent time in Allepo on his way from Ur Cassadim (in modern day Iraq) to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and milked his herd there. In the Bible it is called Aram Soba.

A Jewish wedding celebration in Aleppo

My family was an interesting one. My mother’s family was from the “old” Jewish community, the one that had been there [in Syria] since the time of the First Temple, about 1000 BC. The legend is that it was founded by King David (did I ever tell you that we can trace our family tree back to him?). My mother’s family was there before Islam came to the area in the 7th century. My father’s family was from the “new” community; the one that came there after all the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

I was one of 10 children born to my mother, but only eight of us reached it to the age of bar or bat mitzvah. And our family was healthy and well off. We had good food and hygiene and doctors, but there was still a lot of babies who died from childhood diseases like measles and even flu. The poor Arabs died at a much higher rate.

My father owned a shoe factory. He had stated off as a shoe salesman, but after the French took over (that was the year I was born) it became possible for Jews to do better and his business got bigger until he bought the factory. He employed over 200 people. He had a chain of stores in Damascus,Beirut and Tripoli as well as Aleppo  He also exported shoes to Europe and had bank accounts there, in Britain,France and Switzerland. That would be a great stroke of fortune for us later.

A page of the Aleppo Codex

I had my bar mitzvah in the old beit Knesset (synagogue) in Aleppo   It was called the beit knesset shel Yoav, because the legend was that it was built by Yoav ben Tzruya from the Bible, almost one thousand years before the Christian’s calendar. It was certainly very old; there were writings on the wall from at least as early as 834 BC. It was a beautiful building and it housed the Keter Aram Tzova (Allepo Codex) which the Rambam – our ancestor, Rav Moshe ben Maimon – said was the most authoritative text of the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the K’tuvim.

My father did not want us to study at the Alliance (Israélite Universelle) school because it was not religious enough. My brothers and I learned Torah privately with a Chacham (wise scholar) and with private tutors for secular subjects. We studied science, business, French and Arabic and also some English, which was good for me when I came to America, much later. My sisters also had tutors, but only studied French and literature, and of course Torah.

When France fell in 1940 the Vichy regime (that allied with the Nazis) controlled Syria, and all we Jews had to register. Our fate would have been that of the Jews of France, but before even the Yellow Star was decreed, the British and the Free French took over. That was in July 1941, and before the end of the year I married.

My wife Esther was born in Syria, but her parents got her French citizenship; but that was taken away from her for about a year by Vichy. It was not easy during the war years, but it was much better for us than for people in Europe. I was working in my father’s business by then and he had military contracts to make boots for the Free French forces. Before the war my father’s footwear had been seen on the Champs Élysées on the feet of fashionable young women. When the war ended they were on the Champs Élysées again… on the feet of the Free French soldiers who liberated Paris!

When the war ended in 1945 we were overjoyed. Syria had formally declared independence in 1941, but it was only recognized as a republic in 1946. With independence came prosperity, but also chaos. Already, from when I was a child the hostility to Jews had begun to increase. Many of us had left for America, Britain and France before the war (those who had gone to France had leapt from the frying pan into the fire!). With Eretz Yisrael so close, many had gone there. After the war, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were struggling for their independence and the Arabs didn’t like it. When the UN voted for a Jewish state on November 29, 1947, our neighbors and the entire Arab world were furious! All across the Middle East Arabs attacked Jews. Haj Amin al-Husseini called on the Arabs to finish what his friend, Hitler, had started!

In December we in Aleppo learned a Russian word, pogrom! They killed more than seventy Jews, injured many more, burned our shops and homes and set fire to our holy beit knesset shel Yoav. The Keter was damaged and smuggled out of the country. I was the father of three children and I was not going to stay and place them and my wife in more danger. My father was old by now, but very resolute. “Take the children and flee,” he said. “But where should we go;America,France?” I remember the scorn on his face when I asked that, “How can that even be a question for you? Go home; go back to our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem!”

Leaving was not simple, but my father’s business interests abroad meant that we had excuses to travel and although the government would not let us take our assets with us, the bank accounts abroad meant we were not penniless. In 1948 I arrived in Eretz Yisrael, and before the end of the year we saw our land free again after 2,000 years.

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Hi, it’s Joe again. Today there is not one Jew living in Aleppo. Its really sad that our whole history there is gone, but we keep it in the places that we live now, such as New York and Jerusalem. And considering the terrible civil war going on and the human rights atrocities being committed by the Syrian regime its probably a good thing that we have no more family in Aleppo.

Click here to read another account of displacement and lost in the Times of Israel

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.olesker David Olesker

    When the Jews were expelled from Spain, the great leader of Sephardic Jewry, Don Yitzach Arbarbanel, decreed that bands should play as we marched out of the land that had been their home for so long. This, despite the fact that the expulsion occurred on the Ninth of Av, when music is forbidden because of our mourning for the destruction of the Temple that happened that same day. The Arbarbanel justified his actions on the grounds that our ancestors needed to have their spirits raised and also because we do not mourn being expelled from one exile to another, only for expulsion from our homeland, the Land of Israel,