Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
With civil war raging, Syria has captured Americans’ attention. Few Jewish lives are directly at risk, as the last 4,000 Jews were allowed to leave in 1992. However, Syria was once home to an ancient and vibrant Jewish community. Through the lens of her father’s journey from distant Aleppo to suburban Washington, DC, Claudette E. Sutton tells the story of Syria’s Jews in her new book, Farewell, Aleppo.
Growing up, Sutton always knew of her father’s Syrian root yet her father’s personal history remained a mystery until he finally asked her to write his life’s story. Sutton supplemented interviews of her father with extensive historical research and has created a rich tale.
At the time of Meir Sutton’s birth, more than 30,000 Jews lived in Syria. Communal life revolved around the synagogue and the family; elders were venerated and religious practice was largely taken for granted. While they generally resided in Jewish neighborhoods, Jews attended schools and dealt business side-by-side with Christian and Muslim Syrians. Although Arab nationalists attacked Jews in other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa during the 1920s and 1930s, Meir experienced no significant antagonism from his Muslim neighbors during his idyllic childhood.
All that changed in 1939. Since France then ruled Syria, locals feared they would be dragged into war. What would happen if Germany conquered the country? And even if it didn’t, would Arab nationalists turn on their Jewish neighbors? These concerns prompted Meir’s father to seek a way out of the country for his family.
Obtaining the proper permits to enter the U.S. was a challenge. Instead of taking a direct approach, Meir’s father sent his two teenage sons – Meir and Saleh – to join his brother Joe in Shanghai. While Joe owned a Chinese business, he was an American citizen. Working for an American business with their American uncle, Meir’s father hoped, would improve his sons’ chances at obtaining the coveted visas to enter the U.S. – both for themselves and for remaining family members.
Meir – who adopted the English name “Mike” – discovered unexpected difficulties nearly as soon as he arrived in China. Saleh fell ill with tuberculosis, war spread to the Pacific, and Joe sailed back to New York, leaving him alone in a foreign country.
Remaining an observant Jew became increasingly challenging and Mike floundered while living in China. He did, however, survive the war, despite Japanese control of Shanghai and Hitler’s repeated requests that his Japanese allies turn over any Jews in their territory.
Meanwhile, Syria became independent in 1944, with French troops finally pulling out in 1946. Anti-European and Anti-Semitic incidents finally reached Aleppo. While Mike figured out how to get to the U.S., the rest of his family in Syria planned for their own escape. The remaining chapters of Farewell, Aleppo detail the complicated and often dangerous exploits of various members of the Sutton family as they crossed borders, obtained visas, suffered losses, and finally made it to the United States.
Today, fewer than a hundred Jews remain in Syria. Nevertheless, Sutton’s book ends on a note of hope. “[T]he end of Jews in Syria has by no means meant the end of Syrian Jews,” she writes. Those in Flatbush and in Deal recreated the tight-knit communities they left behind. In fact, Sutton’s uncle proudly claims, “Today, if you came to Brooklyn, you would not know you weren’t in Syria, except for the language.” Syrian Jews have gradually gained the respect of many because of their relatively low intermarriage rate and their successful retention of their religion and customs.
Farewell, Aleppo contributes to our understanding of the Jewish experience in America. At 155 pages, it makes a quick and informative read which will be appreciated by those interested in the American Jewish experience.
Printed by Terra Nova Books, 2014