Farewell, Aleppo, By Claudette Sutton

Farewell, Aleppo

My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home
By Claudette E. Sutton

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury 

Santa Fe, NM : Terra Nova Books, 2014  ISBN 978-1938288401

In the aftermath of President Obama’s historic Cairo speech to the Arab world in 2009, the writer André Aciman wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times which pointed at one notable absence in Obama’s careful retracing of the region’s geopolitical complexities: “For all the president’s talk of “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” and “shared principles of justice and progress,” Aciman wrote, “neither he nor anyone around him, and certainly no one in the audience, bothered to notice one small detail missing from the speech: he forgot me.[…] or for that matter, about any of the other 800,000 or so Jews born in the Middle East who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century.”

Claudette Sutton’s Farewell Aleppo, an earnest narrative about her family’s exile and odyssey from Aleppo, Syria via Shanghai to the United States in the 1950s and 60s strives to rectify this invisibility, in line with other narratives of Jewish exile from Arab lands, such as Aciman’s Out of Egypt, or Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. At a time when the question of Syrian refugees has provoked widespread outrage, there has been little mention outside academic circles about the Jewish exodus from that region of the world in the 1950s. In the interest of historical exactitude, recounting the trials and later the dislocation of the Syrian community—one of the oldest in the Middle East—enables us to document its nomadic history before it vanished in the midst of 20th-century political turmoil.

The American-born Sutton, editor and publisher of Tumbleweeds, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, publication for families, has pieced together the compelling trajectory of her grandparents, Selim and Adele Sutton, and their sons, Saleh, Elie, Meir (or Mike, the author’s father), Ralph, Joe, Morris and Edgar, and daughter Margo. Like many Middle Eastern Jews in that period, the Suttons were textile traders, importers of fabrics from Europe and neighboring countries. The reader follows them on a long exodus from Aleppo in the 1930s to Mersin, Turkey, and later to Shanghai in the 40s, Beirut, Israel, and finally the United States. This was a typical path for Jewish communities in the Middle East, as they sought to expand their economic viability, and gradually prepared to abandon their homelands in response to growing Arab nationalism and rising anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.

Rescuing her grandfather’s culture and way of life from obscurity is a worthy endeavor, but Sutton takes us most revealingly on a journey of self-discovery that is primarily her own. Here, she gradually comes to terms with her ancestry, which had never previously been central to her life: “I signed up for a course at my family’s synagogue to learn about my own background,” she admits candidly as she uncovers knowledge that any educated student of the region assuredly has. The reader should not expect groundbreaking research. (There are even some inaccuracies: the word consuegra is not Judeo-Spanish for mother-in-law, but a Spanish term used by one mother-in-law to describe the other; and Theodor Herzl wasn’t Swiss but Austrian).

Most of the facts related by Sutton are well-known: Aleppo was one of the oldest centers of Jewish life, and a renowned locus of Jewish learning by 1300: “This is the city mentioned in the Biblical legend of the prophet Abraham, where a Jewish community lived and thrived since Roman times.” So far-reaching was its fame that it became home to the most authoritative manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Most notably investigated by the journalist Matti Friedman in a 2012 book, the story of the Aleppo Codex is shrouded in myth and secrecy: it is said for instance that if the manuscript disappeared from the synagogue where it was preserved, the Jewish community would cease to exist. As it happened, Aleppo’s ‘crowning glory’, as it was also known, vanished under mysterious circumstances after an Arab mob in 1947 stormed the site where it was preserved, and it reappeared ten years later at the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem with dozens of pages missing.

Regrettably however, Jewish life in Aleppo in the 1930s and 1940s is painted in brushstrokes that are too broad, so the details provided appear by turns too general and pedestrian, or too distant to engage the author emotionally in ways other than as ethnological curiosities. Mercifully, the narration improves in the second half of the book, with the account of the brothers Saleh’s and Mike’s lives in Shanghai. The slow disintegration of French and British colonial rule in the Middle East, the shifts brought by World War II, and a more precarious environment for Jews, led Selim Sutton to “export his sons” to Shanghai, where they could join his brother Joe’s textile business, shipping handmade linens from the Far East to markets in New York. Sutton movingly describes the boys’ journey on their own from Port Said in Egypt to Shanghai, and her account of life in the expatriate community of 1940s Shanghai is vivid and intriguing. Mike’s resourcefulness also makes for a delightful tale. As the export business came to a halt because of the war, the author’s father reinvented his trade to survive. Instead of exporting textiles, he began speculating successfully in sewing needles, in short supply because of wartime demands for steel.

Far from home, exile gradually starts corroding the brothers’ identities in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Saleh contracts tuberculosis, which will eventually kill him. Mike’s faith, he tells his daughter, “just wore off.” He abandons kashrut. In the intimate observations of these immaterial shifts, the narrative starts charting more compelling paths. But expatriation comes with other intractable issues too. There is, for instance, the question of papers. As the Syrian government began tightening its grip on the Jewish community in retaliation to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, those who had already left, like Mike, then newly arrived in the United States, were unable to renew their passports: “Without a valid passport, he could not extend his work visa, and as a Jew, he could not renew his Syrian passport or return home. In a nutshell, he was stateless.”

And when Selim Sutton, who had remained in Syria, is diagnosed with a brain tumor, he is only allowed a visa to Beirut, Lebanon, for treatment. Later he traveled illegally to Israel, where he died alone, and is buried in a cemetery outside of Tel-Aviv.

Sutton’s narrative, especially in its second half, effectively enumerates the many quandaries of dislocation.  Her evocation of the little-known odyssey of Syrian Jews from Aleppo to America via Shanghai in the second half of the twentieth century is urgent and compelling. But the subject aches for a more poetic treatment, like that of Lagnado’s poignant meditation on loss, also centered on the figure of her father, or Aciman’s rich evocation of his family’s complex characters in the waning moments of Egyptian Jewry. By contrast, Sutton’s account remains somewhat flat, her settings never sufficiently evoked, her voice disconnected from the accents of her subjects.  And I wonder if therein lies precisely one of the most perverse effects of exile. As a descendant of those who left their homes, their cultures, and their countries behind, she did not experience this loss firsthand. She is visiting the culture of her forebears, but she has lost touch with it. The story she tells is as much the symptom as it is the remedy for that privation.


The Jerusalem Post - Israel News
NOVEMBER 5, 2017 13:59

Adam Kirsch selects 18 compelling texts from Deuteronomy to ‘Tevye’

Baruch Spinoza

ADAM KIRSCH has earned a considerable reputation in the United States as a poet, literary critic and journalist writing for Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture. Just 41 years old, he is a polymath and prolific author whose thoughtful and ubiquitous analyses explore a wide array of topics, from a page of the Talmud to fine points of literary theory. “The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature” is his latest work.

It might not be his most consequential. That is not, however, because of the work’s lack of cleverness, or even discernment.

Kirsch is an attentive reader, exceptionally adept at finding resonances between texts separated by centuries. His prose is limpid, elegant, pedagogic, with each chapter preceded by a helpful synopsis. He is a knowledgeable guide who also makes arcane concepts accessible. Through a cherry- picked selection of 18 “classic” Jewish texts from Deuteronomy to Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” he offers “a panoramic portrait of Jewish thought and experience over the centuries.” His purpose is to sketch an outline of recurrent themes of Judaism, thus allowing the reader “to escape present-mindedness.” And there is a beauty to this endeavor as he identifies four central elements whose iterations over the ages have crystallized Jewish thought: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish People.

His comparative method is one of his strong suits. Employing a bird’s-eye view, he surveys authors such as the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Roman Jewish general Flavius Josephus, Maimonides, the diarist Glückel of Hameln, Moses Mendelssohn or Theodor Herzl, and retrieves pointed commonalities between seemingly disparate systems of thought. He demonstrates, for instance, how Philo, living in Roman Egypt in the first century CE, “asked some of the same questions as Maimonides, who lived in Muslim Egypt in the twelfth century CE”; how the Jewish rite of circumcision has ignited Jewish debate through the ages. He shows that the notion of the “chosenness” of the Jewish people perplexed the Spanish Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevy in the 12th century and that the Book of Esther in the Bible, which features the oft-encountered predicament of a Jewish servant to a non-Jewish power, hasn’t lost its relevance in Jewish history, as echoed in the modern charge of “dual loyalty.”

If one is looking for an expeditious overview of Jewish thought, Kirsch’s work will provide an informative, if incomplete, introduction to texts he has read in translation himself. This is a book for the casual reader, not the scholar, and that’s fine.

It is stimulating to read about authors such as Philo or Josephus, typically debated within the Christian canon and reclaimed here as a central contribution to the Jewish world they belonged to (I, for one, learned about both for the Western curriculum of my French Lycée with little awareness of their Jewishness). Kirsch finely clarifies how they cloaked central Jewish concepts in the language of the Greco-Roman world in which they lived.

However, some of his conclusions are sketchy, partial and one-sided. For instance, he ultimately construes Philo as a philosopher torn between the “respect owed to inheritance” and “the respect owed to reason,” one who interpreted sacred texts “against the grain.” “Philo of Alexandria was one of the first Jewish intellectuals to feel the pull of these competing demands; he would certainly not be the last.” He, thus, oddly offsets the very point made initially. Incongruously, Philo emerges no longer as a part of the Hellenistic Jewish universe of his time, but instead as a kind of rebel against it.

The trope of the Jewish intellectual caught between two worlds, and ever striving to make them converge, unwittingly transpires as the red thread of Kirsch’s book. Most praiseworthy in his eyes are precisely those figures, perennially pulled in two different directions, who finally adhere wholeheartedly to the secular path.

There is the first-century historian and general Flavius Josephus, a privileged witness and actor in the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in 66 CE. Leading to the destruction of the Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, the war presented Josephus with the following dilemma: “rush headlong into glorious death” with the Jewish rebels or “see reason and live” by ending the fighting against the overpowering battalions of the Roman army. He chose the latter ‒ an alternative Kirsch obviously favors ‒ moving to Rome as part of the imperial entourage and spending the rest of his life “explaining the Jews to their conquerors.”

There is Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher of Sephardi origin, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656 for his heretical views. Living in free-thinking Amsterdam where philosophical and scientific thought blossomed, he is a vexing figure for the classic rabbinical tradition. In the “Theologico-Political Treatise,” one of his most famous works, Spinoza exposed the inability to reconcile our intellectual and scientific knowledge about the universe with our religious beliefs. In Kirsch’s perspective, Spinoza’s predicament transposed Josephus’s choice in philosophical terms: “How much of Judaism could, and should, be preserved in the face of other ways of thinking ‒ above all the rationalism of the philosophers?” Opting out of Judaism, his pantheistic views affirmed instead the “absolute necessity of everything that exists, in the same intuitive way that we affirm the truths of mathematics.” For Kirsch, when Spinoza relinquished tradition, he became a thinker for the modern world.

At the same time in Eastern Europe, the Tzenarena, a Yiddish retelling of the Torah, mostly aimed at a female audience, solidified similar ideas on a more popular plane, according to Kirsch. A compilation of practical sayings, maxims, advice and folk wisdom especially agreeable to a Yiddish-speaking public of laypeople, the Tzenarena was a widely read work, present in most Jewish households “that did [the] most to shape Jewish women’s lives.” Once again, Kirsch draws an implicit line between Orthodoxy sensu stricto and what he commends as “real life.” His sympathies clearly align with the latter, but are they mutually exclusive?

Tellingly, Kirsch views the haskala ‒ the Jewish Enlightenment that began at the end of the 18th-century in Germany ‒ and the subsequent tension between Orthodoxy and modernity as a losing proposition for Orthodox Judaism. And there is the rub. He often exhibits an ethnocentric view of Jewish history, gauged through his anachronistic 21st century lenses. His perspective is teleological, in as much as it steers us inexorably toward the religious attitudes of the majority of today’s American Jews (his primary readership) ‒ refractory to an Orthodox practice for the modern world and secular, for the most part.

Often, he extrapolates contemporary modes of thinking retroactively onto the texts he is seeking to elucidate. The “good” Jew, in his view, is one less grounded in his beliefs than in his skepticism. The central paradox underlying his vision is provocative: the less literal-minded a Jew is, the more Jewish he or she might be. This is an engaging contention, but, at a minimum, it necessitates more vindication than he affords it.

In highlighting the struggle between Orthodoxy and modernity as the defining debate of Judaism past and present, he leaves large swaths of it in the dark. It is true that Orthodoxy has suffered from the assaults of the modern world, but it is an oversimplification to brush it away as irrelevant. Kirsch’s Judaism is oddly reduced to a shell, an empty container for a set of rules at once sterile, austere and outmoded.

In a work about literary criticism, he might have summoned The Song of Songs, one of the Bible’s most poetical texts, which can be read as an allegory of the love between God and Israel, and marveled at its complex sexual imagery, which deftly weaves the lay and the religious. Or, instead of delving into the Book of Esther, which stresses for Kirsch “the movement outward into dispersion, exile and assimilation” of the Jewish people, he might have favored the bewildering Book of Job, whose majestic darkness plunges us into the most perplexing recesses of faith and the problem of theodicy.

But Kirsch’s thesis decidedly rises against such endeavors, in as much as they translate “a movement inward into tradition, Orthodoxy, and nationhood.” Modernity, in his eyes, is exclusively validated in a Eurocentric perspective, and celebrated in the tidy narrative of an unstoppable march toward a secular society.

Might there be more than one modernity, perhaps? Postcolonial theory has long ago certainly shown so, but Kirsch is unimpressed by it. Jewish modernity to him is firmly rooted in an Eastern European tradition that rejected the narrow religious confines of the shtetl, which was severed from society at large. Therefore, there is no mention of the classical Sephardi heritage, which is grounded in a tradition of religious humanism and cultural pluralism accustomed to engage in unabated dialogue with the outside world.

Glaringly absent from his explorations are the theological writings of such figures as Elijah Benamozegh (1823-1900), the Livornese rabbi of Maghrebi descent (his family was from Morocco), who wrote about religious universalism at the end of the 19th century in Israel and Humanity, his most famous work. Confronted with the process of assimilation he witnessed as a consequence of the haskala, he famously made a plea to combine religion with modernity by highlighting the humanistic and moral characteristics of halacha. In his view, these principles must guide Jews in their dealings with Gentiles. Nonetheless, Benamozegh is ignored by Kirsch as he was by his German contemporaries.

The Other, as a dimension to engage with rather than to emulate or lose oneself in, is equally unaccounted for in Kirsch’s opening set of four main Jewish preoccupations (listed in the first paragraph). So, it is regrettable not to read here the writings of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a French philosopher of Lithuanian origin who underscored the primacy of ethics in Judaism. Teaching young North African pupils at the École Normale Israelite Orientale (ENIO) in Paris, Levinas was also steeped in the Sephardi tradition of religious humanism. For him, it is paramount to consider what he called “the face of another” and to examine Judaism’s call for moral responsibility, which starkly differs from the Christian notions of love and charity. Levinas’s Judaism is most compelling because it is positive, replete with substance, compared to Kirsch’s solipsistic view of Judaism as a negative, vacant receptacle.

No wonder the book closes with a chapter on Sholem Aleichem titled “On the Brink,” when European Jewry is about to be wiped out by the somber forces of Nazism and the Final Solution. Kirsch’s nihilistic thesis (the choice of life and secularism at the peril of Orthodoxy, particularity and, ultimately, identity) is like a wounded phoenix rising out of the ashes of disaster. It settles, it compromises.

But I wonder if, instead of going for the mere survival of Judaism, we ought to turn elsewhere, both backwards into a Jewish past ‒ at once more imaginative, complex, diverse, multilayered and still pertinent today ‒ and ahead into a Jewish future, because it is the only one that might propel us, as Jews, forward.


Yaëlle Azagury is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Report. Her work has also appeared in Lilith, The New York Times Book Review’and The Washington Post