Where Aleppo Feels Closer Than Manhattan

Brooklyn’s Syrian-Egyptian Jewish community has prospered even as it has retained its Old World traditions and tight-knit feel.
03/05/2009 - 19:00
I was only 16 when I left my community of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, convinced I was on an upward trajectory. I was, after all, trading the prospect of Brooklyn College for Vassar, abandoning the staid, simple streets of Bensonhurst for the lush opulence of the quad in Poughkeepsie and later Manhattan, leaving behind the little shul where I sat with my mom in the obligatory women’s section for the vast progressive egalitarian temples that were sprouting everywhere in America. I am not sure when, exactly, I found myself longing precisely for those staid streets, for that cozy shul, for that women’s section. And it was too late. Somewhere between my personal exodus in the 1970s, my Sephardic community had gone on an upward trajectory of its own. They had, in classic immigrant mode, struggled and worked hard and prospered, in some cases, beyond their wildest expectations.
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But then — unlike the classic American story of assimilation and dispersal — they found each other again in another patch of Brooklyn and made a secret pledge among each other, call it the Omerta of Allepo. They would largely ignore the onrush of modernity, cast a cold eye on secular America and avoid the temptations of the New World. Feminism, sexual liberation, intermarriage and so many other hallmarks of post-1960s modern life would be as relevant to this immigrant enclave as to their ancestors in turn-of-the-century Aleppo, which means not relevant at all. Ocean Parkway, home to an estimated 40,000-50,000 Jews of Syria and Egypt, extends dreamlike from the Gowanus Parkway to the Atlantic. To my mother, this strip bore a wondrous resemblance to the boulevards of Paris. Coming back as an adult, I realize that it does have a strange European feel to it — the vastness of the boulevard, the leafy trees, the grandeur of the buildings — all conjure up in my mind some of the most splendid streets of Paris, including the Avenue Foch. Syrian Jews began moving to Ocean Parkway several decades ago from Bensonhurst, snapping up elegant apartments on the Parkway or else stately homes in the side streets. Egyptian Jews who, like my family, had come to America later than the Syrians, followed suit. As these new immigrant families began to make more money, they moved as close to Ocean Parkway as possible, settling in the more humble, more affordable areas by Kings Highway. The Syrian Jews — some of whom flourished in spectacular ways, making fortunes in jeans, retail, electronics and real estate — took attractive old homes and turned them into mansions worth millions. And they built synagogues, lots and lots of them: there are now over 40 synagogues in the Ocean Parkway community according to Desi Sakkal, local historian and founder of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt Web site. Synagogues such as Shaare Zion, Bnai Yosef, Beth Torah, and Sakkal’s own, Ahaba ve Ahava (“The Congregation of Love and Friendship”) have multiple morning minyans that are full. My favorite observation about this community comes from Steve Solarz, its former congressman. Solarz, who still bears a tremendous fondness for his old district, once told me there was more money in those blocks around Ocean Parkway than in all of Beverly Hills. In his eyes, my old community — the one that I blithely abandoned in search of my American Dream — is actually the embodiment of the American Dream. Still, unlike most communities that have done well, where religion and ritual have often been the first victims of an affluent lifestyle, here life has continued to revolve around faith, prayer, tradition and shul. The custom on Ocean Parkway is for the children to remain as close as possible to their parents — literally blocks or doors away. If children go away, they are expected to come back. Sephardic teens, including an increasing number of young women, attend college but they don’t necessarily go away from home. Getting into an Ivy League isn’t the ideal here. Getting married, buying a home in the neighborhood, establishing a thriving business, that’s what is coveted — far more than a Harvard or Yale degree. Most Americans would find that puzzling and overly restrictive, I suppose. Yet, there is a miraculous aspect to the life of this community. Its members manage — with exceptions — to keep their families together. They don’t get together once or twice a year, but once or twice a week, generally on the Sabbath. Syrian Jews from Aleppo are the aristocrats, the grandees — Old Money — while the Egyptians are still perceived as being a bit more déclassé, more the arrivistes; truth be told I can’t always tell the difference. In the Old World, numerous matches were made between the two, a tradition that continued here. My family is a perfect example: My father, born in Aleppo, lived in Cairo most of his life. Yet he was also quintessentially Syrian: proud, religious, suspicious of the modern world. I often think he went through life as if he were still in his beloved “Halab,” as the community calls Aleppo, using its Arabic language moniker. Yet he married a Cairene, my mother, who, when she was angry at him, derided him as a typical Syrian — her way of saying he was too Old World, too narrow. Mine was a complicated childhood, one I both loved and longed to escape, and which I keep conjuring up in my books and work — as if there were nothing else worthwhile I could write about but that old world of mine. In truth, nothing interests me as much. My relationship with the community is also complicated — filled with ambivalence but not love-hate, because I mostly love it, love it deeply, passionately, and I am always thinking of going back. As I worked on my memoir, I did in fact frequently return, if not in actuality then certainly in my mind. I was constantly walking the streets of Bensonhurst, taking those car rides to Ocean Parkway and peering at the buildings with the same wonder and yearning my mom felt years back. In the midst of the splendor, there is incredible simplicity. The businesses that have sprouted up are less about America and more about the world left behind. There is Mansoura’s, of course, the pastry shop on Kings Highway that is still my favorite bakery in the city. There are also any number of small Sephardic groceries and supermarkets that sell Oriental spices and condiments. Small restaurants and cafes manage to evoke the tastes of Jewish Cairo, with a hint of Tel Aviv thrown in. I have learned that whenever I feel blue and long for my mother’s food, the only solution is to get my husband to drive me out to David’s, a hole in the wall located on Kings Highway, a block or two from Ocean Parkway. There, while seated at a plain wooden table without a tablecloth, I can order a bowl of steaming lentil soup that doesn’t taste or look a bit like the American version. When I take a spoonful, I am transported back, back to this childhood of mine that I can’t seem to leave behind no matter how far I go. One night last year, I was invited for Friday night dinner to the home of a Syrian-Egyptian Jewish family, the Setyons. I remember how dazzled I felt when I entered the house and saw two dozen people — my hosts and also their children, their children’s spouses, their uncle and aunt — all gathered, waiting for me to arrive so they could say the “adous,” the Kiddush. These extended family gatherings were taking place in thousands of homes around Ocean Parkway. It was the kind of night that left me wistful and filled with longing, a night that had me pondering what I had given up when I left for this upward trajectory that didn’t feel quite so upward anymore, that didn’t even feel like much of a trajectory. Lucette Lagnado is the author of “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” (HarperPerennial), a memoir of her Egyptian-Jewish family. PQ: My old community — the one that I blithely abandoned in search of my American Dream — is actually the embodiment of the American Dream. Still, unlike most communities that have done well, where religion and ritual have often been the first victims of an affluent lifestyle, here life has continued to revolve around faith, prayer, tradition and shul.


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