Why’s a Nice Jewish Girl Spending a Year in Syria?
-- Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram
This fall Rachel Levine begins doctoral studies at the University of
Pennsylvania, having completed a BA in Near Eastern Languages including Hebrew,
Arabic and Farsi (Persian). Right now she's studying Arabic in Syria.
PJV: Sounds like a potentially dangerous location for a beautiful young
American woman with such a stridently Jewish name. Why did you want to spend a
year in Syria?
Coming from a part of the academic world where study in the Arabic-speaking world
is not only expected, but imperative, it was the next natural step. Syrians
guard and cultivate their linguistic heritage and they are very proud about
this. It's simply the best place to learn Arabic well as any person on the
street can speak to you in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).
PJV: What drew you to Arab literature over say, Jewish studies or Torah?
I've always seen it as intimately related to my being engaged in the Jewish
world. If we're talking about comparative advantage, I went to public school and
don't have a background in Talmud or Jewish studies, but I do have a background
in multiculturalism and being open to the other. I think there need to be people
in the Jewish world who study Arab societies from a cultural, rather than
political perspective. And my work isn't so far removed from Jewish studies
because my doctoral program will also involve Hebrew across the full spectrum
from classical texts to modern literature. I'm particularly interested in the
questions that are found where modern Arabic and Modern Hebrew discourses
interact. What's written about Arabic literature in Hebrew and Modern Hebrew
literature in Arabic, or when you have Israeli Jews writing in Arabic and
Israeli Palestinians writing in Hebrew, these are fascinating areas of overlap.
And if we're talking more historically, Jewish studies in America are very much
Ashkenaz-centered. I think the story of Jews in Muslim lands, which would
include Arabic and Persian-speaking Jews, is a story that is waiting to be told
in the West, and a very important story given the current political climate.
Furthermore, anyone who is committed to Judaism and the Jewish past, present and
future needs to realize that in the 21st century it's incumbent upon us to learn
Arabic and learn to appreciate the interwoven and adjacent Arab cultures. We
don't have to all become world-class scholars in Arabic, but we all do need to
become familiar with their customs, their magnificent history, and their
incredibly expressive language, because if we think that Israel is going to stay
and "survive," we need to recognize that we have neighbors and we must build
relationships with them. That we must do. In speaking with American Jews, I see
it just hasn't sunk in how close together the two peoples live. Day schools
would do well to offer Arabic and Arab cultural studies. A Palestinian girl from
the Old City of Jerusalem explained it to me this way when I was living in
Amman. She'd given me an Elite candy bar she'd brought with her, and stated that
"We'd better learn to get along because we'll be living side by side," and then
In the ideal world knowledge of the Arab world and language would be just as
valued as Hebrew, Talmud and Torah given the emergence of the State of Israel in
what happens to be the geographic center of the Arab world and the bridge
between Mashriq and Maghreb [Eastern and Western Arabic-speaking countries].
Right now there is a curiosity in Jewish communities about the Arabic speaking
world but often it's interwoven with schadenfreude: Why can't they have
democracy? Why do they blow up one another's mosques? Why are people kept so
poor in such an oil-rich region? Can women drive cars in Damascus? What are you
going to Damascus for, to learn how to make bombs? I want to help change that
curiosity in which the subtext is, why are Israelis so superior? There needs to
be a more neutral and respectful curiosity about Arab culture and the Arabic
PJV: Did you get to travel widely? What surprised you
most about Syrian culture? You are half-way through your year there, how has
your perspective changed over time?
There are certain things I think we can learn from more traditional cultures of
the Arabic-speaking people of greater Syria, if I'm not romanticizing. There's a
huge emphasis on spending time with family and friends. Syrians will often tell
foreign students like me, when we say we don't have time to socialize due to our
studies, that we don't know the real meaning of friendship; they sometimes get
Also, all their produce is locally grown. They often mention that Syria is
self-sufficient in this way, which of course is easy to do in the Mediterranean.
Public transportation is very efficient and inexpensive, you rarely have to wait
more than two minutes for a microbus. People are very very friendly and
hospitable, they're world-famous for it.
PJV: Can you get by as a tourist without Arabic?
Sure. I was really overwhelmed by the great wealth of archaeological sites and
stunning Islamic architecture. I was able to dress like I dress in America,
which one can’t do in Egypt or the West Bank.
PJV: What are the religious services of Syrian Jews
This was the first time I was in a Yom Kippur service where there were more Torah
scrolls than people. I think I counted twenty-five kept in this one synagogue.
All in beautifully ornate cases, they're the scrolls brought from other Damascus
synagogues which have since been boarded up. The service was 100% in Hebrew; I'd
never heard this particular kind of semi-melodic chanting before.
PJV: Was there separate seating? Did the temple look
like a mosque?
There was a place for women upstairs but since there were so few of us, we all
sat downstairs. Ostensibly there could have been separate seating if there had
been more people. We women were sitting off to the side in the back, but at one
point they invited us to sit closer to the men, near the ark. They seemed
impressed that we as women knew how to davven (pray) and read Hebrew. They
probably didn't think very much about this, but for us it felt like a rather
profound gesture. Here we are, still fasting and praying in Damascus in 2008, so
indeed, why make praying, atoning Jews sit so far away? Many elements of the
synagogue showed Islamic influence, for example the name of G*d in Hebrew
illuminated on the gold wall plaques, stylized exactly like in the mosques.
There's a lot of word art with religious themes; it's done in Hebrew calligraphy
just like its Islamic, Arabic counterpart.
PJV: Did you feel isolated as a Jew in Syria?
Well, for those who are looking, I met /heard about over ten very eligible Jewish
bachelors who would each love a Jewish woman to contact them with an eye toward
marriage and a life in Syria. They all make an excellent living there, and as
rumor has it, are quite eligible. But, what's left of Jewish life in Damascus
gives a sense of what it was like to be Jewish before vast swaths of Jews
immigrated to America. Being a minority anywhere, religious or otherwise, can be
a position of disempowerment and the position of Jews in Syria must have been
similar in some ways to that of other religious minorities. How similar, well,
that's a question for graduate school. But in this regard, Syrian Jews were
integrated into a religiously-diverse Syrian society. The Jews were a sect among
sects in Syria; they were sectarian in the true sense of the word.
PJV: One hears that people watch what they say over
there. How safe and observed do you feel?
I know that part of what makes Syria so safe is that there's a lot of
"observing." I feel very safe and know I can walk around at any time of day or
night. I run alone at night and feel 100% safe and often feel people there are
so involved in the lives of others and it's like the entire society watches one
another. It's a nosey culture but people also care about one another immensely
and watch out for the well-being of women especially. There's a certain sense of
chivalry that's present in the society.
PJV: Are you "out" as a Jew there?
No. But maybe I'm just afraid and not giving the Syrians a chance. It's been
fascinating discovering a whole world where Judaism doesn't exist. Here some
people live very pious lives but they've never met a Jew, it doesn't show up on
their religious radar. It's been a wake-up call to realize this is a norm in
much of the world, that Judaism just isn't present. Maybe it's present in its
absence; Jews are depicted as such an ominous force in world politics though no
one has met one of us. Part of it is that I don't want to make them feel
Some Syrians do reminisce about when they had a Jewish neighbor or Jewish
classmates in high school and their nostalgia for them. This is a testament to
their society's religious diversity. In some ways the loss of the Jewish
population, regardless of the historical circumstances, was seen as a blow to
Syrian pluralism. But at the same time, what they understand as Judaism and Jews
is so removed from Judaism and from what Jews are and what I really am.
Syrian religious minorities themselves don't always make known their religion,
and so Jewish foreign students would be extremely well-served to adopt this
local custom. I don't think anything bad would necessarily happen to me, but it
would change the relationships with people as I came to learn about them.
PJV: What do they say about Jews?
There are two strands of discourse - one is there are no gripes with the Jewish
people; Judaism is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion, the problem's with
Zionism. Jews can come to Syria and anyone is welcome to pray in any holy place
in Syria – a member of the Syrian parliament actually said this to us in a
lecture. He was particularly proud of the fact that there is still a functioning
synagogue in Syria even though the country is at war with the "Hebrew State." So
there's this discourse of tolerance that's interwoven with the enmity toward
Zionism and Israel. The other discourse is a very deeply rooted suspicion of
Judaism; you see a lot of sensationalist books in bookstore like "The Sexual
Secrets of the Talmud," and books with skulls and blood and Jewish stars – the
typical anti-Semitic fare. There's a sensationalist book on the history of the
Jews in Damascus published last year with a specific chapter dealing with the
ritual uses of blood throughout history and with the phenomenon of "Jewish
prostitution." You don't see such things about Christianity or other traditions.
Every day one hears anti-Zionist sentiments such as "God isn't a real estate
agent, he doesn't promise people land." There are copies of Protocols of the
Elders of Zion and Mein Kamf all over the place. There was a book at
the book fair, Leaders of the Zionist Movement. I didn't read it. There
is an interest in the figures of Zionism, but as criminals. This type of stuff
tends to be rather sensational in nature.
They assume you're a Christian if you're an American tourist, but some people
think most of America is Jewish. It's very strange.
PJV: Is there a free press?
No, but newspapers from Lebanon are available for sale and one can always read
widely on the Internet or watch any number of foreign satellite channels,
everything from Al-Manar [Hizballah TV] to Al-Jazeera to the BBC and CNN. Syria
has a secular government that is providing security for its citizens in one of
the most violent, sectarian regions of the world.
Also, it's important to remember how people’s degrees of relation to the
terrorized-starving-dying people on TV affects their emotional response. When
Syrians read take in news about Israelis and Palestinians the top story before
Operation Cast Lead in Gaza had been the humanitarian suffering and the boycott
there. Perhaps people hear from American satellite or from the last line in an
Al-Jazeera article about rockets falling on Sderot, but obviously the sufferings
of the residents of Gaza struck and do strike their hearts much more intensely
and immediately. They look at the rockets falling on Israel with a degree of
dismissiveness, if not a little bit of cheering. With the air and now ground
campaign in Gaza, the Arabic press sees as the main story what the Israeli and
Western presses see as the collateral damage.
PJV: Your boyfriend came out to visit you for a month,
how did your experience change?
They aren't used to seeing unmarried people staying or traveling together. They
would assume we are engaged or married, and bless us to have a large family,
inshallah (G*d-willing). There was a family that was so hospitable they
wouldn't let us leave - for days. We went one night and the next day we stayed
two more nights for a total four days with them. We lost track of how many cups
of tea and teaspoons of sugar we drank. Syrians have a saying – "his blood is
light," which means someone has a good sense of humor, and they do laugh a lot.
My experience is that they value their relationships and joke about one another
all the time. There has to be something to talk about in lieu of the sensitive
topics of politics and religion.
PJV: Will you go back?
Well, that's a much more daunting prospect than it was a week and a half ago
given just how angry people are in the Arab world right now. But there are five
months left of my program and I'm very much looking forward to continuing to
deepen the relationships with the very kind people who I've had the immense
pleasure of meeting in Syria. There must be a better way, and the more violent
the region becomes, the clearer it gets that even though educating and being
educated is a slow, gradual process, there really isn't a moment to lose.
To view previous editions of "Living Judaism", please
Did you enjoy this article?
- share it with your friends
so they do not miss out on this article,
(free), so you do not miss out on the next issue,
(not quite free but greatly appreciated) to enable us to continue
providing this free service.