February 2009

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Living Judaism

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 she paused..."Forever."

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 language.

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 angry.

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 like?

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 uncomfortable.

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 click here.

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