Lebanese Jews in New York: Longing for Home
By: Dalal Mawad
Published Monday, April 16, 2012
As her brother drove her through the streets of downtown Beirut on a balmy January day, 76-year-old Suzette Sasson felt like a stranger in her own city. Captivated by the new places and unfamiliar faces, she failed to notice they had reached Wadi Abou Jamil, the neighborhood she had longed to return to for years. But when her brother stopped the car and pointed to a four-story building, Sasson was shaken out of her limbo. She stared, drowning in silence.
“Go up mama,” said her 40-year-old son Raymond, sitting behind her. “But what should I say?” she muttered nervously.
When a woman opened the door of the apartment on the third floor, Sasson told her in Arabic: “I grew up here, can I see the house?”
She walked slowly around what has now become an office space, years weighing heavily on her steps. When she reached the balcony, she stopped, shaking. The melancholia of a beautiful youth came blowing in her face. An image of her mother watering the Arabian jasmine pots around the veranda brought back the child in her. “When my mother died, the jasmine died with her,” she told Raymond, “You know we were happy, we lived happily here.” Tears came out of her eyes.
Sasson is a Lebanese Jew, born and raised in Beirut. She left Lebanon with her husband and children in 1972 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. She was not expelled nor persecuted. She chose to leave because of political instability and a feeling of insecurity as a member of the Jewish community.
The civil war prevented her from returning to Lebanon. When the conflict stopped, she said she was no longer welcomed in her own country. It was only in 2008, after her husband’s death, that she decided to go back to finalize some paperwork.
Today, the Lebanese Jewish council, a body managing the remaining Jewish community’s affairs in Lebanon, estimates the number of Jews still living in Lebanon to be less than 200. Identifying most of them is almost impossible, as they tend to hide their identity.
The Unknown Other
Many of Lebanon’s younger generation know little about the country’s Jews. Some are even surprised to find out that Jews were once a thriving community living in the heart of Beirut. It is only in the past three years, with the renovation of the Magen Abraham synagogue in Beirut, that an interest in the Jewish community has resurfaced in Lebanon.
Kirsten Shultz, a historian at the London School of Economics and author of one of the few books on Lebanon’s Jews, explained the little attention given to the Jews in the history of Lebanon by the relatively small size of the community, estimated at a maximum of 14,000 in the mid-50s, as well as Lebanon’s preoccupation with its Christian-Muslim divide and civil strife, in which the Jews did not take part.
Aaron Beydoun, a Lebanese-American serving as the online media officer for the Lebanese Jewish council, has another explanation. “We as Lebanese are ignorant of our own history in general,” said Beydoun, who is actually a Muslim. “They were part of this country and we managed to erase them from our collective memory. What prevents that from happening to other minorities in Lebanon?” added Beydoun. But he said the ignorance is not just on the Lebanese side. “There is a conscious decision from the Jewish right-wing to erase that part of Lebanon’s history.”
When he first started his blog about Lebanon’s Jews in 2006, Beydoun was appalled to read a post by a Jewish blogger saying that there was only two or three Jews left in Lebanon. “This is intentional ignorance,” he said, explaining that some people do not want to recognize the fact that Jews lived well in Lebanon and that some of them, had even decided to stay. “Some people want to stick to one narrative of history, Jews were killed by the Arabs – that’s it, that’s what makes sense,” he explained. “That’s what they write about and anything else is invalid.”
The Community Through History
According to Shultz’s book, “The Jews of Lebanon,” the first Jews came to the region that is now Lebanon around 1,000 BCE. They settled mainly in the ancient cities of Tyre and Saida.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Jews gained autonomy in the management of their affairs. A large number of Spanish Jews fleeing the country’s Inquisition came to the area in 1710, moving to the Chouf Mountains and working in silk production and agriculture. But the war of 1860 between the Maronites and the Druze, caused many Jews to leave the area, settling in the cities of Saida, Hasbaya, Tripoli, and Beirut. In Beirut, most Jews settled in the area of Wadi Abou Jamil, later known as the Jewish neighborhood of Beirut.
Lebanon’s Jews were Arabic-speaking and French-educated and had surnames in common with other Lebanese families – a significant indication of how intertwined the community was with its fellow compatriots. Srour, Sayegh, Haddad, Hamadani, and Majdalani are family names common among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
According to Shultz, the Alliance Israelite Universelle established its first schools in Beirut at the end of the 19th century. Two synagogues were built in the mountain resorts of Aley and Bhamdoun and a third in the southern city of Saida. In Beirut, the Magen Abraham synagogue was built in 1926.
Lebanese Jews celebrated their religious holidays and shared them with Muslims and Christians. “For the Jewish Passover, the government used to send high level officials to attend the ceremony in the synagogue,” recalled Suzette Sasson. “For Christmas or Ramadan, we used to send greeting cards to our friends and neighbors.”
By 1932, the population census of Lebanon indicated there were 3,588 Jews living in Lebanon.
With independence in 1943, a National Pact institutionalizing a power-sharing agreement between the different religious groups was signed by the country’s powerful elites. Jews along with other smaller groups were given a minority seat in parliament.
According to accounts from Lebanese Jews and to Shultz, most Jews did not leave Lebanon when Israel was created in 1948. Though most of them welcomed the creation of the state of Israel, they were not expelled or persecuted. And despite a series of explosions that hit Wadi Abu Jamil in January of 1948 and anti-Jewish demonstrations that broke out in various regions, Jews stayed. Lebanon was seen as a tolerant country compared to the rest of the Arab world. Many Syrian and Iraqi Jews, fleeing persecution in their own countries, sought asylum in the country, including Suzette Sasson’s husband.
The Jewish community maintained good relations with both Christians and Muslims. “We never interfered in politics or spoke about Israel,” said Sasson, “They would think we were spies if we did.”
In fact, the issue of espionage surfaced in 1959. “Fifteen Jews were arrested in Lebanon and charged with spying,” mentioned Shultz. But they were not all Lebanese and after appearing in front of a military tribunal all were acquitted. The only Jew residing in Lebanon convicted and sentenced for spying was Shula Kishek Cohen. She was a South American Jew who came to Lebanon at the age of 16 and married a Lebanese man.
By 1958, the community was estimated to have increased to 14,000. But the onset of the first Lebanese Civil War that year created the beginning of an atmosphere of unease and instability.
The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 marked the turning point in the history of Lebanon’s Jews. Though Lebanon stayed out of the conflict, the war’s impact changed the country’s political landscape. A large number of Palestinian refugees entered the country and Palestinian armed groups were now frequently launching resistance operations from Lebanon against Israel. Many Jews feared perpetual instability and started leaving the country.
According to an article published in the Lebanese paper An-Nahar in 1995, the community was down to 4,000 by 1971. The Sasson family was among those that remained in Beirut.
With the outbreak of the second civil war in 1975, the Jewish quarter of Wadi Abu Jamil was caught on the green line – the front line dividing Beirut between east and west. The majority of the remaining Jews left the country, not because of anti-Semitism but because of warfare.
With Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its continued occupation of south after 1984, the situation of the Jewish community deteriorated considerably. Jews were associated with Israel, Zionism and treason, and like leaders in other religious communities many jewish community leaders were kidnapped and killed. The Jews that stayed after 1984, less than 200, had to live undercover.
A Difficult Departure
Back in Sasson’s New York apartment, she served homemade Lebanese sweets, and poured Lebanese-made Turkish coffee. During the conversation, she kept filling the plate with food and fruits, a trait typical of Lebanese grandmothers who cook with their hearts and insist on filling your belly with their love. “We came here, but we never became Americans,” she said, “our heart was always in Lebanon.”
“My husband suffered a lot when we moved here,” she added, “he always wanted to go back. He was a principal at a school in Beirut but here he became a stock boy.” Adjusting to the American lifestyle and culture was difficult, Sasson explained. She spoke some English but her husband spoke neither English or Hebrew.
Berth Srour is Sasson’s sister. She is in her late seventies. Sasson helped her get into the US when she left Beirut in 1976. Srour lived in an apartment on Rue de France in Beirut with her husband and two boys.
Srour said that men suffered the most when they left Lebanon, as they had established jobs and a laidback social life. “My husband had a lot of non-Jewish friends, the Safi family and the Chammoun family,” she said smiling with her pintsize eyes. “Neighbors used to come down and play chess on our balcony every evening, Christians, Muslims, Armenians.” She then looked at Sasson and sighed, “oh Bhamdoun, beautiful Bhamdoun,” referring to a Lebanese summer resort in the mountains, “do you remember, Suzette, our walks in Bhamdoun after the sunset?”
Sasson explained how the political situation had drastically changed after 1967, “we felt a war coming, and we felt insecure.” Srour said she had to leave because of the civil war, “we tried to stay till 1976, but things got worse and Jews were under pressure.”
According to Sasson, only a tiny fraction of the Lebanese Jews left to go to Israel, “We had the choice to go there, but we didn’t, why would we? People are very different there,” she said. People usually went where they had families or businesses, she explained, those that did go to Israel did so because they already had someone there.
The Identity Question – Arab, Lebanese?
All Lebanese Jews interviewed defined themselves as Lebanese foremost. Judaism was their religion, but only a part of their identity, and not their national identity.
“Lebanese is my culture and Jewish is my religion and one doesn’t negate or exclude or even compete with the other,” said Raymond Sasson. “They complement each other.” Being Lebanese, he explained is what unites him with Muslim and Christian Lebanese. “I feel like they get me, they understand me, they understand how my parents would see things, just like my sister or my brother would.”
While Christian Lebanese have difficulties sometimes identifying themselves as Arabs, the Lebanese Jews interviewed fully embraced their Arab identity.
“I am Arab in culture and Jewish in religion,” said Rabbi Eli Abbadi as we toured the Safra Synagogue in Manhattan, whose constituency is majority Lebanese and Syrian. “There are Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs, it’s all the same.” Abbadi left Lebanon with his family in 1971 and moved to Mexico before coming to New York.
“I am Lebanese in my food, my language, and even in my prayers,” he explained, “it’s who I am, my Lebanese identity gives me pride.”
Shabbats at the Safra Synagogue embodies the complementarity of the Arab and Jewish identities. Prayers in Hebrew are mixed with melodies from Lebanese and Egyptian singers Fairouz, Umm Kulthum, and Farid Al Atrash as “it gives us inspiration,” said Abbadi. In his preaching the rabbi also used old Arabic proverbs and sayings to address the crowd.
While he reminisced about his childhood in Lebanon, the rabbi talked about his allegiance to Lebanon and his belief in Israel. “It is not a contradiction to be a citizen of one country and have an affinity to another country,” he said, “the only problem is that the two countries are at war.”
Raymond Sasson believed in the land of Israel as mentioned in the Bible. “Israel in our book is not necessarily the state of Israel,” he explained, “you could be a devout Jew and not believe in the state of Israel.”
But, most Lebanese Jews sympathized with Israel as a state for the Jews, “we are happy that there is a country that will welcome us no matter what,” said Berth Srour. But none of them considered it as their home.
“Their loyalty to Israel is not any different from a Shia’s loyalty to Iran or a Sunni’s loyalty to Saudi Arabia,” explained the Lebanese Jewish council’s Aaron Beydoun.
As to Israel and Lebanon’s conflict, most Lebanese Jews defined Hezbollah as Israel’s main enemy and not Lebanon, and defended Israel’s right to retaliate against Hezbollah.
But Israel’s wars were never just with Hezbollah. Israel has invaded Lebanon three times since its creation (1978, 1982 and 2006), and occupied its south until 2000. Civilians were often the victims of Israel’s attacks and infrastructure was always recklessly destroyed. In the last Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, UNICEF estimated that 30 percent of civilians killed were children, while the war cost Lebanon more than US$3.5 billion in direct costs.
So how did they feel when Lebanon is bombed by Israel ?
“I feel bad, very bad,” said Raymond Sasson, “it is my country being bombed after all.”
But whose side were they on?
None of them would take sides. “You are so torn, you want to stop watching the news,” said Lea Srour, “in these cases you don’t have a loyalty toward one side, you just can’t choose, and it is very hard.”
A Lebanese Jew Goes Back to Lebanon
Raymond Sasson stopped at a small grocery shop in Beirut’s once Jewish quarter of Wadi Abou Jamil. He needed water. As he took the money out of his pocket to pay, the shop owner, a man in his mid-50s, looked at him and said, “I know you.” Sasson winced. Was he going to be discovered?
“How do you know me? Are you from Brooklyn?” The man replied assuredly, “no but I know your face.” Sasson first hesitated then told him he lived in the neighborhood, years ago. “I knew your father,” said the shop owner, “wasn’t he a school principal?” Sasson looked back stunned, “yes he was.” The man smiled and said, “you look like him, my father had a bakery here and your father used to come to bake his bread.” Sasson’s striking blue eyes twinkled with emotions, “I was home,” he thought.
That was Raymond Sasson’s first visit to Lebanon in 2008, 33 years after leaving the city at the age of three. “I grew up knowing Lebanon through stories, Beirut was until I went there, this magical, mystical place,” said Sasson.
During his recent trip last summer, Sasson hung out with people he had met through a Facebook group dedicated to the renovation of Beirut’s Magen Abraham synagogue.
The effort to renovate the synagogue was initiated in 2006 by Aaron Beydoun with the support of Jewish and non-Jewish Lebanese in Lebanon. “I was very nervous at the beginning,” said beydoun. “I got attacked by right-wing Jews saying I was a Hezbollah agent, then that I was paid by Prime Minister Hariri.” But surprisingly he said, the Lebanese reacted positively to his effort. Solidere, a private real estate company that reconstructed post-war Beirut, donated US$150,000 to the renovation, the exact amount it had donated to other religious communities renovating their buildings. Hezbollah made a positive statement regarding the renovation, saying that there problem was with Israel and Zionists and not with Jews.
“It would be great if the Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon can wake up on Saturday, get dressed and go to the synagogue to pray without having to worry whether someone would hurt them or attack them,” said Sasson.
“I met amazing people in Lebanon who embraced me,” added Sasson, “I chose sometimes not to reveal my Jewish identity,” he explained, “but not one told me not to, whenever it came out that I was a Jew. I don’t remember anyone making me feel that I’m not Lebanese, it was more like ‘we have never met a Lebanese Jew before.’”
Sasson plans to go back to visit Lebanon soon, “I can’t get enough, I want to go back, know more about the place, the people,” he said proudly, “I am very proud that I went, I did something to promote dialogue, and this awareness of each other’s existence;all these walls that have been put around us, stopped us from knowing each other.”
Living in the Present of Lebanon
Sunday lunches at the Srour’s were a taste of home, a huge table with Kebbe, Tabbouleh, Manakich, Sambousek, and fatayer was prepared whenever I came over.
Lea, is in her late 40s. She has medium length brown hair and prominent black eyes. Joe is his early 50s. He has blond hair and small blue eyes. They were neighbors in Beirut before the civil war separated their ways. Lea went to Israel where she had family and Joe moved to New York. They met again 11 years later, married and moved to New York City. “I insisted on marrying someone Lebanese because we ran away so quickly, we didn’t take anything,” said Srour. “I had this emptiness inside, and I needed to marry someone who understands who I am and where I come from.”
Lebanon is an integral part of Joe and Lea’s every day. Every morning Joe Srour reads the Lebanese French paper L’Orient Le Jour. Lea is always up to date with the latest entertainment shows on Lebanese television and if she can’t get the channels on TV, she watches them online. “I’m 46 years old and I don’t think I really moved on, it’s always something that is part of me,” she said. Her phone has an Arabic ringtone, Arabic books are scattered on the shelves of her bedroom, she listens to Lebanese Pop singers, and goes to a Lebanese hairdresser in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
“We brought up our kids in a Lebanese way because we are proud of our legacy and culture,” said Joe with his perfect Lebanese accent. “The best culture in the world is the Arab culture,” said Lea eagerly, “It is the only culture that still has values, morals, which over here you can’t find anymore.” Joe bragged with pride about how he always spoke Arabic with his kids: “when they were young they would think I didn’t understand English because when they spoke to me I always replied in Arabic.”