Vacationing in Israel two years ago, my family went on a two-day tour of Jordan, our first venture to an Arab nation. Our guide hustled us from site to site, but I had a moment of solitary reflection while on the Citadel in Amman, overlooking the white expanse of the stone city clinging to the hills below, so reminiscent of Jerusalem. The noises of the city were muffled by the arid air and summer heat. For the first time, the seal in my mind between Israel and the rest of the Middle East was punctured, and a question seeped through: What is this world beyond? But the moment was fleeting. Let’s go the tour guide barked, and we were on our way to Petra.
After my trip to Israel and Jordan, I returned to my job at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and my fledgling career as a freelance writer covering the thriving New York Jewish cultural scene. I adored the rich heritage that Judaism has passed down to me, and particularly reveled in its unexpected interactions with the larger American culture, but my two days in Jordan continued to lurk in the back of my mind.
Nostalgic for a time when Jews and Arabs seemed to live in relative harmony, before the walls went up in 1948, my identity as a liberal Jew hopeful for social justice became dependent on confronting my utter ignorance of Arab culture and history. So after months of planning, in February I booked a plane ticket back to the Middle East, flying in to Cairo and out of Beirut, with two months to travel in between. I was interested in learning more about Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, but my main goal was to spend time in Syria.
A paradoxical country of fervent anti-Zionism and more than 2,000 years of Jewish history, Syria somehow harbored the secret to the mystery of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. I accepted Syria’s strict criteria for entrance — I bought a new passport to erase my vacation in Israel and fudged my visa application by claiming my religion to be “agnostic” — but vowed to keep my mind open to its secrets.
The few Jews I knew who had been there adamantly advised that I never tell anyone that I was Jewish, and especially never reveal that I had been to Israel.
Pessimistic about the average Syrian’s opinion of Israel and Jews, I assumed I had no choice but to pass as Christian. But I wasn’t traveling alone. In the stacks of the New York Public Library, I found a travelogue written by Ludwig Frankl, a well-to-do Viennese poet and founder of the secular-Jewish Laemel School in Jerusalem. In “The Jews in the East,” originally published in 1859, Frankl recounts his exploration of the region, from Trieste to Greece to Syria and finally to Jerusalem. As secretary of the Vienna Jewish community, he came armed with letters of introduction to local Jewish leaders and conducted sociological analyses of each community he visited.
Frankl, too, had to make decisions about his Jewish identity. After sailing into Jaffa, he was led by a local Jewish guide to a nearby monastery where they were to spend the night. But his guide was refused a bed. “My first impulse was to follow him,” Frankl wrote. “The reflection, however, that there was no [other] inn overcame my feeling of resentment, and I remained.”
My first day in Syria, I had to put my policy of silence to the test. Heading east on a local bus toward the old Roman city of Bosra, I met Mahmoud, a Syrian soldier on a day’s leave. We had chatted only briefly before he invited me to his home for tea.
“Welcome,” he repeated, smiling a little bashfully. Knowing that Syrians have a reputation for hospitality, I hopped off the bus with him, two kilometers short of Bosra. I trusted him but knew that I had to be careful about revealing too much. Tea became lunch, which became dinner, and I realized that I was expected to spend the night. Never leaving the carpeted guest room except for bathroom breaks, I bobbed and weaved through a stream of Mahmoud’s family’s and friends’ earnest questions: Why do you wear earrings? Why are you drinking mineral water? What is your God? Flipping through TV channels, Mahmoud found a film subtitled in Hebrew and Arabic.
“Israeli,” he said flatly. “We hate Israel,” Mahmoud followed. “They kill children.” I stiffened, but held my tongue. Mahmoud went out of his way to demonstrate his tolerance of me as a Christian, explaining how Muslims and Christians are so similar, but what if I had told him I was Jewish?
After breakfast the following day, Mahmoud’s father stopped by to say hello. An old man with a cheerful grin on his grizzled face, he spoke not a word of English. As we smiled at each other, I wondered if he ever fought the Israelis. Motioning to me, he removed his head scarf and passed it to me. This is totally absurd, I thought. He gently pressed the band on my head and Mahmoud recorded the moment with my camera. I smiled goofily into the lens, the mixture of deception and affection felt comic. “My father says you look beautiful,” Mahmoud told me. I left Mahmoud’s house thrilled that I had seen the real Syria my very first day, and finally made it to Bosra, where I caught a bus to Damascus.
As an American-born Ashkenazi, I, like Frankl, had no family connections to the region. When he visited Damascus, Frankl recorded that there were 5,000 Jews, but counted only eight or 10 Ashkenazi men, who were all married to Sephardi women. Jews were not hated at that time like the Christians or Turks, Frankl observed, because they didn’t “aim at political influence or superiority.” His words were shockingly prescient, for the following year, 1860, there was a horrible massacre of Damascene Christians by Muslims in response to the civil war in Lebanon. The Christian quarter was utterly destroyed, but few if any Jews suffered during the week of violence. Jews were not the target of systematic violence in Syria until 1947, which lead to waves of emigration that finally concluded in 1992.
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Now only 100 or so Jews remain in Damascus, but I had no idea where. Frankl described eight synagogues, but that was a long time ago, and he provided no map. All I had to go on were the names of two existing synagogues I found on the Internet and a map in my guide book that labels the Jewish quarter in the Old City. So with only those few bits of information, I wandered the alleged location of the Jewish quarter of Damascus, determined to find my people.
The Old City is deceptive, and as soon as I left the overflowing souks, the streets became lined with plain plastered walls broken by unmarked doors and small storefronts. In Damascus, what you see is rarely what you get; the plainest of walls can hide the most splendid of palaces. Despite being in a totally foreign city where I did not even speak the language, I assumed it would be easy to pick out the synagogues by looking for a house of worship that lacked both minaret and cross.
By then I had learned that in the Middle East, a six-pointed Star of David is not the exclusively Jewish symbol it is in the West. Steadily growing more frustrated by my inability to just show up and find my co-religionists, I had to make a decision. While I carefully guarded my identity with Mahmoud, I realized the only way to find the Jews was to trust the Arabs.
On my second day of failure, I met a friendly Iranian man named Jay who had lived in Texas for a few years and spoke fluent English. In town on business, Jay invited me to his rented room for tea. I decided, he’s the one, this guy will help me. Pausing momentarily to reconsider, I explained my predicament.
Jay agreed without hesitation, and spoke enough Arabic to navigate the neighborhood. The Old City looked different to me now as I confidently strode behind my Virgil. We came to the little square in the center of the Jewish quarter, where two old men sat on crates playing backgammon. One of the men explained to Jay that he knew of seven or eight synagogues, the same number that Frankl visited. Astounded, I followed the old man to the closest one, a mere 10 meters away. I would have walked by a million times and never have found it. “Come back tomorrow at 6,” Jay translated.
It amazed me how this Muslim man knew exactly when Shabbat evening services were. Ecstatic at my triumph, I went back with Jay and drank as many glasses of tea as he wanted to serve.
That evening at 6 I returned, but the synagogue was dark, and my repeated knocks on the steel door unanswered. Not knowing who or where to turn, I did what always seemed to work in the Middle East: I stood around looking clueless, knowing eventually someone would come over and help me. Under a light across the narrow street from the silent door of the synagogue, a tough-looking Syrian approached. Wordlessly, he made a gesture that I interpreted as “What the hell are you doing here?” Without thinking, I pointed to the door behind him and meekly asked “kineesa?” (temple). The man considered my words, stared me in the eye, made a slight wave of his hand, and began to walk away. I decided to follow him, not knowing who he was or where he was taking me, but all my defenses were down now and I could only have faith that following him would somehow lead me to the Jews. We rounded a few corners and came across a three other Syrian men in black. In halting English, one asked me what I wanted. Hearing the dull murmurs of Hebrew prayer in the building behind me, I finally comprehended that they were security guards and breathlessly confessed that I was an American Jew and I came there to go to the synagogue and would they please let me in. The man took my name, which he translated into Arabic on a scrap of paper, and led me through a gate to the door.
I expected to see old white-bearded men wearing turbans, so was shocked to find a small congregation of only a dozen or so men, but of all ages, including two boys who looked like they could have just celebrated their bar mitzvah. A half dozen children, boys and girls, ran around wildly. A middle-aged man who looked like the father of a kid I went to Hebrew School with shook my hand, but before he gave me a siddur, asked if I was Jewish. What a ridiculous question, I thought, who else but a Jew would go through that ordeal to find them, but I simply said yes. More chaotically enthusiastic than I was accustomed, the men sung the prayers too quickly for me to keep up.
By the time Adon Olam was uttered, the men had their coats on and were walking to the door. I chatted for a few minutes with a man named Marc who appeared closest to my age, but he never invited me, the lonely traveler, home with him. I was welcome to pray with the community but no one was interested in who I was or how I came to be there. Ten minutes after the doors of the synagogue locked behind me, I was alone again on the dark streets of Damascus, shaking from excitement, but disappointed that I had learned so little about my fellow Jews. I understood that their situation was very fragile and they can’t trust anyone who walks through their doors, even if he says he’s Jewish. But, thinking of Mahmoud’s unquestioning generosity, the irony did not escape me.
The following day I trekked back to the Old City. Marc had invited me to their Shabbat morning services at a different synagogue, the al-Franj. Struggling to follow the Torah reading, I looked up from my book to notice a man waving to me from the bimah at the center of the synagogue. Knowing I was being summoned for an aliyah, I was gripped with a profound sense of destiny. One whirlwind Shabbat over 140 years ago, the Viennese Jew Ludwig Frankl visited the eight synagogues in Damascus. Frankl had an aliyah at Dei Franchi, the finest one frequented by the community’s leading families. While Frankl observed that 200 women spread their arms in fervent devotion to the Torah, I saw no women or girls in attendance that morning. But the building must have been the same. The marble floors, gray stone arches, and intricate carved wood arabesques seemed ageless.
After I stepped down from the bimah, I shook the hands of the men and boys, privately delighting in my re-enactment of Frankl’s experience from so long ago. I had found my connection after all, not with the Syrian Arabs or Jews, but with the other travelers who leave their prejudices behind and open themselves to the possibilities of the world.