Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"What the Hell Is a Syrian Jew?" by Dianne Cohler-Esses

“A Common Language between East and West”
Dianne Cohler-Esses
 Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol.19, No. 1(Spring, 2003), pp. 111-118 
"What the Hell Is a Syrian Jew?"
In this multicultural age, I have found it fashionable to be a Syrian Jew. Jews of European descent have been fascinated with stories of my community and especially the fact that I left it to become the first Syrian Jewish female rabbi and the first non-Orthodox Syrian rabbi, male or female. Not knowing how to approach this strange world, they often relate to being Sephardic through a familiar symbol. "That's so exotic!" they exclaim. "Does that mean you eat rice on Passover?" "Yes," I answer, exasperated that the sum of my culture is reduced to the luxury of eating grains on a spring holiday.

My story is one I've used, self-conscious of the status that it has bought me, a status I've enjoyed to a point. That point came when I was walking home with my husband one evening a couple of years ago, reflecting on the lectures I'd given and the story I'd told again and again. "It's old," I said. "I'm kind of sick of it." I began doing a little dance, singing, "I'm the first Syrian Jewish woman rabbi." That's when I knew it was time to move on. The story had be come a tired and overplayed melody. 
I didn't quite believe the story I had told anymore. I no longer believed that leaving the community of Syrian Jews was just like the Israelites' experience of leaving Egypt. I have come to realize that my community is not merely a culture of oppression, nor a literary prop around which I can construct a public or, for that matter, private narrative. Neither is the community in which I find myself now the promised land. That archetypal myth served its function it spurred me on when it was so hard to leave my community and gave me strength to carve out a new life. Yet it led to disappointment. Reality is much too complex to be contained by the elegant literary structure of the Exodus story.

So here I will attempt to tell the story again, but perhaps differently. This time I will aim for the necessary complexity (and thus, perhaps, less popular appeal?). For it's not just exodus and victory; it's loneliness and yearning. It's the emergence from a complex, multifaceted, and difficult past into a complex, multifaceted, difficult present. In this moment-to-moment life we all grope through, there is only the rare moment that resembles the ideal of redemption.

When I first graduated from college, having just fled the Syrian community, my first job was to run an oral-history project of the immigrant elders of the Syrian community. The stories I was privileged to listen to for the next four years taught me to respect the historical heart of this community, a heart I had previously rejected. I came to understand the elders' story as a part of my own.

For example, the following story reaches back to the 1930s. Mal Dweck, of the Syrian community in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, spoke of an incident that took place at the home of an Ashkenazi friend during his teenage years. By the time my colleagues and I interviewed him, in the early 1980s, Mal was blind from old age.

We had little gatherings at her [the friend, Sylvia's] house.... Now, I could not read Yiddish. I knew how to read Hebrew letters, but I could not read Yiddish.... My skin was dark. I looked like an Italian. So Sylvia said to her grandfather that I'm Jewish. He says to her, "Baloney, this guy's no Jew." She says to him, "Yes, he is." She says to me, "Go prove it." And so he says to me, "Come prove it." So he says, "Here. Here's the Jewish Forward. Read it." But I told him, "I can't read this, Mr. Goldner, I can't read that. But I'll do better than that." I said, "You wanna hear the prayer for wine? Which prayer you wanna hear?" So I started rattling. "Enough, stop!" Grandpa says. "You're Jewish but you don't look it!" Grandpa says. "Well I am. I'm a Syrian Jew." Says Grandpa, "What the hell is a Syrian Jew?"(Yael Zerubavel and Dianne Esses, “The Story of a Journey” in From Aleppo to New York: Syrian Jewish Immigration 1900-1924 (Brooklyn: Sephardic Archives, 1986)

This story issues a challenge. What is the American Jewish community's notion of Jewish identity? Is it informed only by the majority of its population? Perhaps broadening those conceptions might inject new possibilities into Jewish identity.

Try this test: What do you think of when you think of each of these things: Jewish mother, Jewish food, Jewish values, Jewish music? If your immediate answers include images from Portnoy's Complaint, matzo balls, higher education, and klezmer, then it's time to reexamine your assumptions.

The Middle East in Brooklyn
 My people move like birds, in flocks. My ancestors left Syria and alighted on these shores in the first quarter of the twentieth century. They came to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they settled in a sea of Yiddish-speaking Jews. From the Lower East Side they migrated to Brooklyn, where they reside to this day.

The sounds of my people, their prayer and song, are distinctively Middle Eastern. Hebrew poems written specifically for life-cycle events and other celebrations are set to popular Arab melodies. To a Western ear, the sounds of a Syrian synagogue seem to emerge more from a mosque than from a synagogue.

Syrian tastes are of mint, lemon, garlic, cumin, and allspice, dried fruits and nuts, pastry made of phyllo dough. Honey and nuts follow the sour and sometimes sweet tastes of vegetables stuffed with meat and rice, the salads and pine nuts, the whole and mashed chickpeas, the ground sesame seeds and mounds of moist white rice-always rice, with every meal.

 The money in this community is made in family businesses, the mantle handed from father to son. Some of the most well-known Syrian-owned American businesses over the years have included (the notorious) Crazy Eddie, Bon Jour Jeans, and Duane Reade drugstores. Syrian-owned retail stores dot Forty second Street in Manhattan. When non-Syrians enter a store, SY's (the name by which Syrian Jews refer to themselves, which is an abridged form of the word Syrian) immediately begin speaking insider slang-a special mix of pig latin and Arabic (believe it or not).

In the Syrian American community, men and women live their lives in very different spheres. Women marry at an early age (between seventeen and twenty-two), flying straight from their fathers' homes into their husbands', where their job is to run the household. Men generally go into the family business, working long hours. Though there are significant exceptions-most notably among the more recent immigrants from Syria-the community overall is wealthy. Most families own two homes, one in Brooklyn and a summer place in Deal, New Jersey, where one can see well-groomed children riding their bikes or roller-blading and Hispanic housekeepers congregating on corners.

 Although the internal life of this community is undeniably drawn from Syria, its externals are a different matter. Aesthetics reflect contemporary America. Both men and women wear strikingly fashionable clothes, drive ex pensive cars, and live in large and expensively decorated homes.

Despite a high degree of external acculturation, the cohesion of this community is remarkable, and the subject of some study and debate in academic circles. Whereas young Ashkenazic girls and boys are groomed to go off to college and follow where their careers take them, Syrians remain flocked together, sharing schools, synagogues, and community centers. Hardly anyone leaves the community. To do so is to betray its central rule: each member is to stay close to home, psychically and physically; each is to strengthen the chains of tradition. There are few who experience-at least few who publicly ac knowledge experiencing-those chains as imprisoning.

The West Invades Little Syria in Brooklyn
 As early as my adolescence, I began to see that the model for a young Syrian girl was not form e. It was like a shoe that was too small: when I tried to put it on, it was painful and stopped growth. For example, I loved ideas and de bating current issues with my father. This was not something my girlfriends ever did. Among this group of fashionable, well-groomed young girls, I was a tomboy-often sweaty and messy from roller-skating and basketball. Obedience is fundamental to Syrian family life, yet I loved to break rules. Finally, unlike my peers, I had no extended family or even siblings around to anchor me. Alienation from my parents was enough to send me spiraling away from this world to become one set apart.

In my yeshiva day school, the Syrians were like the stereotyped Puerto Ricans scattered amid the middle class in urban public schools, with their swarthy skin, the girls' careful makeup, and the boys' open shirts, tight pants, and thick gold chains. Syrians date earlier than, have a better sense of rhythm than, and generally act superior to their Ashkenazic counterparts. And al though I didn't fit into the Syrian profile, I didn't fit in with the Ashkenazic social world either. "They" spent their time studying and planning for college. I was being groomed (although quite unsuccessfully) for nothing else besides marriage.

I never really found my place but would move back and forth between Syrian and Ashkenazic groups of friends. By the time I went to college, I had rejected everything Syrian. To me, the Syrian community was materialistic, shallow, and oppressive. I rejected Judaism wholesale as irrational and restrictive. I yearned for the power that I thought socialism and feminism would provide. Unacknowledged was my sense of utter failure in Syrian terms. Secretly I still fantasized being skinny, beautiful, and desirable to Syrian boys.

In college I studied religion and philosophy. In one class I read Martin Buber and Abraham Isaac Kook. My response was, "This is Judaism? This is nothing like what I studied in yeshiva!" This stuff was redemptive and yet it was Jewish. Until now those two adjectives had been contradictory.

 Seeking redemption in my own religion, I decided to go to rabbinical school. But first I had to tell my parents. I told them during dinner at a kosher dairy restaurant on West Seventy-second Street. My father created the perfect opening: "Just what are you doing with your life? You never made a commitment to anything!"
"Well, that may be true," I said, "but there's something I want to make a commitment to now." "What?" he asked suspiciously. I took a breath, said, "I'm planning to go to rabbinical school next year," and held that same breath longer.
"Rabbinical school!" my father exclaimed with a look of disbelief. "That's hard! You've never done anything hard in your life."
Meanwhile my mother looked like she had just been hit by a truck.
"Mom! Mom! Are you OK?"
"I'm OK." She spoke slowly. "Just give me a minute to digest this."
Her expression remained frozen. I knew it would take much longer than a minute. I felt like I was killing her.
My father interrupted our interaction. "Why don't you get married and have a man put you through school?"
"I don't need a man to put me through school. I can put myself through school."
"If you marry a rich man, you can do whatever you want."
"I can do whatever I want now."
"What about marriage and children?"
"I want that too."
"First things first."
"OK. First I'll go to rabbinical school."

I again turned to my mother. I knew my father was tough and that by now he expected the unexpected from me. My mother, however, was a different story. She grew up in Haiti and South America, expected women to be sweet and passive, and had no concept of them in the public sphere. My mother thought it was "cute" when I graduated from college. She thought that none of the work I had ever done was "serious," that I was just waiting for the right man to marry. How would she take this news? I was terrified that I would destroy her, that it would destroy our relationship, that the gap it created could never again be crossed by words.

"Mom, are you OK?" I repeated, begging her to respond to me, to reassure me that we still had a common language.

"It's just that I can't imagine it," she said. "I can say 'my daughter, the teacher,' or 'my daughter, the social worker,' or even what you're doing now .. but 'my daughter, the rabbi'?"

The West Is Not Redemptive After All
The only Jewish world available to me-as a searching, questioning woman- was the Ashkenazic world. This new land embodied for me all the Western notions I had come to hold as true and liberating: choice, equality, education, and individualism. Instead, I discovered another culture that had its own limitations and was as blind to the consequences of those limitations as the culture I grew up in. Again I found a world in which men and women married early and in which enshrined values were not questioned, a world which the outside world was slow to seep through. I was in shock.

Where was the semi nary of my dreams, the one in which people battled over the meanings of feminism, justice, spirituality, and God? The one where being single and/or gay shared legitimacy with being married and/or straight?

Moreover, in the place I came to search for my Jewish roots, my own roots were invisible. I found that, in all the classes I took, the Jews of the East disappeared after they left Spain, as if they disappeared entirely off the historical map. In response to my questions as to why the history of the Mizrahi Jews was not included in courses on modern Jewish history, I received one of two answers: "Because the Jews of the East haven't entered the modem period," or, "Because my students are Ashkenazic, becoming rabbis of Ashkenazic congregations. They don't need to know or teach about the history of the Jews from the East."

After that, I was silent concerning my own history. Not only was I an oppressed minority; I was essentially a minority of one. There wasn't much organizing I could do, and no one else was interested. I knew then that I really was a stranger in two worlds. Although I had become a stranger to the world I came from, I could never feel at home in the world I had entered.

There Is No Redemption in Redemption
I then was invited into another community, and this time I was sure I had found liberation. I was asked to join a radical feminist Jewish collective that was consciously aiming toward embodying the value of multiculturalism. And I would help them by joining. There I was honored because of my background. There my oppression and invisibility gave me clout. Little did I know that some other parts of myself would not be so welcome.

The first time I went to the group, I was asked to teach. I decided to teach some rabbinic texts that I believed could be used for feminist purposes. One of the members of the group interrupted my teaching to yell at me: "How could you teach traditional texts without naming them as patriarchal first? How could you do it without critiquing, apologizing, rejecting?" (It is hard for me to remember the exact words she said, because I was so terrified at the time. It was clear, however, that I was fast losing my status in the group.)

I was stunned. I had thought I was a feminist! I had thought I was using feminist perspectives on Jewish texts. My God, I realized, I wasn't radical at all. In that group I was traditional. In that group I represented oppression. There were many in the group who didn't want to use Jewish texts at all. I had brought, that weekend, a Hebrew Bible to study in my free time. Walking around with it, I felt like I was harboring forbidden literature. It tied me to the patriarchy, to everything oppressive. I learned that whereas my oppressed self had currency in that group, the self who loved Jewish texts didn't. The feminist road to redemption was destroying my Jewish road to redemption. Again I had to cut off part of myself, or so I believed, to become part of a community. Again I felt like a stranger with vital limbs amputated. In this group of Jewish feminists, at least in the first several years, I felt a sense of exile rather than exodus.

A Common Language between East and West?
When I am in the community of my origins, I represent the West. I am a kind of outlaw, a strange, genderless creature who has chosen a male profession. I am the one who has left, who has betrayed community and history, who has rejected everything the community stands for. And yet members of that community danced at my wedding (having survived an egalitarian ceremony) and came to the celebrations of my children's births (even a covenant ceremony for my daughter!). Despite all the broken rules, still to them I am a Syrian Jew. Still I belong to them. As long as the rabbi part of me is unrecognized, they will acknowledge me and celebrate with me, or at least the life-cycle events of my family.

When I am among the Ashkenazis, I represent the East-exotic, dark skinned, rice-eating on Pesach-a traveler from another world. They want some of my exoticism; they often envy it. Truly I am Sephardic, some tell me. I relate much more to that culture than to Ashkenazic Jewry, they say. I do not tell them that being Sephardic is more than eating rice on Passover and preferring the cuisine, that one cannot claim a Mizrahi identity unless one has grown up with its ethos, with a culture that binds.

And to myself, I still yearn to be accepted by the community that raised me, that gave me history and identity-yet I cannot live on its terms. So I live in an Ashkenazic world, speaking the language of the West, a language still foreign to me. This new realm-in which my friends grew up with working mothers and professional, educated parents and went to the finest colleges, in which my female friends were raised to work in the outside world, to be challenged there, and to make money-is alien to me. I pretend to speak the language, but it is not native. I practice it when I am alone so that my friends and colleagues will not guess that I am posing as a Westerner and as a rabbi. The masks I wear eclipse the possibility of integration, of living fluently.

Perhaps this promised land I was seeking is more accessible than I knew. Perhaps it is a small ground, a land I call my psyche, the only place where all my histories and worlds come together. Although it is also the place where these worlds are divided against each other, perhaps therein lies the possibility for integration, for giving rise to new visions of being Jewish.

I often experience being pulled painfully taut by two competing and contradictory histories, those of the East and the West. Perhaps when, or if, I can give rise to a new internal vision in which each does not contradict the other, I can begin to speak a language common to East and West, and can even teach it to others. Perhaps there will be a day when a Jewish voice will be raised with the deep understanding of the vast multiplicity of the Jewish people, offering the world vision in healing the painful and violent terrain between East and West, a prophetic vision in which the lion can lie with the lamb and East and West do not have to destroy one another.

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