About a 10-minute stroll from Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, at the end of a nondescript old street, is a little-known cultural treasure. Walk through a little easy-to-miss gateway at the side of a small synagogue, proceed down a short passageway, go through a door and up a flight of stairs and you have entered the rich, colorful world of Syrian Jews - specifically the Jews of the city called "Halab" in Arabic, "Aram Soba" in the Bible, and known to the world as Aleppo.
Consisting of an office, a conference room with display cases and a small library, these are the headquarters of the Aleppo Jews Heritage Center. Although not well known to the general public, the center is not new. It was established 23 years ago to collect and document all aspects of the Aleppo Jewish community's long history, preserve its rich culture, and conduct and support new research.
The center's current managing director, Ezra Kassin, 40, stresses that these activities are by no means intended solely for the benefit of Jews from Aleppo and their descendants, collectively known as "Aleppo Jews."
"The center is definitely for the general public as well as Aleppo Jews," he declares. "The Jewish people are composed of different parts. Each one together makes a beautiful picture. We want to show our part here. The Jewish community of Aleppo is ancient. It dates from biblical times, from the time of King David. Throughout our history, the Aleppo community has had many rich traditions that we want to show and share with all of the Jewish people."
JEWISH COMMUNITIES are to be found all over the world, each with its own unique history and traditions. What is so special about this group of Jews? Why have such writers as historian Sarina RoffÃ© called the Aleppo Jewish community "aristocratic and nobleâ€¦ the crown of splendor in the Sephardi world?"
For one thing, as Kassin states, it is indeed very old. According to RoffÃ©, "It is a hoary Aleppo legend, both Jewish and Muslim, that the patriarch Abraham had settled for a period in Aleppo in his wanderings from his native Ur. He is believed to have milked his cows there. Halab, the Arabic name for Aleppo, is the Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic for 'milked.'"
Biblical accounts date the Jewish presence in Aleppo to around 950 BCE, when King David's general, Joab Ben-Zeruya, conquered the city (2 Samuel 8: 3-18) and, according to legend, laid the foundations for its Great Synagogue. Historians, however, tend toward the opinion that the Great Synagogue dates from the 5th century CE, at the time of Byzantine rule.
The Arabs arrived some 200 years later, ushering in Muslim rule and a lengthy period of Jewish self-government and relative autonomy. And as Aleppo became an increasingly important way station along the caravan routes heading east and west, the Jews of Aleppo became skillful and very successful traders, a talent they maintain to the present day.
More importantly, Aleppo at this time became a major center for Jewish scholarship and learning, its rabbis achieving preeminence throughout the Near East and North Africa. Much of Aleppo's fame throughout the Diaspora in later centuries came from its being the home of the Aleppo Codex - until recently the oldest complete text of the Hebrew Bible.
It has traditionally been seen as the single most authoritative source for the original biblical text, punctuation and cantillation, or chanting. Some believe that it is, in fact, the biblical text.
Transcribed more than 1,000 years ago, the manuscript was presented to the Jewish community of Jerusalem. Captured and held for ransom by Crusaders during the First Crusade, it was rescued by the Jews of Ashkelon and transported to Egypt where, in the Rabbanite Synagogue of Cairo, it was consulted by Maimonides when he was determining the exact way to copy Torah scrolls.
Descendants of Maimonides brought the manuscript to Aleppo and presented it to the Jewish community, who have forever after referred to it as Keter Aram Soba, the Crown of Aleppo. The Aleppo Codex was deposited in a small vault in the Cave of Elijah, under the Great Synagogue, where it was kept and guarded for 600 years.
At the end of the 15th century, the native Arabic-speaking Jews of Aleppo, known as Musta'arabim, were joined by waves of Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. Although attracted to Aleppo by its reputation for Torah learning and wealth, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews remained aloof from the native Jews and initially refused to mix with them. In time, however, the two communities converged almost seamlessly into one.
Kassin says: "Every place else the Spanish and Portuguese Jews went, they held onto their customs, to their Spanish and to their Portuguese and to their Ladino. In Aleppo, they threw all that away and became like the older community, the Musta'arabim, with everyone speaking Arabic."
Life for the Jews of Aleppo during most of Ottoman rule was good - certainly better than that of most of their coreligionists in central and eastern Europe.
Aleppo continued to be a source of Jewish scholarship and a magnet for Jewish students from throughout the Sephardi world. Jews continued to prosper as traders in the caravan routes. The community was governed largely by its own leaders and lived with its Muslim neighbors in peace.
The community was dealt some hard economic blows in the mid-19th century, however, as the industrial revolution disrupted the traditional flow of trade, and as the opening of the Suez Canal destroyed the old caravan routes that had linked East and West for hundreds of years.
As the Ottoman Empire fell apart during World War I, Jews began leaving Aleppo and Syria, and started their great migrations to New York, as well as to cities in Central and South America. The initial trickle became a flood during the 1920s, with most Aleppo Jews finding their way to Brooklyn, and later to beach resort towns in New Jersey, notably Longbranch, Oakhurst and Deal. This extended area, with its center in Brooklyn, remains the largest and most powerful community of Aleppo Jews today.
Immigration, now to destinations all over the world, accelerated throughout the 1930s and 1940s and spiked after the anti-Jewish riots of 1947. During the rioting, Aleppo's Great Synagogue was torched and the Aleppo Codex was damaged. The Codex then disappeared for 11 years, resurfacing in 1958 when it was smuggled into Israel and presented to then-president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
The once complete, purportedly biblical text was now missing much of its contents. Of the original 487 pages, only 295 had survived. Two additional pages have turned up since then, suggesting the possibility that more of the manuscript may still exist. The Aleppo Codex is now housed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
AFTER YEARS of persecution under former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, the remaining Jews of Syria were allowed to leave the country in 1992. While there is probably not a single Jew remaining in Aleppo, communities of "Aleppo Jews" are to be found today throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Panama and, of course, Israel, where they are concentrated primarily in Jerusalem, Holon and Bat Yam.
"The real irony here is that the maximum number of Jews in Aleppo, throughout our history there, was maybe - maybe - 20,000. Certainly no more than that," says Kassin. "And now, today, there are hundreds of thousands of Aleppo Jews all over the world. In New York alone there are maybe 100,000. There are more Aleppo Jews just living in Brooklyn than there ever were in Aleppo."
Although few of today's Aleppo Jews have ever actually set foot in Aleppo, the ties between the people and the place remain strong. A major recent event in the community was the publication last year of a large, sumptuously illustrated cookbook entitled Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews by Poopa Dweck, an Aleppo Jewish woman from Deal, New Jersey.
Not only a cookbook, Aromas of Aleppo is also a comprehensive ethnological documentation of Aleppo cuisine, with numerous pages of information about the customs and folkways of Aleppo Jews.
During a visit to Israel to promote the book, Dweck stopped by the Aleppo Jews Heritage Center to present a copy to the library. Speaking before the center's board of directors, Dweck said, "We Aleppo Jews have lost our homeland. All of us are now in Diaspora."
EVEN IF one does not buy into the idea that Aleppo Jews are somehow "special," one can't help but see them as quite unusual and more than a bit interesting.
Constituting a tight-knit subculture within Judaism that has joyously retained most of its traditions, almost all of its religious observance and, according to some observers, virtually all of its distinctive cuisine, Aleppo Jews are an ethnic group within an ethnic group - a Jewish diaspora within the Jewish Diaspora - maintaining strong notions of uniqueness and even stronger feelings of pride.
Even more noteworthy is the fact that each of these communities is connected to other Aleppo communities around the world through ties of travel, business and, most importantly, marriage.
As Kassin explains, "The Aleppo people are really proud of their communities. Very proud. Extremely proud - of their community, their culture, their traditions. And, Aleppo people marry Aleppo people. In New York, in Mexico, in Panama - wherever they are - Aleppo people still marry each other. They won't marry outside, not even with people from Damascus.
"There's a huge difference between Aleppo and Damascus Jews - different language, different customs. And if they live in a small Aleppo community, like Hong Kong or Kobe, Japan, if they can't find an Aleppo person to marry, they go looking in other Aleppo communities around the world," he continues. "You may see someone living here, but his brother lives in Buenos Aires and his sister lives in Geneva."
If it were possible for Aleppo Jews to visit Aleppo, would anyone take advantage of the opportunity? Kassin says that people are already going, from all over the world, to visit cemeteries, ancient synagogues and holy places. "The Syrian government is maintaining all of these places. They are not in the best condition, but the government is protecting them, even all of the holy books, from vandalism and theft. The big synagogue has even been renovated somewhat, thanks to money sent by the Aleppo Jewish community in Brooklyn."
Kassin believes that some of the visits to Syria by Aleppo Jews could be used to good advantage. "Two or three years ago, the leadership of the Brooklyn Aleppo community went to Aleppo. They visited President [Bashar] Assad, who welcomed them in his palace. It was all official - he invited them, he welcomed them, they were photographed together smiling," he says.
"There is a good, warm relationship between the community and President Assad and his government. Unfortunately, I don't think that the Israeli government has used this connection at all. The Aleppo community in Brooklyn is very powerful. I think that if our government used this connection the right way, it could go a long way toward the goal of bringing peace between Syria and Israel. But I think that the political leadership here is mostly interested in the Aleppo Jews' money, and not anything more."
Which brings up the matter of Aleppo Jews' legendary skill in business, along with their rumored wealth - both often objects of admiration and envy in other communities in the Sephardi world.
Said to be unbeatable in commerce and highly secretive in business dealings, the Aleppo Jewish businessman presents both a formidable image and persistent stereotype. Aleppo Jews are also reported to form the wealthiest Jewish community in the world.
Asked if there is such a thing as a poor Aleppo Jew, Kassin laughs and replies, "Yeah, me!" He does acknowledge some essential truth to the stereotype, however, and says that Aleppo Jews probably are the wealthiest Jewish community overall.
"You want to know why? I'll tell you. There are two secrets," he explains. "One is our unity. We can go all over the world and not only find Aleppo Jews, but Aleppo Jews that we are related to through blood or marriage. We're more than a community. We're a worldwide family. But the most important secret? It's the ma'aser, the tithe.
"Aleppo Jews are observant, and Jewish law demands that we make the tithe. Aleppo Jews are strict about contributing the proper amounts of money to charity, and that is our real business secret."