‘Memories,” wrote British humorist P.G.Wodehouse, “are like mulligatawny soup in
a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them.” For several years I honored
this dictum. My Damascene Passover from nine years ago existed only in a
As a former student of Near Eastern archaeology I had dreamt
of traveling to Syria. Eighteen years later the opportunity arose. As part of my
arrangements I contacted the US Consulate in Damascus and expressed an interest
in celebrating Passover in the city. I was informed that, whatever the turbulent
history of Syria’s Jews had been, the regime was more concerned with Islamists
than a handful of Jews. Apparently I could celebrate at will. Once the consulate
provided the details of the then-head of the Jewish community, I was on my
Prior to the civil war, Damascus saw a tourist boom and haphazard
attempt to regenerate the Old City, amid much noise from UNESCO. During my
travels in 2004 I didn’t witness this; gentrification was largely invisible. At
that time the Syrian economy was only beginning to creep out from state
There were some tourists, primarily French and Italian. And
there was fine dining in converted palatial homes. But by and large, the Old
City’s residential quarters suffered from neglect and worse.
city did offer was authenticity: monumental Islamic architecture, seven city
gates once dedicated to planets, an original Greek street grid upon which Roman
Damascus was subsequently built. The Madhat Pasha thoroughfare, above the
ancient Via Recta, or “Straight Street” of the New Testament, was as vibrant as
And immediately south, in the Harat al-Yahud, the Jewish
Quarter, history crumbled away.
In former times many Jews lived here in
Ottoman splendor. The majority has since emigrated in waves, the most recent
being 1994. Their ancestral homes, a mix of timber and stone construction, were
now occupied by Palestinians, in and among whom are the remnants of the Jewish
Half a dozen or more synagogues, many of which have
purportedly now been restored by the Assad government, and are maintained by the
Jewish community itself, lay hidden behind alleyways and courtyards.
was here, in a simple home, that I celebrated Passover.
We huddled into a
dining room with benches along all three walls and a substantial table in the
middle. Handmade (shmura) matzah and a copper Seder plate lay before us. The
plate had been made in the Old City by a local coppersmith and the Hagaddah, the
liturgical narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, had been printed in
Other than when the Hagaddah was read (in Hebrew), we conversed
in French. There were nine of us – but the phone did ring three times, and was
answered during the meal each time, so perhaps I should write “10”; we were
under the watchful eye of the Muhabbarat, the Syrian secret police, whose
surveillance discouraged local interaction while also serving to protect the
“What was that I just ate?” I asked my
“Kameh. Kaaaa-meh. Mushroom. It needs thunder.”
I was lost.
The kameh was delicious, but had the texture of a potato, not a mushroom. I did
not understand the reference to thunder at all. Days later I discovered that I
had been served desert truffle, a delicacy much admired by ancient Assyrian
kings and found only after the winter rains. Lightning, necessary for the
nitrogen cycle, was the catalyst, not thunder.
We didn’t conclude the
meal with the traditional “Leshanah Habah B’Yerushalyim” – Next Year in
Jerusalem – but with a re-enactment of the Exodus.
Each of us in turn
held matzah wrapped up in a cloth napkin, as if it were a sack with all of our
worldly belongings, slung over the left shoulder, as we responded to the
question, “Where are you coming from?” “Mizr!” (Egypt!), was the reply. We then
responded to the second question, “Where are you going?” with “Yerushaylim!”
(Jerusalem!), now with the “sack” over our right shoulder, before passing to the
next in attendance.
That was in 2004 when flour was abundant, when
Istanbul could send kosher meat and before the Jewish Quarter became an artist
colony. Today things are very different. Less than two dozen Jews remain. The
synagogues endure with their many Torah scrolls and rich artifacts. I question
how these can still be maintained by so few Jews rather than under the diligent
hands of Messers. Abdulkarim and Khalayli of the Syrian Directorate of
It is worrying. This month’s shelling by Assad’s forces of
the Jobar Synagogue, a site of prayer from early medieval times if not before,
is a case in point. Jobar, located a few kilometers northeast of the Old City,
was the scene of recent fighting. The second Internet video uploaded by members
of the Free Syrian Army illustrates the extent of the damage to exterior
courtyard and surrounding rooms. Thankfully this footage does not reveal damage
to the prayer hall itself, buried deep inside.
What the video does
demonstrate is that, as with Assad’s public stance in favor of preserving
Syria’s Jewish heritage, the FSA, too, understand the sensitivity of the city’s
Jewish past – and what response its eradication will garner.
forces reportedly positioned themselves in the abandoned complex, or the
immediate vicinity, should ring alarm bells.
Call it propaganda by either
party, but it may be a common ground to negotiate out of the quagmire and to try
and ensure that, even if other reminders of the past have faced wanton
destruction, Syria’s unique Jewish heritage need not. Certainly the rescue of
Sarajevo’s Hagaddah, maintained by the Bosnian government during another bloody
conflict, is a fine example of what can be achieved.
And as for Passover?
Damascus may be a distant memory but this year there will be kameh, or “Brunette
Truffles,” the Moroccan equivalent, on the Seder plate.
The writer is a
Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, British Museum, Fitzroy St.