The Last Three Jews of Qamishli
It is raining in the afternoon when I find myself walking along Sharia al-‘Am, the main street of town. I pass numerous shops, peering into them to see which is most empty, until I come upon an electronics store where a group of three men sits idly, chatting among themselves. “I am looking,” I announce in Arabic, “for a man named David Pinchas.” The men all look at each other quizzically, so I make my inquiry clearer: “Not Muslim, not Christian.”
“Jew?” one of them asks. I nod. “All the Jews have left,” says another man, chuckling.
This is basically true. There are no more than 50 Jews in Damascus, and the once flourishing community of Aleppo has vanished. Here in Qamishli, the situation is about as bleak.
Damascus is a nine-hour bus ride away, and the sprint to the Turkish border is but 800 meters from here, but the regime’s presence is strongly felt. In this town of 300,000 in the far northeast of Syria, pictures of former president Hafez al-Assad and his son, current president Bashar, are ubiquitous, as is praise for the Ba’ath Party.
Yet the diversity is unmistakable: stores not only have signs written in Arabic, but in Armenian and Kurdish as well. Numerous accents and languages can be heard throughout the main market. Qamishli is home to diverse ethnic and religious communities: Arabs, Turks, Armenian Christians, Kurds and, as I have been told, even Jews. Those are the ones I am looking for – relatives of a friend of mine – the last remaining Jews of Qamishli.
It was during my graduate studies at Hebrew University that I befriended an immigrant from Syria named Ya’acov. He was born in Qamishli and came to Israel in 1994, after Assad the father issued passports to the Jews of Syria. Almost all of them summarily emigrated, mostly to the United States and Israel. When Ya’acov made aliya he was 16; he still speaks Hebrew with an Arabic accent.
When I told Ya’acov I would be going to Syria for a year on a research fellowship, he was excited for me. Yet when I asked him about his remaining family in Qamishli – an uncle, aunt and one cousin – he did not encourage a visit. Fearing for my safety and his family’s as well, he gave me their name but no more information than that. No address, no telephone number. Ask around, posing as a “naive tourist,” Ya’acov instructed me. Then, he said, I might find them.
Back in the electronics store, one of the men decides to help a naive tourist.
“You want Abu Albert,” he says, using the soft, t-less French pronunciation of the name. “Walk 500 meters down this street. The place is there,” he says, pointing.
After some more asking around, I finally find the place. It is a real estate office, and when I enter it, finding an old man with four of his colleagues around him, I realize why Ya’acov had been so scared for me and for his family’s safety. How will I tell this man that I know his nephew from Jerusalem – in the presence of Syrians?
I bend the truth a bit, saying I know the family from the United States (they do have family there, in any case). But none of this registers with the old man. The other men in the room eye me cautiously.
In the Arab tradition David is called Abu Albert, “the father of Albert,” his first son. (Albert’s Hebrew name is Avraham.) However, it is another son, Musa, who arrives about a half-hour after me, and I tell him the same story. That Musa looks exactly like his cousin Ya’acov confirms that I am in the right place, but the suspicion in his eyes is unmistakable. Though I am welcomed with customary Arab hospitality, offered tea and brought into discussion about my time in Damascus, I think of how I can tell my friend’s family who I am and the real reason for my visit in Qamishli.
The opportunity finally comes when Musa closes the office for the day. As we walk out, he grabs me by the arm and asks, still in Arabic, if I want to speak alone. I nod. We take a ride around town in his car, at which point I tell him that I am Jewish, that I know his cousin Ya’acov from Israel, and that Ya’acov gave me information about the family in Qamishli. I take out the pictures I had taken of Ya’acov’s family before I left Israel.
Having established my identity and my connection to the family, I feel somewhat relieved. We drive to a restaurant in town and sit down to a large meal of grilled fish, hummus, baba gannoush, french fries, beer, Arab salad and pita, and order nargilas to smoke. What’s left of Musa’s family – he is one of eight children, the rest of whom have left for the United States and Israel – straddles the line between prosperity and ruin. His parents are old, and he has taken over the family business, which include numerous real estate and construction projects in both Qamishli and Aleppo. In fact, the restaurant where we had dined is located in a five-story building that the Pinchases’ company had financed.
While he does not say so explicitly, Musa implies that leaving Syria would mean losing all of these investments. The average Syrian makes about $3,000 annually. Musa says he made close to $100,000 per year.
My mind is racing with questions about what life is like for Musa and his parents, the last three Jews in Qamishli. But before I can ask any of them, he asks me one of his own. “Do you eat meat?” I nod – earning a stern look from Musa.
“You mean you eat unkosher meat?” The question takes me completely by surprise. I am not a vegetarian, and while I don’t eat chicken and beef all the time, I do eat them. And, I note, there is not exactly a plethora of kosher butchers in Damascus. I don’t even know where to buy kosher meat, I say. “Where do you get kosher meat from?” I ask.
Musa explains that the Jewish community in Damascus has a relationship with a shochet in Turkey, who delivers kosher meat and chicken to them on a regular basis. When Musa goes to Damascus on business, he picks up kosher meat. It was if to say, I drive nine hours to get kosher meat, imported from another country, and you eat treif?
“And you keep Shabbat as well?” I ask. “Of course,” he replies. Proof comes presently. As we finish the rest of the grilled fish and order our sweet tea, I am invited to the Pinchases’ home for Shabbat – my first Shabbat in Syria with Jews, in fact.
In Jerusalem, Jews are used to the Friday afternoon air siren that announces the arrival of Shabbat. In Qamishli, as in the rest of Syria, the muezzin (Muslim prayer caller) announces the maghreb prayer at sunset. For the Pinchas family, the muezzin’s “Allahu Akbar” at sunset indicates the start of Shabbat.
Musa lives with his parents, David and Simcha, in a rather large apartment. During a brief tour of the house, he shows me the spot on the wall of the living room commemorating Jerusalem, and a metal wall hanging with the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew in the dining room.
Then, as my eyes turn from the words in Hebrew to the adjacent wall, my jaw drops. There hangs a large, framed picture of the dictator with the caption, “General Hafez Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic.” “Isn’t that a little strange, to have the Ten Commandments and Hafez Assad on display in the same room?” I ask Musa.
“Why should it be?” he replies. “In the United States, synagogues have the American flag on one side and the Israeli flag on the other. This is the same thing.”David, the patriarch of the family, agrees. At 70, he has weathered the coups, rebellions and political turmoil that mark Syria’s 20th-century history, which ended with Assad’s taking of power in 1970 and the establishment of political stability heretofore unknown. In September of 2005, as a representative of the Jewish community – or, as the Syrian government refers to it, the “Mosaic” community – David and Musa were invited to Damascus to meet with President Bashar Assad. Two walls of their downtown office feature large photographs of the encounter.
Over a dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables, I tell the family about their cousins in Israel, and we sing zemirot from the family siddur. And then we discuss the virtues of Assad. “The president wants peace with Israel,” David says. “And he wants the Jews to return. We met with him for an hour and he was a very good man. He talked about his life in London, when he went to the kosher butcher shop to buy meat [that was ritually fit for a Muslim to eat]. He wants to improve relations between Jews and other Syrians.”
The Pinchases are supportive of Israel; in their home on Friday afternoon, we all watched Israeli TV via satellite, with me translating the Hebrew reports of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s condition into Arabic for them. Anything Jewish or Israeli excites them – but there is a sort of emotional wall between them and Jews outside Syria, and especially family living in Israel.
Ya’acov calls the Pinchases frequently (they cannot call him), but in general they seem to view their family in Israel as people who have moved on and left them in Syria. It is as if those who left for the Jewish state have crossed a diplomatic boundary. The Pinchases, sighing, view them as people of their past whom they will never see again.
“What are you still doing here?” I ask Musa. “Don’t you get lonely here? Don’t you want to get married and have a family of your own? Doesn’t being Jewish cause problems for you?”
For decades, Jews have given up everything to come to the US or Israel. Musa, who looks much younger than his 32 years, isn’t ready to do so. “All of my friends here know I’m Jewish, it’s no problem,” he replies. “I have friends who are Christian, Muslim, Kurdish. Everyone knows I’m Jewish, I don’t have to hide it. I am not ready to have a family yet. I go out with some girls, but it’s nothing serious. I work a lot, and to relax I go to restaurants with my friends.”
“So, what are you,” I ask finally, “Syrian, Arab, or Jewish?”
“I am all three,” Musa replies. “I am Jewish, but I am also an Arab and a Syrian. There is really no contradiction between these three things. I was born Jewish, but I was also born in an Arab country, in Syria.”