A Syrian Jew’s exodus and return.
When he was nineteen, my father left Aleppo, Syria, without knowing what, exactly, he was escaping. By late 1947, the city was not an impossible place for Jews to live, but it was an increasingly difficult one; crowds in the streets chanted against Zionism, and young Jews like him were often arrested and held for days without explanation. Within two months of his arrival in New York, the United Nations would vote to partition Palestine into two countries, Aleppo’s main synagogue would be torched, and a war would break out between the nation where he was born and the new, neighboring Jewish state claiming to be his home. My father could have fought against either side.
But ‘flee’ would not be the right word; ambition, I’ve learned, is also a part of this story. And yet I have struggled to shape these facts into narrative because I know so little firsthand. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease shortly after I started elementary school, and my early memories are of my mother, whom he met in the United States, managing his decline, from walker to wheelchair to adjustable bed, and of listening to him speak in paragraphs, then sentences, then just a soft and heartbreaking mumble. When he died, at seventy-nine, I was nineteen, the same age at which he had left home, and I felt very ready. It was only later that I would discover how little I knew about him, and how long it would take to build a portrait from the fragments I could find.
After my father’s funeral, our home filled up with his old friends, and I was told so many stories about him that I couldn’t keep them straight. Because my knowledge of his life was so incomplete, his immigration story still played in my mind in fragments that together comprise a longer, related story, the one I tell about myself. I see him pack a suitcase full of pistachios as gifts, leaving behind his clothes because he wants to dress like an American. Then I fast-forward: he attends college, works as an engineer, heads to graduate school, publishes a book, gets tenure, marries my mother, and then finally, at age sixty, becomes a father.
Some of my father’s friends and relatives also saw in his life a certain story about the modern Middle East, one of a deep-rooted hatred of Jews that made it necessary for them to seek safety outside the Arab world, and for Israel to protect them from Muslims. Some Jews take this a step further, accusing Arab societies of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and at times, these accounts seemed to collapse the lives of Jews from Arab countries, like my father, into a grand European narrative, more based on the overwhelming horror of the Holocaust and a passion for Israel than on his actual experiences.
Some of my own memories of my father read as purely Middle Eastern—
I remember him singing in Arabic while dancing with a handkerchief around the living room—while others spoke to a Judaism that was secular but nostalgic. He lit candles and said prayers on Friday nights, a yarmulke atop his shiny head. He sent me to weekly classes at a liberal synagogue, where the rabbi taught a magnanimous, empathic Judaism that leaned on the Torah’s commandment to “show your love for the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Around Passover, the yearly commemoration of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, comparisons to the American struggles against slavery and for civil rights were common. The cantor played acoustic guitar as the children sang “Go Down, Moses.” I didn’t know until much later that the song was an African American spiritual.
In college, when I discovered how many other students supported Israel’s most hawkish tendencies, I bristled against a Judaism I felt was drawn together by a bitter solidarity that saw anti-Semitism in every criticism of the country and embraced a militant aversion to outsiders, to “strangers.” In subconscious protest, I began to study Arabic and travel throughout the Middle East. I met my wife, Emily, in an Arabic class, and I traveled to Israel to meet my father’s siblings. They still spoke the Arabic of their native Aleppo, but they hated Palestinians and had few qualms about the Israeli settlement of the West Bank.
When, one night, Emily asked me if my father had also resented Muslims or Arabs as a whole, I didn’t have an answer. Suddenly forced to see my views of him as an Arab and a Jew as being in conflict, my inability to imagine my father’s feelings about the city he escaped—where whatever political views he held must have found their seeds—became nearly as important as my inability to remember the voice and gestures that preceded his illness. Of the many conversations we never had, this absence overshadowed the others.
I found myself in the position of trying to form a coherent picture of a place just as daily life there seemed to drift from all comprehension.
I was always confident, though, that whatever feelings he had would have been forged in Aleppo. I remember my mother using the word ‘Aleppian’ to describe him more often than ‘Syrian,’ which I assume owes to his own description.
My mother and I often talked about making a trip, but then, in 2011, the torture of several teenagers who had challenged President Bashar Al-Assad through graffiti led to protests and then, quickly, to violence. The term ‘revolution’ was replaced by ‘civil war,’ and soon even those words seemed off, as the images that made their way out grew ever more haunting, desperate, and irreparable. I found myself in the position of trying to form a coherent picture of a place just as daily life there seemed to drift from all comprehension.
As I clicked through the pictures of carnage and rubble, I found myself wanting to see them through my father’s eyes. I wanted to know what kind of connection he would feel to that distant, unraveling landscape, and what I might discover, in turn, about him. Would he see anything of the Aleppo he had left? Was there anything I could do to recognize the fragments he had left to me?
After my father left Syria, a wave of Jewish emigration led the government—perhaps afraid that young Jews would join the Israeli military—to ban travel out of the country. They took control of Jewish schools and the property of Jews who had fled. Jews started to carry identity cards stamped in red with the word Musawi, meaning ‘follower of Moses,’ and security agents routinely visited Jewish shops.
In the summer of 1976, more than three decades after he’d left, my father returned to Aleppo. He had not seen his mother or siblings in almost thirty years. He took along a friend, an American professor named Oran, in part because he was nervous that his status as an escaped Jew would lead to trouble.
The primary anecdote from that trip was mangled through the years as it got passed around my family, but here is the version that came to me: Each morning, while they were drinking coffee, the head of the Aleppo security office would stop by and say hello to Oran and my father. They began to suspect that government agents were following them. One day, while they were planning a trip to the Great Mosque, they asked this man for directions. He told them something like, “Remember where you went yesterday? You go by the same route.” He knew exactly where they’d been.
My family received this anecdote with a dark humor, and I remember my father laughing over the agent’s candor. It was only later that I imagined he was hiding a sense of guilt. The security agent was harmless to him and Oran, but not to his relatives or the rest of the Syrian Jewish community, whom he had left behind and would soon be leaving again.
Early on in my study of Arabic, I had learned how to say, “My father is from Syria,” and I repeated this endlessly useful line as I traveled. Sometimes I would bring it up for no reason other than to have something to say.
I loved telling people that story, but eventually I replaced it with one of my own. In the summer of 2011, Emily and I moved to Cairo for a year. The war in Syria had begun that spring, and one night we passed a group of fifteen young Syrian refugees staging a sit-in outside the Arab League building. They wanted the region’s leaders to condemn the Assad regime, and they had posted big glossy panels decrying the government’s cruelty. On one, a swastika was etched in red into Bashar al-Assad’s head. Nearby, an image of his father, Hafez, drooled a splash of red ink.
Emily and I lingered to scan the signs, and I caught the eye of one of the men sitting. He said hello. We chatted in Arabic, and he told me I looked like a Syrian. Early on in my study of Arabic, I had learned how to say, “My father is from Syria,” and I repeated this endlessly useful line as I traveled. Sometimes I would bring it up for no reason other than to have something to say. So now, prompted by this man, I was ready.
“And have you been to Syria?” someone else asked. I shook my head no, at which point Emily chimed in that she had visited recently, before the war. The men grinned. “Muslim or Christian?” another asked. “Jewish,” I said. Their eyes widened. I told them my last name, and one man gasped, “I lived next to the Chammahs! They were my neighbors!”
And so began a swirl of questions and answers, peppered liberally with non sequiturs. One man simply named Syrian cities and neighborhoods, quizzing Emily on if she had been to them.
“Isn’t Syrian food better than Egyptian food?”
“She’s Christian, you’re Jewish, and you’re together?”
“Are you with the revolution or with the Assads?”
A grandfatherly older man with neatly parted gray hair and a fraying blazer approached with a pen and paper. He started asking me questions, but without the grins of the others. I suddenly had the child’s feeling of having done something wrong but not knowing what. My gut flooded with heat. Was this a plainclothes policeman? Some sort of security agent? I asked him, “Is there a problem?”
“No, no,” he said, and then his Arabic began to pick up speed; I could only make out the contours of the story. Something about someone named Chammah, in Syria, having killed someone in his family. The other men looked at one another. I tugged at Emily, who was still getting quizzed on Syrian desserts. I started to make up weak excuses for why we really had to be leaving. I watched as the older man tried to explain to the others that I was from Beit Shama, the Chammah family, with which his family had some sort of feud.
One of the young men burst out laughing. “No!” he said. “That must be the Muslim Beit Shama. This guy is from the Jewish family!”
“You’re Jewish?” The older one looked at me, sort of shocked. I nodded. His mouth burst into a smile, and he reached out to shake my hand. He started asking warm questions about my family. We made plans to meet for coffee.
I found myself energized, wanting to tell other American Jews about the episode, particularly those who thought—encouraged, in part, by my father’s story—that Jews would never again be welcome in Syria. Maybe you’re wrong, I wanted to say. Maybe, someday, we could go back. I knew it was a naïve view, but it was also a comforting one, and I clung to it.
One night, not long after I returned from Egypt, my mother asked Emily and me to help her organize my father’s collection of Kodak slides. Five years after his death, sentimentality was giving way to practicality, and hundreds of little images were collecting dust in black and yellow boxes on a shelf in his old office. We pulled down a screen, plugged in a projector, and clicked through them one by one.
My mother was wistful and teary, but Emily was charmed, imagining what I might look like someday. For much of his life, my father was short and round, pale, with a pink-hued dome, which he would protect with misshapen baseball caps. He was painfully unstylish, managing, even in his forties, to look much older. Amidst pictures of him in Afghanistan, Egypt, New Zealand, and Cameroon, we found the collection from his trip to Syria with Oran.
My favorite photo from this set—I assume my father took it—shows his half-brother Haim helping their mother out of a little boat, which has been painted in bright blue and orange and covered with a green cloth canopy. It appears to be rocking in the surf, making them stumble and smile as my grandmother tries to hoist herself out. Oran is next to them, holding onto the canopy pole with one hand and making a gesture for help with the other. I imagine my father smiling too as he takes the picture, safe on the sand, wearing the goofy light blue cap I see in the other pictures.
In nearly all the other photos, the family’s expressions have an old-fashioned dourness. The pictures of landmarks look similarly dry and obligatory. When he visited the Great Mosque, my father tilted his lens down to capture the black and white tiling of the mosque’s courtyard floor and craned his neck to capture the big, boxy minaret. His boredom is tangible; the place looks almost deserted.
Not long after we looked at the photos, my mother remembered that he had left her a couple of cassette tapes, marked only “Syria Tape I” and “Syria Tape II” in his small, loping script. She thought they might be related to the trip. They had been in a box in our living room for my entire childhood, but I’d never listened to them.
In the mid-1970s, Mike Wallace, then a correspondent for 60 Minutes, traveled to Syria to report a segment called “Israel’s Toughest Enemy.” By then, many more Jews had fled Syria—with much more difficulty than my father—and conditions for the several thousand remaining had deteriorated. Jewish Americans had started agitating for their government to take notice. The American Jewish Congress formed a “Committee of Concern” for the Jews remaining in Arab countries, appointing as chair a former general who visited the Nazi death camps; the symbolism was unmistakable.
I discovered that Wallace’s segment had aired sixteen months before my father’s return to Aleppo, and I ordered a copy from the CBS archives. The 60 Minutes crew filmed footage throughout Damascus, portraying the city’s inhabitants as embittered after their military losses to Israel in 1967 and 1973, although the segment begins with streets full of soldiers ready to fight Israel. “Damascus has the determination, the will, and, with Russian help, she has the firepower, to make Israel think twice, and then again, before engaging the Syrians in battle,” Wallace announces.
He moves quickly to a scene of Jewish men praying in a synagogue, reading from Hebrew books and swaying from side to side with shawls draped over their heads. “It is perfectly apparent that the Syrian Jewish community is kept under close surveillance,” Wallace says, noting that they cannot leave the country, must carry identity cards, and must inform the authorities if they travel between cities.
But, he says, “Having said all that, it must be added that today life for Syria’s Jews is better than it was in years past.” Wallace interviews Albert Nuseri, a Jewish pharmacist, surrounded at home by his family—and by three government agents. “In the case of a war between Syria and Israel,” Wallace asks, “would there be any division of loyalty?”
“No,” Nuseri says, looking plainly unnerved. “I’m a Syrian citizen and that’s all.” He said he hoped his young sons would grow up to fight for Syria.
“Where do all these stories come from about how badly the Jews are treated in Syria?”
“I think that it’s Zionist propaganda.”
Wallace asked the same question of a female teacher in a Jewish school and received the same response. Years later, in his memoir, Wallace would write that he remembered thinking, “Wait till the folks back home hear this!”
The folks were not thrilled. The American Jewish Congress sent Wallace hundreds of accusatory letters, calling him a “self-hating Jew” who had been “duped” by the Syrian government. An editorial by the organization compared the broadcast to “films in which Goebbels portrayed the clean and tidy barracks in the idyllic concentration camps.” They insisted that Wallace air a segment showing the opposing views of Syrian Jews in the US.
Instead, Wallace went back to Syria and filmed another segment that bolstered the first, in which a Jewish doctor tells him that conditions for Jews have continued to improve and shows Wallace his new identity card, without the word Musawi stamped in red.
“Your father never liked Mike Wallace,” my mother said, after Emily and I told her about the 60 Minutes segment. When I went out to my car and put in the first of the two cassettes she’d found, I discovered why. There was a bump, the sound of an old recorder being punched on, and then the voice of my father’s friend Oran:
“I thought that we might begin with some introductory comments concerning the facts of our trip—the plan, the itinerary, and a number of a factual, procedural things—before we get into a discussion of our observations concerning the problems of the Jewish community.”
Oran explains that he and my father are going to describe their trip to Syria and distill the dozens of conversations they’d have with Jews about their conditions and the legal, social, and economic burdens placed on them by the government. They mention the need to “set the record straight” after the Mike Wallace controversy.
As I listened to the tape describing their journey—I played it over and over on my car stereo, like a new favorite album—I became engrossed in trying to interpret how my father responded to what he was seeing: the subtle shifts in tone, his choice of words as he described going back to a community from which he had disappeared three decades earlier.
It was the first time I’d heard him communicate a full, uninterrupted paragraph since I was nine or ten years old.
About a minute into the tape, after Oran has introduced the plan—a couple of days in Damascus, then ten days at the family flat in Aleppo, including a short trip to the coast—my father’s voice emerges. On the way to Syria, during a layover in Tehran, he says, they sent telegrams with their arrival time to a few of his family members. When he says the word “telegrams,” he pronounces the second ‘e’ as if it were starting the word ‘egg’ (as opposed to the American ‘uh’). He rolls the ‘r,’ separating it slightly from the ‘g’ right before.
I was startled. I had not remembered my father having an Arabic accent when he spoke English. It was the first time I’d heard him communicate a full, uninterrupted paragraph since I was eight or nine years old.
At the Damascus airport, the two professors passed easily through customs. My father assumed the authorities would recognize his name as Jewish (and wanted to test how they would respond) but nobody seemed to notice. In fact, they already had; his brother-in-law had promised to meet them at the airport, but he didn’t show up, and it turned out he had not received my father’s telegram in time because the authorities had intercepted it, read it, and delivered it late, deciding to let them through.
After finding a hotel room, they went out to meet members of the Jewish community, and they soon found Albert Nuseri, the pharmacist they had seen on television.
“It turned out that he feels very bitter about the Mike Wallace show,” my father said into the tape recorder. The government agents had sat in on the entire interview with 60 Minutes, so Nuseri didn’t feel truly at ease, and the producers cut together small clips from a much longer interview, “to make it sound quite different from what he intended.”
But the pharmacist, like many of the Jews they met, was also conflicted about what, exactly, should be said about being a Jew in Syria. Some of his peers, especially older community members, wanted to downplay the government’s repression, hoping to coax it into easing restrictions. Others, particularly the youth, considered this tantamount to selling out. Nuseri seemed to feel both impulses at the same time. My father describes him with a wonderfully lyrical turn of phrase: “the ambivalence of the pharmacist.”
The next day, my father and Oran traveled by bus to Aleppo, two hundred miles north, where they stayed with his family at their apartment building near the Great Mosque. My father was still technically a co-owner of the building, which included several apartments, shops, and an office for his half-brother Haim’s medical practice. They also spent a day in Latakia, on the coast, where the photos of my father on the boat with his mother were taken.
Contrary to Mike Wallace’s reporting, they found Jewish identity cards all still had the Musawi stamp. The government had not let Jews sell property until three years earlier, and now any money made from selling property would be held by the government until new property was bought, meaning Jews could not liquidate their assets, making it more difficult to flee. And then there was the general discrimination—the constant surveillance, the petty humiliations—that combined to make life for Jews, as Oran put it, “precarious, uncertain, chancy, vulnerable, and fearful.”
My father ceded much of the summarizing to Oran, perhaps because his English, as I was realizing, did not have the confident rhythm of a native speaker. But he could never quite stay in the scholarly mode. He kept slipping, letting his emotional investment peek through.
At one point, when Oran describes the repressive conditions, he uses the word “substandard,” a sterile, observational term. My father jumps in to add, “It’s important to say we’re not just talking by Western standards either, that this is below substandard. It’s substandard by Middle Eastern standards.” His voice is tense.
When they talk about travel restrictions, Oran says that he had heard from the US ambassador that the necessity for Jews to get permission to travel between cities had become a “mere formality” and that “nobody was seriously inconvenienced by this restriction at this point.”
My father interrupts Oran, and I feel myself rooting for him. When his mother and Haim wanted to get permission to take that day trip, he says, they had to have their pictures taken at a security office, report what form of transportation they would take, wait for an hour, and get a stamp. Then, when they arrived in Latakia, they had to report to a security office there, get another stamp, and report how they would return to Aleppo.
“So,” my father says, “it is not an easy procedure.”
Listening to the tapes, I savored these moments; Oran becomes the wise and aloof sidekick, while my father is the protagonist, alive with internal contradictions. I find it satisfying to listen to him defend his family and his community, to briefly establish a solidarity with them against the Orans, the Mike Wallaces, the other outsiders who would minimize the suffering going on here. My father is throwing in his lot with his own.
These moments also gave me another way to see the photo of Haim helping their mother out of the boat; now it was an escape, a moment of joy that my father wrested from the stream of indignity. He couldn’t fix conditions for Jews in Syria, but he could describe them with piercing accuracy, and for one day he could offer respite to his mother.
At other moments, my father leaps back onto the scholarly perch with Oran, unsure of whether he is an insider or an outsider. He has his own form of ambivalence; he seems torn between his impulses to observe or participate, to watch or fight.
At one point he describes a problem that Jews in Aleppo and Damascus constantly mentioned during the trip: the lack of marriageable men. “Many of the young men have left,” my father says, so “there is a surplus of young women.” What he fails to mention is that, a generation earlier, he was one of these young men who left. In a vague, statistical way, he was responsible for a young woman without a marriage and her own family life.
I have no idea whether this occurred to him, but it occurs to me, and for a profoundly disorienting instant it feels like I can see my father with a shade more clarity than he could see himself.
My father observed, to his surprise, that Jews had become “much more religious” than they had been when he left thirty years earlier. He doesn’t explain what he means, but I assume: less working on Shabbat, more adherence to kosher laws, more praying, more yarmulkes. He and Oran saw this trend as potentially one of many “coping mechanisms” the Syrian Jews had developed for dealing with their conditions.
They noticed other trends as well, and kept returning to one that perplexed them. Many Jews would describe the security agents harassing them as “friends.”
They tell a story to illustrate. One day, a security officer stopped by the family apartment and spoke with Haim. There’s no record of what they discussed, but later, when asked why the officer had stopped by, Haim explained that the man was “our friend.”
My father could not let that one go. “No,” he recounts telling Haim. “He’s not your friend.”
When I imagine the scene, I see my father sitting at a small kitchen table in Haim’s flat. He and Oran are preparing to leave the apartment. My father has that little light blue cap on his head, to cover the glowing sunburn from the day before. He’s gotten used to observing his mother and his siblings in their daily comings and goings. He’s happy that they are able to work and eat and see one another, but he’s frustrated by all of the restrictions. And even those restrictions are not as galling as the seeming acquiescence to the security agents, scratching at the dignity they have left.
Then comes the moment when the security agent invites himself into the apartment.
Perhaps the day before, Oran, as always cool and anthropological, reminded him that any other way of living would be impossible; if Haim fought, he’d find his medical practice closed down by government order, or they’d be banned from leaving Aleppo even to go to the coast. Perhaps my father agreed with this, and perhaps he does not want to invite tension by calling out his sibling when they have so little time to reconnect.
Then comes the moment when the security agent invites himself into the apartment. I see him with a mustache and a despotic twinkle in his eye. My image of this man is cartoonish, since his petty humiliation of Haim is a cartoonish act.
After he leaves, his presence lingers in Haim’s nervousness. Haim offers everyone coffee, looking for a way to busy his hands. While he boils water, someone asks about the visitor. Haim jovially responds, “Oh, he’s my friend, he’s our friend.”
I imagine that my father erupts, shouting, “No! He’s not your friend!”
Other times, when I imagine it, I’m almost sure he didn’t shout.
I have often found myself ascribing aspects of my personality that cannot easily be explained by my mother or the circumstances of my childhood to an imaginary version of my father. In this moment with Haim and the security agent, I invert, placing my own traits back onto him. I am averse to bringing tension into a moment when I can let it glide by, and I only get frustrated around people who I trust will not hold it against me, people to whom I feel close. When I imagine my father shouting at Haim, I want him to be bidding for a familial bond after so many years apart.
On the tape, my father lets Oran sum up the anecdote. “Haim doesn’t believe a member of the security forces is a friend,” Oran says, but “unless you deceive yourself at least on a superficial level…the prison would be even more horrible than it otherwise is, so it’s almost like playing a game with yourself.”
The two professors retreat to their talk of “coping mechanisms,” which they understand as the ways Syrians deal with the fact that their homeland has become a prison. “Several of them have told me specifically that they feel like prisoners,” my father says, “and they really would like to get out of the prison.”
But if they were prisoners, my father was the escapee, coming back to see those who hadn’t made it out. I had seen glimpses of my father’s emotions, but now, hearing this metaphor, I was suddenly able to break through his scholarly armor and see more clearly all that he was holding in: the guilt at having left, the arrogance born of thinking he could see the situation more clearly than those living it, the guilt over that arrogance, the sadness at having lost an easy way to express his love. Did he feel all of this? And was it conscious?
I was frustrated that my father did not say more for posterity—for me—about the happier moments in this trip to Aleppo, that he did not describe his nostalgia as he walked through the streets where he had played as a young boy, the joy in seeing his mother again after three decades, the smiles they shared as she stepped out of the boat. To have spoken of these things would have left him vulnerable; he would have had to come to terms more openly with what it was like to see his mother age, to see Haim humiliated, to meet the women he might have married had he stayed, to think about what it meant for him to come in after all these years and tell his family he knew better than them.
So my father was retreating to his scholarly remove, his description and analysis. They were his own coping mechanisms, helping him avoid a confrontation with himself.
The year after my father’s trip, President Jimmy Carter negotiated to allow two dozen Syrian Jewish women to come to the US each year and marry men who had fled. Musawi disappeared from many identity cards. In 1992, the travel ban was briefly lifted, and almost all of the remaining Jews in Syria left for Israel and the US.
These emigrants and their descendants harbor very little warmth for non-Jewish Syrians. I remember visiting the suburbs of Tel Aviv, six months after my father’s death, where one of my uncles told me, “I will never let an Arab into my house.” His family speaks Arabic and listens to Arab music, but they follow the mainstream Israeli political distrust of Arabs. In Brooklyn, a congregation of Syrian Jews recently was asked by Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, to sympathize with the refugees now streaming out of their country. “I know this community understands deeply the pain of any family that must leave a homeland they love,” he said. The congregants, according to a reporter, “murmured uncomfortably,” and one said, “I don’t think it’s a fair comparison… the Jews never had a history of being destructive.” They may have thought: these refugees are the children and grandchildren of the Syrians who who torched our synagogue and made us feel like strangers.
Over the last few years, I have been constantly asked by other people how I feel about “what’s going on in Syria” (they always use that phrase), because of my heritage—because of my father. I never know how to answer. It doesn’t feel right to claim a particular sadness over what I know is saddening everyone, and the question forces me to confront the fact that I speak with the power bestowed by my father even as I wonder what he might have said.
At these moments, I wish I could see my father’s reaction. I want to know what he’d make of the footage of Aleppo crumbling, of the Great Mosque he once photographed now reduced to a heap of rubble; would he say, “Look what we have done?”—would he consider himself a Syrian, still? Or would he say, “Look what they have done?”
I recently called Oran and asked him a version of this question. We had reconnected two years ago, when I went to visit him at home in Vermont, meeting him for the first time as an adult. He is in tremendous health, chopping wood to keep his house warm in the winter, and traveling to a second home in California and to conferences in Hawaii and Europe. It is easy to imagine my father would have enjoyed a similarly cosmopolitan lifestyle if not for his illness.
I asked him how he thought my father would have responded to the Syrians streaming out of their own country and looking for a new home free of violence. I told him I imagined my father being sympathetic to these refugees.
“I can’t give you a definitive response,” Oran said, very much on that scholarly perch, “but he was pretty judgmental, and I think he would have said, ‘They’re getting what they had coming to them.’” I remembered the many times on the tapes my father had ripped into the way Syrians mistreated his fellow Jews. It is easy to imagine him seeing the refugees as the children of all those security agents.
The reaction, though easy to imagine, remains a thin image, and I find myself incapable of giving it full form.
I like to think that my father would share at least a bit of the ache that I feel seeing all those brutal photos, though I know that I construct this image of him with myself in mind; we all find our coping mechanisms. I would hope that my father, unlike the congregation of that New York synagogue, would feel a bond with the fleeing Syrians, not because of the Biblical injunction to love the stranger—though I’d probably remind him of it—but because this is the impulse that I find growing in myself. And if he didn’t, I would hope to find myself pushing back, clinging to the naïveté and the optimism that the generation after hardship can indulge. I would say of the Syrians, “No, they can be our friends.” I would ask my father to allow himself to be ambivalent, to find a way to transcend the circumstances that turn us into strangers. You know what it’s like to leave everything behind, I would say. You were a stranger once, too. So much of the time, you still are.
Maurice Chammah is a staff writer at The Marshall Project.
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