When Khodor Kabariti left them a few months ago, the vine-covered alleys, redolent of stewing onions and sharp saffron, seemed like passages to the past. But the Jewish quarter in this ancient city was dying. It was time to end 2,700 years of Jewish history here in the heart of the Arab world and move on to new lives.
So when Syrian President Hafez Assad agreed last year to issue exit visas for the country’s dwindling population of native Jews, nearly everyone who could afford them bought tickets and boarded planes--Kabariti among them.
“For me, I wanted to find out what kind of life I could live somewhere else,” said the 29-year-old teacher at the Jewish school in the heart of old Damascus.
Kosher meat shops and fine-tailored clothing stores were put up for sale. Gracious old houses--the classic Damascene townhouses hidden in the city’s ancient alleys, their intricate tile courtyards draped with shade trees and hanging vines--were passed on to the few friends or family members who stayed behind, or sold to Muslims.
Over the last 18 months, a population of perhaps 3,800 Syrian Jews has shrunk to just 300 in Damascus and 100 or so in the northeastern town of Kamishli.
But now, over the last few weeks, the sound of sad farewells has given way to the noise of welcoming celebrations. The shutters are opening on closed-up Jewish houses. Slowly but surely, many of those who left are finding that life in Brooklyn and France was not what they had hoped for, and they are coming home.
Late last month, the first two returning families arrived on a flight from New York. A third arrived the following week, and a week after that, two more families.
Yousef Jajati, head of the Syrian Jewish community, expects that many more will be returning over the next several months, reflecting a growing disillusionment with life abroad and reaffirming ties to a nation that has been their homeland for more than two millennia.
“Anybody who is coming back, we are taking care of him, helping him to establish his new life here,” said Jajati, a well-to-do merchant who has no intention of giving up his clothing and import-export business and leaving Damascus but who hopes to open a second office in New York.
In recent years, the Syrian Jewish community has become something of a cause celebre, the most visible victims of Syria’s confrontation with Israel and the subject of countless demands for freedom posed by American, European, Israeli and international Jewish organizations.
The Syrian government began easing restrictions on the Jews several years ago, removing the requirement that their identity cards carry the word “Musawi,” or “follower of Moses”; permitting them to travel outside Damascus; opening up international trade opportunities for Jewish businessmen and freeing two brothers imprisoned on charges of trying to emigrate to Israel.
Exit visas were issued only sporadically, though, and often not granted to entire families, requiring those who left to leave relatives behind.
Then, after last year’s summit meeting between Assad and President Clinton in Geneva, the Syrian government announced that it would grant an exit visa to any Jew who wanted one. Some restrictions still applied. For instance, Jews could only take a maximum of $2,500 with them when they left the country. Still, leave they did--by the thousands.
Over the last year, all but a few kosher groceries shut down. Saturday Shabbat services sometimes didn’t have enough worshipers for prayers. “I will frankly tell you, they left. And after their departure, the whole market here was affected. Those products they used to produce were not to be found--they left a real shock on the neighborhood here,” Jajati said.
Eventually, even Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra--who had vowed to remain with his flock until the end--made a celebrated emigration to Israel, to the vast annoyance of Syrian officials and not a few of the friends he left behind.
More than 1,200 Syrian Jews had already secretly flocked to Israel before Hamra’s much-trumpeted arrival there on Oct. 19.
“The message this proud leader brings with him is for the remainder of his community in New York to follow him,” acting Jewish Agency Chairman Yehiel Leket said.
The large majority of Jews leaving Syria have settled in Brooklyn, where a Syrian Jewish community, now numbering 30,000, has flourished since the early part of the century, when Jews first fled Syria under the Turkish occupation. Others have settled in France, joining substantial communities of Jews from North African countries such as Morocco.
But Jajati said many of the emigres have become disillusioned after several months abroad. Jobs have been hard to find, and social practices in both the United States and France are often alien to Syrians raised under the relatively conservative standards of Damascus--albeit one of the most free-wheeling of Arab cities.
The biggest problem facing most of the families who have decided to return is economic, Jajati said. Many sold their shops and homes at a fraction of what they were worth, then found it tremendously more expensive to buy or rent new housing and commercial space in New York.
“We in this country have security, praise Allah,” Jajati said, adopting a common Muslim expression. “Work is available for everybody, and here if you get a little money, you can manage to live on it. I have Syrian friends from our community who went to New York, but they couldn’t get jobs and work. . . . They had in mind that they were going to gain much more money, and instead, many of them have lost everything.
“You must remember,” Jajati said, “our people, our community, used to have the best cars, the best shops, right in the center of Damascus. One man had a shop worth 20 million Syrian pounds (about $450,000). He sold it for 6 million (about $133,000). You must realize his position.”
Kabariti sold all his furniture but kept his house when he left with his wife, 3-year-old daughter, his parents and his sister and her family four months ago for France. Two weeks ago, he was back in Damascus, having decided the world outside was not all he had expected it to be.
“I found the social life so different, so difficult to live in,” he said.
His mother, Eva, 50, interrupted. “The nature of life there is so different. We could have only one room for the whole of the family. And this style of Oriental life which we are accustomed to, it means you are in good relation with your neighbors, visiting them, they visit you. This is what we are raised on. There, we felt like strangers.”
The emigrant Jewish community in the town where they lived numbered less than 100. They helped them financially the first two months, but then there was no more help, and the family decided to come home.
Kabariti was greeted by the remaining community, which pledged to help him buy new furniture for his home. He was offered his old job as schoolteacher.
“The lesson we have learned is that life at home is always easier than elsewhere,” his mother said.
A butcher who returned the same week is being promised a job in one of the remaining meat shops.
Jajati said the community will do whatever is possible to make sure returnees don’t regret their homecoming.
“I am sure now of my words, and I have been assured also by the Syrian officials,” he said. “Everyone who would like to come back to resume his life, he will be warmly welcomed.”