Any voracious reader can attest to the fact that the literary world is brimming with riveting memoirs – some poignant, some tragic, some humorous, some inspirational and some intellectually stimulating. Little did I know when I began reading Joseph Aboudi’s “From Syria to Palestine: My Fight For A Jewish State” that this compelling narrative would be a palpable combination of all of the above.
For those not in the know, Mr. Aboudi is a prominent resident of Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community, a distinguished gentleman who is renowned for his business acumen, his dedication to abundant charitable pursuits and his love of family, friends and – above all – his Syrian heritage. In this stellar effort to put pen to paper in order to convey his most fascinating and trenchant ride through life, Mr. Aboudi manages to assume the role of veteran raconteur, as he leaves his readers thirsting for more in this veritable page turner.
Cogently written in laconic verses, Joseph Aboudi begins his stroll down memory lane by creating a vibrant scenario of Jewish life in his birthplace of Aleppo, Syria. Born there in 1928, the author proffers nuanced examples of the unique culture, cuisine, religious devotion and family life that defined Jewish life in Syria. The reader is at once transported back in time, as we imbibe the aromatic flavors and the aesthetic feel of this heralded city that possessed deep historical and religious roots.
Mr. Aboudi’s father Hillel and mother Sophie played a formidable role in his life as did his siblings and extended family. Because Syria was under the aegis of the government of France in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, young Joe attended a French-Jewish school, and was an active member of the Jewish Boy Scouts and the Maccabi sports team. It was there that the seeds were planted for his life’s trajectory as a dedicated Zionist and fighter for Jewish statehood.
Under the tutelage of his devoutly religious father, young Joe gained a life-long appreciation for the Torah life that was an endemic part of being a Jew in Aleppo. Growing up in a fairly affluent family, Joseph describes life as being quite pleasant for Jews in Syria. His father had created ties with prominent local Syrian officials including the chief of police, and even held sway over judicial decisions. Some of Joe’s uncles and aunts migrated to France, and he recalls with great love that no matter where his extended family was, there were ever present parcels of food, clothing and letters sent to them.
At the tender age of 14, in the early 1940s, young Joe decided it was time to realize his dream of going to the land of Israel and playing a part in its formation, despite the inherent dangers that were to follow. Preferring that Joe stay in Syria and complete his formal education, his father stood in staunch opposition to Joe’s plans. It didn’t take too long for his father to the conclude, however, that nothing would serve as a deterrent for his son, so he capitulated and even helped Joe leave Syria with a group going across the border to Lebanon. From there they were led by guide over the mountains and into northern Israel.
After making his way to Netanya to stay with sister Fortune and brother-in-law Shlomo, it wasn’t long before Joe joined the Palyam, the naval branch of the Palmach, which was the striking arm of the Haganah. Joe had developed a love of the sea and his adroitness in maritime operations made him a prime candidate for the arduous work that lay ahead. It was during World War II, and Haganah ships were transporting Europe’s Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, to Palestine. Because of the egregious strictures of the British White Paper, legal immigration of Jews was at a virtual standstill. Joe and his comrades, risking life and limb, defied the British authorities and helped smuggle in these Jews during the dark of night and under unusually harsh conditions.
Subsequent to the formal declaration of Jewish statehood in 1948, the nascent country of Israel was under siege by seven Arab armies. Never one to succumb to fear or behave in a timorous manner, Joe’s natural heroism once again trumped the perilous consequences he was to confront. As an expert sharpshooter, Joe defended various kibbutzim in the Negev desert during the War of Independence. Recalling a relentless Egyptian assault on Moshav Bet Eshel, Joe tells his readers that he discovered through an Arab sheikh, who was a spy, that the shots fired by him and his compatriots from their simple rifles managed to quiet the massive cannons of the Egyptian army, thus preventing an impending attack on Jerusalem and Hebron. “Even as a leftist Palmachnik and socialist kibbutznik, I recognized that G-d was on our side. Baruch Hashem!” he says.
Joe’s visceral love for Israel literally leaps off each page of this memoir and into the hearts of the reader. One can actually feel Joe’s heart pounding as he describes the battles that ensued during the 1948-49 war; wishing that he was in no place else other than where he was. Perhaps it was his youth, or perhaps it was his fervent love for his people and his land, or perhaps it was an admixture of both, but the reader cannot help but be exceptionally impressed with Joe’s inexhaustible tenacity and never-say-die attitude. It is apt to describe the author as one person who never, ever, even for a single solitary moment had a lazy bone in his body.
Immensely adding to the tenor of this unique memoir are the black and white photos of Joe, his family in Syria, his youth in the Boy Scouts, his colleagues in the Palmach and those he shared experiences with at the kibbutzim, among others. There is also a photo a young Yitzchak Rabin, as none of us have ever seen him before.
The adventurous author was also driven by an insatiable wanderlust, so after the war, Joe hankered to see the world and eventually joined the Israeli merchant marine where he sailed to Italy and France. From there, he landed a job on a cargo vessel sailing to the United States. What was to follow could only be described as a mercurial sojourn for Joe, as he experienced his own share of life’s vicissitudes, but with pure luck and divine assistance he managed to build a life for himself in the United States. Keen on returning to Israel, where he dreamed of spending the rest of his life, Joe was persuaded by his father, who was now in Israel, to try it out in the States for a while to see how it would go.
Meeting his “love of his life,” also known as his wife Lilly, at the Syrian Jewish Center in Brooklyn, Joseph’s rendition of life for Syrian Jews in Brooklyn in the 1950s also brings the reader to yet another time and place; a simpler and infinitely happier era, where immigrants from the “homeland” were welcomed with graciousness, honor and immense dignity.
At this juncture in Joe’s story, one would have thought that the multi-talented author might have just taken on a mundane, routine job and spent some time relaxing with family, but that plan of action would not be true to his nature. Honing his business skills, Joe moved to New Haven, Connecticut where he opened a retail shop with several Syrian Jewish partners and labored assiduously to ensure its success.
He and his wife celebrated the birth of their first daughter there, attended a Conservative synagogue, and held tight to Syrian Jewish tradition, heritage and rich culture. Despite being physically distant from his parents and siblings in Israel, the author retained his fealty to his upbringing in Syria and the timeless and eternal teachings of his antecedents. The author speaks in a voice that resonates with passion, and the reader knows that deep in his heart, in his soul and in his dreams was Joseph’s unwavering love for his country, Israel, and its name was ever present on his tongue.
As did many others of his Syrian genre, Joseph moved to Deal, New Jersey and then to the Ocean Parkway and Avenue S section of Brooklyn so that his daughters could fraternize with other Syrian youngsters and enjoy the camaraderie that Joe so greatly enjoyed with his peers as a boy in Aleppo. Another successful entrepreneurship awaited Joe in the clothing business in New York; but by this time Joe was a known quantity and a respected one amongst his contemporaries.
Joe’s own words in the epilogue of the book pretty much sum up the intense emotional connections he felt towards Israel: “My destiny was to finally settle in the USA, raise a nice family and live a religious life in a vibrant community. I love my family, my community and my life in America very much. However, as the poet Judah Halevi once wrote, “My heart is in the East, but I am, alas, at the end of the West.”