Farewell, Alep­po: My Father, My Peo­ple, and Their Long Jour­ney Home

  • Review
By – January 21, 2015

Farewell, Alep­po: My Father, My Peo­ple, and Their Long Jour­ney Home, by Claudette E. Sut­ton is a sto­ry of a not-too-dis­tant past when all reli­gions lived and worked togeth­er, ignor­ing their dif­fer­ences. But it is also the sto­ry of how times changed and Syr­i­an Jews faced per­se­cu­tion, result­ing in the dis­ap­pear­ance of a two-thou­sand-year-old Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that had once thrived in Syr­ia. Farewell Alep­po is rel­e­vant to today’s head­lines: Syr­i­ans are still per­se­cut­ed for their reli­gious beliefs. The author takes the read­er on a dar­ing jour­ney as she tells the sto­ry of her father, whose world changed with the winds of World War II. It became clear that life as the Syr­i­an Jews had known it was end­ing with the tide of anti- Semi­tism. Her father, Meir (renamed Mike), and his broth­er escaped to Shang­hai, Chi­na where they stayed through­out the war. Read­ers get a glimpse of what it was like for Jews to live in a com­mu­ni­ty so cul­tur­al­ly dif­fer­ent; yet they were able to seek out oth­ers in the same cat­e­go­ry. She shows how many Jews dis­placed by the war sought refuge here because of the city’s openness.

After the war her father, see­ing busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties dete­ri­o­rate, made plans to immi­grate to Amer­i­ca. Sutton’s descrip­tions of her father’s arrival in Amer­i­ca and of the Syr­i­an Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty thriv­ing in Brook­lyn, New York are the most inter­est­ing parts of the book. While there were only about twen­ty to thir­ty thou­sand Jews in Syr­ia at the start of World War II, there are now about sev­en­ty thou­sand liv­ing in Brook­lyn. As some­one in the book notes about the Syr­i­ans liv­ing in Amer­i­ca, To my eyes, it seemed that their Syr­ia had not so much been left behind as relo­cat­ed to Brook­lyn. Our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as Syr­i­an Jews seemed defined not so much by place as by the cul­ture they took with them.” What mat­tered was not the land but the tra­di­tions: the food, the Ara­bic lan­guage — not Yid­dish or Hebrew — and the tight-knit group formed.

Because Sutton’s moth­er was from the Wash­ing­ton D.C. area and her father need­ed a job he relo­cat­ed his fam­i­ly to Mary­land. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Sutton’s imme­di­ate fam­i­ly lost some of the cul­ture, although they did pre­serve the food and lan­guage. The author describes hav­ing to nav­i­gate between dif­fer­ent worlds as feel­ing like a cul­tur­al hybrid, a cross between our shared her­itage and my sec­u­lar upbring­ing. I was a pure­bred mem­ber of this com­mu­ni­ty, and a vis­i­tor to it.” Sut­ton’s own rel­a­tives did not see her as an inte­grat­ed mem­ber since her imme­di­ate fam­i­ly was not kosher and did not keep many of the Syr­i­an Jew­ish tra­di­tions. She also felt dif­fer­ent from her Jew­ish friends since she did not par­tic­i­pate in Euro­pean Jew­ish tra­di­tions such as eat­ing mat­zo ball soup and kugel, or speak­ing Jew­ish and Yid­dish phrases.

Farewell, Alep­po is a sto­ry of how peo­ple are shaped by their past, and to what extent iden­ti­ty is based on fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Through her father’s world Sut­ton is able to find her own roots as she pieces togeth­er how her world was influ­enced by the Syr­i­an Jew­ish culture.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Discussion Questions