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.