SYs and J-Dubs: the closed world of Syrian Jews

This long feature by Zeev Chafets in The New York Times magazine is a rare insight into Brooklyn’s SYrian Jews, who have done well since leaving their homeland, but prefer to keep themselves to themselves. (With thanks: Lily)

The SY’s, as the community members call themselves (pronounced “ess-why” — it’s a shorthand for “Syrian”), live in a self-created entrepreneurial and mercantile empire whose current sources of wealth are found everywhere from Coney Island to Shanghai. They are rich beyond the dreams of their immigrant forebears. Many live in multimillion-dollar mansions in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, summer in fabulous seafront homes on the Jersey shore and repair to winter enclaves in Florida. They have their own synagogue in China. Businessmen from the community spend so much time on the road that a small shop called Seuda’s in the Brooklyn enclave prepares packages of kosher Syrian delicacies that can be picked up on the way to the airport.

Yet no matter how far they roam or how worldly and successful they become, the SY’s of Brooklyn are bound by an invisible fence known as the Edict — a rabbinical threat of excommunication so dire and so powerful that it has fixed the true parameters of the community for generations.

The Edict was issued in Brooklyn by five Syrian rabbis in 1935. They had a simple goal: to preserve the age-old Syrian Jewish community in the New World.

This was not a unique challenge. Every immigrant group in the United States has faced something like it. Most struggle for a generation or two to maintain some sense of identity and solidarity and then make their peace with the assimilative power of America.

The Syrian Jews might have done the same. They arrived in New York at the start of the last century and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But the Eastern European Jews who dominated the Lower East Side at the time disdained them as Arabische Yidden — Arab Jews. Some of the Ashkenazim openly doubted that these foreigners from farther east were Jews at all. The Syrian Jews were deeply insulted. They are a proud people; community legend boasts that King David built the first synagogue in Aleppo, in what is now Syria. The SY’s came to derisively refer to the Ashkenazim as “J-Dubs,” a play on the first and third letters of the English word “Jew.” As soon as they could, the Syrians moved, en masse, to Brooklyn.

This independence was, in a way, natural. Back in the Ottoman Empire, religious communities that paid their taxes and kept out of trouble were generally allowed to live with a fair degree of autonomy. Why should the New World be different? But the Syrian Jews soon learned that in America, self-sufficiency alone did not ensure their survival. They hadn’t reckoned on the additional risk posed by the allure of the open society.

In the old country, the Syrians had been merchants for generations, and they started off in America as peddlers. As they prospered, they began opening stores in Manhattan. Conducting business outside the enclave meant meeting and dealing with non-Syrians, speaking proper English and demonstrating at least a rudimentary understanding of the customs and practices of the new land. These were skills worth learning. SY kids were sent to public schools to assimilate — though only up to a point. The goal was to produce children who, in the words of a community maxim, were “100 percent American in Manhattan and 100 percent Syrian in Brooklyn.”

In school, though, the SY kids mixed with other children, not only J-Dubs but also gentiles. The gentiles posed the gravest concern. Friendships with them developed, love affairs sprouted. There were intermarriages. Some Christian partners even volunteered to convert to Judaism.

Enter the rabbis with their Edict, in 1935. They wanted to build an iron wall of self-separation around the community. They couldn’t do this the Hassidic way, dressing the men in costumes of ancient design, physically segregating women and making sure that children received nothing in the way of useful secular education. After all, the Syrian men couldn’t be expected to make money if they looked like figures from 18th-century Poland.(..)

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