Friday, June 08, 2007

The Jews of Damascus

Amid the busy store fronts, the bustling markets, the twisting alleys of the old city and the drab apartment blocks of the new city, there is order. There are lines.

Damascus is divided into countless communities organized mostly by religion. Damascenes mix in public spaces, but when they return home, they return to their own.

One of the smallest and most invisible communities are the Jews. They are no more than 60 left. (The community once numbered in the tens of thousands, but two waves of emigration, mostly to America, one in the early 20th century and the other in the 1990s have all but wiped them out.)

There are two functioning synagogues in Damascus, guarded by uniformed and plain clothes Syrian police officers. "We have to worry about terrorists," the rabbi told me, in Arabic. At one recent service, there were just five men in attendance.

Down an unmarked alley of the Jewish Quarter stands the franjiyah synagogue -- franjiyah means "Frankish," or foreign, in Arabic, probably called such because it was founded by Sephardic Jews who settled in Syria after their expulsion from Spain in 1492; they joined the existing, ancient Syrian Jewish community. The synagogue was built in the style of Old Damascene houses, with wooden beams and roof, and black basalt pillars and walls. It is a simple design, leaving the ornamental brass, copper and silver, and wood carvings to stand out even more than they might have. It was beautiful.