February 22, 2008


The Sy Empire (ZEV CHAFETS, 10/14/08, NY Times Magazine)

Geographically speaking, the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn — 75,000 strong and growing fast — inhabits an enclave running from Avenue I in the north to Avenue V in the south and stretching eastward to Nostrand Avenue from West 6th Street. But the community’s true boundaries are at once more expansive and more constricted.

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. [...]

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.

And so the rabbis turned to the heart of the matter: matrimony. Most American Jewish communities in those days (and many today) viewed intermarriage as a taboo. Conversion, however, was a loophole. The Edict intended to close that loophole. It proclaimed, “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.”

A 1946 clarification added specifics: “The rabbi will not perform Religious Ceremonies” for such unkosher couples. “The Congregation’s premises will be banned to them for use of any religious or social nature. . . . After death of said person, he or she is not to be buried on the Cemetery of our community . . . regardless of financial considerations.”

With these words, Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin effectively excommunicated any member of his flock who married a partner with gentile blood. (There have been exceptions for converts judged to be “sincere” — that is, those who converted without the intention to marry — but these have been extremely rare and always controversial.)

The Edict was a bold move. No Jewish community in the world (other than two small Syrian congregations in Mexico and Argentina) has ever had such an extreme rule.

Of course, enforcing it is something else. The rabbis had no means of coercion. If the Edict was going to work, it would be up to the tightly-knit clans of the enclave to enforce it on their own children.

At the end of this past August, Jakie Kassin, a community leader, grandson of the author of the Edict and son of the current chief rabbi, received a laminated wooden plaque measuring 4 feet by 2 feet for his inspection. It was the most recent incarnation of the Edict. The original Edict was a document signed by five dignitaries. Since then, it has been reaffirmed in each generation by a progressively larger number of signatories. The newest version, issued last year, was signed by 225 rabbis and lay leaders, testimony to the growth of the community and the enduring power of the Edict.

“Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert,” Kassin told me by phone, summarizing the message. “Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don’t want gentile characteristics.”

...so too the nativists have sense enough not to talk about who actually doesn't assimilate, unlike Latinos.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2008 7:36 AM

The funny thing re the "gentile characteristics" comment is how similar these Syrian Jews are to the Syrian Christians among whom I grew up in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Except for the rabbis and their edict, the article could be talking about the Christians.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 22, 2008 9:29 AM

75,000 Syrian Jews isn't really as important a topic as 12,000,000 Latino illegal immigrants.

Aren't you the one always reminding us about the importance of demographics?

Posted by: Brandon at February 22, 2008 10:58 AM

Just what is a nativist again?

Posted by: Genecis at February 22, 2008 12:00 PM

A nativist is someone who disagrees with OJ and the rest of our betters about immigration policy. OJ also calls them "racist yahoos," a badge I wear with pride.

I want all of Mexico to come to the U.S. I was raised in AZ with millions of Mexicans. They are, as a group, nice, religious and hard-working.

I don't want terrorists coming across our open border to kill me and my kids, so I want strong border security. OJ and his elitist fellow-travelers think I, and those who agree with me, are backward racists.

Posted by: Palmcroft at February 22, 2008 3:59 PM

Nobody with any sense worries about Jewish immigration, because the number are tiny. If 15 or 20 million suddenly showed up without going through customs, groups of unemployed Jews started hanging out on street corners and in parking lots, and we had to "press 1 for English" because someone decided public accommodations needed to be bilingual English/Hebrew, that would be a different matter.

Posted by: PapayaSF at February 22, 2008 5:10 PM

Without all those immigrants (legal and illegal), your stock market portfolio would look pretty thin. It's no coincidence the U.S. economy has performed so well since Reagan and his amnesty. Cut taxes all you want, but without population growth there is no economic growth.

If you don't like unemployed people hanging out on street corners, maybe you should move from the God-forsaken metropolis out to somewhere nice.

Posted by: Randall Voth at February 22, 2008 7:39 PM

Soft, fat white guys have lived off of browns for along time now and have no problem bringing in more when one group is used up.

The American way I guess but is this really Christian? Until we can end big government statism, it is immoral to imperil any other people in our ways.

BTW, productivity growth is the only long term sensible means to economic growth.

Posted by: Perry at February 22, 2008 11:59 PM

The subject is nativists, not people with sense. They opposed the Jews when they were immigrating.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2008 12:24 AM

No, population growth plus productivity growth.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2008 7:53 AM

Long term, ask the Chinese.

Posted by: Perry at February 23, 2008 9:19 AM

Perry, by "used up" you mean, that a brown group has assimilated and moved out of the cheap labor doers to the cheap labor employers.

Posted by: erp at February 23, 2008 10:37 AM

China has neither and so no long term.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2008 11:39 AM