Photographed in Syria in May 1994 and April 1995
"Vibrant, cautious, edgy, embracing, hopeful, satisfied, fearful, comfortable,
uncomfortable, business-business-business. I use these words to describe my
impressions of the Jewish community I encountered in Syria during my two visits
there. From the beginning this was unlike any other project I had done, much of
it being shrouded in subterfuge due to the political situation and past history.
My first visit in 1994 was fruitful not only photographically, but because I was able to penetrate the community and gain enough of their confidence to help me in my endeavor to record the synagogues in Damascus and Halab (Aleppo), evidence of a once rich and flourishing Jewish community. I went back to Syria for Pesach in 1995. I knew that during the holidays I might glimpse the "life" as it had been in the past. Even if I achieved only a few seconds of it, that might be enough to preserve a slice of it.
I began to understand that many of those who remain - about 200 - did not want to see an exodus of this community and leave more than 3000 years of Jewish legacy to die - they wanted to stay. Always there were questions about America and Israel, and indeed many had traveled to the USA to visit friends and relatives, and had returned. They were unsure of these other places - safety, jobs, and a future for their children - and what of the traditions, rituals and everyday activities that were Syrian, that were of the Orient, not the west? I believe it was this, along with the status quo of home, with its secret police and its neighbors, which prompted many to hope that peace would come soon, and that they would not need to leave.
As a chronicler, as a humanist, and as a Jew, I was often torn between what I knew of the great Jewish history of the past and its recent decline: how could I answer their questions? Indeed, I thought, is Brooklyn superior to Damascus in any manner? Could I encourage them to leave, knowing that when the last Jew left Syria a whole history would be wiped clean? I went to witness for myself these last remaining individuals - feeling that they should hold on, to continue a tradition and line that went back so many generations - but knowing it may not be."