A high school friend of mine used to live in the Syrian Jewish neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, down near Coney Island. He described it as an insular, conservative, and somewhat bizarre ethnic enclave that included many opulent houses.
As we were putting together this issue, we realized that coordinating a fashion shoot inside Syria would void our insurance. So I got back in touch with my old friend and asked whether he knew of any families who might be willing to be photographed and possibly interviewed. I stressed that it would be a respectful, straightforward fashion spread, and he was kind enough to put out some feelers.
Here’s one of the responses sent to my friend from the father of a Syrian Jewish family (extended ellipses have been left intact): “Definitely not interested….. We do not like articles written about our community…… It is bad press, which causes unwanted attention…. Please discourage your friend from writing this piece….”
All the replies were in the same vein. Luckily, we tracked down a Syrian Jewish family living in nearby Sheepshead Bay who were willing to participate. The kids—Jack, Linda, and Etsik—were born in the US and said they feel no strong connection to Syria. Linda added that living near many other Syrian Jews can be good sometimes because “everyone you know is around you,” but it can also be really annoying because, again, “everyone you know is around you.”
“I don’t like Syrian cooking,” Jack said. “I hate it. It’s all greasy, oily, fat. Ugh.” When asked about his love life, Jack said that his past two girlfriends weren’t Jewish, but he does plan to someday marry a nice Jewish girl.
Their mother, Mari, who was born in Syria, doesn’t miss it. No surprise there: Like much of the Middle East and everywhere else on earth, Syria has historically acted like a nasty little fucker to its Jewish population, at times instituting bans on Jews leaving the country and other extreme restrictions. In the 1950s, Jewish cemeteries were seized and plowed over by the Syrian government. There were around 30,000 Jews in Syria in 1943; by 1968, only 4,000 remained. These days, all but an estimated 16 Jews have left the country, with many families relocating to Brooklyn over the years. I look at these photos and wonder what it would be like for them if their brethren had stayed any longer, and how wonderful life can be in a country where people don’t try to kill you because your ancestors might’ve believed in some bullshit or other.