Documentary sheds light on Lebanese Jewish diaspora in Brooklyn

Sunday 07/05/2017
Part of social mosaic. A picture shows the entrance to the Magen Abraham synagogue in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP)

Lebanon’s jews were part of lebanon’s social mosaic and even had a minor­ity seat in parliament but have been erased from the collective memory of the country. Many, especially younger lebanese, know little about lebanon’s jews, who were once a thriving commu­nity in the country.
“That is exactly why i wanted to do a documentary about them. While growing up in lebanon i have never met lebanese jews but i was aware that they existed,” said rola khayyat, a new york-based visual artist whose first documentary, “from brooklyn to beirut,” sheds light on the lebanese jewish dias­pora of brooklyn.
Before moving to new york for graduate studies at columbia uni­versity, the closest contact khayyat had to the lebanese jewish com­munity were physical remnants around beirut. These include the magen abraham synagogue in wadi abu jamil, later known as the jewish neighbourhood of the city, and the jewish cemetery in sodeco.
“My father used to tell stories of jewish neighbours who were very close to them. When i came to new york i found out that the largest di­aspora of lebanese and syrian jews is here,” khayyat said in a skype in­terview.
She sought out her jewish com­patriots, including raymond sasson and rabbi elie abadie, the two main interviewees in her 30-minute doc­umentary.
“I was surprised to find out that they speak better arabic than i do, cook lebanese food, listen to arabic songs… they have preserved leba­nese culture in its highest form,” khayyat said.
“Today, with the interference of politics and after the wars with is­rael, it has become a common un­derstanding that what is jewish is equated with zionism but many in the community are apolitical and they don’t really side with either side. After all, jews have existed in the middle east since biblical times.”
Lebanon’s jews, a relatively small community that numbered as many as 15,000 in the mid-1950s, mostly migrated or fled the country after the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. Those who still live in lebanon are estimated to be fewer than 200. Many have changed their papers, married outside the jewish faith and kept a low profile. In 2010, the lebanese government renovated the magen abraham synagogue in beirut, which was abandoned in the war.
Khayyat noted that the lebanese and syrian jewish communities are quite distinctive from other minori­ties in the united states as they were essentially against fully assimilating and were adamant about preserv­ing their middle eastern identities. They established their own clearly defined infrastructure, notably in brooklyn, in the ocean parkway area.
“When you walk in the street there you have middle eastern bak­eries and roasters, you hear arabic and you see arabic written on signs. It looks very familiar,” khayyat said.
“They identify as lebanese and in terms of religion they identify as jews and they don’t really feel that there is a contradiction between the two.”
Sasson, whose family migrated to the united states when he was a child in 1971, has returned several times to lebanon since 2008.
“Although i was raised in the states, we were always reminisc­ing about our life in lebanon,” sas­son said by e-mail. “My parents and relatives always spoke positively about their life in lebanon. I am very connected to lebanon that i try to visit every few years.”
Sasson defines himself as leba­nese foremost. “I’m jewish by faith and lebanese by culture. Why do i have to choose between one and the other?” He asked.
“I have many lebanese friends of all faiths and i follow lebanese poli­tics and culture,” he said.
Sasson’s family, like many leba­nese jewish families, chose to leave the country because of political in­stability and a feeling of insecurity as members of the jewish commu­nity, especially after of the arab-israeli 1967 war, which changed the country’s political landscape. A large number of palestinian refu­gees entered the country then and palestinian armed groups frequent­ly launched attacks from lebanon against israel.
“We were not persecuted,” sasson said, “but there were tensions with regard to israel.”
Most lebanese jews have settled in the united states or europe. The few who did go to israel eventually relocated somewhere else, khayyat pointed out.
“They did not want to leave. They tried to stay until the very last moment, even when they left, they tried to come back,” she said.
“Raymond’s mother, for in­stance, does not feel at home in america. She says lebanon will al­ways be my homeland. She is 85 years now and she still feels that way.”
“The documentary explores the idea of home and belonging and how the identity of jews has been changed after the creation of israel, after the interference of politics and after zionism came into the scene,” khayyat added.
For many, “lebanese jewish” is too remote a concept but the truth is that jews in lebanon once lived side by side with the country’s christian and muslim populations.
“From brooklyn to beirut” is to be released in september. A screen­ing in beirut is scheduled for octo­ber.
(Agence France-Presse)