By: Dalal Mawad
As her brother drove her through the streets of downtown Beirut on a balmy January day, 76-year-old Suzette Sasson felt like a stranger in her own city. Captivated by the new places and unfamiliar faces, she failed to notice they had reached Wadi Abou Jamil, the neighborhood she had longed to return to for years. But when her brother stopped the car and pointed to a four-story building, Sasson was shaken out of her limbo. She stared, drowning in silence.
“Go up mama,” said her 40-year-old son Raymond, sitting behind her. “But what should I say?” she muttered nervously.
When a woman opened the door of the apartment on the third floor, Sasson told her in Arabic: “I grew up here, can I see the house?”
She walked slowly around what has now become an office space, years weighing heavily on her steps. When she reached the balcony, she stopped, shaking. The melancholia of a beautiful youth came blowing in her face. An image of her mother watering the Arabian jasmine pots around the veranda brought back the child in her. “When my mother died, the jasmine died with her,” she told Raymond, “You know we were happy, we lived happily here.” Tears came out of her eyes.
Sasson is a Lebanese Jew, born and raised in Beirut. She left Lebanon with her husband and children in 1972 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. She was not expelled nor persecuted. She chose to leave because of political instability and a feeling of insecurity as a member of the Jewish community.
The civil war prevented her from returning to Lebanon. When the conflict stopped, she said she was no longer welcomed in her own country. It was only in 2008, after her husband’s death, that she decided to go back to finalize some paperwork.
A Difficult Departure
Back in Sasson’s New York apartment, she served homemade Lebanese sweets, and poured Lebanese-made Turkish coffee. During the conversation, she kept filling the plate with food and fruits, a trait typical of Lebanese grandmothers who cook with their hearts and insist on filling your belly with their love. “We came here, but we never became Americans,” she said, “our heart was always in Lebanon.”
“My husband suffered a lot when we moved here,” she added, “he always wanted to go back. He was a principal at a school in Beirut but here he became a stock boy.” Adjusting to the American lifestyle and culture was difficult, Sasson explained. She spoke some English but her husband spoke neither English or Hebrew.
Berth Srour is Sasson’s sister. She is in her late seventies. Sasson helped her get into the US when she left Beirut in 1976. Srour lived in an apartment on Rue de France in Beirut with her husband and two boys.Srour said that men suffered the most when they left Lebanon, as they had established jobs and a laidback social life. “My husband had a lot of non-Jewish friends, the Safi family and the Chammoun family,” she said smiling with her pintsize eyes. “Neighbors used to come down and play chess on our balcony every evening, Christians, Muslims, Armenians.” She then looked at Sasson and sighed, “oh Bhamdoun, beautiful Bhamdoun,” referring to a Lebanese summer resort in the mountains, “do you remember, Suzette, our walks in Bhamdoun after the sunset?”
Sasson explained how the political situation had drastically changed after 1967, “we felt a war coming, and we felt insecure.” Srour said she had to leave because of the civil war, “we tried to stay till 1976, but things got worse and Jews were under pressure.”
According to Sasson, only a tiny fraction of the Lebanese Jews left to go to Israel, “We had the choice to go there, but we didn’t, why would we? People are very different there,” she said. People usually went where they had families or businesses, she explained, those that did go to Israel did so because they already had someone there.
The Identity Question – Arab, Lebanese?
All Lebanese Jews interviewed defined themselves as Lebanese foremost. Judaism was their religion, but only a part of their identity, and not their national identity.
“Lebanese is my culture and Jewish is my religion and one doesn’t negate or exclude or even compete with the other,” said Raymond Sasson. “They complement each other.” Being Lebanese, he explained is what unites him with Muslim and Christian Lebanese. “I feel like they get me, they understand me, they understand how my parents would see things, just like my sister or my brother would.”
While Christian Lebanese have difficulties sometimes identifying themselves as Arabs, the Lebanese Jews interviewed fully embraced their Arab identity.
“I am Arab in culture and Jewish in religion,” said Rabbi Eli Abbadi as we toured the Safra Synagogue in Manhattan, whose constituency is majority Lebanese and Syrian. “There are Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs, it’s all the same.” Abbadi left Lebanon with his family in 1971 and moved to Mexico before coming to New York.
“I am Lebanese in my food, my language, and even in my prayers,” he explained, “it’s who I am, my Lebanese identity gives me pride.”
Shabbats at the Safra Synagogue embodies the complementarity of the Arab and Jewish identities. Prayers in Hebrew are mixed with melodies from Lebanese and Egyptian singers Fairouz, Umm Kulthum, and Farid Al Atrash as “it gives us inspiration,” said Abbadi. In his preaching the rabbi also used old Arabic proverbs and sayings to address the crowd.
While he reminisced about his childhood in Lebanon, the rabbi talked about his allegiance to Lebanon and his belief in Israel. “It is not a contradiction to be a citizen of one country and have an affinity to another country,” he said, “the only problem is that the two countries are at war.”
Raymond Sasson believed in the land of Israel as mentioned in the Bible. “Israel in our book is not necessarily the state of Israel,” he explained, “you could be a devout Jew and not believe in the state of Israel.”
But, most Lebanese Jews sympathized with Israel as a state for the Jews, “we are happy that there is a country that will welcome us no matter what,” said Berth Srour. But none of them considered it as their home.
“Their loyalty to Israel is not any different from a Shia’s loyalty to Iran or a Sunni’s loyalty to Saudi Arabia,” explained the Lebanese Jewish council’s Aaron Beydoun.
As to Israel and Lebanon’s conflict, most Lebanese Jews defined Hezbollah as Israel’s main enemy and not Lebanon, and defended Israel’s right to retaliate against Hezbollah.
But Israel’s wars were never just with Hezbollah. Israel has invaded Lebanon three times since its creation (1978, 1982 and 2006), and occupied its south until 2000. Civilians were often the victims of Israel’s attacks and infrastructure was always recklessly destroyed. In the last Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, UNICEF estimated that 30 percent of civilians killed were children, while the war cost Lebanon more than US$3.5 billion in direct costs.
So how did they feel when Lebanon is bombed by Israel ?
“I feel bad, very bad,” said Raymond Sasson, “it is my country being bombed after all.”
But whose side were they on?
None of them would take sides. “You are so torn, you want to stop watching the news,” said Lea Srour, “in these cases you don’t have a loyalty toward one side, you just can’t choose, and it is very hard.”
A Lebanese Jew Goes Back to Lebanon
Raymond Sasson stopped at a small grocery shop in Beirut’s once Jewish quarter of Wadi Abou Jamil. He needed water. As he took the money out of his pocket to pay, the shop owner, a man in his mid-50s, looked at him and said, “I know you.” Sasson winced. Was he going to be discovered?
“How do you know me? Are you from Brooklyn?” The man replied assuredly, “no but I know your face.” Sasson first hesitated then told him he lived in the neighborhood, years ago. “I knew your father,” said the shop owner, “wasn’t he a school principal?” Sasson looked back stunned, “yes he was.” The man smiled and said, “you look like him, my father had a bakery here and your father used to come to bake his bread.” Sasson’s striking blue eyes twinkled with emotions, “I was home,” he thought.
That was Raymond Sasson’s first visit to Lebanon in 2008, 33 years after leaving the city at the age of three. “I grew up knowing Lebanon through stories, Beirut was until I went there, this magical, mystical place,” said Sasson.
During his recent trip last summer, Sasson hung out with people he had met through a Facebook group dedicated to the renovation of Beirut’s Magen Abraham synagogue.
The effort to renovate the synagogue was initiated in 2006 by Aaron Beydoun with the support of Jewish and non-Jewish Lebanese in Lebanon. “I was very nervous at the beginning,” said beydoun. “I got attacked by right-wing Jews saying I was a Hezbollah agent, then that I was paid by Prime Minister Hariri.” But surprisingly he said, the Lebanese reacted positively to his effort. Solidere, a private real estate company that reconstructed post-war Beirut, donated US$150,000 to the renovation, the exact amount it had donated to other religious communities renovating their buildings. Hezbollah made a positive statement regarding the renovation, saying that there problem was with Israel and Zionists and not with Jews.
“It would be great if the Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon can wake up on Saturday, get dressed and go to the synagogue to pray without having to worry whether someone would hurt them or attack them,” said Sasson.
“I met amazing people in Lebanon who embraced me,” added Sasson, “I chose sometimes not to reveal my Jewish identity,” he explained, “but not one told me not to, whenever it came out that I was a Jew. I don’t remember anyone making me feel that I’m not Lebanese, it was more like ‘we have never met a Lebanese Jew before.’”
Sasson plans to go back to visit Lebanon soon, “I can’t get enough, I want to go back, know more about the place, the people,” he said proudly, “I am very proud that I went, I did something to promote dialogue, and this awareness of each other’s existence;all these walls that have been put around us, stopped us from knowing each other.”