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The Syrian Jews of Brooklyn
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November 06, 2007, 09:32 PM
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The recent NYT Magazine article by Zev Chafets on the rich and rapidly growing enclave of 75,000 Syrian Jews in Brooklyn is quite fascinating. Unlike some other Orthodox Jewish groups, they dress in modern clothes, which facilitates their making a huge amount of money as merchants. (Some had forged close business ties with the late Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart). Under an Edict put forward in 1935 and most recently reaffirmed by community leaders in 2006, they utterly ostracize anybody who marries a Gentile, along with their descendants.

“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.” ...

“It’s really a matter of statistics,” [Rabbi Elie Abadie ] explained to me. “Except for the Orthodox, the American Jewish community is shrinking, disappearing. In two generations, most of their grandchildren won’t even be Jews. But our community is growing. We have large families, five or six children. And only a tiny fraction of our kids leave. The Edict is what makes that true.”

Abadie and Kassin agree that the vast majority of SY youth abide by the strictures of the Edict. “Ninety-nine percent accept it,” Kassin said. “When someone doesn’t, it’s painful, but it’s better to lose a kid here and there and save the community. Families get sick over it, sure, but that’s how it is.”

Kassin knows this from personal experience. His sister Anna ran off with a gentile. Naturally it was a great scandal in the community, but the chief rabbi didn’t bend the rules for his daughter. “We cut her off,” Jakie Kassin told me. “We didn’t see her for 25 years. But we never stopped hoping she’d come back. Finally, after all these years, she made contact. We told her she was welcome to come back, but not with her husband or kids. She’s not here yet, but we do talk on the telephone.”

In addition to the strictures imposed by the Edict in instances of proposed intermarriage, any outsider who wants to marry into a Syrian family — even a fellow Jew — is subject to thorough genealogical investigation. That means producing proof, going back at least three generations and attested to by an Orthodox rabbi, of the candidates’ kosher bona fides. This disqualifies the vast majority of American Jews, who have no such proof. “We won’t take them — not even if we go back three or four generations — if someone in their line was married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi, because they don’t perform marriages according to Orthodox law,” Kassin said. Even Orthodox candidates are screened, to make sure there are no gentiles or converts lurking in the family tree. ...
The force of the Edict is lasting: the children of people who have been excluded under the terms of the Edict are themselves declared ineligible to marry into the community.[The Sy Empire, October 14, 2007]

The Syrian Jews of Brooklyn differ from Ashkenazi Jews in many ways: their birthrate is very high; their intermarriage rate with gentiles is minuscule; they show no interest in science, the arts, or ideology; they don`t pursue higher education; they don`t become doctors or lawyers; they don`t seem concerned about making the world in general a better place; and very few Syrian Jews become celebrities. Well-known half-Syrian Jews include Jerry Seinfeld and Paula Abdul, but Dan Hedaya (an actor best known for looking like Richard Nixon) is perhaps the most famous celebrity raised in a Syrian Jewish environment.

The other prominent Syrian Jews tend to be businessmen who get caught in scandals, such as Crazy Eddie, the tri-state area electronics hawker of a generation ago. (There`s an amusing Wikipedia page detailing the depths of the Antar family`s fraud. I spent a couple of weeks in Manhattan in 1982 looking for a job, and I came to the conclusion that New Yorkers believed that Crazy Eddie was the second most famous person in the world, behind only George Steinbrenner.)

In other words, the Syrian Jews of Brooklyn are very Middle Eastern. This article reminds me that Greg Cochran has been tentatively kicking around for some time the idea that Middle Eastern-style clannishness is the wave of the future for humanity, that from a Darwinian perspective the ideals underlying the great accomplishments of Western Civilization—curiosity, fair play, rule of law, free speech, and so forth—are turning out to be a demographic dead-end. Perhaps the future belongs not to the Einsteins but to the Crazy Eddies?