The Eclipse of SUFFEH
As we enter into a new stage of Western history that has stereotyped the Arab as a sub-human and decrepit specimen synonymous with the most bestial and cruel from of humanity, we should remember that, paradoxically, one of the core values of Arab civilization going back to Bedouin culture has been that known in my own Syrian Jewish community as SUFFEH.
SUFFEH comes from the Arabic root S-F-W which the Hans Wehr dictionary defines as: “to be or become clear, unpolluted, limpid, cloudless, untroubled, serene, undisturbed, pure, to be sincere to one another, be honest with one another, be of pure intent with one another, etc.”
After distributing the first version of the present article, an esteemed member of the Syrian community Albert Elfaks questioned my etymology and suggested that the correct root of SUFFEH is S-F-F which Wehr defines as “to set up in a row or a line, align, array, arrange, order, to set, compose, classify.” Perhaps some combination of the two roots its appropriate – although the S-F-F root is to my taste much too formal and limited a definition and does not encompass the larger implications of the S-F-W root that is reflected in its common usage.
In any case, SUFFEH is more than a simply a root, more than the sum of its lexical meanings; SUFFEH is a foundational cultural concept that at one time served to function as the very formative basis of our community’s mores. SUFFEH signifies the humanistic underpinnings of the shrine that is the Arab home.
The Jews of Syria began to come to America around the time of the First World War. Those who remained here in New York first settled on New York’s Lower East Side where they found themselves unwelcome in a sea of Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom found these Arab Jewish immigrants to not be Jewish at all!
A story is recounted by Meyer “Mickey” Kairey, one of the last authentic representatives of the “old ways” of the community, regarding his father. Mickey has told of a prayer service led by Ashkenazim that his father attended soon after he got to New York from Aleppo. While sitting in a seat in the service, the man sitting next to Mickey’s father turned to him and asked him “Are you Jewish?” This question, one that we have since learned is ubiquitous in an Ashkenazi Jewish culture that maintains its sense of self-definition through intricate mechanisms of EXCLUSION, struck Mr. Kairey as strange since he was sitting in a prayer service fully decked out in his ritual prayer garb – his tallet and tefillin – the fringes and phylacteries that are common to Jews of all ethnicities. But the Ashkenazi who asked the question, as would be the case with many Ashkenazim who regard Judaism as a strictly Yiddish phenomenon, was confused that Mr. Kairey was praying the liturgy with an Arabic accent and was not swaying and gesticulating with the proper Ashkenazi manic style.
The question “Are you Jewish?” speaks to a primal split in the two Jewish cultures of the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. As is well-known, Arab culture places an extremely high premium on hospitality and a feeling of home that is reflected in the manner in which inter-personal matters are undertaken.
Ashkenazi culture is one that has traditionally been less welcoming of the outsider and has maintained its own sense of hospitality on an in-group, out-group basis.
As the Syrian Jewish community moved to Brooklyn, its traditional culture began to disintegrate. At first, the Syrians struggled to maintain this culture, particularly the Syrian women who were schooled in their homes in the art of SUFFEH, that unique and ebullient form of homemaking which raised the figure of the guest to a very high level; a guest in a traditional Syrian Jewish home was treated, as is the standard in the Arabic culture, as royalty. Such a sanctified sense of the OTHER is one that is deeply embedded within the Levantine culture of the Middle East. Good manners and good breeding, in Arabic ADAB, are part of the cultural legacy of the Arab civilization as seen in contrast to the more earthy and casual manner of Christian Europe which maintains sharp socio-cultural and religious divisions.
Arabic civilization continued to maintain its own sense of ADAB and SUFFEH and these values were communicated in the oral teachings that were imparted to all members of the culture. The home and the marketplace were seen as sacred loci where certain standards of behavior were expected. The manner in which a businessman undertook his own commercial practices and the manner in which a homemaker set her table and prepared her meals were part of a sacred social compact that was a vital and integral part of the Arabic culture.
Such values as SUFFEH were parochially valued and seen as sacrosanct within the culture. If the values of SUFFEH were in some way ignored or heaven forbid violated, the violator would be subject to internal censure and rejection – there were some things that you simply did not violate and the rules of SUFFEH were not to be monkeyed with.
But as I have argued, the degeneration of traditional Levantine values in the Syrian Jewish community was an ongoing process that may be traced to a dual form of acculturation: First, there was the massive internal Jewish pressure to conform to the Ashkenazi religious and cultural model that had been promulgated by the many Ashkenazi Synagogues and Yeshivahs that had sprung up all over America, but particularly those that had grown in New York and its environs. And then there was the adoption of an Anglo-American model with its own idiosyncratic manners.
These new Ashkenazi Jewish institutions had developed within an Anglophone context thus giving them a “new world” edge over the seemingly “backwards” Arabic accented models that were brought from Syria. Young people of my parents’ generation were eager to “forget” the past and acclimate to the American society. As my mother once told me, the stigma propounded against all things Arab was intense and deep. White bread was seen as more acceptable than the Syrian pita bread and the pot of mujaddarah that my grandmother would bring to the weekly outing to the beach at Coney Island was viewed as an embarrassing remnant of the old ways.
Rabbis in the Syrian community were also viewed as antiquated relics of a bygone age: The old mores and foreign Arabic tones of the rabbis were rejected in favor of Ashkenazim like Abraham Hecht, a Lubavitcher brought to Brooklyn from Canada whose classes were extremely popular among the young members of the community. The classes of Hakham Matloub Abadi, the last authentic expositor of the old Hispano-Arabic school of rabbinic culture, were attended by fewer and fewer young people to the point where Hecht was able to take the drastic license of ridiculing Abadi and his few students from the pulpit of Shaare Zion in the 1950’s.
Unbeknownst to those young people who craved proper English speakers, this acculturation to the Ashkenazi model brought with it an attack on the old ways of ADAB and SUFFEH. Not at first mind you, but the process that was now in full effect was to eviscerate the old liberalism of the Sephardic culture and replace it with the dogmas of the Ashkenazim. Hecht himself was a doctrinaire and rigid Orthodox rabbi who although acculturated to the Western model was an obscurantist and Jewish fundamentalist.
Ironically, progress in this case was not really progress at all; progress became a marker of a rapidly developing fanaticism that although successful in the way that it was able to integrate the community into the Anglo-American Jewish world, was responsible for the complete loss of the folkways and manners of the Levantine civilization of the immigrants. And with that came the triumph of CRUELTY over SUFFEH.
Cruelty is a part of the European Christian legacy. If we go back all the way to the age of the Crusades, a period that lasted many centuries and served to define the European Middle Ages and its violence and fanaticism, we see that the glories of civilization were all on the side of the Orient. The European Crusaders were brought into an Arab world of literature and learning, of cleanliness and civility. They were by all accounts unkempt and brutal men who barely knew what bathing was. A split had developed in the Crusader community as it would develop in Spain and Sicily: There were those who continued to live in the ill-mannered ways of Europe but there were also those who began to partake and adapt to the sophisticated ways of the Arabs.
Aesthetic and moral values changed and the inter-continental commerce brought the delicacies and the learning of the Arabs to Europe during this period. Clothing styles, medicine, philosophy, poetry, new ways of economic practice were all channeled back to European capitals and a cultural revolution took place among European elites. There was the development of Troubadour Poetry, the creation of colleges of the new learning, and the general improvement of European culture. As Richard Rubenstein eloquently puts it in his recent masterpiece Aristotle’s Children:
What underlying causes generated this profound shift in cultural values? The question is still unsettled, but we know that, beginning in the eleventh century, the material and social conditions of life in Europe changed dramatically. A sharp warming trend melted the frozen northern seas, raised water levels in central Europe, and provided more than a century of good weather for farming. Improvements in agricultural techniques increased food production and permitted a huge increase in population. As the incessant waves of migrations and invasions that had made European life so dangerous and disorderly slowed and then stopped, the pace of economic expansion accelerated. People cleared forests and drained fens to create new farmlands, then went off to Crusade to find new lands and opportunities in the East. New social networks sprang up everywhere, supplementing the old relationship of lord and peasant… Some idea of what all this meant for culture can be gathered when one realizes that in this same “century of great progress,” the troubadours invented European love poetry, a fervent movement of moral reform moved from the monasteries into city streets, and young people hungry for knowledge poured into the church schools that were soon to become Europe’s first universities.
This absorption of Arab values and mores into the European world was to prove decisive in the generation of a new system of culture and civilization that developed in the Renaissance.
The very root of the word Troubadour has been linked to the Arabic Taraba, the word that connotes mystical ecstasy and is a crucial part of Arab aesthetics.
This adoption of the ways of ADAB by the Europeans had a transformative impact on Western civilization, returning the ways of the Greco-Roman past that had once been lost due to the decisive victories of the barbarian hordes as well as by the Christians who could not find rapprochement with the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions – a matter that would not be rectified until Abelard and Aquinas.
What then does all this have to do with the mores of Jews in America in the contemporary age?
The culture of the Levantine Jews, through all its ups and downs, was based on the refinement of the ADAB culture that was so much a part of Europe’s regeneration. As the Ottoman world collapsed around itself, many natives came to the West and were faced with new and daunting challenges. Those who had assimilated into the Western culture found a good deal of commonality with the mores and cultural ways of the West. But the case of the Ashkenazi Jewish community created an anomaly for Levantine Jews: Ashkenazi Jews had for many centuries been left out of civilized European society which unlike its counterpart in the East was segregated along religious lines and did not provide any real sense of freedom and autonomy until the 19th century and the various Emancipation movements in Western Europe.
Ashkenazi Jews had been subjected to discriminatory rules and laws that left their communities outside the stream of Western culture and of historical progress. Shtetls in Eastern Europe continued to practice their culture and religion much in the manner of those centuries earlier. When the Shtetls were opened their inhabitants reacted in diverse ways. There were those who left never to come back and there were those who reverted back into the Shtetl cocoon and redoubled the sense of alienation and isolation that characterized the Shtetl as the symbol of Ashkenazi Jewish culture.
Shtetl Jews who went to university were seen as traitors and as having abandoned their religion. In contrast to the models of the Arab East, with roots going back to the time of the Geonim in the 8th century and later, which had developed a cosmopolitan-ness and a sense of intellectual sophistication, the adaptation of Ashkenazi Judaism to the Modern Age was fraught – as we have repeatedly argued – with dissension and catastrophic breakdowns in the traditional unity of the community.
So when the Syrians here in Brooklyn began to reject their own culture and adopt the ways of the Ashkenazim, they were paradoxically MOVING BACKWARDS and not advancing as they had mistakenly thought.
The process of Ashkenazification was seen as a LIBERALIZING tendency in the community. The mores and cultural values of the past – including SUFFEH, the manner in which the warmth of the Levantine home was to be protected and promoted - were seen as OLD HAT and a competition had begun among the more “forward” thinking people of the community as to how best to replace the ways of the Arab past with the new ways of the Ashkenazim. Cynicism began to replace altruism; a development that continues to be expressed in the way that the younger generations show their absolute contempt for the values of their grandparents.
We saw this loss of our heritage develop in our schools and in our Synagogues. Ashkenazi rabbis were hired, a curriculum based in Ashkenazic pedagogical traditions was instituted, alliances were made with Ashkenazi institutions, a deep and abiding loyalty to the Ashkenazi-oriented form of Zionism that had been developing was cemented – all the while that the representatives of the old ways were in the process of being eclipsed – formally and informally.
So there is a tri-partite form of cultural transformation that began to take root in the community:
• There was first the violence that took place in the rejection of the old ways. This created a corrosive form of ethno-cultural transgressivity that opened the door to a sense of rebellion that was ultimately not conducive to the warmth and the liberality of the old school mentality.
• There was then the supplanting of the old ways with a new and alien mindset of Ashkenazi culture which had not made its peace with the modern liberal values of humanistic culture. This served to add a very corrosive edge to the manners of community members who would increasingly see polarization and extremism as the way to go, much in the manner of the Ashkenazim that they emulated.
• Finally, there was the adoption of a laissez-faire market capitalism that was marked by a morality of corruption and a venal duplicity that has sadly served to characterize the American economic system.
In this sense, the Ashkenazi sense of cultural exclusion and the duplicitous nature of PILPUL served to acclimatize the Syrian community to a new reality that served to supplant the ways of ADAB and SUFFEH. Looking back to the dictionary definition of SUFFEH, we can see that the sense of CLARITY and PURITY that was symbolized in the joyous warmth and unpretentious sophistication of the Syrian Jewish home – a home that prided itself on its aesthetic sparkle as well as its gracious manners – was transformed by the Ashkenazi acculturation into a degeneracy; this deterioration created new divisions and exclusions: The personal sense of warmth and loving kindness – HESED – was in the process of being lost in the community. New models of HESED were substituted for the old, but the truth is – a truth that is well-known to those who have been deeply attuned to the transformation in their own families and in their own personal lives – that a cruelty and a callousness has taken over our Syrian community over the past decades.
This cruelty has falsely been attributed to the ways of the Arabs – we have the concept of Syrian elitism wrongly linked to the ways of the past as this sense of vain elitism is a product, not of the old values, but of the new acculturation to Western mores. Our grandparents were deeply moral human beings who were completely open and welcoming to their fellow men. Their homes were places where strangers could come and be treated as one of the family. This idea that Syrian snobbishness is a product of Arab immorality and degeneracy is an unfortunate product of Western racism towards Arabs; a racism that is very much a part of Ashkenazi culture and that has become a crucial part of the Zionist modality in its anti-Arab formation.
When we currently attend Synagogue or a formal occasion such as a Wedding or a Bar Mitzvah, there is no trace of the SUFFEH of the past; that sense of welcoming and that sense of joy that once suffused our community and its culture. These occasions have become stiffly formal pretentious events that maintain little of the splendor of the celebrations of our communal past.
So as I listen to those cynics in the community who continue to work towards the complete eradication of our traditional ways, I think of the cruelty and the callousness that they have imparted to the community. This cruelty is seen – as is standard in the Western model – as a sign of having “made it” as a part of the new civilization. I am told that our children must have more interaction with Ashkenazim so that they will become more “well rounded” and more able to interact with outsiders.
And yet the worldliness and liberalism of the community has degenerated in proportion to the adoption of the Ashkenazi mores.
The loss of SUFFEH has been compensated for with the adoption of the paranoid and hateful values that now suffuse the Ashkenazi community. We have exclusionary forms of Jewish self-identification such as Orthodoxy and Zionism that have created an alienated and paranoid sense of Jewish self that has now become a major component in the self-perception of our young people.
I recently attended a family Bar Mitzvah in Manhattan and saw a good deal of this in action. The sense of SUFFEH was, as has been the case with these types of occasions at present, totally lacking. The occasion was stiff and formal rather than what we might call “down home” and casual. The traditional culture of my own family – the SUFFEH that was learned from my grandmother – was missing from an event in a way that no one would have seen as strange. Our acclimation to the coldness and impersonal nature of the modern culture is now complete.
But what struck me even more than the de rigueur pretense and showy material glitz of the Bar Mitzvah was the speech given by the Bar Mitzvah boy; a speech both intelligent and misguided at the same time. The speech was shocking in its needful articulation of a primal sense of anti-Semitism by the child at a joyous occasion. He recounted his own sense of Jewishness in a story that spoke of his fear of riding the Manhattan city bus wearing his kippah. He then went on to recount a story told to him by the Synagogue’s rabbi of a Syrian Jewish immigrant who was forced to remove an Israeli flag from his daughter’s wedding platform as the singer that he had flown in from Syria, presumably a Muslim, demanded that the flag be removed or he would not sing.
This sense of self that the child projected was one that was both paranoid and self-deprecating. And that this was the aspect of his identity that he thought to present on this most important day in his life, a day filled with joy and love and happiness – and reflected by the astronomical financial tab that the family would be paying for the privilege of such a formal event in Manhattan, was to me as a member of the same extended family – what we endearingly like to call Bet Mish’an – a sad reminder of what has happened to us as a community and as a people.
We have confidently adopted a form of cultural exclusion that has precisely translated into a debased cruelty that makes us strangers to one another; people who lack compassion, who lack empathy, who lack humility – people who lack SUFFEH.
My grandparents were people whose sense of hospitality was absolute. They judged others by their commitment to the principles of SUFFEH, of generosity and giving. They were, like many of their peers, people who gave until it hurt – not merely in the material sense, but more importantly they gave freely OF THEMSELVES – of their personal resources and of what they were as human beings.
The current sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the corrosive sense of schadenfreude and that debilitating sense of personal competitiveness to the point of mutual destruction – all values that are alien to what was ultimately the central value in our community’s culture, ALTRUISM – has transformed the community along the lines of the Ashkenazi model of exclusion and Shtetl-paranoia. Our children are schooled in hate – self-hate as well as the hatred of the OTHER – and are taught that it is SINK OR SWIM – the value of WIN OR DIE.
Altruism, a value that was ubiquitous in the community that my grandparents helped to build, has been lost to us. In its place is a cruelty whose ugly manifestation has begun to become an active presence in the community and has turned the community from one that once valued SUFFEH to one that values the primacy of the individual’s own attainments and material wealth at the expense of those who cannot keep up – those who are too weak to rise to the level of brutality that is the new version of SUFFEH in our community.
As I wend my way through a world that is dark and forbiddingly alien to the ways of the past, I am faced with the seemingly paradoxical fact that what is OLD is what must be NEW and that what is NEW is what is degenerate.
I miss my grandmother and her culture even as I recall that she was seen as an antiquated relic even when I was a boy. Her values and the love that she projected were both rejected and it made her angry and hurt. It made her extremely critical and judgmental of those whose values sought to supplant those of the past.
And this is the paradox we all face: What to do while our goodness and morality is ruined? Should we sit and let the cruelty wash over us? Should we become as cruel as those who have ruined our present? Or is it possible for us to retain our ADAB and our SUFFEH while fighting back and rejecting – sometimes violently – those who have killed our culture?
The question remains.