the Sephardim.) I am, I said. I didn’t tell him I’d resented Hebrew school in adolescence. That my bat mitzvah proved memorable mostly because a friend made out with the boy I liked. How I was still waiting to believe in God. Instead, I offered assurances. I’m a diligent researcher, I said, a quick study. A lanky, yarmulke-wearing employee barged in without knocking and muttered something to Henry in Arabic. The man’s eyes scanned me, then darted away. His mouth suppressed a smile. I’d received a similar reaction in the reception area. Clarity would come later: how Syrian Jews reared in a majority-Muslim country seemed to have assumed the Arabic designation for women: haram. Forbidden. How Henry and his staff—all male— observed a sect of Judaism that limited interaction with the opposite sex. I had a simpler understanding at the time, one no less true. I’d worn a tank top in the summer heat. My bare shoulders, I decided, made them squirm. In my Aleppo, the Citadel, world’s oldest castle, presided over the Old City from atop a giant hill. Its limestone steps summoned Greeks and Romans. Each archway framed a different view. Ramparts. Courtyards. Domes aligned like breasts. I paused at a shrine for the Mesopotamian god Hadad, protector of life, and again at the fortified gates. I traipsed through secret passageways designed to dupe the enemy. So many ways to stay safe. But I’m only telling you the dream. There was also a nightmare. At the base of the Citadel hung a sign: “No Pests Allowed.” The accompanying illustration was a caricature of a hook-nosed Jew. Aleppo, a.k.a. Halab. So-labeled, legend says, after Abraham tramped through with a flock of sheep and distributed their milk— halav —to the city’s poor. Aleppo: recorded in the Good Book as part of the extended area of Israel. Aleppo: eponym of the world’s oldest, most accurate and complete copy of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Codex. Jews there preserved it in a safe, inside a rock, beneath the Great Synagogue, for 600 years. There were ten thousand Jews in Aleppo when Henry was born in 1947. The exodus began months later with the UN’s decision
to partition Palestine. Mobs torched Jewish homes and schools and the Great Synagogue, slayed 75 supposed Zionists. Al haraek, Aleppans would call it. The fires. Henry and his family might have been consumed too, had it not been for a Muslim neighbor. Try another block, the man told the approaching crowd. There aren’t Jews here. He knew, of course, that on the other side of the wall behind him, Henry’s parents were willing their infant son not to cry. Jews fled in droves after al haraek, and not just because they dreaded more conflagration. Their fear was greater. Mystical. Rumors had spread that when the Great Synagogue smoldered, so did the Codex, a parchment that had magic powers. Young women who gazed upon it became pregnant, locals said. Men in trouble who prayed before it could have their luck restored. And those who held keys to the safe that housed it were divinely blessed. Likewise, if the Codex suffered harm, a plague would befall the community in charge of protecting it. By 1959, just two thousand Jews remained in Aleppo. By 1967, there were half that. Still, Henry’s recalcitrant parents had refused to budge.Theywere old, tired.They’d worked hard to establish a life in their city and didn’t know where else to go. Sanctions intensified. Jews could no longer own cars or homes or phones. They endured a 10 pm curfew and identifying stamps on their IDs. By 1971, Halabi Jews were confined to a 3.5- mile-wide patch of city and threatened with death if they tried to flee. But that summer, 24-year-old Henry did. I interviewed Henry for hours at a time over weeks: in his midtown office, over the phone, in his brick house on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. The more he spoke, the less I understood. His childhood neighbors belonged to Muslim and Christian and esoteric sects I could barely pronounce, let alone describe. The regimes under whose laws his family suffered fell every few months, one coup after another. Even Aleppo’s architecture spoke to a mesh of influences I couldn’t parse. I wandered library aisles agog: theology, geography, political science. My book piles ballooned. Two months of writing became four became six.
h-lepp-oh. The name on the world’s lips as the war rages. Its faces flicker on our eyelids en route to sleep. That wide-eyed boy, skin and hair talcum-powdered with debris. A sea of anemone fingers grasping at rations. Sopping corpses, 230 all told, lined up like tombs after locals pulled them from the Queiq River. One image forces my eyelids open: a red- shirted toddler, chubby cheek pressed into the sand, lips a figure eight, water lapping at his forehead. He is the same size as my two-year-old. He has washed ashore on the Greek Island of Kos after fleeing from a city just north of Aleppo, as has his five-year-old brother. I have a five-year-old, too. Aleppo: the city Othello names just before stabbing himself in the gut. Aleppo, whose mention in Othello inspires Nabokov’s story “That In Aleppo Once…” The link? Heroes in both narratives struggle to distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined. I met Henry in a windowless, midtown- Manhattanoffice, onewhose small conference room was crammed with clothing racks. Henry owned an apparel business, which is how we connected. My friend, a journalist, interviewed him for an article on retail trends. Afterwards, Henry inquired about writers to pen his memoir. Enter the freshly minted MFA in need of a job. Henry had side-combed silver hair and ruddy pink cheeks; absent his Arabic accent, he might’ve been mistaken for a Westerner. He seemed disappointed that I didn’t know anything about Aleppo. Aren’t you Jewish? he asked. (The Syrian city had been a polestar for
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