A REVIEW OF "FROM SYRIA TO PALESTINE: MY FIGHT FOR A JEWISH STATE"
BY: JOSEPH ABOUDI
REVIEWED BY: FERN SIDMAN
Any voracious reader can attest to the fact that the literary world is
brimming with riveting memoirs; some poignant; some tragic; some humorous, some
inspirational and some intellectually stimulating. Little did I know when I
began reading Joseph Aboudi's, "From Syria to Palestine: My Fight For A Jewish
State" that this compelling narrative would be a palpable combination of all of
For those not in the know, Mr. Aboudi is a doyen of Brooklyn's Syrian
Jewish community; a distinguished gentleman who is renowned for his business
acumen; his dedication to abundant charitable pursuits and his love of family,
friends and above all his Syrian heritage. In this stellar effort to put pen to
paper in order to convey his most fascinating and trenchant ride through life,
Mr. Aboudi manages to assume the role of veteran raconteur, as he leaves
his readers thirsting for more in this veritable page turner.
Cogently written in laconic verses, Mr. Aboudi begins his stroll down
memory lane by creating a vibrant scenario of Jewish life in his birthplace of
Aleppo, Syria. Born there in 1928, the author proffers nuanced examples of the
unique culture, cuisine, religious devotion and family life that defined Jewish
life in Syria, the reader is at once transported back in time, as we imbibe the
aromatic flavors and the aesthetic feel of this heralded city that possessed
deep historical and religious roots.
Mr. Aboudi's father Hillel and mother Sophie played a formidable role in
his life as did his siblings and extended family. Because Syria was under the
aegis of the government of France in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, young
Joe attended a French-Jewish school, and was an active member of the Jewish boy
scouts and the Maccabi sports team. It was there that the seeds were planted for
his life's trajectory as a dedicated Zionist and fighter for Jewish
Under the tutelage of his devoutly religious father, young Joe gained an
life-long appreciation for the Torah life that was an endemic part of being a
Jew in Aleppo. Growing up in a fairly affluent family, Joe describes life as
being quite pleasant for Jews in Syria. His father had created ties with
prominent local Syrian officials including the chief of police and even held
sway over judicial decisions. Some of Joe's uncles and aunts migrated to France,
and he recalls with great love that no matter where his extended family was,
there were ever present parcels of food, clothing and letters sent to them.
At the tender age of 14, in the early 1940s, young Joe decided it was time
to realize this dream of going to the land of Israel and playing a part in its
formation, despite the inherent dangers that were to follow. Preferring that Joe
stay in Syria and complete his formal education, his father stood in staunch
opposition to Joe's plans. It didn't take too long for his father to the
conclude, however, that nothing would serve as a deterrent for his son, so he
capitulated and even helped Joe leave Syria with a group going across the border
to Lebanon. From there they were led by guide over the mountains and into
After making his way to Netanya to stay with sister Fortune and
brother-in-law Shlomo, it wasn't long before Joe joined the Palyam, the naval
branch of the Palmach, which was the striking arm of the Haganah. Joe had
developed a love of the sea and his adroitness in maritime operations made him a
prime candidate for the arduous work that lied ahead. It was during World War
II, and Haganah ships were transporting Europe's Jews, many of whom were
Holocaust survivors to Palestine. Because of the egregious strictures of the
British White Paper, legal immigration of Jews was at a virtual standstill. Joe
and his comrades, risking life and limb, defied the British authorities and
helped smuggle in these Jews during the dark of night and under unusually harsh
Subsequent to the formal declaration of Jewish statehood in 1948, the
nascent country of Israel was under siege by seven Arab armies. Never one to
succumb to fear or behave in a timorous manner, Joe's natural heroism once again
trumped the perilous consequences he was to confront. As an expert sharpshooter,
Joe defended various kibbutzim in the Negev desert during the War of
Independence. Recalling a relentless Egyptian assault on Moshav Bet Eshel, Joe
tells his readers that he discovered through an Arab sheikh, who was a spy, that
the shots fired by him and his compatriots from their simple rifles managed to
quiet the massive cannons of the Egyptian army, thus preventing an impending
attack on Jerusalem and Hebron. "Even as a leftist Palmachnik and socialist
kibbutznik, I recognized that G-d was on our side. Baruch Hashem!", he
Joe's visceral love for Israel literally leaps off each page of this memoir
and into the hearts of the reader. One can actually feel Joe's heart pounding as
he describes the battles that ensued during the 1948-49 war; wishing that he was
in no place else other than where he was. Perhaps it was his youth, or perhaps
it was his fervent love for his people and his land, or perhaps it was admixture
of both, but the reader cannot help but be exceptionally impressed with Joe's
inexhaustable tenacity and never-say-die attitude. It is apt to describe the
author as one person who never, ever, even for a single solitary moment had a
lazy bone in his body.
Immensely adding to the tenor of this unique memoir are the black and white
photos of Joe, his family in Syria, his youth in the boy scouts, his
colleagues in the Palmach and those he shared experiences with at the
kibbutzim, among others. There is also a photo a young Yitzchak Rabin, as none
of us have ever seen him before.
The adventurous author was also driven by an insatiable wanderlust, and
after the war, Joe hankered to see the world and eventually joined the Israeli
merchant marine where he sailed to Italy and France. From there, he landed a job
on a cargo vessel sailing to the United States. What was to follow could only be
described as a mercurial sojourn for Joe, as he experienced his own share of
life's vicissitudes, but with pure luck and divine assistance he managed to
build a life for himself in the United States. Keen on returning to Israel,
where he dreamed of spending the rest of his life, Joe was persuaded by his
father, who was now in Israel, to try it out in the States for a while to see
how it goes.
Meeting his "love of his life", also known as his wife Lilly at the Syrian
Jewish Center in Brooklyn, Joe's rendition of life for Syrian Jews in Brooklyn
in the 1950s also brings the reader to yet another time and place; a simpler and
infinitely happier era, where immigrants from the "homeland" were welcomed with
graciousness, honor and immense dignity.
At this juncture in Joe's story, one would have thought that the
multi-talented author might have just taken on a mundane, routine job and spent
some time relaxing with family, but that plan of action would not be true to
Joe's nature. Honing his business skills, Joe moved to New Haven, Connecticut
where he opened a retail shop with several Syrian Jewish partners and labored
assiduously to ensure its success.
He and his wife celebrated the birth of their first daughter there,
attended a Conservative synagogue, and held tight to Syrian Jewish tradition,
heritage and rich culture. Despite being physical distant from his parents and
siblings in Israel, the author retained his fealty to his upbringing in Syria
and the timeless and eternal teachings of his antecedents. The
author speaks in a voice that resonates with passion, and the
reader knows that deep in his heart, in his soul and in his dreams was
Joe's unwavering love for his country, Israel, and its name was ever present on
As did many others of his Syrian genre, Joe moved to Deal, New Jersey and
then to the Ocean Parkway and Avenue S section of Brooklyn so that his daughters
could fraternize with other Syrian youngsters and enjoy the camaraderie that Joe
so greatly enjoyed with his peers as a boy in Aleppo. Another successful
entrepreneurship awaited Joe in the clothing business in New York; but by this
time Joe was a known quantity and a respected one amongst his contemporaries.
Joe's own words in the epilogue of the book pretty much sum up the intense
emotional connections he felt towards Israel: "My destiny was to finally settle
in the USA, raise a nice family and live a religious life in a vibrant
community. I love my family, my community and my life in America very much.
However, as the poet Judah Halevi once wrote, "My heart is in the East, but I
am, alas, at the end of the West."
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