Identity

The Heirs of Slytherin

“The Ministry of Magic is undertaking a survey of so-called “Muggle-borns”, the better to understand how they came to possess magical secrets. Recent research undertaken by the Department of Mysteries reveals that magic can only be passed from person to person when wizards reproduce. Where no proven wizarding ancestry exists, therefore, the so-called Muggle-born is likely to have obtained magical power by theft or force. The Ministry is determined to root out such usurpers of magical power, and to this end has issued an invitation to every so-called Muggle-born to present themselves for interview by the newly appointed Muggle-born Registration Commission.”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Your people shall be my people; your God shall be my God.” –Ruth 1:16

Today’s New York Times Magazine reports on the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. Since 1935, the community has had an “Edict”, banning marriage to non-Jews. Sounds like lots of other Jewish communities, right? Wrong. One key provision of the Edict sets a unique standard of Jewishness: “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.” While other Jewish streams may disagree explosively about the nature and process of conversion, all agree that such a thing exists. But the Syrian community has adopted a purely racial standard of Jewishness, where one drop of non-Jewish blood is sufficient to invalidate someone. Not only are converts placed outside the community by the Edict; so are their descendants, and if there is any distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal descendants, the Times article doesn’t mention it.

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 Syrian Jewish community feels so strongly about this policy that they even stood up to Ovadia Yosef:

According to the rabbi, the community’s refusal to recognize the woman’s conversion drew the ire of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the time the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Yosef, a man of volcanic temperament, came all the way from Jerusalem to Brooklyn and informed the local rabbis that he, himself, vouched for the girl’s Jewish authenticity. “There he was, in person, in Shaare Zion” — the largest [Syrian] synagogue — “dressed in his robes and vestments,” the rabbi, who was there, told me. “He gave an oath that he had personally affixed his name to the girl’s conversion document. She was as Jewish as he was, and he wanted her recognized as a member of our community.”
“And the answer was?” I asked the rabbi.
“No.”
“No? You turned down the chief rabbi of Israel?”
“We felt it was necessary,” the rabbi explained. “If we let our kids marry gentiles, they’ll try to slip their kids back into the community via conversion. And then the Edict will lack teeth.”

Full story.

43 thoughts on “The Heirs of Slytherin

  1. Oh, those wacky Syrians… (wistful sigh)
    I’m sending this article to all my friends who grew up as “J-Dubs” in Brooklyn like me…they’ll love it 🙂
    [I’m sorry I can’t get more outraged about The Edict, but when you grow up around Syrians, you just get used to them doing their own special SY things. It’s really just a logical outgrowth of their community attitude and history: They wanted to stay cohesive and uncompromising of their culture, so they went to great lengths to do so. It’s the same reason they all live in Syriantown, and why you can’t even marry into an SY family as an Ashkenazi Jew unless you consent to trade in every Yiddish custom/food/social-norm for Allepo ones.]

  2. Like the last line says, “We are growing the #1 Jewish community right here in Brooklyn.” All I can add is that the Sy community has made housing impossible to afford for J-dubs like me to live in anymore. But I admit I still shlep 400 miles back home for a Burgers Bar treat once in a while. Maybe for the sequel to this article someone can write, “Beit Yosef – The true Glatt Kosher – not that Rubashkins trief.”

  3. Nobody got outraged, so I will. I do not trust these people’s kashrut anymore, since they reject about a billion rabbinic rules like converstion and hezkat kashrut, so who knows what else they don’t do? Welcome, karaites.

  4. I don’t think they’re Karaites. There are plenty of examples in the Written Torah of people with non-Jewish ancestry being recognized as Jews.

  5. And, because no one else has pointed it out: well played on quoting Harry Potter here. I want to see more on the parallels between Muggle-borns, mudbloods, Jews, and intermarriage. Bring it on.

  6. I’m noticing a contradiction:
    “community legend boasts that King David built the first synagogue in Aleppo, in what is now Syria”
    “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.”

  7. Maybe they hold like the shitta that Ruth is a 2nd temple fabrication designed to counter the anti-gentile-wives measures Ezra and Nehemiah enacted.

  8. nonsense aside, the reason I’m really seething about this is that “The Edict” essentially means there will be no Syrian Jews and no Syrian customs anywhere outside of Brooklyn, and, if the community becomes too smothering, nowhere inside Brooklyn either.

  9. Well, there are Syrian Jews in Israel as well, and they tend to be less insular all around. The rejection of conversions seems to be somewhat limited to the Syrian community in Brooklyn.

  10. Matthue– um, thank you
    Amit– *shrug* it’s their call. maybe it’ll preserve their identity, maybe they’ll self-destruct from it, who knows. I’m having a hard time feeling invested in the question. Probably because I don’t care much for Jewish communities that keep me out (my gentile characteristics– like the shape of my face, my book-addiction, anything else that comes from my mother– are very dangerous).

  11. Forgive me, kinderlach, but what does “j-dub” mean, as used above. I know from the record label, and while I haven’t read the Times magazine article, yet; perhaps one of you whippersnappers will indulge me and provide a definition.

  12. Maybe the syrian community are insular because they don’t want to be completely absorbed into the surrounding ashkenazik communities. Don’t they have a right to preserve their Sephardic customs?

  13. being a “j-dub” i must say i understand why they did it. don’t you see how part of our own communities get lost in America and assimilate? don’t you get upset at how many jews we lose? i wish we had a similar policy in place that only let people who were really serious about being jewish in. besides.. lets not forget what was it that caused the destruction of the 2nd temple. “sinat chinam” jealous/hating of your fellow jew…. food for thought

  14. Steve,
    If you’re here, you’re not too old. Stick around and share some thoughts. I’m sure you have something to teach us whippersnappers who think we know it all. 🙂
    According to the article, a “J-Dub” is a non-Syrian Jew (“dub” apparently short for the letter “w” in “Jew”–not sure what happened to the “e”). No relation to the record label.

  15. Proud J-Dub and mudblood here. Yes, even though Syrian pizmonim flow off my tongue in what an SY may consider “posing”, it’s not like they’ll ever want to deal with someone who will never be able to integrate into their community biting off their culture. Call it some form of revenge, or whatever.
    You’ll never hear it in Flatbush, but R’ Diane Cohler-Esses, slam poetess Vanessa Hidary (who?), and the world-renown Isaac Mizrahi *whip!* are SYs. Incidentally, so are Crazy Eddie and Jordache. No word on Sutton’s Place, however.
    I know a Syrian Jew who goes to the local Sephardi (non-SY) shul. He’s from Ashkelon, and while he defies most SY stereotypes, being a dentist (i.e. non-business professional), he still maintains “that” attitude, having said to me that Judaism is “about one’s heritage”, as opposed to, say, Avodat Hashem. However, I’d imagine things are more lax in Israel (imagine that), as The Edict applies only to Brooklyn and Buenos Aires, and possibly Mexico City.

  16. I must also add that the rest of the Sephardi/Mizrahi world is SO heavily influenced by the Syrians, it’s not funny. This can be attributed to the fact that Palestinian Sephardic minhag has historically had strong ties with the Halabi Aram Soba, and the rest of the Sephardi/Mizrahi absorbed Syrian customs/halacha through Israeli influence. (This is in light of the fact that there has not been one Syrian Rishon L’Tzion since the founding of the State.)

  17. Right, so, I grew up in the community. I dont live there anymore, for some of the reasons eluded to in the article, but I think the article flattens what the community is about. I cannot say I support the takanah, as it goes against my own personal values and halacha. However, it should be noted that the Syrian fear of intermarriage is not substantially different from all the liberal hand-ringing about intermarriage and crying over the Jewish birthrate. Any discussion of how intermarriage is diluting American Judaism relies on a similar logic. While the Syrian approach is more strictly racist, don’t think the cries against intermarriage coming from the liberal community are devoid of racialist overtones.
    My community just took this to an extreme, but there is a way to see them as more honest than most Jews. If you fear intermarriage, than forbid it. If you are not willing to forbid it, than stop freaking out about it, and figure out ways to create vibrant meaningful Jewish communities that contain multi-faith families. I strongly support the second option over the first (that is, inclusion rather than exclusion), but since this is a minority position within the Jewish community, I’m frankly surprised to see so many people criticizing the Syrian Jews. It may be that our choices really are between an insular enclave, or an open community where Judaism changes with various cultural influences. You cannot have your Jewish continuity cake and eat your open accepting society too.
    BTW the author’s consistent use of SY and J-Dub is demeaning and sarcastic. He is entitled to criticize the community all he wants, and Lord knows there is plenty to criticize, but that criticism must be done with respect and understanding.

  18. Eddie writes:
    i wish we had a similar policy in place that only let people who were really serious about being jewish in.
    But aren’t converts (who actively choose Judaism), on average, more likely to be “really serious about being Jewish” than people who are merely born into it?
    besides.. lets not forget what was it that caused the destruction of the 2nd temple. “sinat chinam” jealous/hating of your fellow jew…. food for thought
    Nu?

  19. If you fear intermarriage, than forbid it.
    It seems to me that most of the communities that freak out about intermarriage have forbidden it. That doesn’t mean people don’t do it anyway. (And I’m in the non-freaking-out school, so I don’t think i’m being hypocritical.)
    BTW the author’s consistent use of SY and J-Dub is demeaning and sarcastic. He is entitled to criticize the community all he wants, and Lord knows there is plenty to criticize, but that criticism must be done with respect and understanding.
    Aside from the ethnic slurs, I didn’t think the tone of the article was so critical. The conclusion seems to be mostly positive:
    =========
    Seventy years after the promulgation of the Edict, it seems fair to say that, taken on its own terms, it has been an almost uniquely successful tool of social engineering. The enclave grows and thrives beyond the dreams of its founders. It offers a secure economic future and a sweet family life to those who remain within its confines. As for those who could not or would not fit in, well, every fight for survival has its collateral damage.
    “People have to make a choice,” Jakie Kassin told me. “Sure, it’s rough sometimes. But I’ll tell you something — we should be an example to others. We’re building the No. 1 Jewish community on planet Earth, right here in Brooklyn.”
    =========

  20. However, it should be noted that the Syrian fear of intermarriage is not substantially different from all the liberal hand-ringing about intermarriage and crying over the Jewish birthrate. Any discussion of how intermarriage is diluting American Judaism relies on a similar logic.
    How does banning conversion help prevent intermarriage?

  21. Avi– there are always concerns, not just from the Syrian community, about “sign on the dotted line” conversions which are just about being allowed to get married, and not about a real commitment to Judaism.
    CoA– I’m curious, do you know how the community views the issue of conversion historically? I mean, it’s a well established halachic concept, along with the related halachot of not mistreating those who convert. How do they deal with all that halachic literature? Pretend it isn’t there? Say that conversion was once possible, but now people aren’t to be trusted?
    I agree with you that anti-intermarriage sentiments can be racist across the board– I’d measure the racism level of any given community by how converts are treated. And that’s why this is bothering me.
    Eddie– At least according to the article, they are keeping most truly serious converts *out*. Which, incidentally, is a violation of halacha. (Ex. 22:20, lots of other places)

  22. the author’s consistent use of SY and J-Dub is demeaning and sarcastic
    I heartily disagree. It improves the article by giving a broader picture of the Syrian Jewish community. The reader doesn’t only get a taste of the community’s wealth, cohesion, strict gender roles, and cuisine, but also the slang and quirkiness of intra-jewish cultural rivalries.
    It’s not like “SY” is some kind of slur, invented by Ashkenazim. It’s what many Syrians call themselves, out of pride.
    “J-Dub”, on the other hand, is without doubt an ethnic slur, coined by Syrians to refer to their (style-less, religiously-looney, too-white) Ashkenaz cousins. But that doesn’t bother me. I’m cool being a J-Dub. I’m “reclaiming” it.
    I didn’t think the tone of the article was so critical. The conclusion seems to be mostly positive
    For context’s sake, this week’s NYTimes magazine is THE MONEY ISSUE. The cover story refers to “New York’s New Gilded Age”. This piece on the Syrian community was written because of their wealth and how their unique community norms relate to that. It’s not meant to be about Judaism or Conversion or Racism. The article is meant to be about moolah — how the Syrians may have amassed so much, what they do with it, and what the results are.

  23. Rebecca:
    my gentile characteristics– like the shape of my face, my book-addiction, anything else that comes from my mother– are very dangerous)
    Huh? HOw are these things gentile? Unless the shape of your face is really strange (rectangular? septahedral?) and book-addiction? Unless the addiction is to the Koran or Greek SCriptures or the like, that’s generally considered to be a Jewish addiction, I’m afraid.

  24. that was my point– that a number of traits that I’ve inherited from the christian side of my family are considered stereotypically Jewish.

  25. “Eddie– At least according to the article, they are keeping most truly serious converts *out*. Which, incidentally, is a violation of halacha. (Ex. 22:20, lots of other places)”
    but another halacha is that the rabbinal coucil can make laws ” geders” (gates ) to protect the community from current day issues.

  26. BZ – I have no idea what the historical context was that prompted the takanah at that particular moment. My uncle once explained it in the context of WWII, with men going abroad and leaving the community, and women staying home with a dearth of me. Of course, 1935 is to early for that concern so that cannot be the answer.
    As for your conversion that most communities who fear intermarriage have forbidden it, yes, many other communities, including most orthodox, many conservative, and some reform synagogues will not sanctify an intermarriage. However, the acceptance of perfunctory conversions doesnt present a serious barrier. To be clear, I’m not suggesting it should, I dont think there should be any barrier, but if Jewish continuity and Jewish babies are your goal, than perfunctory conversions that produce jewisb babies in name, but not in cultural attachment are really only semantic solutions to the “problem”. We get to say they are not intermarriages, but sociologically they may function the same way.
    Just typing those words made me feel icky. I want to make clear that I dont have a problem with serious conversions, perfunctory conversions or intermarriage. How ever folks relate to Jewish life is fine with me. If Jewish religion/culture is personally compelling, then it will be an important part of someone’s life and community, whether or not they are “counted” by other groups of Jews. If it is not personally compelling, it doesn’t matter if that person is a Jew by birth, choice, or marital affiliation. Personally, I happen to find some elements of Jewish culture and religion compelling, and others revolting, so I’m trying to build Jewish communities that emphasize the former and drop the latter.
    Rebecca M – How do they deal with the halachic precedent for conversion? Mostly they don’t. Its not a halachic argument, its a straight up takanah. They didn’t conclude conversions should not be accepted, they declared it. To me it seems parallel to the takanah of Rabenu Gershom forbidding polygamy. There is clear precedent to allow X (either conversion of polygamy), but the social situation requires this extra stringency. In general I find that the Syrian community is not interested in halachic argumentation. Most Syrians do things the way they do because, well, “that’s the way we do it.” Torah learning is not highly regarded in the community. When I was contemplating rabbinical school, my father asked me “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy.”
    In that sense, and many others, they function very much like a pre-modern Jewish community. The regime of near universal torah learning for men in Ashkenazi communities is actually an innovation of the 19th century. Prior to the establishment of the large Lithuanian yeshivot the norm was for observance and piety, but not learning.
    Most Syrians are “orthodox” but that comes from the force of communal norms, not any particular understanding of chiyyuv (obligation) or a particular theological commitment. Thus, what the rabbanim say, goes, period. Few folks are actively questioning the halachic reasoning of anything they do, and the distinction between minhag and halacha is blurred to the point of meaninglessness.
    Avi- Banning conversion helps to “combat” intermarriage because it raises the bar. If the possibility of conversion exists, than you can date non-Jews and make decisions about conversion when they become relevant. If you know that there is no possibility of conversion, than even dating non-Jews becomes 100% forbidden. As the article makes clear, there is no way to step back into the community with a converted spouse. This means that when you start dating you know at some point you will have to choose between your partner and your family. There is zero compromise. I know from personal experience that this is an incredibly difficult position to be placed in. For me it meant choosing to leave the community, even before I had an opportunity to bring home a partner they would not approve of. Of course, any future partner of mine may cause trouble in the family, but since I have extricated myself from the community it will not result in my social networks being severed. This is another area that the article misses. While this policy raises the bar and prevents intermarriage it also drives people away from the community. I know a number of Syrian Jews who have left the communal fold rather than be trapped in the communal strictures. That is what happens with strong boundaries, they keep people in, and they keep people out. I would much rather see a fluid Jewish community where meaning and personal connection rather than lineage and blood are the important elements which tie one to the community.

  27. Eddie– halacha has a long standing tradition of building fences around the torah, BUT fences aren’t supposed to *order* people to break a different halacha. Sure it happens, since people are human, but it’s not supposed to.
    Granted, as CoA points out, it’s not really about the halacha.

  28. Wow, that would totally explain this conversation I had with a Syrian Jew this weekend. He kepted asking me if I was jewish, if though I must have said yes like four times. I finally said, what? You want my papers or something? And his response ” No, no, that will come later.” Wow

  29. —B.BarNavi wrote:
    “However, I’d imagine things are more lax in Israel (imagine that), as The Edict applies only to Brooklyn and Buenos Aires, and possibly Mexico City.”
    Isn’t Conservatve rabbi Rolando Matalon from the Buenos Aires branch of the Syrian Jewish community? I imagine that at BJ on the Upper West Side there are plenty of converts…

  30. I’m noticing a contradiction: “community legend boasts that King David built the first synagogue in Aleppo, in what is now Syria” and I’m curious, do you know how the community views the issue of conversion historically?
    Erm, read the article:
    Back in the 1920s, he told me, his grandmother’s sister married a gentile. “There was a scandal, but it eventually blew over,” he said. “I thought that’s how it would be for us.” But the Edict applies only to events after 1935. Croffoot-Suede’s grandmother’s sister had been effectively grandfathered into the community. He had no such luck.
    I’m pretty sure King David was pre-1935, Rebecca.

  31. I read the article, and my point was on conversions, which in the article, are labled fictitious, despite expressed pride in King David. nice try, but next time, read my comment.

  32. From the article, it sounds like they’ve expanded the scope of the gezeira from being entirely about converts, and now they’ve turned it into an issue of genetic purity going back for generations. Has anyone investigated how this came to be?
    Also, the nature of conversion has changed a great deal since 1935 — at the time, there weren’t many “seekers” who came to Judaism looking for spiritual truth. There were also fewer children of intermarriages who converted. It seems to me that any Syrian rabbi who truly cares about halacha should reexamine the gezeira. Of course they won’t, though.

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  34. With all due respect, there are over 13 million Jews in the world. The Syrian Jewish community numbers less then 100,000 people. This is less then 0.8% of the total world Jewish population.
    If a legitimate person would like to convert to Judaism, there are 12,900,000 other Jews that he or she can choose to live with and be totally accepted. Therefore, legitimate converts are not without places to be accepted and embraced by fellow Jews.
    The edict has kept our community together will an almost 0% level of intermarriage and assimilation. We are not harming anyone. If you do not like our practices, you do not have to mix with us. Please keep in mind that each year the community sends millions of dollars in charity to non-Syrian Jewish institutions both in the US and in Israel. We are far from isolated from the wider Jewish community.
    In regard to the matter of the conversion and Ovadia Yossef. Despite what the NYT article says the girl has been fully accepted into the community, her children go to community schools and her husband has not in any way been ostracized. This particular case was resolved close to twenty years ago.

  35. While this may seem very racist and down right snobby, this edict has kept an entire communtiy of people orthodox and Jewish. The Syrian community is trying to preserve Judaism and not turn it into one of these “hollywood” religions which most J-Dubs have done.
    ……………..yes i am Ashkenaz, but i realize how much we have butchered our religion, we need to be more strict like the syrians if we want to keep our religion sacred
    –Homeboyskillit

  36. If anyone wants i know of people who give out free copies of Shmiras Halashon/shemirat halashon by Chofetz Choim/Chafetz Chaim. Ill judge you all favorablly and say that none of you know about the prohibitions of Motzi shem ra. whether you agree or disagree with a community’s ways, is up to you (although personally i cant seem to understand how people are attacking the gedolim who wrote it who were from 2 generations ago, people that we would never dare open our mouth to; its just that people are comfortable hiding behind a computer screen. hide as you like, but if any of you are really G-d fearing jews, you should be more scared of what Gd has in store for you who are mevaze talmide chachamim [R’ Yaakov Kassin and all the rabbis who keep on reaffirming the edict] which the Gemara in Bava metziah clearly says “en chelek leolam haba: no portion in the world to come” so think before the next time you time derrogotory statements again.)

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