This is an edited version of my graduate school thesis 42 SNEAKERS: Family Folklore and the Role of Storytelling: The Study of a Family and the Syrian Jewish Community in Brooklyn. This version was published in the literary journal Distillery.
I was seventeen years old when my father said, “You’ll be married by the time you’re eighteen.” I wanted to go to college, and I didn’t have a boyfriend. I told him that was impossible.
“Wanna bet?” he said.
I reached for a piece of paper and a pen and jotted down the words to the bet. We both signed at the bottom. He won.
Both of my grandmothers, my mother, and my aunt married by the time they were eighteen, but I believed this was the custom of their generation, something old-fashioned and not relevant to my life. These women grew up in Jewish communities in Brooklyn, fourteen hundred miles from where I was raised in New Orleans, and yet their marriage stories were remarkably similar to my own. Through my research on family folklore and the role of storytelling, I learned that this was no coincidence. I learned that the values and beliefs of my family had been passed down through stories, and for the first time in my life, I understood that the choices I made as an adult were not always random, individual choices but actually family policy.
At the time of the bet with my father, we’d been living in New York as part of the Syrian Jewish community for a year, and the transition from New Orleans to Brooklyn had been difficult. In New Orleans, I attended a prep school where I was a cheerleader, and high school talk centered on football games, pep rallies, and homecoming. In Brooklyn, I attended a yeshivah (a school of Jewish learning), even though I could not read Hebrew at the time. In New Orleans, we were affiliated with a Reformed synagogue, where it was not unusual for rabbis to eat shrimp or for congregants to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. The community in Brooklyn was Orthodox, and I knew nothing about keeping kosher or observing Shabbot. Even holidays were celebrated differently. On Passover, a seder was no longer simply a dinner party where guests socialized freely, with a seder plate displayed in the center of the table as a symbol for the holiday, but a seated, two-hour reading of the Haggadah that required adherence to specific rituals and laws.
Consequently, I felt like an outsider, and it took years to discover that I actually belonged to this community. Both of my parents had grown up in Brooklyn, two blocks away from each other. Six months after they married, they moved to New Orleans because my father had a work opportunity there. Throughout the seventeen years that they lived in New Orleans, they always understood that one day they’d move back. When my father’s best friend died at thirty-six, my father believed there was no more time to waste. In addition, I was sixteen and beginning to date, and even though I didn’t know it, my parents wanted me to marry someone from the Syrian community in the next few years.
Initially I fought against traditional ways, but eventually I discovered a path that allowed me to disregard certain expectations while embracing others. It is impossible to conduct documentary work without a particular gaze or point of view, and it was precisely my position as an insider with an outsider’s perspective that brought me to this study. Traditionally Syrian Jews were merchants and, unlike Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent), not a community of scholars or artists. Therefore, other than religious texts, written documentation is scarce. My research came mostly from participants in the oral tradition: interviews with family members, retellings of family stories, and recounting my own memories. Writing a thesis for graduate school and conducting ethnographic research is in itself relevant, since formal education was not particularly valued in the Syrian Jewish community.
Syrian Jews emigrated from Aleppo, Syria, in the early 1900s and settled on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. The community is a close-knit society with intricate rules and an efficient networking system. Its culture is a traditional one where, for the most part, the men work while the women stay home to raise a family. Hard work is valued. In the Midrash, a book of Jewish stories, there is a tale of a man who was one hundred years old. His grandson asked him why he continued to till the soil when he might not even live to see the fruits of his labor. The old man replied that if he were able to eat the fruit, that would be well and good; however, if not, his labor would benefit his children just as his own father’s toil had benefitted him.
I have come to see how family culture influences the decisions we make. I believe it was because I grew up in New Orleans, away from the Syrian community, coupled with the fact that my maternal grandmother was Ashkenazi and my paternal grandmother, who was Syrian and my link to Syrian culture, was not alive, that I was able to proceed in getting an education. The underlying message, however, was still clear: that I could follow this dream so long as my role as wife and mother was not subjugated. By the time I finished graduate school, I had five children.
Folklorists have observed that courtship stories are staples in all families. These stories often describe how the family began. The same theme runs through all the marriage stories in my family. The women (my two grandmothers, my mother, and my aunt) were all wooed by charismatic men who charmed these women with their different ways. “He was a man about town,” my maternal grandmother, Freda, said in her interview. These men, in turn, took these women into a “different world” than the one they had known. My paternal grandmother, Celia, who’d been raised in the Syrian community in Brooklyn, spent most of her adult life in New Orleans without community or family; while Grandma Freda, who was Ashkenazi, lived most of her adult life in the heart of the Syrian community struggling to survive in a culture that rejected her and her differences. Grandma Freda said that she and her husband were on different planets. Their cultures, the foods they ate, the rituals, the languages—one spoke Arabic and one spoke Yiddish—were worlds apart. When I interviewed Grandma Freda, she told me that on her wedding night she’d gone to bed with an American and woke up in the morning with an Arab. The experience of cultural shock was the norm for the women in my family. Even my mother and her sister, who were both raised in the community in Brooklyn, ended up in New Orleans. As a result, each one of these women experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness. Based on these stories, was it inevitable that I, too, would end up married by eighteen and living in a world that seemed foreign? Is it true that I might have made a different decision if family history had been recorded and analyzed?
These stories are specific to my family, because in general, community members don’t leave. However, in the fifties and sixties, there was a breaking in tradition as Syrians assimilated and some families, like my own, moved away from the community for work opportunities. In the seventies and eighties, many of these families moved back. Today virtually nobody moves away. Community members help one another in business as a regular practice, and there is an organization specifically designed to aid families in need by placing men in jobs or even helping them to start a business.
Giving charity is valued in the community. The Torah states that one should give ten percent of what is earned to help others. Community members believe it is their duty to support such organizations and are taught that when someone comes to you for money, it is your privilege and good fortune to be in the position to give and not in the position of the one who is being given to.
The community manages to perpetuate a sense of belonging, and as Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, describes, the soul yearns for attachment and intimacy. Recently, at a friend’s house, I was struck by an image at the door. The sun shined brilliantly through the window onto a heap of forty-two sneakers. Like a tribe, all the boys in the neighborhood gathered and played in her basement. Demographics allow for this access.
Demographics play an important role in how community life sustains itself because living in close proximity to one another permits community members to participate in a number of capacities that would not ordinarily be feasible.
In Judaism, it is customary to bury the deceased within hours after death. In many instances, this can make it difficult for scores of people to attend. However, because of demographics, the intricate networking system (word of mouth), and the underlying belief that in times of need community members are there to support one another, it is not unlikely to see two hundred people or more gathered at a funeral the following day.
Orthodox Syrian Jews do not drive from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday night. Families live within a few blocks of each other, and it is customary for them to get together for the Sabbath meal. Fifty years ago, there was one synagogue for the entire community. But in the past few years, at least twenty synagogues have been built in order not only to accommodate the growing population but to have one within walking distance from each home.
Demographics allow for everyone to know each other, and in that there is great restriction as well as comfort. When a young person begins to date, one of the first questions asked is “Who’s his mother; who’s his father?” in an attempt to trace family lineage. The general belief is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and while this can be beneficial if the family has earned honor and respect, it can be detrimental for generations to come if someone in the family did something dishonorable. Nothing is forgotten. Rumors and reputations are transmitted through the oral tradition of gossip.
The birth of a boy is respected and acknowledged more than the birth of a girl. When a boy is born, there is a celebration called a Bris where a circumcision is performed. If the boy is the firstborn in the family and both parents are from the Israel tribe, another celebration, known as a Pidyon, takes place a month later. And when a boy turns twelve, his rite of passage is marked by a Bar Mitzvah.
Family lore has it that my paternal grandmother returned to New York to give birth to her first child. My grandfather was to meet her in New York right before she was due to deliver. But she gave birth early, and the baby was a girl. My grandfather was disappointed, as most Syrian men would have been, and he saw no reason to go to New York. My grandmother gave birth a year later to a boy, and proceeded to give my grandfather four sons.
During an interview, my aunt Norma reported that her husband, Uncle Irving, was a spoiled child. Uncle Irving was not offended but responded sardonically, “My parents catered to me because I was the first boy after six girls. What would you do if you had six girls and then a boy? The same thing.”
I interviewed Uncle Irving during the summer of 1998. He was eighty-three years old. Aunt Norma served a variety of nuts and olives, dried fruit, fresh fruit, and caak (a round Middle Eastern breadstick). Syrian tradition expects that women serve food to show guests they are welcome. Women are called shatra for doing this, and it is a compliment that is valued.
On Friday mornings, Syrian women are home cooking for the Sabbath meal. Uncle Irving commented that in the community there is a way to do things and people follow because it is the right way. “Ninety-nine percent of the Syrians…they’re the same. They eat the same. Show me one person who’s not eating kibbe hamdah tonight. They eat kibbe. They eat meshe. And this has been going on for hundreds of years. Why go off the road when there’s a path?”
It is Friday, and as I type this essay at my kitchen table, I look over at the pots on the stove. I glance at the clock on the oven and feel stressed because I sat down to write before the cooking was done. It is getting late in the day. One thing is for sure: a traditional meal consisting of chicken, potatoes, a roast, string beans, rice, meshe, and kibbe hamdah will be placed on my dining room table tonight. What is less certain is how much writing I will get done.
In the late nineties, I taught fourth grade at a yeshivah in Brooklyn. There were thirty-six children (both Sephardic and Ashkenazi) in my class, and since this group was somewhat inclusive and isolated from outside influences, it was my goal to open them up to our multicultural world, exposing them to different kinds of people and customs. It was my personal concern that these students would grow up cocoon-like, not having to interact with people who held different perspectives until adulthood. I was determined to show them the oneness in humanity, and ultimately my aim was to promote understanding and tolerance.
As a result of working on my thesis and appreciating what I’d learned in the process, I developed a program of family folklore where students were expected to recite and record family stories. Students worked on research skills such as interviewing, observing, recording, and organizing. Throughout the process, students were required to read, write, map, question, discuss, analyze, and reflect on how their family stories not only reaffirmed their place in their primary family and community, but how these stories might possibly affect decisions they had made or might make in the future. I had learned through my own family study that the stories children told were not isolated. They were meaningful and circled familiar themes. We questioned what the stories meant to the community that transmitted them, what cultural lessons were taught, and why a particular story was remembered. In doing this research, children learned about themselves, and ultimately I discovered things about my students that I might never have known. Students discussed the similarities and differences between families and began to consider other perspectives. We studied patterns, rules, and customs about food, clothing, greetings, table manners, and gender.
In Judaism, modesty is valued, and the girls at the yeshivah are required to follow a specific dress code. They must wear long skirts, and their arms should be covered to the elbow. That year, we studied Native American culture, and I invited a Native American woman named Matoaka to our classroom to sing and dance. She wore an off-the-shoulder dress, and as she beat her drum, she smiled broadly. Afterward we sat in a circle, and Matoaka shared her family stories with us.
Later that day, a child came to me and said that when Matoaka first entered our classroom, she decided she didn’t like Matoaka. Based on her experiences, the student had her own ideas about women who dressed provocatively, and she believed it was inappropriate for Matoaka to come to school in a dress that exposed her shoulder. But during the visit, Matoaka shared her community’s beliefs and explained that her dress was traditional attire designed to expose her shoulder to the sun. The student was then able to see Matoaka differently. As a result of analyzing her own stories and scrutinizing her own belief system, this child developed higher sensitivity for another. This does not in any way mean that she will or will not incorporate the ways of others into her own life; it simply points to the necessity of exploring cultural heritage and family history in an attempt to understand how these shape us as individuals and inevitably guide us to sensitivity and tolerance in our multicultural world.