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August 30, 2014 / 4 Elul, 5774
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The Harriet Tubman of Syrian Jewry

“For the soul was ransomed from the pit of darkness, and life shall see light.”

- Job 33:28

Its origins are in the medieval Spanish kingdom of Castille, in the early thirteenth century, well before Columbus left for the Americas. It was at some point purchased with coins minted during the reign of Queen Isabella’s half-brother, Henry IV. Then Isabella became queen, marrying Ferdinand of Aragon, and they completed the Reconquista and turned their attention to ethnic cleansing.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, it showed up in Constantinople, where it was purchased with florin coins minted during the reign of Sultan Selim I, father of Suleiman the Magnificent. And from there it somehow got to Damascus, where it remained – hidden from the eyes of outsiders – until it was redeemed from the land of Aram, the land from which Abraham departed on his mission.

And it’s priceless.

The Keter or Crown of Damascus is neither as well known nor quite as authoritative as its cousin, the Keter of Aleppo. Each “crown” is actually a hand-written complete biblical codex, containing vowels and cantillation (trop) signs, printed out in book form.

The Crown of Aleppo was used by Maimonides and is considered the most precise and oldest surviving such manuscript of the Torah. But fewer than two-thirds of its pages have survived, and some of those are damaged or partly burnt.

The Crown of Damascus, by contrast, is in mint condition. Every page has survived intact. Its last page is an incredible calligraphy image of the final chapter of Chronicles in the form of a Kiddush cup.

The entire manuscript was written by a single scribe, in dark brown ink text letters and with lighter brown ink for the vowels and cantillation marks. In Damascus it was used for study only on the holiday of Shavuot by the congregation formed by those expelled from Spain.

In some ways its recovery was the “crowning” achievement of one Judy Feld Carr.

*****

Every schoolchild in North America has heard of Harriet Tubman, who smuggled slaves from the American South to freedom in the North via the “Underground Railroad” before the Civil War. Her smuggling operations rescued some 300 slaves.

Ironically, Judy Feld Carr is still largely unknown, even among North American Jews. In large part that is probably because of the secrecy in which she operated, for nearly three decades, as the Harriet Tubman of Syrian Jews.

But rescuing the Crown of Damascus is only one dramatic highlight of a heroic career: Judy saved the lives of 3,228 Syrian Jews (of about 4,500 who would eventually escape Syria) and she did so almost single-handedly. While some Syrian Jews were captured or killed in various escape attempts, Carr did not lose a single one in any of the escape operations she organized and managed.

Like so many strange things in this world, this story begins with a Plaut. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a well-known Toronto figure and distant relative of your humble correspondent, was, in the early 1970′s, among the first to bring the plight of Syrian Jewry to the attention of the world.

While the persecution of Soviet Jews was making headlines, few were aware of the brutal persecutions in Syria. The organized Jewish community preferred to keep the subject under wraps and to pursue quiet, polite – and ineffective – lobbying on behalf of Syria’s Jews.

Rabbi Plaut’s calls to action electrified Judy Feld, a musicologist and mother of three, who had grown up in small-town Ontario and later moved to Toronto. Together with her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, they decided to commit themselves to doing something about the plight of Syrian Jews.

*****

The Syrian Jewish community traces its origins back to biblical days. Much of Syria was incorporated into King David’s realm and parts were again later ruled by the Hasmoneans. Benjamin of Tudela, the famous traveler and writer, visited Damascus in 1170, reporting on a Jewish community there that numbered about 3,000. The Bartenura, a medieval Italian commentator on the Mishna, visited the community and described the lush gardens and luxurious homes of the Damascus Jews.

Before the arrival of the refugees from Spain, most Syrian Jews were musta’arabim, Arabic-speaking Jews, with their own liturgy. They were strongly influenced by the mystics of Safed and produced several leading kabbalists.

Syrian Jewry had been reinforced over the centuries by waves of immigrants, including Spanish Jews after the expulsion of 1492 and others from Italy, Sicily and Morocco. The menfolk worked in a variety of trades and engaged in commerce. The women developed a special local cuisine, which included samboosak (half-moon pastry filled with cheese or meat), coconut marmalade (especially for Passover) and sharbat loz, a cold drink made from almond syrup.

By the first half of the twentieth century, much of the Syrian Jewish community had emigrated. Many reached Israel, especially after the Syrian pogroms of 1947. Others went to Brazil, Brooklyn, and Deal, New Jersey.

For one reason or another, several thousand Jews stayed behind in Syria. By the 1960′s they were living under a permanent state of siege, brutalized by the totalitarian Ba’ath regime, under surveillance of the secret police and facing the perpetual threat of violence.

Quite literally the host for German war criminals, the Syrian government carried on its own anti-Zionist jihad against its Jewish citizens. Jews had special identity cards stamped, in large red letters, “Mossawi,” an Arabic expression for Jew (derived from the name Moses), and were prohibited from walking more than three kilometers from their homes.

*****

Judy and her husband committed themselves to helping and redeeming Syria’s Jews in any way possible. But they had to begin the battle from scratch, with no idea how to proceed.

They commenced with publicity campaigns and meetings with activists, trying to nudge the Jewish organizations of Canada and other countries into taking a stronger position on, and a more vocal interest in, the plight of Syrian Jews. They produced brochures and booklets that circulated throughout the Jewish world. (I can recall distributing them on campus as an undergraduate in Philadelphia.) More important, they began surreptitious activities to rescue as many Syrian Jews as possible.

Most of the details of the rescue operations are still secret. While “Mrs. Judy,” as Syrian Jews the world over affectionately call her, is reluctant to discuss those details, an indirect acknowledgment of their sophistication and importance came recently from the Israeli intelligence services, which published a cover story about her exploits in their newsletter.

Some of the stories of the rescues were revealed in The Ransomed of God, a 1999 book by University of Toronto historian Harold Troper. Evidently, there were two “exit strategies.” In many cases Syrian Jews were ransomed, with monies greasing the right palms in Damascus. In other cases, “illegal” escape schemes were hatched, with the exact routes still unknown (my personal guess is through Turkey).

Judy’s code name for those involved in the operations was always “gin.” An elaborate secret language was developed for communication with those inside Syria, based largely on Chinese cooking terminology, sometimes on biblical code citations. When some young Syrian Jews were arrested, a message reached her from Syria, citing Jeremiah on Rachel weeping for her children. The meaning was clear.

The personal mission of “Mrs. Judy” becomes all the more incredible when one realizes the circumstances under which she was forced to carry on. Before a single Jew had been successfully rescued, Judy’s husband died suddenly in 1973. It was only four months after they’d succeeded in sending in the first box of books to Jews in Syria.

Now a young widow with three children, Judy wasted no time on hesitation and doubt. She decided to pursue alone the mission she had shared with her husband, now with even more devotion and energy.

A fund, named after her late husband, was set up by their Toronto synagogue, which raised the money needed for the operations. The amounts she collected are still unknown to the public. When her own father died, she was late for the funeral – she had to spend most of that day raising $50,000 to rescue an entire family in immediate danger. Only when they were safe did she allow herself the “luxury” of beginning the mourning process.

The clandestine efforts and operations escalated. “Canada was the perfect place from which to run the activities,” she explained to me. “It’s a country that’s never on the front page, never the center of attention. I could operate without drawing media attention. And no one was mad at Canada, or paying it much mind.”

The first ransomed Syrian Jew was an elderly rabbi from Aleppo. Early on, one person at a time was brought out; later, whole families. Sometimes parents in Syria were faced with a “Sophie’s Choice” type dilemma, having to select a single child to be taken out in any given ransom or escape operation.

By that time Judy had married Donald Carr, a successful Toronto attorney and father of three who had lost his wife at a young age. She continued her work with the backing of her new family. The family always knew when she was about to leave for a trip related to her mission – the warning sign came when she would start cooking up unusually large quantities of food.

Outside her family, virtually no one knew what she was doing; even her beneficiaries did not know her name, only rumors about some mysterious woman in Canada managing the operations. If the Syrian secret police heard those same rumors they no doubt dismissed them as disinformation.

The first public revelation of her role in the rescues came in 1995, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin decided to go public. The chief rabbi of Syria had just been allowed to leave the country. Judy would have preferred that Rabin hold his tongue a bit longer to allow the operations to continue in secret.

Some months later she was to be presented with a Merit Award for her life’s work by my own school, the University of Haifa. Rabin insisted on personally presenting her with the award. But it was not to be. Three days before the ceremony he was assassinated by Yigal Amir.

*****

Today a grandmother of thirteen, Judy doesn’t seek public accolades for her years of work and rescue, though she has received, in addition to the aforementioned recognition from the University of Haifa, a number of honors – among them the Order of Canada and the Simon Wiesenthal Award for Tolerance, Justice and Human Rights.

“I have always been reluctant to inject myself into the lives of the people I rescued,” she explained to me. “I do not need to harvest expressions of thanks. I want them to get on with their lives.”

Besides human beings, there were many artifacts and books she managed to redeem from their Syrian prison. She herself traveled to pick up a Torah scroll that had just been smuggled out of Syria, carrying it to Canada inside a hockey bag. (One can only imagine the looks on the faces of the airport security people.) The books and artifacts were donated to museums in Israel. President Moshe Katsav invited her to his home to thank her in person on behalf of Israel.

The Crown of Damascus was particularly difficult to rescue because the Syrian authorities were aware of its monetary value. When Judy at last had it safely in her possession in Toronto, the first thing she did was to make sure it was genuine. She asked a Tunisian-born scribe to inspect it carefully. After doing so, he burst into sobs.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I have just seen the face of God,” he replied.

Curiously, now that Syria is effectively judenrein, its leaders have been trying to improve its image (under intense pressure from an American administration that regards their country as part of the axis of evil) by extending “feelers” to Syria’s expatriate Jews. The former Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, initiated meetings with some Syrian Jews in Brooklyn and in 2004 accompanied a small group of them on a visit to Syria.

Should a more moderate Syria ever emerge and abandon its devotion to terror and aggression against Israel and the West – something unlikely to happen as long as the junior Assad and his Ba’ath storm troopers hold power – then perhaps these Syrian Jews will play an important role.

As for the Crown of Damascus, it’s in its rightful home at last.

When the chief rabbi of Syria was finally permitted to leave that country in 1995, it was officially for the purpose of a “visit” to the U.S. But once he was free, Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra traveled to Canada and then the U.S. before moving permanently to Israel.

When he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport he was carrying a plastic shopping bag. It contained the Crown of Damascus, which Judy and he were conveying to the Israel National Library in Jerusalem. And there it has remained. Judy had insisted that Rabbi Hamra (who, like so many of the Jews ransomed from Syria, named one of his own daughters Judy) carry it himself, restoring it from Aram to Zion with his own hands.

Today, thanks in great measure to the untiring, heroic work of Judy Feld Carr, only about 30 Jews, most of them elderly, remain in Syria.

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at the University of Haifa. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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