Paul Greenberg

Yes, Syria once had thriving Jewish communities, renowned for their piety and learning. And every time I see the dateline ALEPPO, Syria, I think of the Aleppo Codex, or what's left of it. For it is, or was, the embodiment of all of Jewish history in a single document -- its triumphs and tragedies, great hopes and greater tragedies, its continuity and dead ends, its connections with the divine and mundane, heaven and earth. The history of the Codex might as well be the Jewish people's. For it is the Wandering Jew of books.

As best as can be ascertained, this authoritative work was set down sometime in the 10th Century A.D. in Palestine/Israel/Canaan/Zion, whose changing names reflect how many times it has changed hands. The venerable manuscript, recognized as the most authentic representation extant of the biblical tradition in its exact words, its consonants and vowels, grammar and lettering, vocalization and even cantillation, would change hands as regularly as the land itself did.

The Codex, along with any other survivors, would be held for ransom by the Crusaders when they conquered Jerusalem in 1099. Rescued, it somehow found its way to Aleppo, whose Jewish community guarded it zealously for six hundred years. Maimonides, the greatest of medieval Jewish scholars, philosophers, physicians and biblical exegetes, would consult it for his magisterial compilation of Jewish law from Scripture, the Mishne Torah.

What survived of the Crown after the burning of the Aleppo synagogue -- all but a last phrase or two of the first five books of the Bible are missing -- was smuggled out of Syria in January 1958, and now, as vivisected as the Jewish people itself after the Holocaust, it can be found in Jerusalem again. It's in the Shrine of the Book there, its folios smudged with ashes from the fire in Aleppo, or maybe that's just fungus. Now and then a few of its missing pages will pop up, giving hope of its final resurrection.

Meanwhile, back in Aleppo, the shells keep landing. One can imagine the conversations of families gathered around their dinner table, if they still have one: Shall we go or stay? Leave behind all we have here or save ourselves -- and the children! Conversations not unlike those of German Jews in the 1930s.

As the Nazis rose to power, two of my aunts fled a little shtetl in Poland for Paris, the City of Light. Surely they would be safe in La Belle France. But like so many other French Jews, they would disappear after Paris fell. They were doubtless rounded up by the gendarmes along with so many others at the Vel d'Hiv, then handed over to the Germans to be herded into boxcars for Resettlement in the East, and were never seen again.

Yes, I can imagine the conversations in Aleppo.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.