The Crown of Aleppo

Paul Greenberg

10/17/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg
Aleppo is burning. You can read about it day after day on the front pages, or on the websites of Syrians trying to organize support for their fight against the latest Assad. Caught between regulars and irregulars, thugs in uniform and out, Aleppo's inhabitants run for cover, or hunker down where they are and wait for the next air raid, the next suicide bombing, the next massacre. Or just the next bus out. Which could be blown to smithereens. By either side.

The choices grow limited: Is it better to be killed by the grandly styled Free Syrian Army or the unfree one? Stay or head for the border -- and, if so, which one? Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq? Troubles wait there, too. Or stay put and hope that this, too, shall pass. But it doesn't. It intensifies.

The other night, fires swept through Aleppo's souk, the covered market in the old walled city, destroying hundreds of centuries-old shops. Flames danced where once perfumes and spices and silken fabrics from the East were laid out in rich profusion.

Syria's civil war has finally reached the largely Kurdish part of the country in the north. The Kurds had hoped to stay out of it. They can't. And won't. The war is reaching over the border. Turkey and Syria have begun exchanging artillery fire. Unlike the scenes in Syria, only a few civilians have been killed in Turkey. So far. War, like fire, must be snuffed out or it will spread. This one is spreading.

The world does little except stand by, occasionally issuing pious proclamations. See the collected works of the Hon. Hillary Clinton, our secretary of state, for a wide assortment of them. Take your choice of the most meaningless. As is customary on these occasions, solemn resolutions devoid of resolve are adopted at the UN.

Distinguished representatives of Russia, China and Iran -- the new axis of evil -- object to anything that might resemble action. Their client state might object even as it crumbles, taking as many innocent victims as it can with it. The flames spread, refugees huddle, children die. Nothing new there. Certainly not for Aleppo. It's seen this before.

In 1947, mobs rampaged through its streets protesting a vote by the UN's General Assembly to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. Intolerable. Outrageous. What, the Israelites are back after all these centuries, and even want their country back? The nerve!

Enraged, the rioters burned down the old synagogue where the city's Jewish community kept its greatest treasure -- a priceless medieval manuscript known to biblical scholars as the Aleppo Codex, or in Hebrew the Keter Aram Zova -- the Crown of Aleppo in popular parlance.

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.