Haaretz review: Stephanie Saldaña

And the codex was not consumed

By Stephanie Saldaña, 06.08.12

Eight years ago, when I was living as a student in the Christian Quarter of Damascus, I would often wander across Straight Street to the Jewish Quarter of the city.

Still known as Harat al-Yahud by the local residents, its narrow alleys were haunted with vacant houses and entire sections of streets that had been left uninhabited when Jews left the city, many as recently as 1992.

A sculptor in a sprawling Jewish residence could point you down the road to an empty synagogue, hidden in a tiny alley and padlocked shut, its beautiful bronze doors intact. An estimated 30,000 Jews had lived in Syria in 1947. Though nearly all had left, they came up often in conversation, as merchants spoke of their former houses and shops, the noise their hammers made as they pounded their famed metal work. They had been there so long that the neighborhood couldn’t quite forget them.

Any traveler in the Arab world today is familiar with these absences, which seem to cast a shadow over otherwise ordinary afternoons. There are the Jewish houses in Essaouira, Morocco, cooled by the sea breeze; the empty synagogues in Cairo; the abandoned Jewish cemetery in downtown Beirut, many of the tombstones inscribed in Arabic, French and also Hebrew. And there is Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria that was home for over two millennia to one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, whose members were protected, in their minds, by their ownership of the book of books, the Aleppo Codex, also known as the Crown of Aleppo.

It is into this forgotten Aleppo that journalist Matti Friedman, formerly a correspondent for the Associated Press and now a journalist for the Times of Israel, brings us in his fascinating new book “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Book.”

Ostensibly a book about the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible and its mysterious journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem in the 1950s, it is in fact a story about much more: about how the Aleppo Jewish community became tied up in the events of November 29, 1947, in ways that its members could never anticipate, and about how not only a book, but an entire world, began to quietly disappear. […]

Friedman’s writing shines most when he resurrects a time and a place now vanished, and it is the residents of Aleppo and the ancient community they lost who are most memorable, as are the powerful stories of men fleeing Syria on Shabbat so they would not be suspected of being Jewish, the unlikely details of a Christian safe house on the Lebanese border that served as a haven for Jewish refugees, and the tale of a Jewish woman fleeing Syria by boat who cannot stand the taste of the pickled herring she is offered by a well-meaning local when she arrives in Israel. We read “The Aleppo Codex” expecting to be educated about a book lost, but we are captivated by a world lost instead.


For the full review click here.