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The Jews of Syria live better now but pray for deliverance

DAMASCUS, Syria – At this hour, even the garbage pickers have abandoned the street. Their donkeys have carried off the spoils of the night to the shantytowns that climb that dusty hillsides.

An hour before dawn, on The Street Called Straight, nothing stirs but four homeless dogs, like wraiths in the wan glow of the house lamps, and four sweating men in a bakery lit orange by the oven fires.

In the darkness, without the shouts and the blat of the horns from the trucks that scrape the walls as they bull through the crush by day, the centuries crowd together here in an unaffected jumble.

The main street of Old Damascus, bisecting the walled city from the markets to the eastern gate, has suffered many conquerors and borne a dozen names. These days, Madhat Pasha, the name the Turks imposed, is still officially used.

But The Street Called Straight is the name that stuck through most of its 4,000 years. So it was when the Romans came. They called the street Via Recta and built at its midpoint their marble arch of triumph.

At that arch is a side street leading into a maze of alleys and pathways overhung with sagging second-story rooms that blot out the moonlight and bounce back the sound of heels on the worn stone pavements.

Around a plate-glass corner, and under a Moorish arch, and through a Turkish portal so narrow that only one person can pass, suddenly there is a stream of light shining onto the tiles from under a carved wooden door. From within comes the sound of a chant from 15 men, a chant as old as The Street Called Straight:

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."

Inside, in the synagogue of marble and gilt, the old men stroll the mosaic floor, their prayerbooks held open as a matter of form while they rapidly chant the Hebrew prayers. But their eyes are not on the printed words; they have seen them so many times before.

They are scanning the new arrivals, greeting each man with a smile and a nod. As a page is turned or a prayer completed, they shake hands or kiss and say in the Arabic they use every day: "A jasmine morning to you."

These are the Jews of Damascus, and it is a special morning for them. It is the morning of Pesach, the holiday of deliverance from bondage.

As the men murmur their prayers in the ancient way, rocking and bowing toward the Torah scrolls, the ages crowd into a jumble again.

For they celebrate the dawn 3,000 years ago – when Damascus was still fairly young – when, on this day, at this hour, Moses led the Jews into the Sinai and toward the land of Israel.

As the first light streaks the high windows and the birds let out a raucous song, the Jews of Damascus join in a prayer written when the Roman arch of triumph was new. Yet for them, it is today's prayer, perhaps more than any other:

"Le shanah habbah b'Yerushalayim."  Next year in Jerusalem.

There are about 4,500 Jews left in Syria, the remnant of a society 10 times that size.

The majority live in the "Quarter" in Damascus. Less than 1,000 live in the coastal city of Aleppo in the north, and a few hundred in Kamishli, a small town near the Turkish border.

The Jews lived here for 2,000 years as one of several religious minorities. But in 1948, with the creation of Israel, everything changed.

As Syria became the most militant of the Arab states bordering Israel, the Jews here altered in the eyes of the government and the overwhelming Muslim majority from a religious minority to the enemy within.

In years past, there were arrests and restrictive laws and allegations of torture. Several Jews were killed. The exodus has continued intermittently for the last 30 years.

These days, the main problem for Jews in Syria is that they are not permitted to leave. In that respect, they are unique among communities of Jews that live within the Arab nations. Almost all the rest – Egyptian, Moroccan, Yemeni, Lebanese, Algerian and Iraqi Jews – have been allowed or even forced to leave their nations.

In many ways, though, this is the best of times for the Jews of Syria. The government has eased restrictions dramatically during the last three years.

Although Jews still are not permitted to emigrate, they are now allowed to travel freely within Syria. Until 1976, Jews needed written permission to travel more than six miles from their ghetto quarter.

In the last two years a number of Jews were allowed to travel out of Syria on temporary permits. A bond of about $6,000 must be deposited and the Jewish applicant must leave behind members of his immediate family as hostages. Nevertheless, the issuance of any temporary exit visas for business or health reasons marked a major step forward. Syrian Muslims point out that they too are often restricted in travel outside Syria.

The easing of travel restrictions was accompanied by other changes for the better for Syrian Jews.

Although the secret police still hang about everywhere in the Jewish quarter – they have be invited to a gathering of any size – there are no allegations of torture these days and no Jews have been killed since 1974.

Although mail to the quarter is still opened by the government intelligence service, the aid from French and American Jews that supports the schools and half of the Jewish population here appears to be getting through.

No one knows for sure why President Hafez Assad suddenly eased the restrictions on Jews in 1976. Most of the theories developed at the time attributed the change to a wave of bad publicity and to the implicit threats in President-elect Jimmy Carter's international human-rights rhetoric.

Assad's Syrian supporters point out that the change was in line with the ideology of the Baath (Renaissance) Party, which Assad leads.

'The Baath philosophy is totally nonsectarian," said a government spokesman here. "In Syria, we do not look who is Jewish, who is Christian, who is from this population group or who is from the other."

Whatever the reasons, Syria's Jews are unanimous in their gratitude to Assad. His picture may adorn their shops for form's sake, but the comments are volunteered by all.

"This is the best president we have had since we were born," says a metal worker engraving an American artillery shell with complex paisley patterns. "We never thought it would be like this. We are heard in our sorrow. This is far better than before."

And yet, would he leave if he could?

"Of course," he says, and stops himself. "No, you cannot write that. Please. But you can say I am a man who always likes to look for something different." and he grins as he bends once again to the brass shell casing.

"Someplace, perhaps not very far," he says as he taps his chisel. But, I think, quite different."

Rabbi Avraham Hamra has the build of a linebacker, a big square face and a chin that looks strong enough to knock down a wall. He is a shocker. It is a rare rabbi that makes your hand hurt when he shakes it.

Now, in the temple, the chin is covered with six days of stubble. It is a custom among the devout to stop shaving from the night of the seder, the Passover feast, until the morning when Moses began the long trek out of Egypt and into Israel.

Still, at the altar, he looks younger than his 35 years as he leads the older men in prayer. In his sitting room after the services, with his 2-year-old daughter on his knee and his 3-year-old son playing at his feet, he seems the picture of a hopeful and vigorous young family man.

Yet it seems to be his fate right now, a fate he acknowledges without sadness, to preside in a time when there is no hope, to preside over the demise of one of the world's oldest Jewish communities.

Hamra and the head of the community council, an aged figure named Selim Totah, worked with a young New Yorker named Stephen Shalom to rig up a mass "proxy marriage" last year that enabled 14 Jewish girls to emigrate to New York.

Hamra and Totah prepared the list of eligible girls who could find no eligible boys in Syria – most of the young men have escaped – while Shalom rounded up from a large Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn 14 males who agreed to propose to girls they had never seen.

Although everybody involved knew most of the marriages would never take place, the gambit did entice the Syrians to let the girls leave for America. Two have returned to Damascus, having found New York too bewildering and foreign.

In fact, there were elements of charade throughout the entire venture. Last May, when President Carter met Assad, the world was treated to the spectacle of the two chiefs of state "conferring" about the marriage proposals.

The Syrians were rigorous as to form. Before the girls were allowed to leave, the Syrians demanded assurance that the husbands were of good family and able to provide for their new wives.

In each case, the marriage petition had to be notarized, the notary's stamp then had to be notarized once more by the secretary of state of the State of New York, whose signature in turn had to be authenticated by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.

"The packet that we finally got on each person was about that thick," one embassy official recalls, holding apart his thumb and index finger to the thickness of a healthy suburban telephone book.

There are some indications that the Americans might have extracted more action from the Syrians on Jewish emigration, but the opportunity slid by.

During Carter's campaign, Assad was said to be willing to let out most of the Jews, quietly and gradually, in much the same manner as the neighboring hard-line Iraqis had done only a few years before.

By the time Carter was inaugurated and Assad met Vance, the most Assad would commit himself to was a "case by case review" of Jewish emigration petitions.

By the time Carter met Assad last May, the focus had shifted to the 14 girls, with hints that some other individual "family reunification" petitions might be looked at kindly.

Despite the apparent Syrian retrenchment, the case of the 14 "marriages" is looked at here as something of a breakthrough.

It leads Hamra to ask these days of every American Jew who is able to visit the quarter: "Are you married?"

And he is working on a new list of 50 girls, among the 1,000 who remain unmarried, to submit to the Syrian government.

The marriage gambit, of course, he can talk about. Most of the other cases and methods of leaving Syria he cannot talk about at all.

There is the case of the 90-year-old woman who walked for two days straight last month to escape with 13 others.

There is the case of the doctor who forfeited his $6,000 bond and a personal fortune said to be 30 times that amount rather than return at the end of his temporary emigration period.

There is the case of the old rabbi from Kamishli who left Syria under obscure circumstances last year. His departure left Hamra the only rabbi in Syria.

Now, the last of Kamishli's kosher butchers has escaped and meat prepared under Jewish dietary laws must be shipped from Damascus.

Hamra acknowledges that the community is losing vital pieces every month. He is not worried.

For a moment, he breaks into Hebew again. "Yisrael lo aiman," he says. The Jews will survive.

And what about him?

"He might be the last," a relative says. "That's just his way. As long as there is one young person left, he will stay."

Hamra himself greets the question with a smile.

"Will I go?" he repeats, and strokes for a moment the huge fuzzy chin. "Well, Moses was not at the back of the line when the Jews came out of Egypt.

It is hard to talk to anyone here about the status of the Jews. The government does not talk much about any of the minorities in Syria. The ministry of information confines itself to assurances that the Jews are well treated and the assertion that the many police in the quarter are there at the request of the Jews for protection.

The Americans do not want to talk too much for fear of removing the emigration question from the realm of human rights. In fact, they wish the Israelis would keep quiet on the issue.

"Every time Begin brings up this case," a U.S. official says of the Israeli prime minister, "It becomes a political question here, like a bargaining chip almost. What we'd like to see is a treatment on strict humanitarian grounds."

In the quarter itself, among the men the fear is a palpable muzzle.

"We are only small men," says one at a sewing machine on The Street Called Straight, before the first question is asked.

"We have no views on political matters," his partner says from the next table.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Despite the relaxation of restrictions, the police are not an idle threat. Within days of the arrival of the 14 brides in New York last year, almost all the Jews who had been allowed to leave the country on temporary emigration permits were detained for questioning by police.

After questioning, 26 Jews confessed to having visited Israel while abroad. Their cases still are pending.

The police are not the only fear among the Jews of the quarter. So many Jews have been turned into informers that residents will not talk frankly even if the police are not around.

A shop owner presses into the hands of a visitor a little packet of matzoh, the ceremonial Passover bread.

"Please," he says. "You must tell no one where you got this. Not even the others here, not even among ourselves. Just say you got it from a family."

A young man in another shop urgently requests a conversation in the backroom.

"I want to tell you about some of the problems we have. I want to tell you some things about the leaders of our own community," he says. "But I cannot tell you here."

"Not even in the backroom?"

"No, not here. Not Syria. You must talk to some who have escaped already. In New York or Israel. They will tell you. I cannot. We are not in Switzerland or America."

Not even among the young is there a thought of collective action. No one but the family can be trusted. Questions about gradual integration or improvements simply do not exist. A young woman is asked if she believes she could ever be accepted as an equal member of the Syrian society.

Her eyes are blank and her forehead wrinkles as she tries to comprehend. The question is asked four times.

After a while, it is clear she understands, but it takes a minute or two for her to frame a reply.

"Wait," she says. "You go too fast. I mean, this is not ... I mean, you don't understand. To be a Jew is a curse."

There is no optimism here, even among the young. An 18-year-old metal worker says he cannot expect the current relaxations to last. "Now, it is good. I mean, it is better," he says. "But put it in your mind: How can 4,000 Jews stay in 8 million here?

"Now, it is better. This year is good. Next year, we do not know."

From the back of the shop, a voice responds:

"Next year in Jerusalem."