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SF writer recounts family’s part in Jewish diaspora

SANTA FE, N.M. — We always hear about the tri-cultural aspect of Santa Fe and New Mexico – the trio of Anglo, Native American and Hispanic.

But that shorthand ignores the rich tapestry of individual shining threads that create a more full and colorful picture of what makes up our community and our state.

For instance, you probably don’t hear much about Syrian Jews.

jn01_jd_26sept_aleppoClaudette Sutton is looking to change that.

What started as a request from her father to write down his story – maybe a few typed pages to copy and distribute among relatives – turned into more questions and more exploration by the Santa Fe writer that culminates with the release of the book “Farewell, Aleppo” (Terra Nova Books) in October.

Subtitled “My Father; My People, and Their Long Journey Home,” the story not only gives another example of the Jewish diaspora, but recalls a not-so-distant time when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together respectfully and peacefully in Syria, where today some Muslims are fighting fiercely amongst themselves and fleeing bombing by U.S. planes.

When her father was a boy, Sutton said, the different religious communities may have stuck to their own enclaves, yet still interacted in school or business.

Today, that may sound like a “crazy fantasy,” she said, “but I want people to get out of the book that this was not back in the ancient past. It’s a living memory.”

Aleppo itself has a long history of Jewish presence, both with the Mizrahi (Jews indigenous to the Middle East) and the Sephardic (Spanish Jews who fled during the Inquisition) taking up residence there. Sutton said her family probably is a mix of the two.

Yet her father’s father, Selim Sutton, saw a rising anti-Semitic mood in Syria in the 1940s and sent his children away in hopes they ultimately would reunite in the United States.

Some didn’t make it, mostly because of health, but most of them did, and they are thriving through the generations, validating that patriarch’s vision for the future, she noted.

As the oldest, Claudette’s father Meïr (Miro among family and friends, later changed to Mike) left first with the next oldest son, going to Shanghai in 1941 to work with their Uncle Joe in the exporting business. It was a trip and sojourn that was complicated by shifting powers during the course of World War II.

Mike already spoke Turkish from some four years in Turkey, along with Arabic, Hebrew and French learned in Syria. In Shanghai, most business was conducted in English, so he had to become proficient in that language, too.

Before long, though, his brother returned home, ill with tuberculosis, and his uncle fled the country, where trade shut down after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He struggled to earn a living, adjusted to the Japanese occupation and then restarted the export business after the war ended.

Before long, he came to the United States on a temporary visa to do business and encountered a series of roadblocks until he finally became a permanent resident and citizen.

He and others of his family set down new roots in Brooklyn, which hosted an extensive community of Syrian Jews. But those ties weakened as he moved with his wife to take a job with her family near Washington, D.C. Growing up in Maryland, Claudette’s life was more distant from the very orthodox Syrian Jewish traditions of the Brooklyn branch.

She landed in Santa Fe, where she founded the family-oriented quarterly newspaper Tumbleweeds in 1995, which grew out of The Tot’s Hot News that she started in 1991.

But it’s not a place where you find many Syrian Jews.

SUTTON: Book started as a request by her father

SUTTON: Book started as a request by her father

Sutton said, “I felt an urgency for more contact with my culture” when her son, now 26, was small. She ended up spending long telephone conversations with her grandmother, the best cook in the family, asking about recipes and ingredients for the food they grew up with.

That’s when she learned that, in the old style of cooking, a “cup” might mean a “tea cup” and not a certain number of ounces, and that you should add enough of a certain ingredient to the dough “until it feels right.”

“For her, cooking was not a chemistry project,” Sutton said. “It was an art, it was about feeling, about love.”

She described one of her favorite recipes, chicken with stuffed eggplant, that you could almost savor over the phone with talk of ingredients like allspice, tomato sauce and tamarind paste.

“It’s a whole different kind of food than what we think of as Jewish in this country,” Sutton said. “It has more earthy flavors.”

While her family’s story is about a very particular group of people within a very specific culture, it has some resonance for almost anyone.

“We don’t go back too far before there are issues of displacement, of identity,” she said of most people.

When she talks to people about the book, she said, they soon start telling stories of their own families.

“I want people to do whatever they can do to get their family stories,” she said. “As they find their family background, they learn so much about themselves.”

And as for those few photocopied pages of his story that her father requested two decades ago …

“He’s really excited by it,” Sutton said of the resulting 155-page book. “He’s 92. I feel really grateful that he has stayed alive until I finished it.”

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