Wednesday, November 01, 2006
The Crowned of Damascus
Subject: The Crowned of Damascus
The Harriet Tubman of Syrian Jewry
By: Steven Plaut Wednesday, November 1, 2006
"For the soul was ransomed from the pit of darkness, and life shall see
� Job 33:28
It sounds uncannily like the opening scene of "The Maltese Falcon." But
it is not a Hollywood fantasy.
Its origins are in the medieval Spanish kingdom of Castille, in the early
thirteenth century, well before Columbus left for the Americas. It was at
some point purchased with coins minted during the reign of Queen Isabella's
half-brother, Henry IV. Then Isabella became queen, marrying Ferdinand of
Aragon, and they completed the Reconquista and turned their attention to
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, it showed up in Constantinople,
where it was purchased with florin coins minted during the reign of Sultan
Selim I, father of Suleiman the Magnificent. And from there it somehow got
to Damascus, where it remained � hidden from the eyes of outsiders � until
it was redeemed from the land of Aram, the land from which Abraham departed
on his mission.
And it's priceless.
The Keter or Crown of Damascus is neither as well known nor quite as
authoritative as its cousin, the Keter of Aleppo. Each "crown" is actually a
hand-written complete biblical codex, containing vowels and cantillation
(trop) signs, printed out in book form.
The Crown of Aleppo was used by Maimonides and is considered the most
precise and oldest surviving such manuscript of the Torah. But fewer than
two-thirds of its pages have survived, and some of those are damaged or
The Crown of Damascus, by contrast, is in mint condition. Every page has
survived intact. Its last page is an incredible calligraphy image of the
final chapter of Chronicles in the form of a Kiddush cup.
The entire manuscript was written by a single scribe, in dark brown ink text
letters and with lighter brown ink for the vowels and cantillation marks. In
Damascus it was used for study only on the holiday of Shavuot by the
congregation formed by those expelled from Spain.
In some ways its recovery was the "crowning" achievement of one Judy Feld
Every schoolchild in North America has heard of Harriet Tubman, who smuggled
slaves from the American South to freedom in the North via the "Underground
Railroad" before the Civil War. Her smuggling operations rescued some 300
Ironically, Judy Feld Carr is still largely unknown, even among North
American Jews. In large part that is probably because of the secrecy in
which she operated, for nearly three decades, as the Harriet Tubman of
But rescuing the Crown of Damascus is only one dramatic highlight of a
heroic career: Judy saved the lives of 3,228 Syrian Jews (of about 4,500 who
would eventually escape Syria) and she did so almost single-handedly. While
some Syrian Jews were captured or killed in various escape attempts, Carr
did not lose a single one in any of the escape operations she organized and
Like so many strange things in this world, this story begins with a Plaut.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a well-known Toronto figure and distant relative of
your humble correspondent, was, in the early 1970's, among the first to
bring the plight of Syrian Jewry to the attention of the world.
While the persecution of Soviet Jews was making headlines, few were aware of
the brutal persecutions in Syria. The organized Jewish community preferred
to keep the subject under wraps and to pursue quiet, polite � and
ineffective � lobbying on behalf of Syria's Jews.
Rabbi Plaut's calls to action electrified Judy Feld, a musicologist and
mother of three, who had grown up in small-town Ontario and later moved to
Toronto. Together with her husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, they decided to commit
themselves to doing something about the plight of Syrian Jews.
The Syrian Jewish community traces its origins back to biblical days. Much
of Syria was incorporated into King David's realm and parts were again later
ruled by the Hasmoneans. Benjamin of Tudela, the famous traveler and writer,
visited Damascus in 1170, reporting on a Jewish community there that
numbered about 3,000. The Bartenura, a medieval Italian commentator on the
Mishna, visited the community and described the lush gardens and luxurious
homes of the Damascus Jews.
Before the arrival of the refugees from Spain, most Syrian Jews were
musta'arabim, Arabic-speaking Jews, with their own liturgy. They were
strongly influenced by the mystics of Safed and produced several leading
Syrian Jewry had been reinforced over the centuries by waves of immigrants,
including Spanish Jews after the expulsion of 1492 and others from Italy,
Sicily and Morocco. The menfolk worked in a variety of trades and engaged in
commerce. The women developed a special local cuisine, which included
samboosak (half-moon pastry filled with cheese or meat), coconut marmalade
(especially for Passover) and sharbat loz, a cold drink made from almond
By the first half of the twentieth century, much of the Syrian Jewish
community had emigrated. Many reached Israel, especially after the Syrian
pogroms of 1947. Others went to Brazil, Brooklyn, and Deal, New Jersey.
For one reason or another, several thousand Jews stayed behind in Syria. By
the 1960's they were living under a permanent state of siege, brutalized by
the totalitarian Ba'ath regime, under surveillance of the secret police and
facing the perpetual threat of violence.
Quite literally the host for German war criminals, the Syrian government
carried on its own anti-Zionist jihad against its Jewish citizens. Jews had
special identity cards stamped, in large red letters, "Mossawi," an Arabic
expression for Jew (derived from the name Moses), and were prohibited from
walking more than three kilometers from their homes.
Judy and her husband committed themselves to helping and redeeming Syria's
Jews in any way possible. But they had to begin the battle from scratch,
with no idea how to proceed.
They commenced with publicity campaigns and meetings with activists, trying
to nudge the Jewish organizations of Canada and other countries into taking
a stronger position on, and a more vocal interest in, the plight of Syrian
Jews. They produced brochures and booklets that circulated throughout the
Jewish world. (I can recall distributing them on campus as an undergraduate
in Philadelphia.) More important, they began surreptitious activities to
rescue as many Syrian Jews as possible.
Most of the details of the rescue operations are still secret. While "Mrs.
Judy," as Syrian Jews the world over affectionately call her, is reluctant
to discuss those details, an indirect acknowledgment of their sophistication
and importance came recently from the Israeli intelligence services, which
published a cover story about her exploits in their newsletter.
Some of the stories of the rescues were revealed in The Ransomed of God, a
1999 book by University of Toronto historian Harold Troper. Evidently, there
were two "exit strategies." In many cases Syrian Jews were ransomed, with
monies greasing the right palms in Damascus. In other cases, "illegal"
escape schemes were hatched, with the exact routes still unknown (my
personal guess is through Turkey).
Judy's code name for those involved in the operations was always "gin." An
elaborate secret language was developed for communication with those inside
Syria, based largely on Chinese cooking terminology, sometimes on biblical
code citations. When some young Syrian Jews were arrested, a message reached
her from Syria, citing Jeremiah on Rachel weeping for her children. The
meaning was clear.
The personal mission of "Mrs. Judy" becomes all the more incredible when one
realizes the circumstances under which she was forced to carry on. Before a
single Jew had been successfully rescued, Judy's husband died suddenly in
1973. It was only four months after they'd succeeded in sending in the first
box of books to Jews in Syria.
Now a young widow with three children, Judy wasted no time on hesitation and
doubt. She decided to pursue alone the mission she had shared with her
husband, now with even more devotion and energy.
A fund, named after her late husband, was set up by their Toronto synagogue,
which raised the money needed for the operations. The amounts she collected
are still unknown to the public. When her own father died, she was late for
the funeral � she had to spend most of that day raising $50,000 to rescue an
entire family in immediate danger. Only when they were safe did she allow
herself the "luxury" of beginning the mourning process.
The clandestine efforts and operations escalated. "Canada was the perfect
place from which to run the activities," she explained to me. "It's a
country that's never on the front page, never the center of attention. I
could operate without drawing media attention. And no one was mad at Canada,
or paying it much mind."
The first ransomed Syrian Jew was an elderly rabbi from Aleppo. Early on,
one person at a time was brought out; later, whole families. Sometimes
parents in Syria were faced with a "Sophie's Choice" type dilemma, having to
select a single child to be taken out in any given ransom or escape
By that time Judy had married Donald Carr, a successful Toronto attorney and
father of three who had lost his wife at a young age. She continued her work
with the backing of her new family. The family always knew when she was
about to leave for a trip related to her mission � the warning sign came
when she would start cooking up unusually large quantities of food.
Outside her family, virtually no one knew what she was doing; even her
beneficiaries did not know her name, only rumors about some mysterious woman
in Canada managing the operations. If the Syrian secret police heard those
same rumors they no doubt dismissed them as disinformation.
The first public revelation of her role in the rescues came in 1995, when
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin decided to go public. The chief rabbi
of Syria had just been allowed to leave the country. Judy would have
preferred that Rabin hold his tongue a bit longer to allow the operations to
continue in secret.
Some months later she was to be presented with a Merit Award for her life's
work by my own school, the University of Haifa. Rabin insisted on personally
presenting her with the award. But it was not to be. Three days before the
ceremony he was assassinated by Yigal Amir.
Today a grandmother of thirteen, Judy doesn't seek public accolades for her
years of work and rescue, though she has received, in addition to the
aforementioned recognition from the University of Haifa, a number of honors
� among them the Order of Canada and the Simon Wiesenthal Award for
Tolerance, Justice and Human Rights.
"I have always been reluctant to inject myself into the lives of the people
I rescued," she explained to me. "I do not need to harvest expressions of
thanks. I want them to get on with their lives."
Besides human beings, there were many artifacts and books she managed to
redeem from their Syrian prison. She herself traveled to pick up a Torah
scroll that had just been smuggled out of Syria, carrying it to Canada
inside a hockey bag. (One can only imagine the looks on the faces of the
airport security people.) The books and artifacts were donated to museums in
Israel. President Moshe Katsav invited her to his home to thank her in
person on behalf of Israel.
The Crown of Damascus was particularly difficult to rescue because the
Syrian authorities were aware of its monetary value. When Judy at last had
it safely in her possession in Toronto, the first thing she did was to make
sure it was genuine. She asked a Tunisian-born scribe to inspect it
carefully. After doing so, he burst into sobs.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I have just seen the face of God," he replied.
Curiously, now that Syria is effectively judenrein, its leaders have been
trying to improve its image (under intense pressure from an American
administration that regards their country as part of the axis of evil) by
extending "feelers" to Syria's expatriate Jews. The former Syrian ambassador
to the United States, Imad Mustapha, initiated meetings with some Syrian
Jews in Brooklyn and in 2004 accompanied a small group of them on a visit to
Should a more moderate Syria ever emerge and abandon its devotion to terror
and aggression against Israel and the West � something unlikely to happen as
long as the junior Assad and his Ba'ath storm troopers hold power � then
perhaps these Syrian Jews will play an important role.
As for the Crown of Damascus, it's in its rightful home at last.
When the chief rabbi of Syria was finally permitted to leave that country in
1995, it was officially for the purpose of a "visit" to the U.S. But once he
was free, Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra traveled to Canada and then the U.S. before
moving permanently to Israel.
When he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport he was carrying a plastic shopping
bag. It contained the Crown of Damascus, which Judy and he were conveying to
the Israel National Library in Jerusalem. And there it has remained. Judy
had insisted that Rabbi Hamra (who, like so many of the Jews ransomed from
Syria, named one of his own daughters Judy) carry it himself, restoring it
from Aram to Zion with his own hands.
Today, thanks in great measure to the untiring, heroic work of Judy Feld
Carr, only about 30 Jews, most of them elderly, remain in Syria.