The Last Jews of Saida
A road trip to the South this weekend brought me and some friends up close to the remnants of one of Lebanon’s prouder former Jewish communities. For some reason the Jews of Lebanon have been a hot journalistic subject around here recently, at least ever since this article in Ha’aretz reported that a group of Lebanese Jews in exile were planning to fund the restoration of Beirut’s once-noble synagogue near downtown. (For more on that story, seen Ben Gilbert’s sharp follow-up in GlobalPost. Ben is also the highly capable editor of the regional business magazine Executive, which recently featured “The Jews of Lebanon” on its cover; this has resulted in the curious sight of a giant photograph of a menorah sitting in doctor’s office waiting rooms and on the desks of bank executives all across town.)
What we found on the way south from Saida was something less prominent, but perhaps more telling: the scattered ruins of Saida’s Jewish cemetery.
Saida, like many Middle Eastern cities, still has a neighborhood known as the Jewish Quarter. (In fact, back in the old city we had briefly puzzled over a martyr poster of a little boy — below that of a deceased resistance leader — that said, in bold script, that it was “paid for by the youth of the Jewish Quarter,” which seemed like an odd juxtaposition. Turns out the boy, tragically, fell into the sea near town and drowned.) According to Kirsten E. Schulze’s book, “The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict,” the Jewish presence in Saida dates back at least a thousand years and those who remained in the 1960s and early 1970s had a fine relationship with their Lebanese neighbors. By 1975, though, there was only one Jewish family left in town, that of Josef and Jamila Levy.
Josef Levy worked as a tailor. He made uniforms for the Lebanese army, and consequently had good relations with the local and national administration. In 1975, when the civil war broke out, Zaki Levy [Josef's youngest son] was finishing his secondary education. He had gone to the Freres Maristes school and had to travel through the troubles to Beirut to the French Embassy in order to take his final exams. “When I came back from Beirut the whole city was on strike and shut down.” He then left for France to study pharmacy.
Josef died two years later. Many members of the Levy family drifted away from Lebanon, but Zaki returned, and stayed there through the Israeli invasion and occupation of Saida in the 1980s. For the Levy family, the Israeli occupation was something of a boon time, but also the beginning of the end.
The Levys lived in a spacious second-floor flat on the edge of the area in Saida referred to as the casbah, located on the seashore across the street from the customs building and above a fish0mongers and barbershop. In fact, the two shops were owned by Palestinians who were good friends of the Levy’s…. The Levy’s reaction to the Israeli invasion is reminiscent of others among Lebanon’s Jews. They were pleased to see Jews and happy to received kosher meat from Israeli soldiers.
After the IDF withdrew from Saida, and facing warnings from the Israeli government about threats of terrorism against them, the last members of the Levy family relented, and moved to Tel Aviv. They locked the doors of their home on the way out.
What remains today, if the cemetery is any indication, is a sorry legacy. The cemetery sits on a sandy dune alongside a busy roadway and across the street from the main (and massive) landfill for the city of Saida, which adds little by way of ambiance.
Meanwhile, an impenetrable fortress of thick and sharp thorn bushes has grown throughout the cemetery, making walking into the place virtually impossible, and enveloping the tombs with prickly spears. Many of the tombstones themselves have been toppled over, and in some cases scavengers have shattered them to get at the inscribed marble contained within.
It’s had to know if the state of this particular site says anything about the Lebanese — or the Saidanese — people’s present feelings about Jews so much as it speaks to the general Lebanese antipathy to their own history. The relationship between the Lebanese and their memories — especially the bad ones — is ambiguous and fraught, and for good reason: an awful lot of bad stuff went down here. In Beirut, one of my favorite buildings is the Barakat Building, a residential complex at a main intersection along the former Green Line. It is an ornate, French imperialist style building with beautiful intricate columns and wrought-iron balconies, but during the Civil War it was favored for its prime sniping location, and so now it lies in ruins. It symbolizes, perhaps more than the cliched Holiday Inn, Lebanon’s curious mix of glamor and wretchedness that has never been fully confronted by the population here. On a visit to Beirut in 2004, I took this picture of it:
There have been reports that the building is being preserved in order to be converted into a Museum of Memory about the Civil War, but if that’s the case, so far the city has only taken steps backward: considered primarily an eye-sore, the building’s facade has been concealed by a massive canvas with a pretty picture on it. What lies beneath — the gruesome history that is plainly evident — is so far only being covered up. The cemetery in Saida, in ruins but at least left there for anyone to see, just might be more dignified.
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