A review of Farewell, Aleppo by Claudette Sutton

It is a pleasure to showcase Claudette Sutton’s memoir, Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home on Choices today.  I hope you’ll all read her book. You will certainly learn a lot about the history and culture of the Jews who came from Aleppo, Syria.

Book synopsis:

The Jews of Aleppo, Syria, had been part of the city’s fabric for more than two thousand years, in good times and bad, through conquerors and kings. But in the middle years of the twentieth century, all that changed.

To Selim Sutton, a merchant with centuries of roots in the Syrian soil, the dangers of rising anti-Semitism made clear that his family must find a new home. With several young children and no prospect of securing visas to the United States, he devised a savvy plan for getting his family out: “exporting” his sons. In December 1940, he told the two oldest, Meïr and Saleh, that arrangements had been made for their transit to Shanghai, where they would work in an uncle’s export business. China, he hoped, would provide a short-term safe harbor and a stepping stone to America.

But the world intervened for the young men, now renamed Mike and Sal by their Uncle Joe. Sal became ill with tuberculosis soon after arriving and was sent back to Aleppo alone. And the war that soon would engulf every inhabited land loomed closer each day. Joe, Syrian-born but a naturalized American citizen, barely escaped on the last ship to sail for the U.S. before Pearl Harbor was bombed and the Japanese seized Shanghai. Mike was alone, a teen-ager in an occupied city, across the world from his family, with only his mettle to rely on as he strived to survive personally and economically in the face of increasing deprivation.

Farewell, Aleppo is the story—told by his daughter—of the journey that would ultimately take him from the insular Jewish community of Aleppo to the solitary task of building a new life in America. It is both her father’s tale that journalist Claudette Sutton describes and also the harrowing experiences of the family members he left behind in Syria, forced to smuggle themselves out of the country after it closed its borders to Jewish emigration.

The picture Sutton paints is both a poignant narrative of individual lives and the broader canvas of a people’s survival over millennia, in their native land and far away, through the strength of their faith and their communities. Multiple threads come richly together as she observes their world from inside and outside the fold, shares an important and nearly forgotten epoch of Jewish history, and explores universal questions of identity, family, and culture.

My review of Farewell, Aleppo:

According to Bernard Kalb, former correspondent for the New York Times, CBS News and NBC News, Farewell, Aleppo by Claudette Sutton is “a multi-faceted biography of her father and his long-ago journey from ancient Aleppo to skyscraper America, the story of the vanished Syrian-Jewish culture in Aleppo, now a battleground in Syria’s civil war, [and] a look at how that culture still survives.

I chose this book based on how similar Sutton’s father’s and grandfather’s stories are to my own father’s and grandfather’s, who emigrated to the United States from Poland and settled in a small town in the Midwest to flee anti-Semitism and the threat of World War I. Coincidentally, my father and Sutton’s father were both in the textile business.

The second reason is how applicable the subject matter – immigration, restricted traveling, difficulties in obtaining Visas and U.S. citizenship – is to our current times. The parallels are stunning.

I really enjoyed reading about the history and culture of the Syrian Jews. I had no idea that their history went back two thousand years. So, while Farewell, Aleppo is certainly Mike Sutton’s biography, it is much more. With a layout that includes family and location photos and maps, this reader got a good sense of the history of the times he was living in.

Sutton concludes the book by stating that even though there might be no more than one hundred Jews still living in Syria, communities of Syrian Jews exist all over the world – like the one Mike Sutton lived in, in New York City. I wonder where these communities are and what makes them different from a community of Jews coming from eastern Europe. Why did they resist assimilating once they were here?  That aspect of Sutton’s story was very different from my own. My grandfather and father clearly wanted to leave Poland and once they were in the United States, rejected anything that reminded them of their lives there.

Anyone who likes to read biography, memoir, and history will love this book. And anyone who is interested in other cultures and how they compare to ours will also be very interested. Kudos to Claudette Sutton for writing Farewell, Aleppo.

***

Here are a few accolades for the rich and compelling Farewell, Aleppo:

“Sutton merges the best of family biography with relevant and fascinating historical, social, and religious knowledge. Incorporating elements of history, religious struggles, pursuit of dreams, and the strength of kinship to create a stirring tribute to the foresight of her grandfather and the strength and perseverance of his offspring, Sutton craftily weaves interesting story lines into an encouraging and intriguing narrative.”  ~ Foreword Reviews 

“Claudette Sutton takes the reader on a courageous journey as she tells the story of her father, whose world changed with the winds of World War II. Farewell, Aleppo is a story of how people are shaped by their past. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to explore this rich culture that many people do not know very much about.”  ~ Elise Cooper, Jewish Book Council

“There certainly must have been something unique about the Jews of Aleppo to have allowed them to survive there for thousands of years and preserve a sense of tradition and community in America for the last 100 years. A remarkable tale of the power of family, tradition, culture and history. Makes the current devastation of Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War all the more tragic.”
~ Ellen Zieselman, retired Curator of Education, New Mexico Mexico Museum of Art; Youth Director, Temple Beth Shalom

About the author:

It’s no coincidence that family is the central focus of both Farewell, Aleppo and the work that has been the driving force of its author’s professional life.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the close-knit community of Syrian Jews all were part of Claudette Sutton’s childhood in suburban Maryland, along with her parents and siblings. Years later, as a young mother in Santa Fe, it seemed only natural to think of creating a similar kind of close support for families in her new hometown by means of her journalism training and experience.

Thus began what is now Tumbleweeds, an award-winning local publication that for over twenty years has been expanding its role in serving the city’s families. As the quarterly newspaper has grown, so have its scope and community contributions, mixing news, commentary, personal writing, advice, and activity guides—all reflecting Claudette’s vision of a community resource to help her neighbors face the challenges of parenting.

Claudette’s eloquent writing, the other great strength she combines with the paper’s wide-ranging utility, has been a door to the world for her since she was a teen-ager. As a reporter, she realized early, “You can learn about everything”—a much more appealing option after high school than the enforced specialization of college.

After three years writing for the Montgomery County Sentinel in Maryland, Claudette moved to New York, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research. Living in proximity to another side of her extensive family, she built a deeper understanding of the Jewish exodus from Syria that has formed the backdrop for the story she tells so movingly in Farewell, Aleppo.

The narrative chronicles her father’s youth, his odyssey across oceans and continents, and the new life he made in America. But as Claudette talked with him and researched more deeply, she saw also the essential elements of the larger tale. What began as one man’s story grew into a portrait of the history that made his journey necessary, and of how a vibrant people have preserved their community and culture through the thousands of years from biblical times to today.

Find Claudette Sutton online at these links:

Amazon

Her Website

Twitter

Facebook

Pinterest

And be sure to watch the trailer

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Comments

  1. Crystal Otto says:

    Thank you for this beautiful and honest Review Madeline!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful review of my book, Madeline, and your curiosity about my family’s history. I’m sure I’d enjoy sitting down with you over coffee and sharing stories about our families! It is interesting that Polish Jews, like so many other immigrants, chose to put their past and any reminders of it behind them, while the Syrian Jews have clung to their traditions and resisted assimilation. I suspect both responses reflect the fear that people experience when they are forced to leave their homes, fear that can permeate families for generations… something we need to think at this time with record numbers of people displaced from their homes around the world.

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