The Canadian Jewish News

January 23, 2013

BY Sheldon Kirshner

Michelle Devorah Kahn, a 23-year-old local filmmaker, has turned back the clock in a documentary on Syrian Jews.

She focuses on a once-great Jewish community in Aleppo, a city in northern Syria that has been devastated by the current Syrian civil war.

Kahn’s film, Wanted: The Joseph Esses Story, will be screened free of charge on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Sephardic Kehila Centre at 7026 Bathurst St., Thornhill.

Although Wanted is ostensibly about her grandfather, Joseph, who was born and raised in Aleppo, it implicitly deals with the inexorable decline of an ancient Jewish centre, which was swept up in the vortex of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

To be presented under the auspices of the Iraqi Jewish Association, Wanted began as a Grade 12 school project at Kahn’s alma mater, the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. It morphed into a full-fledged movie after she visited her relatives in Israel in 2008.

“This project has been one of the biggest blessings of my life,” said Kahn, a 2011 graduate of York University’s film studies program. “Not only did I get a movie out of it, but a friend. My grandfather means more to me than anything, and I’m so thankful he was willing to share his most personal thoughts with me.”

The recipient of an honourable mention at a recent Sephardi film festival in Los Angeles, it started as an “easy A” project in Kahn’s computer media class under the direction of teacher Harvey Kaduri.

But as she delved into the topic, she realized it was peppered with complexities. “I thought I knew my grandfather’s story, but I quickly learned there was more to it than the image I had of him.”

Since Esses had never really spoken about himself and his experiences in Aleppo, Kahn had to be patient before he finally opened up to her. “He told me things I had never heard before,” she said.

When the formal interview ended, he gave her a long hug, kissed her and made lunch for both of them.

After talking to Esses’ sister, meeting cousins in Israel and collecting family photographs, Kahn returned to the project. As she put it, “The spark inside me to make this film was rekindled.”

Wanted, at its core, is about a Jewish man in a Syrian city where Jews had lived since time immemorial, not always securely.

Esses, the eighth child of 12 children, was born in 1919, the son of a textile merchant. Aleppo, known as Haleb in Arabic and Hebrew, was an important commercial hub in the 20th century, a mercantile bridge connecting the Middle East to Europe.

In the past half year, however, Aleppo, Syria’s largest metropolis, has sunk into despair, having been the scene of heavy fighting pitting Syrian rebels against the forces of President Hafez Assad. Many of its buildings have been damaged or destroyed and much of its population has been displaced.

Throughout the centuries, Jews in Aleppo were an integral part of its merchant class, which contributed immensely to its prosperity. Yet Jews were also subjected to discriminatory restrictions, violence and blood libels.

In Wanted, a mélange of talking heads and vintage photos, Esses and his two children, Albert and Gracy, recall a bygone era when Jews in Aleppo were all too often the object of scorn and contempt and barely tolerated.

After his father’s death, Esses became the family breadwinner, his brothers having left Syria for greener pastures. Syrian authorities, having accused Esses of being an Israeli spy, arrested him, but eventually let him go.

For Aleppine Jews, the turning point probably came on Nov. 29, 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

The historic resolution was never implemented, but Syrian Muslims, inhabitants of a nation that considered itself the “beating heart” of Arab nationalism, were furious that Palestine had been divided.

Within days, rioting broke out in Aleppo – home to about 10,000 Jews – as Arab mobs poured into the Jewish quarter, setting alight residential buildings, synagogues and schools and burning Torah scrolls.

Traumatized by these events, thousands of Jews secretly crossed into neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon.

Esses, in Wanted, remembers those terrible days.

In 1950, he decided to leave Syria. “My grandfather left because there was no future for him. He had dreams and ambition. He knew he could only fulfil them by leaving and starting over again,” said Kahn, who made Wanted through her company, Oy-Oy Productions.

Having obtained a false U.S. passport, Esses crossed into Lebanon, where he launched his new life as the owner of an apparel shop in Beirut. In 1960, he married Olga Abadi, who was about 20 years younger.

Six years later, they immigrated to Canada. “He wanted to raise his family in a safer environment,” explained Kahn.

Until his retirement, Esses worked in a linen store.

When the Six Day War erupted in 1967, Aleppo’s Jewish population had dwindled to 1,500. Today, by all accounts, Aleppo is bereft of Jews.

Esses does not miss Syria.

“Too many awful memories,” said his daughter, Gracy.

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