A Rabbi in the Attic?

An American discovers old and complicated connections to the Levant

A Rabbi in the Attic?
Jewish men and women pray at the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, in about 1905 / © Historical Picture Archive / Corbis / Corbis via Getty Images

Lena Segal died before I was born. She lived to an old age. In my mind, though, Lena is forever young: a great-grandmother whose image sits outside of time, just as she appears in the handful of old photographs that have been passed down in the family. In one, a girl with dark hair and thick eyebrows cradles a violin and looks up out of the corner of her eye with a mischievous half-smile. In others — one in a high school valedictorian’s uniform, another in a diaphanous, off-the-shoulder white dress — she gazes dreamily into the camera.

My religious upbringing came from my mother, a devout enough Christian to have at one point attended divinity school intending to become an Episcopal priest. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I learned of the Jewish ancestry on my father’s side. It wasn’t a deliberately kept secret; my father is an agnostic and not particularly interested in genealogy, so it had never come up.

Only later — after I had traveled to the Levant as a journalist and had walked through the narrow streets of the Old City in Jerusalem and the souks in Nablus, eventually settling in Beirut — did I learn of Lena’s paternal grandfather, a man who had left his own home to live in Palestine in the last decades of the Ottoman era.

Lena’s parents were both Jews who came to the U.S. in the late 19th century from what is now Poland and Latvia or possibly Lithuania but was then marked on census forms as “Russia.” Lena married a Christian boy and was, for a time, disowned by her father for it, although he thawed after the birth of his first grandchild, my grandmother.

I learned of this history from an interview one of our relatives had recorded with Great-Grandma Lena a few years before her death.

“My grandfather on my father’s side was a rabbi, and he and my grandmother never came to this country,” Lena — by then Lena Moore — says in the recording. She had a gentle, humorous voice with a pronounced Midwestern accent from her girlhood in Minnesota, which seemed at odds with the distinctly Old World face I knew from her photos. “All I know about them was that they went to Jerusalem, and they lived there until they died. We never heard from him, but my father used to write to him, I think, using the Hebrew language.”

She added as an aside, with a chuckle, “You wouldn’t think when you know me that I would have had a grandfather who was a rabbi, would you?”

I didn’t know her, so I took her word for it. And, for a while, all I knew about Lena’s grandfather was just that: He was our rabbi in the attic. The man named Wolf Segal — perhaps Szczesny, originally, though even Lena was not too clear on that point — has since been an object of fascination and unease for me, a descendant who also ended up living in the Levant. While I have not yet discovered much more about his life, I have learned about the place and time in which he lived.

I don’t know when exactly Wolf Segal and his wife (whose name Lena didn’t know) moved to Palestine, but he almost certainly arrived in the last three decades of the 19th century. (Believe me, I tried to learn as much as possible! I asked my relatives if my ancestor’s letters from Jerusalem might have survived, but as far as anyone knew, they had not. I searched on genealogy sites, but the couple of possible leads I found there were inconclusive and didn’t give the answers I was really trying to get at, so I turned to the historical record.) He thus could have been part of the so-called Old Yishuv: Jews who were present in Palestine before the 1880s. He also could have been a later migrant, one of many Jews moving from Europe after the pogroms that began in 1881 in the Russian Empire and the subsequent rise of Zionism. But even Jews who arrived in Palestine after the pogroms were not uniformly or even mostly Zionists ideologically.

“Some 30,000 [Jews] arrived within a decade,” explained Yair Wallach, a senior lecturer at SOAS University of London who studies Ottoman-era Palestine, “and of these about 2,000 were kind of the Zionist prototype, and the rest were not.” The rest had different, complex motives, he added, largely related to “poverty and persecution” but not necessarily linked to a political project.

New arrivals during the late Ottoman period sat along a “spectrum,” rather than being split in some sort of “dichotomy,” as Wallach noted. “But they were much more migrant than settler in the sense of coming with the idea of supplanting and removing the local population or introducing a different political order.”

Given that my ancestor was a rabbi, he may have felt drawn to Jerusalem by personal religious devotion alongside any political and economic factors affecting his life in Europe. He may have been one of the Orthodox Ashkenazic Jews at the time who were, in fact, hostile to Zionism’s aspirations for a Jewish state because in their view “only the end of history as manifested in the coming of the messiah could bring about the termination of ‘exile’ and its attendant sufferings,” as Zachary Lockman wrote in “Comrades and Enemies,” a book on the interactions between Arab and Jewish workers in Palestine before 1948.

Wolf Segal arrived in a Jerusalem that was home to a hodgepodge of religious and ethnic communities, with varying degrees of social overlap depending on social class, profession and location. Indeed, contrary to contemporary myths or perceptions, Jerusalem was not always a city segregated into quarters based on sect and ethnicity — though people of course defined themselves and others through religion, at least in part. “People were mixed, and they related to each other as neighbors and then as citizens and thirdly as religious groups,” said Salim Tamari, a Palestinian sociologist and director of the Institute of Palestine Studies, “whereas much of the literature so far has emphasized the national and religious divide.”

Wasif Jawhariyyeh, an Orthodox Christian Palestinian musician, wrote as much in his memoirs of the late Ottoman era (which Tamari has studied and edited for publication). When he was growing up back then in a primarily Muslim neighborhood in the Old City, Jawhariyyeh’s father was close to the Husseinis, an aristocratic Muslim family. As Jawhariyyeh recalls in the memoir, his Christian father had chosen to learn “the Qu’ran by heart and could recite it very well.”

As a musician and municipal employee, Jawhariyyeh came into contact with all sectors of society. His recollections are full of vignettes of shared religious celebrations among the city’s Muslims, Christians and Jews as well as more debaucherous revelries (he dedicated one section to the mistresses of Jerusalem’s prominent men of the time).

In one section, Jawhariyyeh gives a humorous account of a party he attended at the home of a Jewish acquaintance, where “some of the most beautiful Jewish ladies of the Jewish Quarter were with us.” A young Ashkenazic man and a group of the women suggested that they might sing an Arabic song, which “was met with unanimous approval, since we were all drunk and feeling cheerful.” Together, they started “singing horridly in Arabic, may God preserve us,” he wrote, though nobody understood a word until one guest pointed out that the song everyone was mangling was in fact a well-known Arabic song: “Na’im hal rihan” or “How soft this basil is.”

“Everyone burst out laughing, and this song became the prelude to all our evenings,” Jawhariyyeh recalled. “That evening party was indeed one of our best. It took place prior to the infamous Balfour Declaration, thank God.” (In the wake of the 1948 Nakba that was the eventual result of the Balfour Declaration, Jawhariyyeh would become a refugee, ending his life in exile in Beirut.)

Probably such social mingling would have been more common among the polyglot intelligentsia and upper echelons of society that Jawhariyyeh inhabited. The guests at that party may have been speaking together in French, which was the language of instruction at the Alliance schools where many Jewish children studied at the time.

I don’t know if my rabbi ancestor spoke French, and I doubt he would have attended such a gathering. But what, then, was his relationship with his Muslim and Christian — and Jewish — Palestinian neighbors? Did he drink coffee with them, or did he remain in an insular bubble with other Ashkenazic immigrants, stepping out only for matters of expediency? Did he learn Arabic? Did he see himself as a citizen of the Ottoman Empire? Did he, in fact, take on Ottoman citizenship or keep his Russian nationality as many European migrants did at the time?

Certainly, many of the newcomers did not fully integrate. They even refused or struggled to do so with their coreligionists: Sephardic Jews who had been in the region for longer. In turn, Sephardim sometimes grumbled about these Ashkenazim. In “Ottoman Brothers,” a book on interreligious relations of that time, Michelle Campos noted that the Sephardic press complained that Leib Dayan — the Jewish representative on the local administrative council, put forward by the Ashkenazic community — “knew neither Ottoman Turkish nor Arabic, which thus rendered him completely ineffective.”

But Jews, be they Sephardim or Ashkenazim, did not always stand apart from their neighbors in the communities of Palestine. Indeed, some Ashkenazic Jewish families had lived in Palestine for some 200 years before the rise of Zionism and many had become part of a “national community” — although not yet a nation in the contemporary sense. “The main divide in the Jewish community was not between Ashkenazim and Sephardim,” Tamari emphasized. “The main divide was between the native Jewish communities [including Ashkenazim] and between the newcomers, the settlers who came with the Zionist movement.”

People also reacted differently to other developments in the empire, including the 1908 revolution by the “Young Turks.” In the streets of Jerusalem, many Arabs and Sephardic Jews greeted the revolution with jubilation. As Wallach recounted, Gad Frumkin, a second-generation Ashkenazic Jewish immigrant who was at the time a journalist in the newspaper run by Frumkin’s father, wrote that amid the celebration in the streets of Jerusalem, large numbers of Sephardic Jews “intermingled with the Arabs, and together they were more interested in cracking nuts, drinking lemonade and listening to the army band playing in the intervals between speeches than in the speeches themselves.” But, as Frumkin pointed out disapprovingly, Ashkenazic Jews were largely absent from the festivities.

Frumkin, who himself had grown up in a majority-Muslim neighborhood in the Old City and spoke Arabic well, added an exhortation for Jewish youth in Palestine to learn Arabic and Turkish “so that they can follow the events and prepare themselves to become equal partners in the new system.” This was controversial enough for his father to remove it before publication, as the older generation of Jewish immigrants were fearful of their children assimilating in Arab society and losing their identity; the irony of this dispute was that the father, who objected to the call for integration, was opposed to Zionism, while the son who called for integration would become a prominent Zionist figure.

On the other hand, Wallach pointed to a study of the Yiddish spoken by “Old Yishuv” Jewish residents of Jerusalem and Safed in the 1930s that found in their dialect hundreds of words borrowed from Arabic, covering a wide spectrum of topics, which appears to indicate a substantial degree of interaction, if not integration, with the local culture.

Ashkenazic immigrants to Palestine in the late 19th century would have arrived in an Arab-majority, Ottoman society “with Jewish pockets and various Jewish communities,” Wallach said, “but there was no separate Jewish society, not in the same way we see in the 1930s and, of course, today.”

After the Ottomans lost their hold over the Levant, with the British establishing their mandate in Palestine in the early 20th century, tensions grew between Zionists and Palestinian nationalists. Members of Jewish communities who had previously stood on the sidelines picked sides or increasingly felt the need to do so as political divisions increased alongside geographic segregation.

Mixed neighborhoods, like the ones where Jawhariyyeh and Frumkin grew up, became less common. People’s mindsets also changed, over time. With the mandate and the increasing tensions between the nascent Palestinian nationalism and growing current of Jewish Zionist nationalism, Tamari told me, “Many of the local Jewish communities who were [previously] quite hostile to the Zionist movement because it undermined their relationship to the economy, to the country as a whole” began to shift toward the Zionist camp. “It began to give them a new frame of relating to themselves, particularly because they felt threatened by the rising Arab nationalism.”

From the time of the mandate, Wallach noted, the story of Jews in Palestine became “more and more a story of Zionism.” After 1948, especially, Jews could and did “affiliate themselves more easily with the Zionist movement.”

Today, more than a century has passed since the Balfour Declaration, and the intercommunal coexistence of the late Ottoman era has been washed away by the waves of violence, forced expulsions, blockades and bombing.

I asked the historians if they believe a study of the past may offer some hope for the future, some glimpse of a possible way forward on the question of Israel and Palestine.

Wallach, on one hand, believes that the study of Ottoman-era Palestine offers a reminder that relations between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land could have taken a different path. “It kind of provides us a resource, in my opinion, of possibilities of becoming that are not direct modeling of something that was [present] years ago,” he said. “But remembering them opens the door to new and other kinds of becoming, and that’s true in any political horizon, whether it’s partition and some kind of two state [solution] or whether it’s one state — I don’t think two states is possible any longer.”

Tamari, on the other hand, is skeptical. Community “unity is something that was completely fucked up by the war of 1948,” he said, bluntly. “It established Jewish nationalism along territorial lines and undermined the whole notion of common lives between Jews and Arabs, which was progressing in a very notable way in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.”

Today, Tamari continued, “it’s very hard for Palestinian Arabs to think of this renaissance period as a practical solution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs. … You can see the possibilities, but they can be translated more at the intellectual level than at the political level.”

A century — or more — after my ancestors had lived in the Levant, I came to live in Lebanon and fell in love with a Palestinian journalist. I told him about my own travels in the Levant, including Palestine. I told him about my Jewish great-grandmother and her parents who migrated to America. I told him a great many things.

But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about her grandfather: the rabbi who had gone to Jerusalem and lived there until he died.

But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about her grandfather: the rabbi who had gone to Jerusalem and lived there until he died. Although I knew that his rational mind would not hold me responsible for where my ancestor five generations removed had chosen to live, I worried that he might subconsciously wonder where my loyalties lay. (The first time we met, he had asked me, only half joking, “Which mukhabarat [intelligence service] do you work for?”)

For a while, we were talking about getting married. We talked about children too. He would tell me, “If we have children, I want you to take them every year to Palestine. Take them to Balad al-Sheikh and show them where their grandparents’ house was.” (They, our imagined children, would of course inherit my U.S. citizenship — allowing me to pass on a right that he and so many others cannot, and allowing them to make a trip that was forbidden to him.)

I said I would. The idea seemed somehow like poetic justice. But we didn’t get married and we didn’t have children, so I won’t take them to Palestine.

In the end, Wolf Segal’s existence is neither a sin to be absolved nor a fable to explain what drew me to the Levant. Then again, it might just be both things.

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