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Book Review: Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato

Stories in real life don't tend to follow a straight and true path like those that are written down in a book by an author for the entertainment of his contemporaries. Sometimes they wander off on digressions which have caught the attention of those involved in the story, other times it becomes necessary to backtrack a hundred years in search for a story's beginning.

Did it begin here when this happened or perhaps here when that happened, or did it like all stories begin with the beginning of all things and is just one more branch thrown out by the universe. It can be a delicate business extracting a story from all that surrounds it, like following on thin thread of one colour through a many hued woven shawl.

Here it snakes in front of the weft, here behind; see there how it quickly snakes around those five or six almost similar strands, maybe following on with them for a while but by looking closely you can see the point of divergence. No matter how unique or individual we believe it to be our own story or that of our family isn't usually that much different from other members of our community.

Of course with every rule there has to be an exception and in Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato relates, although one family's life is forever intertwined with the rest of the community, in this book detail three incidences of a family's thread glowing far brighter than their neighbours. Perhaps if he had the energy he could have detailed ways in which more than the just the people named in these stories had distinguished themselves.
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First you need to know about the "Aleppo" of the title; this is the name given to the territory in Syria where Jews had lived for close to two thousand years, ever since the destruction of the second temple during Roman times. Among their number were also Jews who had come when the Spanish expelled them in 1492, Sephardic Jews coming to join a community who practiced in the same manner that they did.

Sometimes an action, or a word that is spoken, doesn't see its final fruition until years later, and when they do it is with results that no one could have predicted. So it was when the sage Raphael Sapporta sold an old Hanukkah lamp that he had inherited from his great-great grandfather who had come to Syria as one of those Spanish exiles in 1492.

As you know the tradition of Hanukkah, where Jewish people celebrate the miracle of the oil lamps staying light for eight days when there was only enough oil for one, that on the first night it is normal to light two candles, one of which is used to light the other, or the others for the nights of the festival. But this menorah that Raphael Sapporta sold to the trader, who had been approached by a middleman who had been approached by a dealer in antiquities in France to buy old Hanukkah lamps, was one of the ways in which some Jews of Aleppo were different from their other kin in exile.

Instead of the normal nine lights there was room for a tenth. It is said that when the boat carrying the exiles fleeing Spain was approaching Aleppo it was caught up in a terrible storm and it was only by a miracle that it made it to port with all its crew and passengers alive. The day the ship made port was in fact the first night of Hanukkah, and to commemorate this second miracle of the season, those families who had arrived on that ship had special menorah made with the means to light an extra light.

The two scrap dealers who had arranged the deal for selling the Hanukkah lamp soon found that their business dealings began to prosper and with that prosperity they decided that they in turn should do their bit and supported the sages of Aleppo by creating a perpetual fund that would permit them to study and not work more than they wanted at material matters.

Thus it was that the one lamp sold to Senor Franco and Senor Piciotto began to have an effect immediately for the family Sapporta as Raphael was one of the sages who received direct benefit from this endowment, as did his son Hacham Hiyyah a sage of renown in his own right. It was because of this endowment that Hacham's son Jacob was able to study from an early age, but education began to lead him away from the words and deeds of his fathers.

As it is for the father so it is even more so for the son, and Jacob who is the son of Hacham who first is led away from the study of the Torah had a son who they named Raphael in honour of his great-grandfather. But he took for himself the name of Max and left behind the Torah altogether. He went to Paris to continue his studies and for a time was happy. But on occasion he was reminded of the teachings of his forefathers and experienced disquiet.

As was his habit when he was in need to settle his mind he went to the Louvre Museum. It just so happened that there was a display of Jewish antiquities on exhibit and Max let himself be pulled into it. In one glass case he saw to his wonder an old, cracked Menorah with places for ten lights. Even more surprising was the fact that engraved faintly in the side of brass was the name Sapporta. The last name he no longer used.

In writing this review I have tried to emulate the style that Haim Sabato created in his telling of the stories in Aleppo Tales. Part of the joy of reading any of his books is the way in which the stories take their time in unfolding. Sabato thinks nothing of following an interesting thread off the main strand of the story to its natural conclusion, waiting for it to finish talking as it were, before he picks up the tale again.

In this manner he manages to not only tell an interesting tale about how many and varied are the distractions of the world that keep you from remembering who you are, but to also bring to life the atmosphere of an era that has long passed. The community of Aleppo Jews no longer exists except in pockets where their descendants might still practice in New York or Israel, but it is not the same as a whole district dedicated to a way of life.

What I found especially interesting was that the main language that they used for communication outside the synagogue was Arabic. In those days remember Hebrew was primarily a religious tongue. It's only been since the formation of Israel that Hebrew has been given a secular form, and that was for convenience when the country was formed because nobody could speak the same language. It makes sense for Jewish people living in Syria to speak Arabic fluently, just as those living in England would speak English. But in this day and age it seems strange to see and is also a reminder of a time when the children of Abraham weren't as divided.

It should make no difference to you whether you are a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu when you read these stories because while they focus on a particular religion they are universal in their celebration of faith; the power it has to bring you joy, comfort, and peace. Faith does not have to be a burden, as so many people seem to belief it to be these days, it should be a blessing and something to bring you great joy.

Surrounding yourself with the sages and wise men and women of Aleppo reminds you of that, and if for no other reason makes it worth reading Aleppo Tales. That it is also beautifully written, with love and faith adorning every word like pearls is just an added bonus.

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