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Diarna: documenting the places of a vanishing Jewish history

Video transcript

we're here in New York City at the Center for Jewish history in the offices of Dianna speaking with Jason goober man we want to talk today about the important work that Dianna does to document the quickly disappearing physical remains of Jewish life in the Middle East Daren it means our homes dianna does mean our homes in Judea Arabic and while people don't think about it Jews did have 2,500 year history in the Middle East outside of the Land of Israel ranging from synagogues on the edge of the Sahara to fortresses and Saudi Arabia and shrines in northern Iran the idea of the project is digitally documented the synagogue cemetery schools shrines any structure of significance to the Jewish community and this is a race against time since so many of these structures are endangered the structures are actively endangered as Isis has shown in the past couple of years by targeting Jewish sites for destruction and there are sites that are also just caught in the crossfire the premise of the project is to assert the physical importance of structures to understanding Jewish history to create gateways to communities that have disbanded in the last 50 60 70 years and as communities have disbanded for a number of reasons they've left these sites behind so we're going to talk about the Aliyah who Hanavi synagogue which is in Syria actually in a suburb of Damascus the Jewish community in Syria is a storied and ancient one and this synagogue is one of the most significant synagogues in Syria there's a scholar Joseph Murray who has said that this was the holiest site outside of Jerusalem Yahoo Hanabi synagogue was destroyed only a few years ago in 2014 it was caught between the Assad regime forces and the rebel forces both sides claimed that the other had destroyed the synagogue seems clear it was caught in the crossfire from experts that we've consulted this is a synagogue dedicated to Elijah and also Elisha both prophets who are revered in the judeo-christian tradition but also for Muslims also in the Islamic tradition there was a plaque attesting to the prophet Elijah or Eliyahu anointing Elisha to be his successor what we find is many of these sites that were sacred to Jews are also sacred to Christians and to Muslims and thanks to this many of them have been preserved this was a very important and beautiful synagogue for centuries and Jews make pilgrimages there they worshiped there miracles were said to have been performed there I mean this was a very special place to the Syrian Jewish population and like so much synagogue architecture that we see around the world this very much reflected the time and place that it was built so the architecture is reminiscent of Ottoman architecture in the clamps and the tapestries and the kinds of decorative features that we see there and it's centerpiece was a blue wood carved Eva the tama is in the Sephardic tradition in the center or in the back of the synagogue in this case it's in the center of facing the ark in which the Torah scrolls are located our perspective on synagogue architecture is shaped by the influences of Christian design so rows of pews and rabbi speaking from the pulpit towards the audience whereas the traditional Sephardic design is the opposite the rabbi's in the center and with the congregation is facing the ark the seating was also communal it's not benches it's couches and there was lush carpets and chandeliers so we have this beautifully decorated space with these carpets and lovely burgundy and gold colors we have this beautiful gold menorah this lush welcoming space the courtyard all of this largely abandoned in the last hundred and fifty years the pivotal event in modern Jewish history and Damascus is this blood libel from 1840 this is an event where Jews were accused of killing a monk who went missing in medieval times there was an accusation that Jews would kill Christians usually children use their blood for ritual purposes the 18:40 blood libel several Jews had been arrested and tortured for the accusation there were riots against the Jewish community particularly in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus which resulted in the flight of the community from Jobar so there's so many strands of Jewish history that bring us to this synagogue and the suburbs of Damascus it seems like a critical time to be documenting these places we have a population that's aging that can tell us still about these places we have the turmoil in the Middle East that's endangering the physical traces of Jewish life and so the work that Dianna is doing is incredibly important this synagogue is a poignant and troubling example of the urgency of this work when we had our researchers there before the uprising it was beautiful it was preserved and it's been looted it's been destroyed now it's even been hit by bombs since the official destruction of it it's very sad very troubling for what will remain of cultural heritage in the future you