My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home
ABOUT THE BOOK
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 steppingstone 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.
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.
Connect with Claudette at these sites:
What is It?
When I finished writing my book Farewell, Aleppo back in 2014, the very last words I chose were the subtitle.
The book is a memoir of my father’s relocation from Syria to America in the middle of the last century. Brainstorming together, Dad and I decided on: “My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home.” There’s a bit of irony there, since his family was forced out of the Jewish community that had been their home for centuries, and came here to build a new life.
“[They] brought religious practices, household traditions, foods, familial bonds, and tenacity,” I wrote in the epilogue. “Everything else could be replaced.”
In talks I’ve given on the book since then, questions about home have come up often. Is home something we make, or something we are given? Is home rooted in place, or is it portable? Is it “where you hang your hat” – or where your ancestors hung theirs?
What is home? It’s a question the whole world seems to be asking right now, when record numbers of people have been displaced by war, famine, natural disaster, religious or political oppression, and human trafficking.
As a Jew living in America, I have conflicting ideas of home. For the Jewish people, mobility is an integral part of our identity and our narrative. We are the “people scattered among the nations,” the “Wandering Jew.” Diaspora and exile have been central to our heritage from our very beginnings. Home is something we carry within.
Americans, by contrast, are epitomes of stability. We give bragging rights to those who can claim ancestry dating back to the Mayflower (or, in New Mexico, where I live to the first Spanish explorers who came up the Rio Grande in the 1500s). My parents and siblings live within 20 miles of the D.C. suburb where I was born. (I’m the exception: I moved from Maryland to Santa Fe three decades ago.) Home is our connection to a place.
But as I’ve learned from sharing my father’s story in the past few years, few of us have to dig deep in our past before hitting experiences of displacement. Whether as refugees, immigrants, slaves, or people of conquered nations, we all know the challenge of finding home. We are a mobile species, whether by force, choice or need. Perhaps home is as much an ideal as a reality.
For me now, hearing the windows rattling on a windy night in the mountains, home is shelter. Home is my husband and cat. Home the soup on the stove, the wine in my glass. And home is a sense of longing, a restlessness born of ancestry and experience, less a fixed location than a direction. Home is an emotional North Star.
“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. A treasure of a book.”
-Bernard Kalb, former correspondent for the New York Times, CBS News and NBC News, moderator of CNN’s Reliable Sources and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs
“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.”
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
An engaging, evocative, deeply touching book that is part memoir, part history and part a personal journey….virtually a love-story of a daughter to a father.
– James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer, and Eyes on the Struggle
This book is a jewel box, and Sutton’s father’s shimmering memories of growing up Jewish in Aleppo, Turkey, and Shanghai are the precious jewels. I could taste the food, feel the anxiety after the founding of Israel, experience the highs and lows of life in Shanghai during the Second World War. The specificity of the Mizrahi lifestyle––which continues in America to this day–– will be of great interest to readers.
– Judith Fein, author of The Spoon From Minkowitz and Life is A Trip
Sutton manages to walk that fine, fine line of making the personal universal and the universal personal. [She] interviewed her dad over a period of nearly twenty years and did a tremendous amount of research for this book, but the sprawling story of “China Mike” is somehow concise, a tidy 155 pages in a pleasing design with photos, maps, and enough historical context to complete the reader’s understanding. We are indebted to her for this outstanding book.
– Barbara Gerber, author of “Love and Death in a Perfect World”
Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home offers the reader a graceful blend of “China Mike’s” biography and a history of the Jewish people of Aleppo. When I finished Claudette Sutton’s tribute, I felt I’d traveled many miles and gotten to know Miro, Son of Selim Sutton. A true father-daughter story, Farewell, Aleppo is loving, informative and unforgettable.
-Elaine Pinkerton Coleman, author of From Calcutta with Love and The Goodbye Baby
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