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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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The last Jew in Beirut

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Chain-smoking, she strokes her cats, coddling them with one hand while dumping copious amounts of sugar into her Nescafé with the other. Liza’s eyes comb the alleyway outside her apartment in downtown Beirut, and keeping her voice to a whisper, she motions for me to dispose of the video camera.

The author, left, and Liza Srour

“Cache la camera!” Quickly throwing it inside my translator’s backpack, I continue looking inconspicuous. The 50-something, feisty, red-haired Beirut veteran, was, to say the least, slightly paranoid. But as I sat sipping my café on the newly reconstructed cobblestone street with the “last Jew in Beirut,” I wondered how much of her wariness was justified and how much was habitual.

Strong, independent and very matter of fact, Liza Srour wouldn’t tell me exactly how old she was; only that she’d lived through the 1967 war, Lebanon’s civil war and had seen Beirut’s Jewish quarter evolve from a thriving 100,000-person community to less than 50 registered “closeted” Jews today.

But when I first met Liza, we couldn’t discuss the past. Sitting outside her apartment, just a stone’s throw from the prime minister’s lair, she’s surrounded by guards. Although somewhat famous and highly regarded among the guards as the last Jew in the city, Liza remained focused on her cats and her coffee until we changed locations.

“It’s just not something we talk about in Beirut. We don’t speak about religion. Nobody talks about these things in Lebanon, only in private,” she later explains after we’d switched scenes. Yet even  in her friend’s apartment on the other side of town, Liza was hesitant to speak freely.

Born and raised in Beirut and having lived all her life in the city, Liza watched her parents pass on, her brothers move overseas and her Jewish neighbours emigrate to Paris and Montreal. Today, she lives alone in Hayy el Yahoud, now called, Wadi Abu Jmil. What used to be Beirut’s Jewish district is now being converted into the city’s financial sector. When asked how she feels being known as Beirut’s last Jew, Liza shrugs it off.

“That’s what people say, but I’m not the last Jew. There are maybe another 100 Jews living in other quarters in Beirut. I just don’t know them and don’t see them.”

And that’s because for the most part, it’s still not cool to be Jewish in Lebanon.

“I don’t think any Jew in this country has worn a yarmulke since the civil war,” says Ronnie Chatah, a Lebanese native and founder of Walk Beirut, the city’s only tour company. “I think it became unpopular,” says Chatah, explaining that the history of the Jews in Lebanon is a “missing chunk” that usually remains unknown unless specifically explored.  

And so in 2006, as part of his company’s five-hour city walking tour, Chatah decided to include a visit to the old Jewish quarter and the 1923 synagogue currently under reconstruction. It’s people’s favourite part of the tour, he says.

“Imagine, you’re in Arab Middle East, walking around Lebanon and suddenly you discover that there’s a synagogue next to the prime minister’s office. It’s a big synagogue, and you won’t know it unless you walk up right in front of it. I think this makes people think a little more about the country’s history and maybe even challenges them to think about what Beirut was just 50 or 60 years ago.”

And when it comes to Jews in Lebanon half a century ago, things were very different. After the creation of Israel and before the Six Day War in 1967, the Jewish population of Lebanon actually increased. It was the only Middle Eastern country, other than Israel, in which the Jewish numbers rose. With the onset of the 1967 war, however, the majority of Lebanese Jews took flight, most never to return. That’s why, says Chatah, the synagogue is so shocking for both tourists and locals.

“They’re not expecting it. It’s like finding a spaceship in the middle of somewhere.”

Engraved above the doorway with the Hebrew words, Beit Haknesset Magen Avraham, the synagogue is surrounded by a fence and secured by a guard who allows onlookers no more than two minutes to peek in from the outside before hurrying them along. Although there have been a few bomb threats, the renovations are scheduled to be finished in early 2010. Chatah says it will most likely be used as a Jewish history museum, rather than a place of worship.

When asked about her feelings toward the new synagogue, Liza’s face remains expressionless. “It’s just like rebuilding a church or a mosque.” A few seconds later, she softens her gaze long enough to add, “But when they open it, I’d like to go in.”

And although she still might not feel comfortable discussing her roots in open alleyways with North American strangers, perhaps the resurrection of a piece of her past might entice the last Jew in Beirut to feel a little more at ease in her own home.  

Sam Mednick is a freelance writer who lives in Barcelona.

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