Crown Heights

Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum exhibit highlights tradition of Syrian-Jewish metalworkers

November 10, 2015 By Sam Anderson Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
This 1992 photo shows Maurice Nseiri, the featured artist of a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum called “The Lost Art of Damascus,” which opened Nov. 1 and is on view through Nov. 19. Photo by Klaus-Dieter Eichler of Atelier Arnold + Eichler
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To the Jewish community in Syria, the art of metalworking is a rich cultural tradition.  For generations, mothers and fathers have trained their children to master the delicate skill of shaping brass, silver and copper into stunning ornamental objects, and for good reason. The richly decorated vases, bowls, tables and chandeliers that have embellished the homes of Syrians for centuries require days to craft, with many different hands working simultaneously at separate but necessary tasks. The result is not only a gorgeous work of art, but also a glowing representation of the Jewish cultural tradition and its emphasis on strong familial ties.

When Maurice Nseiri joined the tradition in 1965, however, he would change this art form forever. Nseiri is the featured artist of a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights called “The Lost Art of Damascus,” which opened Nov. 1 and is on view through Nov. 19.

Nseiri is among the greatest of Syrian-Jewish metalworkers, explained Chaya Serebryansky, program director at the museum. “He was the one who brought this art out of the household and into public spaces,” Serebryanksy said. To this day, Nseiri’s work adorns the palace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the entrances to several prominent synagogues and mosques and even the trophies presented at the Arabian TV awards (he made sure to put his name on it).  

“The presidential palace in Damascus was certainly the most rewarding work I have ever made,” said the artist. “I had full artistic freedom to do whatever I saw fit. This project took two-and-a-half years. This was truly 100 percent my artistic vision.”

Nseiri was also famous for boldly emphasizing the Jewishness of his works. This is significant because although the metalworking tradition had been practiced since roughly 1250 AD, beginning with the Mamluk Dynasty in Egypt, the Jewish role in the tradition was not readily acknowledged.  

The art of making ornate bowls, vases and other household objects out of copper and bronze was shared across religions and cultures in the Middle East; it was not a strictly Jewish tradition. However, the Jewish artists of Damascus are credited with “damascening” these objects, or inlaying them with silver. This creative advance marked a change from ornamental object to true work of art.  

“It is true that many artisans did this profession as a way to make a living. However, it became a lot more than that as evidenced in the success achieved by my work,” said Nseiri.

The tradition of passing on the skill of damascening to succeeding generations was complicated during the rise of the Jewish State in 1948, a time when Syrian Jews faced intense persecution and were forced to practice their cultural traditions in secret. So when Maurice and his father Sion, himself a famous metalworker, labored in the Omayyad Bazaar in Damascus during the 1960s, they were ever watchful of the Mukhabarat, the secret police that patrolled the streets, and who would eventually cause the downfall of the Syrian Jewish artist community.

Marga Khouli and her mother Sophia come from Syria and are visitors at the museum.  They still remember the long days spent toiling as a family to construct the metal ornaments. “Since the age of 8, we were taught how to work with the metal,” said Sophia, pointing to the tools on display that were so familiar to her. She and her daughter explained the process of etching the brass with a hammer and nail, laying down spools of glittering silver thread into the grooves and hammering the components together.

Said Marga, “We did not just make bowls and vases, but tables, doorknobs, chandeliers, fences, railings, mantelpieces, coffee mugs, incense burners — each piece was a community effort.”

Sophia Khouli was even able to read the unique text engraved in Arabic on the pieces that comprise the exhibit. “You can see that they did not use Hebrew in the engravings,” explained Program Director Chaya, “but conveyed their Jewish heritage in other ways.”  She pointed to a gold star on one of Nseiri’s bowls. “This eight-sided star was acceptable, but everyone knew it was a reference to the Star of David.”  In this way, Nseiri was able to make public the works of metal art that were until that point enjoyed largely in the privacy of the home, while protecting himself and his family from persecution. But like so many artists before him, Nseiri and work of his father was interpreted as a threat to the reigning authorities.

The turning point came in 1965, when Israeli spy Eli Cohen was arrested by the Mukhabarat. In his pocket was a receipt from the Nseiri workshop, and it wasn’t long before the secret police swept through the Omayyad Bazaar and arrested Sion Nseiri and all of his employees. Maurice alone went un-captured that day, and would go on to continue the work of his father for many years, until his fame spread across the Middle East and his talent was commissioned by famed sheikhs and Arabian princes. Yet despite this success, Nseiri still could not openly celebrate the Jewishness of his works, or even travel to the countries where his work was on display.  

“The very ornate pieces of art that adorn palaces in the Gulf States had to be commissioned sight unseen,” explained Nseiri. “Being Jewish, travelling to those states was not possible. The commissioned work was done through intermediaries, and once I finished a work, detailed instruction had to be sent to the workers in those countries who would assemble and install those pieces. Workers who had never made this kind of art before.”

In 1992, the Jews of Syria were granted passage to leave the country, and Nseiri’s metalworkers left one by one for Israel or the U.S. The Omayyad Bazaar closed its doors for good, and the sound of pinging hammers could no longer be heard beyond its gates.  This marked the end of Jewish Syrian metalworking tradition — Nseiri is its last remaining practitioner.  

“I want our community to be proud of the kind of art that was produced by myself with the help of dozens of Jewish artisans,” said Nseiri. “I want our children and grandchildren to remember our Syrian heritage, and to remember our history.” 

Many of the mosques and synagogues he adorned have been destroyed by bombs, but his work remains in the collective memory of the Jewish Syrian community, and with his exhibit at the Jewish Children’s Museum, it will surely find its way into the memories of museum-goers as well. However, Nseiri did not bring all of his works to America when he came in 1994; past the gates of the old Omayyad Bazaar in Damascus, behind the unlocked doors of the Nseiri family workshop, are countless more glittering works of art; Maurice left them right there on the shelves.

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Other Facts

  • There are only 50 remaining Syrian Jews living in Syria.

  • The first Syrian Jews to come to New York were Jacob Dwek and Ezra Sitt in 1892.

  • The first Syrian Jewish families settled on the Lower East Side, but faced subjugation from other European Jews for being “Arab Jews.”

  • Today, Syrian Jewish neighborhoods include Bensonhurst, Midwood, Flatbush, Gravesend and Ocean Parkway. Gravesend is the current center of the community.

  • The community in Brooklyn is the second largest population of Syrian Jews outside of Syria, after Israel.

  • Congregation Magen David Synagogue on 67th Street and 20th Avenue, built in 1921, is preserved by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee.

  • “The Edict” issued by rabbis in 1935 completely forbids Syrian Jews from marrying non-Jews, even if they have converted, under penalty of excommunication. It is among the strictest intermarriage doctrines in the world.

  • The Syrian Jewish community is the only American-Jewish population today that is growing, not shrinking. To explain this, many credit “The Edict.”

  • Syrian Jewish cuisine is quite different from that of Ashkenazi Jews, and emphasizes Mediterranean roots. Dishes often include lentils, rice, eggplant or zucchini stuffed with meat or cheese, fried meatballs, candied fruits and crumbly pastries. One NPR correspondent called it “better food” than that of Ashkenazi traditions.

  • Famous Americans with Syrian Jewish heritage include Jerry Seinfeld, Paula Abdul (American Idol) and Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls guitarist).

  • Recently, a Syrian Jewish community has developed on the Upper East Side, centered around Congregation Edmond J. Safra on East 63rd Street.


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