Matti Friedman, an Associated Press reporter, thought he’d found the perfect human interest story. Perhaps the most authoritative manuscript of the Jewish Bible, the Aleppo Codex, called the Crown, had been annotated by Maimonides himself and safeguarded by the Jewish diaspora for millennia. Nearly destroyed when rioting mobs set fire to the grand Aleppo synagogue in 1947, it was rescued and delivered to Israel a decade later, to be proudly displayed in the institute of then-president Itzhak Ben-Zvi for posterity. “I expected to write a heartening story about the rescue of this book,” writes Friedman, “but instead found myself like a person who innocently opens a cupboard and finds himself buried under a pile of forgotten things.” Thank goodness for that.
Friedman’s dogged journalistic curiosity forces him to re-examine every aspect of that shiny heroic narrative. His inquiry yielded “The Aleppo Codex,’’ a thrilling, step-by-step quest to discover what really happened to Judaism’s most important book: who rescued it from the synagogue, how it came to be held by Israel’s Ben-Zvi Institute, and why nearly half of its pages were missing by the time it got there. With the help of a motley crew of Codex enthusiasts, Friedman goes up against a campaign of silence so effective that it is only slightly cracking 50 years later, when all of the major players are dead.
What is all this silence protecting? Nothing less than parts of the founding mythology of the state of Israel. Many of the book’s most astute and well-earned revelations are also its biggest surprises, and it would be unfair to reveal them here. But I will allow myself one spoiler: There was a protracted court battle for ownership of the Codex, between the Israeli state and the Aleppo refugees. In Friedman’s deft characterization: “Ben-Zvi and his comrades had willed a Jewish state into being against impossible odds, almost against the very logic of human events; they had glared at history and watched it bend to their will.” In their eyes, the diaspora Jewish communities had been in exile, and Israel, as the homeland of all Jews, was the rightful heir to their treasures. “The Aleppo Jews, on the other hand, had not subsumed themselves into the Zionist project and its version of history . . . [they] saw the Crown as the symbol of a place almost none of them had ever considered to be exile.’’
Perhaps the most poignant, and deeply political, story line happening here is that of the shifting identities of “Arab” and “Jew” over the course of the Codex’s centuries-long history. Friedman describes Maimonides: “His language was Arabic, and his life was lived, in its entirety, under the rule of Islam. And yet he remained, the last part of his title tells us, a Jew.”
The Aleppo Jews had been in their Arab country longer than its Muslim rulers had, and are often referred to as speaking “native Arabic.” And there’s a story of a now-retired Mossad agent from Aleppo, whose deputies watched his interrogation style with wonder. While they “with the direct style of native-born sabras, would take twenty minutes to debrief an agent,” their Syrian-born boss, “schooled in the intricate pleasantries of conversation in the Arab world, would take hours . . . and invariably got better information.’’
Friedman is careful always to remind us of his limitations — he could not visit the great Aleppo synagogue at the heart of his story because as an Israeli he is “Barred . . . by the state of war that exists between Syria and my country” — and he does not speculate too far. He lets the present-day politics rest in the long historical view, and between the lines. But by exposing the hidden gears and mechanics of the accepted narrative, he has still made a decisive statement against silence, as well as a plea for the pages of the Book of Books to actually be paid attention to, not just lusted over, stolen, and neglected.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford, author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden,” can be reached through her website, www.paradiselustbook.com.