Forgive me for such a strange title. Its first five words mean “May a great peace descend from heaven” in Aramaic, a cognate language of Hebrew that is the linguistic foundation of the Talmud, the great Jewish oral tradition. These words are found in the second to last line of the Jewish prayer known as the Kaddish. One version of the Kaddish is recited by mourners after the death of a loved one, yet other versions routinely punctuate the daily life of Jewish prayer and Torah study.
The last two words of the title, Al Maaloula, refer to a small town nestled in the anti-Lebanon Mountains in Western Syria. Maaloula is one of the last places on earth where a dialect of Aramaic apparently related to that used by Jesus is still spoken by its Syrian Christian residents. Altogether, the above title means, “May a great peace descend from heaven upon the town of Maaloula.”
For years, the rare Aramaic spoken in Maaloula, has been dying, as its younger residents assimilate into Arabic speaking Syrian society. Now Maaloula, a town which is a rare treasure of religious culture and tolerance, is at risk of dying. It is the site of fierce battles between pro-Assad government military forces and the terrorist rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra. If there is one thing that both sides in this phase of the bloody Syrian civil war agree upon, it is that no life is too sacred and no aspect of human civilization is too valuable to be declared off limits in a battle with your enemy.
Once a language that was spoken extensively from Israel to what were then Babylonia and Persia, Aramaic is now largely gone, mere pockets of its dialects surviving in Syria and among some Christian communities and their church liturgies in Iraq. The Jewish Babylonian version of Aramaic remains alive and well, howbeit in the rarefied sacred environment of the Talmud, the regular study of which many Jews, myself among them, engage in worldwide. I am ashamed that until now I have paid little attention to the butchering of the Syrian people by their government and by Al Qaeda. Strangely, this weird, persistent link between Maaloula’s Aramaic and the Aramaic I use for Torah study jarred me awake to the unfolding atrocity.
After I first read about Maaloula’s suffering in the Times of Israel, I tried to read about “all things Maaloula”. Google Images cannot to do justice to this town which is a visually stunning pilgrimage town and proposed UN world heritage site. As holy as it is beautiful, Maaloula has proudly preserved its ancient roots in the Melkite Catholic and Syrian Orthodox churches, even as some of its young people have abandoned their heritage and Muslim families have moved in. However, its Aramaic history intrigues me the most. I downloaded audio files from obscure academic websites of contemporary Western Aramaic speakers, straining to hear a few words that are familiar echoes of the Talmud’s legal discussions and legends that I love and to which I am devoted. I understood nothing. The two dialects likely separated into distinct languages over the centuries and Maaloula’s Aramaic has also been infused with Arabic. More importantly, Talmudic Aramaic has by now become the product of centuries of Jewish academic culture that have transformed it into its own uniquely Jewish religious language.
Still, these two Aramaic languages share more than a distant ancestor. The ancient Syrian version is dying, possibly along with its people. The ancient Jewish version lives on in one narrow realm of our people, who have experienced what it is like to nearly die. Both languages reflect the fragility of cultures and religions when they are pressured by assimilation and oppressed by persecution. Both of them reflect the persistence of communities in worshipping, speaking, and living as they always have: with fierce pride, despite – or perhaps precisely because of – the hatred of the majorities among which they live. Maaloula is one among possibly hundreds of minority cultures around the world that live in this kind of crisis. Paying attention to any of them can be so emotionally numbing that I often tend to ignore them, especially the ones too large and horrible to embrace such as the genocide in Darfur. Yet for me as a Jew, Maaloula is a microcosm of Jewish and other minority experiences that I dare not ignore. Physical and cultural extinction are taking place before us once again. They threaten to extinguish another piece of humankind, along with a piece of our humanity as well. Auschwitz, Darfur, and Maaloula are all radically different, yet they all involve the toxic mix of power and hatred that emboldens dictators, while good people negotiate measured responses to them.
The Aramaic line that forms the above title could become part of a Mourners’ Kaddish for Maaloula and its precious human legacy. This Sukkot, as we express gratitude for life and bounty, I wonder if the family of nations will do anything to make sure that, instead, this line remains part of a Kaddish prayer for Maaloula’s continued peace and prosperity.