By Edward Tawil
The lace from this tablecloth is one of the few items my family was able to bring over to America after emigrating from their homeland in Aleppo, Syria. It brings me back to my family’s history as merchants selling goods such as linens, oriental rugs, and clothing along the Silk Road in the 19th century. However, as English trade increased and the Suez Canal opened in 1869, many Sephardic Jews and other Silk Road merchants saw their business decline and were forced to move to places like Beirut, Cairo, and the United States. My great-grandfather Leo enrolled in a Jewish school called the Alliance Israelite Universelle, which opened in Aleppo with a modern curriculum designed to prepare youth for future westward immigration. The trickle of Jews immigrating westward turned into a flood when, in 1914 the Ottoman Empire began to conscript them for military service during the height of World War I. By the early 1920s, Leo boarded a boat to America with his family. They brought little more than the clothes on their backs and a hope that they could make their own and be a part of the American Dream.
Even though our family believes Leo was processed through Ellis Island, he does not appear in records from the time. The timing of his arrival was extremely fortunate: He immigrated just before the passage and implementation of the profoundly restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, after which Syria’s immigration quota was lowered to the bare minimum of 100 people per year. Upon arrival, my family worked relentlessly to culturally integrate into their new home and “Americanize,” often causing us to distance ourselves from our Syrian heritage. For example, Leo named his sons George, Henry, and Edward after British monarchs. He made sure his family ate steak for dinner because he thought that was the meal of choice for prosperous American families. He even established his own business based on the family trade, opening textile stores called the Linen Bar in Buffalo and Scranton, near many emerging industrial coal towns.
When he died, this tablecloth was divided into five sections so each of his children could have one. Now that Aleppo has been virtually destroyed, the lace serves as a keepsake from a very different time in its history– one when it was peaceful and prosperous. It is a unique reminder of my family’s history, how lucky we are to have left Aleppo, and how far we’ve come.