On March 31st, 2008, the Sephardic Heritage Museum interviewed Meyer ‘Mickey’ Kairey for our film series. The interview spoke to the multifaceted, philanthropic nature of the Sephardic Syrian community, with Kairey as one of its chief champions.
Mickey Kairey was born on the Lower East Side in 1922, to a family of immigrants from Aleppo, Syria. Though not much can be said of life in Aleppo for Mickey’s family, Growing up on the Lower East Side was different, a fusion of poverty and rich tradition.
“We slept three and four in a bed at a time, and there were four other tenants living in each floor. And that was beautiful. We were all together. We were very, very poor. We were on Home Relief. [And the kids] had to try to make some money. We used to sell chewing gum on the subways or just sell newspapers outside Madison Square Garden twice a week. I used to buy the paper for a penny, sell it for ten cents.”
Mickey and his family lived on the second floor of 79 Norfolk Street. He and his six sisters and brother attended public school during the day, and learned Hebrew in the evening.
“Every day, we used to go to what we call kitab, which was like a Hebrew school. They had three rabbis teaching us. My rabbi was Rabbi Ezra Setton, and we had Hacham Mishanieh, and also Rabbi Cohen. And we were taught excellent. And we were always taught how to explain it in Arabic, the words. They had a big place, a synagogue, on 48 Orchard Street. And it was beautiful. “
As immigrants from Aleppo, Mickey’s parents spoke very little English. The little English his mother spoke was reserved for “only when she went to buy stuff” when she shopped on Orchard Street and Essex Street for groceries. Mickey recalled how Orchard Street “was mobbed,” saying that “it was fantastic… like a melting pot.”
Mickey explained that “when we went to school, we all went to school together, all mixed – Italians and Ashkenaz and Syrians. But we had our own synagogues and places of learning for kids. ”
Much like today, the Syrian Jewish community stuck together. Even with other Jewish communities, like the Ashkenazim on the Lower East Side, Mickey says that “we respected them, and they respected us,” but “we had nothing to do with [each other].”
Mickey and his family were the one of the last ones to leave the East Side. As the Syrian Jewish community continued to develop in Brooklyn, the epicenter of Judaism in the community was the Magen David Synagogue. Built in 1920, Mickey described the Magen David Synagogue as “a landmark synagogue… a mother synagogue.”
“Magen David – they’d go to synagogue on a Saturday. It was mobbed. It was fantastic. It was alive. We’d sing before prayers, every Saturday, on 67th Street. Rabbis at that time were Rabbi Jacob Kassin and Rabbi Gindi. Hazzan Eliahu Menaged, my mentor, would roam around and we’re singing — and all of a sudden, to show you the beautiful parts of our people — Isaac Shalom would come into the synagogue. And as soon as he sits, whatever part of the song we were at, Menaged stops and he sings a special song for Shalom. And tears would come out of I. Shalom’s eyes. Just to welcome him and tell him how big he is, a special song, just for him. So that’s the kind of people we have. We respect each other.”
In the midst of the Brooklyn community’s development, Mickey was drafted in World War II in 1943 at the age of twenty-one. Initially, Mickey recalled, he was “stationed with five other Syrians in the camp… and we stuck together ‘til we got separated and each one went somewhere else… went overseas to England on the Queen Mary.”
But some time later when Mickey was taking care of the wounded in Rheems, France, he met another Syrian:
“Me and my friend were walking in town, and two soldiers come to me. One soldier I never saw in my life, and he never saw me. He asks me ‘Are you from Brooklyn?’ I says, ‘yeah.’ He says, ‘Are you Syrian?’ I says, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘We were in the tanks, and everybody got killed. Could you hide me?’ Well, to make a long story short, I hid this guy for six weeks. I wrote to his folks, because they got word that he was missing in action. And the mail is censored. So I can’t write everything I want. And I wrote two Syrian words, <speaks Arabic> ‘whoa mayeh’- he’s with me. They got the letter, and they knew he was saved.”
Serving as a medic overseas for the Allied Forces didn’t mean anti-Semitism wasn’t prevalent.
“I was on KP peeling potatoes. There’s a soldier that works in the kitchen all the time, reading a newspaper. And he was smiling and happy. And I asked him, ‘What’s so funny?’ And he showed me the headline, which read ‘two million Jews already killed in Germany.’ I asked him, ‘You get a kick out of that?’ He told me, ‘They should kill them all.’ Well, something happened and I hit this guy. The next thing, they put me in the captain’s office, who happened to be Italian, asking me, ‘Where do you get off, Kairey, hitting this soldier?’ I asked him, ‘How would you like somebody telling you two million Italians got killed?’ He said, ‘You’re right. But you had no right to hit this guy.’ He took my PFC stripe off. They fined me $10. They made me dig a trench six feet deep with a spoon. That was my brush with anti-Semitism, in the army, in the United States.”
Helping a fellow Jew is at the core of the Syrian Jewish community’s value system, as exemplified by Mickey’s incredible rescue in Rheems. So, it only makes sense that after his return to Brooklyn from the war, the community’s ongoing charity and kindness continued its expansion and expedited success:
“We started it all off in tenement houses on the Lower East Side. We got a little better. We went to Williamsburg. We got a little better. We went to Sea Beach. We got a little better. We went to Ocean Parkway. We got a little better. We went to Bradley. We got a little better. We went to Deal… And we kept growing and growing and growing… All this is because of our past, of our parents coming, struggling, working hard.”
All this, Mickey said, was because, “Everybody helped each other in our community. I think it’s in a person’s genes. That’s the way we are.”
“People that were here helped others, like Isaac Shalom. A person would go to him, and he’d give him goods to sell. And then he would open up his own place, and they’d become bigger and bigger and bigger. And they used to go to people like Moe Hidary, he used to have a big factory, go to Hong Kong. And if there was a person next to him, another Syrian, who didn’t know how to buy, what to buy, he’d say, ‘I’ll show you everything.’ ‘But you’re my competitor.’ He‘d say, ‘There’s enough for everybody.’ So everybody helped each other in our community, really. It’s a very unique thing. ”
Beyond his leadership at the Magen David Synagogue, Mickey epitomized infinite altruism through his work with Bikur Holim and the Burial Society. For nineteen years alone, and forty years altogether, he volunteered and helped take care of members of the community when they passed away. He arranged funerals, prepared the dead for burial as part of the Chevra Kadisha, comforted the families of the deceased, and brought ease at a time of despair for many. Through Bikur Holim, Mickey tirelessly collected for charity and helped send packages of food to those in need for the holidays.
Preservation of the Syrian Jewish culture and tradition is vital, according to Mickey. Through his work teaching nearly 600 Bar Mitzvah boys their Torah portion and the pizmonim his own father and Hazzan Eliahu Menaged, had taught him, Mickey facilitated a generational, prolonged love of Sephardic Syrian tradition. These young boys who were taught by Mickey are men who can clearly recall his influence on their Judaism.
“We sang as loud as we could…Mickey was the only force on the planet that could calm us down.” — Morris Bouganim
“Through his teaching of ta’amim, I learned how to live, laugh and love in this world.” — Ephraim Setton
The Syrian traditions brought from the old country, Mickey said, “was a way of life,” like the ta’amim he taught for years. Mickey said that his own family did struggle, and they persevered, but mostly, “they brought us up the right way.”
“They kept all the customs. They never changed. Whatever we learned from them, we do. I mean, it was nothing special. It was a way of life. [Even today] we’re always together. We never get tired of each other. We fight with each other, but we’re always together. I don’t know if you’d call it clannish, but we just don’t mix with anybody else. We go to vacations together. We go to Florida together. We take the Sefer Torah together. We pray together. It’s a community that’s very unique.”
The “togetherness” that Mickey so fondly spoke of relies on the kindness and charity that he himself spread throughout the community. Mickey not only hoped for that way of life to continue, but played a huge role in the upbringing, growth, and preservation of generations to come. “I hope,” Mickey said, “[the younger generation] sees [that the Syrian traditions continue]… I hope… I think it will.”
On March 4th, 2016, Mickey Kairey passed away. Shaken by this loss, the Syrian Jewish community across the globe came together to mourn and celebrate Mickey’s life. Even though he had no children, his funeral was attended by many, with crowds standing the whole time. Buried in Israel, Mickey’s passing gathered hundreds of children and adults, a testament to his giving, love for people and community, and his Jewish values.