Maurice Nseiri finds a safe space at the Jewish Children’s Museum after years of religious persecution
When Sharon Shriqui attended the opening of the featured exhibit on display at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y., she hoped to reconnect to her family’s Syrian heritage. She sought to do this amid glass displays featuring large plates, small chests, ornamental vases and Arabian coffee sets designed by Maurice Nseiri, the acclaimed Syrian artist who recently arrived from Israel to join his family living in New York.
The exhibit—“Jewish-Syrian Metal Works: The Lost Art of Damascus” by Syrian artist Maurice Nseiri came off display on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Hidden Jewish symbols are intertwined into Arabic references and inscriptions incorporated into the designs; they include grapes and vine leaves from the Land of Israel and eight-pointed stars as disguised representatives of the Magen David, secretly bearing Nseiri’s Jewish faith.
As an artist in residence, Nseiri received an International Arts Award at the museum’s annual dinner in March. This month marks the first time he is showcasing his handcrafted metal artwork publicly in the United States to the delight of many who have followed his craftsmanship throughout a long career.
Detained in Syrian prisons more than 15 times for trying to export his work, which is banned by Syrian law, he immigrated to Israel in the early 1990s, where he was finally free to live without fear. As one of the leading Jewish metal artists from Damascus, Nseiri, now in his 70s, savors the opportunity to share his rare collection of exquisite brass with inlaid copper and silver artwork to audiences.
This is the artist’s boldest step to date in breaking away from the deep-rooted fear of calling Syrian art “Jewish.” He found a safe space at the museum—a hallmark institution that promotes tolerance and understanding, and is geared to teaching all age groups and faiths—after all those years of suffering religious persecution under government oppression.
“The artwork on display was created at a time when the Jewish people of Syria were persecuted and afraid to call the artwork Jewish,” explained Chaya Serebryanski, program director at the museum. “It is important that their rich history be documented, and that the younger generation be able to understand and relate to the strong sense of Jewish identity of the Syrian-Jewish community.”
‘Our Heritage on Display’
On Nov. 1, the day the exhibit opened, the space was temporarily transformed into a replica of Syrian cultural life. Sheer gold-colored curtains graced the walls, colorful metal lamps decked the floors and a long table offered trays of Syrian nut-filled desserts, including marzipan, pistachio ghraybe (butter cookies), maamoul (Middle Eastern cookies with dates) and atayef (crepes).
Nearby, children were busy creating paper lanterns incorporating the artist’s technique of casting and rubbing designs. The lanterns glowed with electric tea lights flickering through paper cut-outs as they left the workshop.
“It was special to see the customs, the community—our heritage on display,” said Shriqui. “Food is very important in our culture and when we have a party, every detail is perfect. When I walked in, it looked like a wedding with all those pastries. The food really links us to our Syrian heritage.”
Some of Nseiri’s family members were there as well, including two of his sons and a nephew, Mousa Saad, who helped facilitate the funding of the exhibit through his wife’s family, Joseph and Marshall Aronow of New York. His granddaughter and even great-granddaughter came to view the selection of works. Also present were local residents from the Chabad-Lubavitch community in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and others from nearby Midwood, where many Syrian Jews live.
For Shriqui, it meant a great deal to meet the man responsible for creating most of Syria’s Jewish art, which until now has not been seen in this country. Her sister-in-law’s mother, Lulu Halabi, was part of a group of 14 Syrian-Jewish women that despite many difficulties were granted permission to leave Damascus in 1977 to the United States for marriage purposes. Shriqui shared Halabi’s story with Nseiri at the exhibit, and he instantly remembered her from Syria.
This is one of many connections being made through Nseiri and what he considers a “lost art” that ended with a mass exodus in 1992, when Jews were legally allowed to leave Damascus—a home to them for some 2,500 years. Only a handful of Jews remain in Syria, yet some of the country’s greatest art was once produced by Jews there.
A small number of Nseiri’s metal creations—the last of this ancient art—eventually made their way to Israel. Much of his metal works remain in the his abandoned workspace.
‘Everyone Knew Him’
In 1965 at the age of 20, Nseiri took over the metal workshop of his father, Sion Nseiri, in the old Jewish Quarter called the Omayad Bazaar. He worked with Jewish artisans for 30 years, producing furniture and ceremonial keepsakes for prominent individuals and landmarks in Syrian society, including synagogue doors for the iconic Al-Franj Synagogue in Damascus; chandeliers and elevator doors for luxury hotels; and pieces for royal palaces and celebrities in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
What remains so fascinating is that Nseiri openly identified himself as Jewish in Syria; he was extremely proud of his heritage. Still, he could not produced Jewish-themed artwork there, as it was punishable by law. He was highly respected; his work became prized possessions of Muslim society in the Middle East—namely, the grand entry gates of the presidential palace in Damascus, and the table lamps and light fixtures there. Arabic patrons used to commission works by skilled Jewish artisans for wealthy homes, hotels and mosques.
Nseiri’s son, Sony Nseiri, who is named after his grandfather, traveled from his home in Canada to the exhibit opening. In Syria, he was not allowed to be called by his Hebrew name, Sion, though his father managed to inscribe his grandfather’s Hebrew name in some of the gates he designed.
“They knew he was a Jew,” Sony says about his father. “Everyone knew him; all the big dignitaries stayed at hotels he designed. You can’t see this work anywhere else.”
The Jewish Children’s Museum was instrumental in bringing Nseiri to these shores, along with some remains of his collection, where he can revive and reclaim his artwork as Jewish. Before arriving in the United States, Nseiri’s work had been displayed in museums in Germany and Israel, as well as featured in Israeli and Syrian newspapers and magazines, where it was often labeled “a lost treasure.”
“The art itself goes back generations to make metals ornate,” explains Sony Nseiri. “Jewish Syrians took it to the next level to add intricate details, and my father took it further to make it an art piece worthy of the palace.”
Sara Trappler Spielman