Kassin Family Tree

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published July 30, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I could be off by a dozen or so, but I count 70 rabbis in the family, going back to the year 1540. That makes the Kassin rabbinic dynasty one of the oldest on record.

The Syrian Jewish community, now in the news for exceedingly distasteful reasons, is fabled for its insularity, hence not much is known about it outside its own precincts. But the arrest on charges of alleged money laundering of Rabbi Saul Kassin, the leading rabbi of the Syrian community, in the great New Jersey sting, the one that netted 44 arrests — mayors rabbis, others — suddenly has changed that. It has demolished the virtual wall that long has shielded it from the view of its neighbors, this despite the fact that Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community is the largest concentration of Syrian Jews in the world, numbering some 75,000. I have neither appetite nor competence to examine the crimes in question. But it does seem to me worth spelling out some of what made the Kassin family noteworthy long before the current tawdry exposés.

The story actually begins in pre-expulsion Spain, but from that period we have only fragmentary details. Hard genealogical records begin in 1540 with Señor Shlomo Kassin, who in that year left Spain for Aleppo, in Syria. (Yes, it is curious: How did he survive as a Jew in post-expulsion Spain?) In Aleppo, he soon became head of the Jewish community. His grandson, Yomtov Kassin, was the first rabbi in the family, and the chief rabbi of the beit din (rabbinic court) of Aleppo. And from then until now, in Syria, Mexico, Egypt, Panama, Argentina, Palestine, Iraq and America, the family produced generations of rabbis, some men of great wealth, some paupers, many noted for their scholarship.

Enter Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, born in Jerusalem in 1900 and a child prodigy. He was a learned student of Kabbalah, studying for some years with Rabbis Shalom Dweck and Shaul Hayim Dweck. (The last name may ring a bell: Solomon Dwek was the FBI’s informant and principal of its extensive criminal sting.) In 1933, Jacob Kassin accepted an invitation from the Magen David Congregation in Brooklyn to serve as chief rabbi and chief of the beit din. (For all these details, I rely on the published research of genealogist Sarina Roffe, an acknowledged expert on Aleppan Jewry and herself a member of Brooklyn’s Syrian community.) These posts he held for 60 years, until his death in 1994. During his tenure, it was clear that he was not only the leader of the Brooklyn community but the leader of Syrian Jewry worldwide. After his death, his son Saul — one of his three sons who became rabbis — succeeded him. And Saul, himself now 87 years old, is an alleged miscreant in the money laundering aspect of the criminal investigation.

Digression: Remember Rene Cassin? Not likely; few people do, although he was the Nobel laureate for peace in 1968. Wounded during the First World War, an active proponent of disarmament at the League of Nations between the wars (he was the French delegate to the league from 1924 to 1938), he became Charles de Gaulle’s minister of justice in exile in 1940. And — here’s the main reason for his Nobel — he was the principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously in December of 1948. When Eleanor Roosevelt was chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Cassin served as its vice chair; from 1955 to 1957, he was the commission’s chair. The sorry state of human rights these days notwithstanding, the achievement of this French Jew deserves to be remembered; it set a benchmark for all.

And, though the specifics of the relationship are clouded, there is reason to believe that he, too, was a Kassin.

I was in Damascus in 1978, as Graham Greene-ish a city as I’ve ever visited. I stopped at an antique store I’d been told was the place to make contact with the Jewish community; the owner proposed that I return an hour later. It was as if jungle drums signaled my arrival; by the time I returned and was ushered to the second floor, the elders of the community had assembled. I dropped the appropriate names, and instantly became the beneficiary of genuine hospitality — including, most memorably, a prolonged visit to the underground academy where Talmud was being taught (in Arabic) to young boys. There I did an impromptu workshop for the teachers, working through the rabbi and his awkward Hebrew.

But that, as they say, is another story.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.