Iraqi Jews – Preserving a Rich Heritage

| י׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (04/07/2017) | 0 Comments

by Sharon Kanon

(WZPS) It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to take a stroll down a street in Baghdad, or sit on the shores of the Tigris or Euphrates. It is also hard to imagine that Iraq, formerly Babylon, was once home to a flourishing and fiercely Zionistic Jewish community – the largest Jewish community in the world – with a highly developed network of educational, religious and cultural institutions.

The best way to experience the drama of the first Diaspora and recapture the vitality and charm of the large Jewish Quarter in Baghdad 50 years ago, is to visit the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center, located in Or Yehuda near the site of Israel’s first transit camp.

A replica of a street in the Jewish Quarter includes a typical coffeehouse and shops belonging to a silversmith, a goldsmith, a cloth merchant, an embroiderer, a shoemaker and a spice dealer. At the end of the street is a reconstruction of the Great Synagogue of Baghdad (one of 60 synagogues in Baghdad in the mid-20th century), which at the beginning of the 20th century contained over 70 gold and silver-encased Torah scrolls.

The Heritage Center recently organized its first event to attract the children of Iraqi Jewish immigrants to Israel and increase awareness of their cultural and historical roots. Laughter and tasty ethnic food were the irresistible inducements, drawing more than 200 young Israelis of Iraqi descent and their spouses to what was part of an hour-long performance highlighting the changes in family life in Israel in the 50s and 60s.

Platters of delicious kuba, sambusak (a crisp pancake filled with pureed chickpeas), bebe (a cookie with dates) and halqun (Turkish Delight – sugar-coated squares containing hazelnuts, gelatin and rosewater) were served with wine, while a comedienne impersonating an old-fashioned new immigrant Iraqi mother scolding her teenage daughter in typical fashion had the audience roaring with laughter – “It’s shameful, a girl can’t go out alone!” Over 120,000 Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel in Operations Ezra and Nehemia, coordinated by the Jewish Agency between 1950 and 1952. The en masse return of the oldest Jewish Diaspora brought with it traditions from centuries of flourishing culture which had evolved over a period of 2,000 years. Rich in history, song, folklore, customs and dress, and infused with a strong Zionist spirit, the Iraqi-Jewish legacy pulsates with life.

Walking through 2,700 years of history, the Center’s museum takes visitors back to the rivers of Babylon where the Jews “sat and wept when they remembered Zion” (Psalm 137). It was from this same Fertile Crescent that Abraham emigrated.

A lovely illuminated painting in blue and white stained glass sets the scene. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem in 598 BCE forcing his captives into exile. Among them were the teenage king of the tribe of Judah, his court, the nobility, his army, and 1,000 craftsmen and their families. Twelve years later, despite the warning of the prophet Jeremiah, the Jews rebelled, prompting the sacking of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon of 30 to 40,000 additional captives.

The Jews in Babylonia held tenaciously to their identity, at the same time managing to establish a comfortable way of life. Many faced a dilemma when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia in 539 BCE and decreed that the Jews could go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. More than 42,000 returned with Ezra. Those who stayed sent financial support.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Babylonian Jewry became the spiritual center for far-flung Jewish communities. Great academics of learning were established at Nechardea, Sura and Pumpedita, headed by outstanding gaonim (excellencies). (The museum houses a diorama of an academy.) The Babylonian Talmud (the Oral law), the basis of Jewish law, philosophy and the Jewish way of life, was produced by Babylonian Jews. The golden age of the gaonim paralleled the days of splendor of the Arab caliphate (mid-7th century to mid-11th century). For over a thousand years, the Jews had their own administrative head, the Exilarch or Rosh Galuta, who at one point governed over two million Jews.

To make the past come alive for the young Iraqi descendants, live actors and actresses in traditional dress dramatized personal roles in the saga. Dressed in a turban and robe typical of a scholar, an actor took the part of a Babylonian Jew who recalled that his grandfather had brought ashes from the Temple in Jerusalem in a sack.

Tolerance and tyranny were the lot of Iraqi Jews after the Middle Ages. During the Mongol period (13th to 15th centuries), the larger yeshivas were closed down. But by the end of the 18th century, Baghdad had once again become a center of learning.

By the 19th century, Jews controlled Iraq’s commerce and exerted influence in government circles, and as early as 1919, got on the Zionist bandwagon. Besides Zionist organizations, the community had very active sports clubs, teams and parades. A topographical replica of the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad in 1948 reveals more than 60 institutions – yeshivas, schools, synagogues, medical institutions and administrative bodies.

Tradition played a major role in the life of Iraqi Jews. In the Life Cycle section of the museum, one can see examples of jewelry for babies, which was used to ward off evil spirits. These include jinijel (usually gold) anklets with hanging bells, also useful for tracking a crawling baby, and an amulet chain (slahli) comprising several amulets, which was worn by the child like a weapon from the age of one month at an angle from the shoulder to the waist. A renowned Iraqi marriage broker once dramatized his traditional vital role in the betrothal process, lamenting that many dispensed with his services when the Jewish Agency came in and started teaching Hebrew and the hora. Dancing the hora together, he claimed, provided young men and women with the opportunity to make their own matches.

Systematic persecution of the Jews throughout history by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, Mongolians, Turks, as well as by the Iraqi government, which peaked with the Shavuot riots in June 1941, gave impetus to the underground movement of ardent Zionists and their eventual dramatic en masse exodus in Operations Ezra and Nehemia.

Even if you don’t get a chance to feast on typical Iraqi Jewish delicacies, it is definitely worth a stroll through the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center to learn more about the oldest and most resilient Diaspora community. You don’t have to be an Iraqi Jew to burst with pride.

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Category: Heritage, Iraq, Preservation Promotion Education

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