The Jews of Iraq in Modern Times – and My Family’s Story

by Hagit Goral Halperin

When George Bush went to war in Iraq in 1990 and clips from Iraq started showing on TV, I called my father to ask if it is possible that this depressingly bleak place was their paradise. My father was surprised: “What did you expect? This is one big desert with two rivers.” I guess I did know, but it wasn’t what I imagined about this country. This imagination was a fantasy based upon their stories, which seemed so ideal: the swimming and boating in the Tigris River, picnics on its bank in fruit gardens (bustan). The true picture is in the middle between what was shown on TV and my imagination. (I know that cameras that are aimed at filming war do not show the pleasant places.) The feeling of paradise is not the picture portrayed in history books, but indeed the Jews in Iraq maintained their community for many centuries, without any extremely traumatic incidents and in a relatively safe environment. What stands out is the great co-existence they had with their neighbors, the Muslim Arabs. This coexistence can be exemplified by customs of reciprocity during holidays. Iraqi Jews remember that Muslim neighbors used to bring hot tea to Jews returning from the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, and trays with bread and cheese at the conclusion of Passover. In Basra, where a significant number of Jews lived, there was no Jewish quarter; Jews lived in mixed neighborhoods. 

Image 1: Cover of My Beloved Baghdad: Memories and Longing by Shmuel Moreh

Many Iraqi Jews, when referring to their old homeland, express the feeling of Lost Paradise. The Iraqi immigrants in Israel and in other parts of the world, including North America and Europe, hold special pride in their Diaspora, as the oldest Diaspora, whose beginning is recorded in the Bible. In Israel, the Iraqi Jews receive special acknowledgement, being called in formal occasions “Babylonian Jews” (Ha’aliya Ha’Bavlit) though Babylon is long gone. Indeed, even after the period of the Babylonian Exile and the return of some Jews to rebuild the second temple in Jerusalem, Jews in Iraq had a rich and outstanding history of scholarly leadership in the Jewish world. From around the third century C.E., a period famously known as the Amoraic period, the rabbinic Amora’im composed the Talmud; in the late sixth through eleventh centuries, the Geonim led the Yeshivot (Talmudic academies) of Sura and Pumbedita. This leadership of the Jewish world ended in the mid-thirteenth century with the Mongol conquest of Iraq. Like their Muslim neighbors in Iraq, the Jews lost both their prominent positions in commerce and their scholarly leadership in the Jewish world.

Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 through the end of World War I.  The historian Norman Stillman describes the situation of Jews and Christians in Iraq under the Ottomans as a constant state of insecurity, continuing throughout the nineteenth century, and explains that conditions were worse in the north, under the Kurdish tribes’ domain. When Da’ud Pasha ruled, between the years 1817-31, many Jews fled to other countries to escape oppression.[1] Stillman described cases of Jews who were accused and executed for blasphemy against Muhammad. A series of three letters, dating from 1860, provide an interesting account of an attempt by the Turkish governor Nuri Pasha, who was pressured by Muslim extremists to remove the Jewish custody of Ezekiel’s Tomb, claiming that it was built over the ruins of a mosque. [2] A letter sent by the community leaders of the Baghdadi Jews to Nuri Pasha states that Jews held the prophet’s tomb for 2000 years. The British Consul, who was concerned that a similar fate might occur to the Christian community in Iraq, sent another letter in this regard. 

The Jews of Iraq: Fallen Glory | JEWISH HOME LA
Image 2: The Prophet Ezekiel’s Tomb al-Kifl, Iraq, build between the 12-14th centuries
(image source: Wikipedia) 

These letters provide testimony to religious tension, a result of the rise of Muslim extremism during this period in Iraq. It also illustrates European involvement in the Ottoman Empire as that empire was slowly losing its power. Both Jews and Christians intervened on behalf of their co-religionists. This is also a testimony to the ancient establishment and the symbiotic status of the Jews in Iraq. They were in charge of places revered by all three religions there: Muslims, Jews, and Christians. (Apparently Ezekiel’s Tomb along with the tombs of Ezra the Scribe and Jonah the Prophet, all considered sacred by Muslims, were renovated by the government of Saddam Hussein and guards were assigned to protect these holy places.[3]

Image 3: Girls learning to sew in the workshop at the Alliance School in Basra, Iraq, 1939
(image source: Facebook group “עיראקים יוצאי בבל”)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the situation of the Jews in Iraq started to change in a way that distinguished them from the rest of the population. The arrival of the French Alliance Israelite Universal branch of Jewish schools (in 1864 for boys and 1893 for girls)[4] meant the advance of Western education to Jews, at a time when 95% of the Iraqi population was illiterate.[5] By 1880, about 12,000 Jewish children attended schools. In Baghdad and Basra, the rich families in the communities sponsored traditional Yeshiva schooling for their poor. At the same time the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire meant modernization of Baghdad and Basra, especially between the years 1869-1872 under Midhat Pasha, and this transformation worked well for the newly educated generation of young Jews. When the British army conquered Iraq from the Turks during the First World War, those educated Jews were in a good position to embark on a trend of prosperity and success, backed by the British who preferred to bestow their trust to minorities. The British stayed until 1932, when Iraq became independent, and they returned during the Second World War, after a pro-Nazi group led by the Mufti of Jerusalem and Rashid Ali took control of the government. This new government organized clashes against Jews (the Farhud) in 1941. Some claim that the British used these clashes as a pretext for coming back to Iraq.[6] However, the British stayed at the outskirts of the cities until the clashes calmed down. Only then did they enter with their army.

As Jewish history teaches us, after success a backlash is likely to follow. When the British came during World War I they installed a pro-British king, Faisal ibn Hussein, from the Hashemite family. This intervention gave a boost to the Pan-Arab nationalistic trend in Iraq, while in Israel a flood of Zionist European Jews caused a resistance and bloody retaliations with the Palestinian Arabs. In many ways the situation of the Iraqi Jews was determined by what happened in the West. Intervention of the British in Iraq’s affairs both promoted the Iraqi Jews and also caused a rise in Arab nationalism. The movement of European Jews to Israel and their later victory in the War of Independence in 1948 added fire to the jealousy, which is natural when a minority is too successful. The downfall started with the Farhud. Muslim rioters robbed and killed about 200 Jews in Baghdad and wounded as many as a 1000 more. For a while even after the Farhud, however, things seemed to go back to normal for the Jews. 

אחרי 77 שנה, גם יהודי עיראק דורשים הכרה כנפגעי הנאצים - חינוך ...
Image 4: The Farhud, during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, June 1st-2nd, 1941
(image source: Pictures Archive of Yad Ben Zvi & Beit Hatfutsot)

Both of my parents share the feeling, expressed by many Iraqi Jews of that generation, that they lived very well among their Muslim neighbors. When unrest occurred, Iraqi Jews blamed politics rather than inherited hatred. Both of my families, my paternal side in Baghdad and my maternal side in Basra, were protected during the Farhud. Their Muslim neighbors warned them in advance and stood at the entrance of the alleyways to block the excited mob. In Basra, Jews were not killed and the attackers ended up looting the market, regardless of whether the owner was Jewish or not. In Baghdad, people were murdered. One victim was my great-grandfather, who was walking in the street, unaware of what was going on. My father, who always tried to convey the message that Jews and Muslims can live peacefully together, did not tell us this fact until a year before he died – he was always convinced that the Farhud was nothing more than an action of a mob triggered by propaganda. 

Through the stories of my family I have a colorful view of the history of the Jews of Iraq. The oldest account of my mother’s family actually relates to a woman. Apparently, in the mid-nineteenth century (in 1854), Basra suffered a severe plague that reduced the Jewish population from three thousand families to fifty. According to my family’s story, the whole Jewish community left the city and settled on its outskirts in tents until it appeared safe to return. My mother’s great-great grandmother apparently took the initiative to carry a big load of flour with her, and she started baking bread and giving it away to all the hungry children of the community. For this remarkable act she became known as “Hubaza,” meaning baker, and it became the family’s last name. 

My mother’s family was one of the established families in Basra and by the turn of the century they acquired quite a good fortune as merchants. An interesting story of my family concerning the Jewish community happened around 1930. Apparently my mother’s two grandfathers, Dudi and Menahem (as was common, they were also close relatives), accused the rabbi of stealing the congregation’s money. As a response, their families and their supporters were excommunicated from the Jewish community. They became known as the “Theosophists,” apparently implying that they were nonbelievers (at that time, a family friend, who returned home from a business trip in India, initiated a Theosophy’s study group). The “Theosophists” bought a bustan (a tree-garden) and built their own synagogue. It also provided them a place to socialize and to bury the few elders who died at this time, since they were barred from the Jewish cemetery. My mother and her siblings had to leave the Alliance School and join the Iraqi public school (as a result they don’t speak French). My mother speaks fondly about the public school. She explains that she and her sister were treated very well, and had Muslim friends. Apparently they used to study the Qur’an with the Muslim girls, while in the boys’ school, the Jews were asked to leave the room when Qur’an was taught.  

Image 5: In the “Theosophic” busan: my mother, Luise Doodi, and her oldest and youngest brothers, Nachum and Eddy

My uncle and another boy from the banned group were named Balfour (in a salute to Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary who, in 1917, wrote a declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, supporting the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, known as the Balfour Declaration). Both boys, then in the Iraqi public school, received blows from their classmates, and a worried Muslim teacher suggested to their parents that they change the boys’ names. The parents did so and my uncle was renamed Daud and his friend was renamed Fu’ad. (Fu’ad Gigi now lives in New York as Fred. He told me recently that all the problems for the Jews in Iraq started with the declaration of Lord Balfour.) 

Image 6: The Balfour Declaration, 1917
(image source: University History Archive/UIG/Getty)

The dispute in the congregation ended up in court, and my family won the case. Later on, Nuri Sa’id, the prime minister, was involved in solving the matter by making peace (sulcha) between the two factions, and actually paying a visit to my great-grandparent’s home. The fact that the prime minister became involved in a dispute in the Jewish community is not so surprising because at that time Jews were holding major positions in the administration and commerce of Iraq and were among the wealthiest people in Iraq. Iraq’s first Minister of Finance, Yehezkel Sasson (1921-27), was a Jew; for many years the treasurer of Iraq was Avraham Elkabir, another Jew. Jews occupied main positions in the post office, the train administration, and the high court.[7] My mother’s great uncle, Elias Khawa was the minister of the port in Basra, which was the main commercial of Iraq  (it is unclear why his last name is woman’s first name, since usually last names were after the father’s first name )  My mother remembers the gifts that he used to get from merchants who needed favours from him. Her uncle, Naji Menachem, was the port treasurer.  

Image 7: Sir Sassoon Eskell, a Jewish Iraqi statesman and financier, also known as Sassoon Effendi, sitting third from right, next to King Faisal I al-Hashemi, who reigned 1921-33
(image source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/dismay-poetry-as-home-of-jew-who-helped-found-modern-iraq-is-destroyed/)
Image 8: My father, Moris, and my grandfather, Shkuri Taufiq, in Baghdad in the late 1930s

My father’s family lived in Baghdad and apparently was from a somewhat lower middle class. My grandfather, Shkuri Ta’ufik, was a self-made person. When he was 13-years old, his father died and he had to leave school and work to support his mother and siblings. He worked for a while as an apprentice of the shochet – the Jewish butcher. His breakthrough came thanks to a punishment by the British. Failing to register to the British authorities, he was sent on a British Navy ship to India, where he stayed for a year, learning English while abroad. Upon returning he started working in the Jewish owned Zilkha Bank in Baghdad. This was one of the most important banks in Iraq – and the first chain banking in the Arab world, with branches in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria, and the Iraqi government was invested in it.[8] My grandfather made his way up and became the treasurer of the Zilkha Bank. He bought a big house outside of the Jewish quarter, in a mixed neighborhood, and was able to house a few relatives in it as well. (When he moved to Israel he was much better off than most, as he was able to transfer some money in advance to Israel, and to buy a house and a store there.) His children attended the prestigious Anglo-Jewish school Shamash, which was the only Jewish school outside of the crowded Jewish neighborhood.[9] At that period, it was allowed to teach reading Hebrew, but the newly independent Iraqi government (since 1932) banned the teaching of the Bible and Jewish history. My father studied the Hebrew Bible only in Israel.

Image 9: The graduating class of Shamash, the British affiliated Jewish school in Baghdad in 1942; my father stands in the third row, first from right

This period is distinguished because the Jews were going through rapid social and cultural changes. My two grandmothers, who were born at the turn of the century, never attended school and stayed illiterate all their lives. Apparently, in their youth, Jewish girls started attending schools, but my grandmothers were caught up in the instability of the time in addition to the fact that most of society was not ready for those changes. When the British army entered Iraq during World War I, they came with Indian troops and a rumor spread among the Jews that these soldiers were abducting girls, and so, many Jewish girls stayed home and got married early, as usual. When she was born, my maternal grandmother was promised to the 10-years old son of her mother’s aunt. When she turned 12 she was married, and ‘luckily’ for her she was allowed to stay for a year longer in her parents’ home until she began menses. Her first son was born when she was fourteen. She moved to Khoramshahr in Iran, where her husband’s family lived, but when she was twenty-years old her mother died, and she returned home to Basra, to take care of her father and brothers. 

Image 10: My mother’s great grandmother, Razala Khawa, in the 1930s, wearing a traditional Jewish woman’s head covering topped by a metal ball wrapped in gold thread

My maternal grandmother came to age on the brink of modernity. Although uneducated, she dressed only in Western clothes and gave Western names to a few of her children. She was determined to marry off her daughters only after they finished school. Even though her husband was ten years her senior, well-educated, spoke Turkish, and served for a few months as an officer in the Turkish army before World War I, my grandmother was always the lady of the house, hosting British officers for tea parties.[10] Her husband was one of the first agents of Singer, and she became a talented seamstress and embroiderer who, according to my mother, embroidered dresses for weeks and then donated them for charity if  she found out that other women copied her designs. 

Image 11: My grandfather, Moshi Doodi, second from right, with the employees of the Singer Corporation in Basra in the 1930s

My paternal grandmother also married young and had a hard time with her husband’s family. Her time to shine came when she was ill and the doctor suggested that she move outside the city. The family moved to a Muslim village, and there my uneducated grandmother became a counselor to the village women. My father remembered them flocking to her house to learn about things like childcare and feminine hygiene. Upon returning to Baghdad the family bought their own house. Another distinguished woman was her aunt, Lulu Tweina (her last name is not certain), also analphabetic, who became a talented seamstress and a good businesswoman. She never married (and never attempted to) and was so successful that her clientele included many government officials (my father claims that she used to boast that if they ever needed something from the king, she would have no problem getting it). She became a rich woman and started lending money to her customers, who apparently owed her such great sums that when the family moved to Israel she decided to stay, hoping that one day they would pay her back. (My father recalls a memorable incident. This aunt tried to marry off her miserably unsuccessful sister by paying a young man a good amount of money. My father, about 7-year old then, was asked to spend the first night with the newly married couple, witnessing the bride kicking her groom away. The young groom fled with the money shortly thereafter.)

  In this atmosphere of changes in the cities in the 1930s, young Jews were attending Westernized schools, in which Judaic studies were not permitted. The slogan of those days was the nationalist song: “Jews (Musawi), Christians (Esawi) and Muslim (Muhamadi) – we are all Arabs.” Jews dressed in Western clothes and saw American movies in the theater. According to my mother, her mother used to put on an abayia (a black robe) when going out, and the celebratory Jewish type of cover – the Izar – when going to the synagogue on Shabbat, but she and her sister never did, and they used to walk by themselves to places around town with no fear. The synagogues became a place to go for holidays; the community held events, such as plays performed by the young to benefit the congregation’s poor. Charity was an integral part of life. Since food could not be saved for the next day, my grandmother used to send one of her children with leftovers to hand to a certain poor family, accompanied by a servant.  She wouldn’t send a servant alone, as it would have been regarded as an insult. 

Image 12: An Izar, a type of wrap dress worn by Jewish women on holidays; the face covering is made out of horse hair, from the collection of the Israel Museum

This period saw the detachment of many young Jews from traditional ways. Many of them were drawn to Arab culture, to Communism, and later to Zionism. My father used to say that Zionism saved his life. He and his best friend Shaul Tweig (the bank manager’s son, who was Zilkha’s in-law) joined the Communist movement, which like Zionism, was outlawed. My father left and became a devoted Zionist but Tweig stayed and was stoned to death by the police during a Communist demonstration. 

The Zionist movement started taking root among the young people after the Farhud. At first it was an attempt by the young Jews to organize resistance to atrocities (the Shurrah), and then, with the arrival of Israeli emissaries in 1942, this organization transformed into the Zionist movement. The time was ripe for the Zionist movement (the Tnu’ah) to attract an excited group of young Jews looking for new ideals. It gave them new meaning, when religion wasn’t inspiring any longer. It gave them a pretext to meet in mixed groups, men and women together. Israeli emissaries taught them Israeli songs and dances. They used to take boats at night to small islands on the river and sing those songs loudly. It was secretive and their parents were not aware of their activities. My father, Yoav Goral (born as Morris Ta’ufik), taught himself Hebrew from a dictionary and became a counselor, being also appointed as the cultural head of the Tnu’ah in Baghdad. When it became necessary to find a place for the Tenu’ah’s library, he moved the entire library to his room without his parents’ knowledge and told his mother that she could no longer enter his room. Since carrying illegal material was the most dangerous mission, the women in the Tenu’ah had a special role. They could carry around such material, covered by their abaya. My father tells how astonished his family was when a woman, a Tenu’ah activist – coming to check the library – came alone asking for him. This was something unheard of in those days.

Image 13: Young members of the Zionist Tenu’ah (my father sits in the middle), on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad in the 1940s

The activity of the Zionist movement in Iraq had astounding success among the young people, starting with a reaction to the Farhud, and the call to defend themselves against atrocities. It continued to grow with the atrocities experienced by Jews while Israel was fighting to become an independent state in the years between 1946 and 1949. In 1948, the Iraqi government outlawed Zionist activities. One of the wealthiest Jews in Basra, Shafik Ades, who established the agency of the Ford car company in Iraq, was arrested and accused of being a Zionist supporter. This was ironic because he was actually one of those who opposed the Zionist movement, but it didn’t help him and he was hanged publicly. False accusations by envious Muslim colleagues brought also the arrest of my great uncle, Naji Menachem (the port treasurer), also arrested for being a Zionist activist.  He had opposed Zionism as well, and even after his release he maintained his dislike of the Zionist affair. He was sentenced to three years in prison and my grandmother managed to bribe someone to move him from a pit in northern Iraq to a prison in Baghdad. 

Image 14: Shafiq Ades at his trial, being led to his execution by hanging in front of his villa in Basra in 1948
(image source: Picture Archive of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, Or Yehuda, Israel)

Naji fled to Iran when he was released from prison in 1951, choosing not to immigrate to Israel. Many of the very well-to-do Iraqi Jews never considered Zionism and some of them stayed in Iraq after most of the community left. Naji did well in Iran and then had to flee again when Ayatollah Khumeini came to power – a reminiscent of the story of the Jews who fled from Spain to Portugal, only to find themselves fleeing again shortly after). Again, Israel wasn’t his preferred option. He came to Israel in 1980 only because he couldn’t go to the United States.

The arrest and hanging of Ades in 1948 signified an important turning point for many Jews. Many Jew were arrested, as the Iraqi government was going after Zionist activities. During 1948, all the Jews in governmental jobs were dismissed, and restrictive laws forbade Jews from banking, import and export, and higher education. In 1949, martial law was lifted and Jews started to leave in large numbers. In 1950, the Iraqi government passed a law that allowed Jews to leave if they gave up their Iraqi citizenship and relinquished their assets. Thanks to a secret deal between high rank Iraqi government officials, who owned the airline, and an Israeli secret agent named Shlomo Hillel, Jews were airlifted by Iraqi airplanes to Iran, and from there they were taken by Israeli planes to Israel. (A temporary camp was built in the Jewish cemetery in Teheran to accommodate those who were waiting to be airlifted to Israel.) In 1950, a few bombs were exploded in a synagogue in Baghdad and in the American consulate. This increased the sense of urgency and Jews felt that it was necessary to leave. (A rumor claims that the bombing was an act of the Israeli Mosad, attempting to persuade the Jews to move to Israel.) The Tenu’ah sent my father in 1945 to Israel due to illness. In 1950, he returned to Iraq as a secret emissary to help reorganize the activities of the Tenu’ah. At that time the situation became more and more difficult for Jews, as many of them lost jobs and lived in fear of arrest. He returned to Israel in 1951, when it became too dangerous to stay (after the arrest of the emissary Mordechai Ben-Porat by the Iraqi police) and he was actually the last of the Israeli emissaries to leave Iraq. 

ויזה טורקית של שלמה הלל על שם "ריצ'ארד ארמסטרונג", שם בדוי.
Image 15: Shlomo Hillel’s fake Turkish passport from 1950; he introduced himself to the Iraqi government as Richard Armstrong and arranged the airlift of Iraqi Jews
(image source: Operation Babylon, by Shlomo Hillel, 1987)
Image 16: My father, who changed his name to Yoav Goral when he moved to Israel, in Abadan, Iran, before re-entering Iraq on a secret mission to revive the Tenu’ah and organize the Aliya of remaining Jews; he was the last emissary to leave Iraq in 1950

Many Iraqi Jews in Israel are deeply proud of the success of their Aliya (immigration), as they feel that they initiated it and they were in charge of their own fate (notable is the difference from the North African Aliya, which was to a larger extent an initiative of the Israeli government, and attracted the poor, while many from the educated classes moved to France). In less than two years an ancient population of Iraqi Jews was reduced from 130,000 to 6,000 people. Most of them came to Israel, and unlike many North African Jews, they managed to integrate with the Israeli Ashkenazi population. Their successful positions in Iraq helped them to establish themselves in Israel, and just as their Aliya was largely their initiative, so was their integration. This integration of course had a price that some of them dismiss as unimportant. Most of them are now secular, and their Iraqi culture was kept only partially and mainly at home. Their children do not speak their Judeo-Arabic language, and although Jews in Iraq were the leading musicians for generations, in Israel many children of Iraqi Jews were not even exposed to this music. (A notable exception is the city of Ramat-Gan, where many Iraqi Jews live, which sponsors an Iraqi orchestra.)

Image 17: Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity with the national Iraqi Radio Orchestra, which they established in the 1930s; they were the Iraqi King’s favorite
(image source: https://jewish-music.huji.ac.il/content/salah-el-kuweiti)

The Jews who stayed in Iraq were those who were too old to leave, those who didn’t “buy” into the Zionist ideas, and those who didn’t want to leave their wealth behind. The Jews that were left behind were allowed to attend Jewish schools, but apparently it was hard to find Jewish teachers. According to Sa’id Herdoon, who fled from Iraq to Israel in 1972 after spending six month in Abu-Ghraib jail, only a few Jews lived near the synagogue in Baghdad and so the rabbi declared that it was halakhically legal to come to the synagogue on Shabbat with a car, as long someone else drove, or to come by bus if the ticket was purchased on another day. Most of the Jews had to escape later, because after each war in Israel the Iraqi government acted against their Jews. In 1969, as a reaction to the Arab loss in the Six Days War, nine Jews were falsely accused of spying for Israel and they were hanged in Baghdad. Some half a million people paraded through to watch the hanging. As a result, in the early 1970s, groups of Jews crossed the border to Iran, assisted by the Kurds in the north, who smuggled them. The community is now dying out; as of 2005, only 76 elderly Jews were reported to live there, and no doubt that number is significantly lower now.

The 1969 public hangings of 9 Jews in Iraq who were falsely accused of  spying for Israel. Half a million peopl… | Middle eastern history, History  class, Persecution
Image 18: The 1969 public hangings in Baghdad of 9 Jews who were falsely accused of spying for Israel; half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hanged
(image source: https://www.timesofisrael.com/iraqs-jewish-sites-almost-all-ruined-beyond-repair-new-heritage-report-finds/)

A prosperous community of Iraqi Jews lives in London.  This community consists of Jews who immigrated there before and between the two World Wars and some who came in the 1960s. In the early 1980s, when the Diaspora Museum in Israel was planning an exhibition of the Babylonian Diaspora, to be curated by Sara Gilboa Karni, Shlomo Hillel – then a minister in the Israeli government – was sent to London to raise money, but the mission turned unsuccessful. The exhibition never happened and the book that was to accompany it was never published. Meanwhile, the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center was established in Or Yehuda, initiated by the former Knesset member Mordechai Ben Porat; its mission is to preserve Iraqi Jewish culture. The center was made possible largely thanks to donations from Iraqi Jews in the United States.

As of 2005, the estimate is that around 15,000 Iraqi Jews live in the United States. Generally, many Iraqi Jews in the United States are spread around, but two centers emerged, one on the West Coast and one on the East. In Los Angeles, Kahal Joseph Congregation was established in 1959 by Iraqi Jews who came from the Far East (India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, and Indonesia) at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their synagogue follows “Nusakh Baghdad” (Baghdad custom and usage). In New York State there are two congregations. In 1934, Iraqi Jews first organized the “Iraqi Aid Society,” when, at the height of the great depression of the 1930s, many of the community’s members suffered its effects. It is important to note that most Iraqi Jews who came to New York were not poor, but on the contrary, they were among the more prominent families. The first communal action of the society was to buy a burial place for its members. The Iraqi Aid Society cemetery, inside the Montifiore Cemetery in Long Island, came into being in 1945 and since then it grew bigger as more plots were purchased. Until the mid-1980s, the community used to rent space at a few hotels to celebrate holidays. In 1983, a small synagogue that previously served the Afghani Jewish community was purchased in Jamaica, Queens, and a religious organization was established under the name of Congregation Bene Naharayim (which means, in Hebrew, “between the rivers”). Interestingly, their Religious Advisor and Chazan (cantor) is an Iraqi Jew from Calcutta (India), named Aaron Abrahams, who has been serving the community since the early 1970s. In 1997, members of the Iraqi Jewish community in Long Island established a second congregation in Great Neck, under the name of the Babylonian Jewish Center. Their mission statement is “the preservation, promotion, and continuation of the culture, tradition and identity of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage through religious, social and educational means.” In order to preserve the Babylonian Nusach (customs), their by-laws state that only Iraqi Jews can become members. But then the congregation couldn’t find a native Iraqi rabbi or cantor and hired an Israeli-Moroccan rabbi and a half-Iraqi cantor. Both of them, trained in Israel, pronounce their Hebrew letters differently (mainly they are not used to the Iraqi deep Koof and the Vav which should be pronounced as Waw). The congregation’s elders tried to train them in proper Iraqi pronunciation, but admitted that it was hard. A great percentage of this congregation’s members are actually Iraqis who came to the United States from Iran after the Islamic Revolution of Khomeini in 1980.

The synagogue reflects the somewhat easy going character of Iraqi Jews. Most of its members are non-observant Jews, and see themselves as Masorati’im (traditionalist). Yet, “orthodox” traditions are observed. The synagogue consists of one big room with an open center in the middle, for the Torah reading (there is no raised bimah). Surprisingly (for me) the men sit on the two sides, and the women sit in front of the Aron Hakodesh (the ark), behind a low partition. Their presence is very pronounced during the service (positioned well to throw candies on the Chattan Torah, when there is a celebration for an upcoming wedding, or at a Bar Mitzvah celebration). The gallery serves for babysitting (with non-Jewish babysitters). A few older women cover their heads with a kippa-size lace, fastened to their head. At an event such as a baby naming, the whole congregation (about 130 families) is present, and it feels like one big hamula (extended family). The languages spoken there are a mix of the Iraqi Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Many of those who left Iraq in the 1950s say that they can no longer speak the Iraqi Arabic, and need English to communicate with a non-Jewish Iraqi. When I asked about the second generation, many of them attest regretfully that their children only know a few words in this language. While this congregation is new, its leadership is old, and it is not clear how it will turn out in the future. On the congregation’s calendar, its president, Shlomo Bakhas wrote “Although most Iraqi Jews may not be traditionally religious, there is no question that we are religiously traditional, and proud of it.

Hagit Goral Halperin grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, where a group of young Iraqi Jews were among its founding members. She holds a master’s degree in Jewish Art and Visual Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as a bachelor’s in Restoration from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She holds an art teaching certificate from Ha’Midrashah Le’Omanut, an Israeli college for art education. Currently, Hagit teaches Hebrew at Fordham University, Dwight International High School, and JTS’s Ivry Prozdor program. Since 2006, Hagit has led tours in Hebrew at museums around New York, mainly for Ha-Ulpan students.

Footnotes:

[1]  Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: JPS, 1979), 87-94.

[2] Ibid, 389-92.

[3] Jewish Virtual Library: Iraqi Jews (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/iraqijews.html)

[4] Reeva Spector Simon, , Michael Laskier, and Sara Reguer, eds, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 359-362.

[5] According to a report the World Jewish Congress titled “The Treatment of Jews in Egypt and Iraq,” from 1948.

[6] See www.inminds.co.uk/jews-of-iraq.html

[7] Spector Simon et al, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, 362-3.

[8] Spector Simon et al, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, 42 and 363.

[9] Golany, Babylonian Jewish Neighborhood and Home Design, 64.

[10] After the Young Turks Revolution in 1906, which allowed Jews to serve in the Ottoman army.

Bibliography:

Atlas, Yehuda. Ad amud ha-tliya, alilot ha-machteret be-iraq. Tel Aviv: Ma’arakhot, 1969 (Hebrew).

Cohen, Ben. “Review (Book by Moshe Gat): Paradise Lost? The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948-51.” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 1998), pp. 109-111.

Ivri, David. Doodi, from Bani-Said the Baghdadian Slum, Autobiographical Novel. Jerusalem: Research Institute of the Zionist-Pioneer Underground Movement in Iraq, 2002 (Hebrew).

Golany, Gideon S. Babylonian Jewish Neighborhood and Home Design. The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999

Senhav, Yehuda. “The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology & the Property of the Palestinians Refugees of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Nov., 1999), pp. 605-630.

Snir, Reuven. “Review: Kazzaz, The Jews in Iraq in the Twentieth Century.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Apr., 1994), pp. 495-500.

Spector Simon, Reeva, Michael Laskier & Sara Reguer, eds. The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia: JPS, 1979.

Warkov, Esther, “Revitalization of Iraqi-Jewish Instrumental Traditions in Israel: The Persistent Centrality of an Outsider Tradition.” Asian Music, Vol. 17, No. 2, Music in the Ethnic Communities of Israel (Spring – Summer, 1986), pp. 9-31.

World Jewish Congress. The Treatment of Jews in Egypt and Iraq. 1948.

Websites: 

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/iraqijews.html

www.babylonjewry.org.il/new/english/index.htm 

www.inminds.co.uk/jews-of-iraq.html 

Interviews: 

Yoav & Aliza Goral (parents)

Fu’ad (Fred) Gigi

Sa’id (Sid) Herdoon

Su’am Tweig

Sara Gilboa Karni

Essays: 

Yoav Goral, Yearzeit book: Mordechai Bibi, Aliza Katan, Ya’akov Tzemach