This piece is a stereographic set of 30 images taken on a trip to the Holy Land in 1896. The images were taken by Bert and Elmer Underwood. The photos were published by Underwood & Underwood, a well-known stereoscopic company, owned by Bert and Elmer Underwood. The 30 images in this set are part of a larger collection from the Underwoods’ trip that consists of a total of 100 images of the journey to and at the Holy Land.
In 1900, a 220-page book, titled Traveling in the Holy Land Through Stereoscope; a personally conducted tour by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D., written by Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D., was published to accompany the photos. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D. was a clergyman of the American Episcopal Church and held positions all over New Jersey.[i] The book contains corresponding texts to each of the 100 photographs as well as maps pinpointing the sites that guide the viewer through the images. The current exhibit only contains 30 photographs and not the book.
The 30 photographs in this series begin in the Port of Jaffa. This port is a common entryway to the Holy Land for pilgrims, so it is fitting that the photo series begins there. The photo of the camel caravan is used symbolically to show the pilgrims making their way out of Jaffa, further inland. The Underwoods photographed the plains of Sharon, passing through Lydda, Mizpah, and Mount Scopus. These sites are historical and can be traced to biblical narratives. As the Underwoods approached Jerusalem, they photographed the Damascus Gate, with a great view of the city and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jaffa Gate, and the ancient walls. Other photos specific to Jerusalem include the Valley of Kedron, Tombs of the Prophets, the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, and other panoramic scenes. The Underwoods also photographed lepers, pilgrims, the Dome of the Rock, the Rock itself, the Wailing Wall, David Street, and Christian Street. They even staged two Syrian women for photographs at the tomb of Jesus, to reenact the finding of the risen Jesus.
This set of photographs is diverse in a number of ways. This diversity can be seen through the different subjects that the Underwoods chose to photograph. In some photos, there are no people, such as the photo taken outside the Dome of the Rock. In others, the streets and the frame are completely full of people, such as the photo of the Greek Easter procession of the Patriarchs. The final photo in this specific exhibit shows the pass of Upper Beth-Horon, which is an ancient city northeast of Jerusalem. The photos also capture the diversity of people who live in and visit the city. There is no doubt that these photos encapsulated the various types of people in the city, including Greeks, Ottomans, and Jews.
Stereoscopic photography is a form of photography that was popular between 1870 and 1920. To view these photos properly, you need a stereoscope, a device that looks similar to binoculars. The card mount photo card has two images placed next to each other. When the viewer looks through the stereoscope, the images appear 3-D. This device was fascinating to users in this time period, as it was the first of its kind, and the art of photography was quickly evolving.[ii] The hope, expressed by Hurlbut, was to create an experience beyond what a 2- dimensional picture provides. The use of a stereoscope thus creates a super realistic depiction of its scenes. Adding these depths and dimensions creates grander photographs that are beyond the simple, 2-dimensional photographs. This also aids in the purpose of the photographs, allowing those who could not visit Jerusalem in person to experience the Holy Land from their homes and elsewhere. Pairing the images with descriptions, which are written in English, Underwood, Underwood and Hurlburt created an all-inclusive experience. With Hurlburt’s accompanying book, the addition of maps that traces the path of pilgrimage also creates inclusivity and immersion in the Holy Land experience. These maps can be accessed in the back of Hurlbut’s book.
To the Underwood brothers, photography was powerful, especially in religious contexts. According to Rachel McBride Lindsey in A Communion of Shadows, the power of photography “facilitate[s] access to the sacred site without physical travel.”[iii] The photographs, especially when viewed in 3D through a stereoscope, transport the viewer to the Holy Land. The 3-dimensional image is an involved experience. Lindsey quotes a viewer, for example, who reported that the experience of viewing these photographs “is almost the same as if we were actually traveling in the Holy Land.”[iv] In Hurlbut’s introduction, he states that the photos make “the Bible real to us.”[v] Since the Bible does not contain photographs, these early photographs were important because they allowed viewers to visualize the places about which they read in their Bibles or heard in their church services. Because most people could not make the journey due to financial or other reasons, these photographs transported them to the Holy Land while they remained, physically, at home in the United States or elsewhere. The photos thus served as many people’s first images of the real Levant and Holy Land, making once ancient lands a little more accessible. Importantly, these images represented biblical Jerusalem, not contemporaryJerusalem. They thus transported the viewer not only through space but also through time, and specifically to the time of Jesus. This is a different type of immersive experience, more than simply reading biblical texts. As a minister, the words of Hurlbut were highly valued in his religious community and to religious users of this stereoscope series. His support of stereoscopic photographs helped make them popular and relevant in religious educational settings.
One important image to highlight is this context is the “Tomb of Our Lord.” According to Lindsey and the accompanying description on the card mount, the two women in the image were Syrian girls that Bert and Elmer staged for the photograph. This staging is based on Biblical Protestant interpretation. Hurlbut references three different versions of the same description of the tomb. First, he mentions John 19:41, “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” He also refers to Luke 23:53, “Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before,” and Matthew 27:60, “and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed.” Hurlbut exclaims in the card’s description: “Even the possibility that we may be looking upon the rock walls which once enclosed the body of Jesus brings the scenes of the burial, the sealing and rising vividly before us.”[vi]
This stereoscope series was not unique: it was part of a broader photographic trend. As stereoscope photography was the new craze in the mid 1800s, it made its way into the religious realm. Popular religious sets include Holy Land Tours (1900) and The Life of Christ (1904).[vii] Usually, when images of the Middle East, Levant, and holy sites therein were published, many were published as tourism or archeological photographs, not religious photographs.[viii] To adapt them for religious purposes, they would be published as “scriptural interpretation.”[ix] This framing as “interpretation” was important because the photographers and authors did not want them to be misunderstood as icons or sacrilegious images. Moreover, the photographs and book were sold through the Bible Study Department of the publishing company.
These images did not only serve as a form of travel from home. They also served a pedagogical purpose as religious educational materials. Some ministers actively supported the use of these stereographs as learning tools. The stereoscope images of the Holy Land, for example, became teaching tools in Sunday school programs and home schooling for American Protestants.[x] The cryptic description of the image, “Pilgrims in the Temple are: N. from El Aksa to Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem,” shown above, is a great example of this. The description on the back of this card is an excerpt from Hurlbut’s book. He first gives a general, geographical description: “We are standing in front of the Mosque El Aksa, just south of the Temple area, looking north to the Dome of the Rock.”[xi] After Hurlbut establishes the location of the image, he acknowledges that the people seen in the photo are “Mohammedans,” and then he quickly shifts to describe the photograph’s biblical significance. This gloss of a non-Christian pilgrim comes off as disrespectful, but Hurlbut seems mainly to be considering his Protestant audience, rather than Jerusalem’s local population. Rather than dwelling on the mosque itself, Hurlbut explains how this is the site of Solomon’s newly built temple. Then he jumps to explain how King Hezekiah held congregations in this same location. Hurlbut continues to take his reader through the history of the site, with reference to Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles, stating that “That voice sounded out over this very area and before such a throng as this.”[xii] It is not necessarily important to question how historically accurate Hurlbut is in his geography skills. More important, for our purposes here, is to recognize that he sought to provide context for his congregation or whomever else was reading his descriptions. The fact that Solomon, Jesus, and other famous religious figures were in the general vicinity of the site is proof enough for Hurlbut to keep the faith strong.
The written descriptions of the images that appear on the back of the photographs play a key explanatory role. Without these explanations that come with the images, viewers would have a difficult time understanding some of the subjects of the images. A worry in general with photography is that the framing of the image is decided by the photographer. One must ponder not only what is included in the image, but also what is excluded. The viewer must be wary of any hints of a forced interpretation of the image. Consider, for example, image 18 of the Dome of the Rock, as seen in Figure 5. The angle chosen provides a lot of foreground in the image. Why did the Underwood brothers choose this angle? It frames the Dome of the Rock nicely, but the disproportionate focus on the foreground is, at first glance, baffling. The description explains, however, that this image was taken at the northwest corner of the Haram enclosure, and that the foreground shows the “native rock of Mount Moriah, just as Abraham found it when he climbed this hill for the offering up of his son.”[xiii] We learn from this description that the focus of the photo is not the Dome of the Rock, as one might expect, but rather the ground before it, which is connected to Abrahamic history.
These stereoscopic images are a fascinating addition to the Fordham collection. While the collection holds only 30 of the 100 images, they tell a great deal about Jerusalem in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as well as the relationship that American Protestants sought to cultivate with Jerusalem from afar. The images contextualize modern pilgrimages and visits to the Holy Land with the new technology of the stereoscope. Bert and Elmer Underwood worked to reimagine the world of photography. These 3-dimensional images not only brought a new form of entertainment, but also changed how a biblical scene could be portrayed and viewed. The role of stereoscopic photographs in religious devotion and education is likewise important as the photographs bring those who cannot make pilgrimage closer to the sites through the medium of photography. Through such series, photography became an acceptable educational resource used to teach biblical narratives to children and adults.
Liliya Fisher is a FCRH senior Psychology major and Bioethics minor from Albany, NY. She is a hiker, animal lover, and proud vegetarian who is currently on her way to join the Catskill 3500 Club with her dog, Patch.
This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; the photographs and this essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library.
Hurlbut , Jesse Lyman. “Introduction,” in Traveling in the Holy Land, through the Stereoscope: A Tour Personally Conducted by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut (Underwood and Underwood, 1900), pp. 10–14, archive.org/details/travelinginholyl00hurl/page/10/mode/2up.
Lindsey, Rachel McBride. A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Smith-Pistelli, Della Dale. Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut. 24 May 2018, www.geni.com/people/Reverend-Jesse-Hurlbut/6000000018605674334.
“Stereographs.” Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.americanantiquarian.org/stereographs.htm
“Stereograph Cards – Background and Scope.” Background and Scope – Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (Library of Congress), Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/stereo/background.html.
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.
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. 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.  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.
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.)
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) meant the advance of Western education to Jews, at a time when 95% of the Iraqi population was illiterate. 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. 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.
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.
My uncle and another boy from the banned group were named Balfour (in a salute to Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretarywho, 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.)
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 Congregationwas 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.
 Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: JPS, 1979), 87-94.
 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.
 According to a report the World Jewish Congress titled “The Treatment of Jews in Egypt and Iraq,” from 1948.
 See www.inminds.co.uk/jews-of-iraq.html
 Spector Simon et al, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, 362-3.
 Spector Simon et al, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, 42 and 363.
 Golany, Babylonian Jewish Neighborhood and Home Design, 64.
 After the Young Turks Revolution in 1906, which allowed Jews to serve in the Ottoman army.
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.
The Maḥzor ʻim kaṿanat ha-paiṭan in Fordham’s Special Collections was published by Kashman ben Joseph Baruch Printing House in Amsterdam in 1767. It contains prayers for the holiday of Sukkot and was designed for the prayer leader’s personalized use. The prayer leader is identified in the Maḥzor’s cover page as the “paytan,” which is a term that means a liturgical poet and refers to the person who leads services. This Maḥzor features texts written in different types of script: traditional Hebrew block script, Rashi script, and Yiddish cursive script (see figure 1). It was intended for Ashkenazi Jews living Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe. The copy in Fordham’s collection contains 93 leaves with leaves 6 or 7 and leaf 9 missing from the digitized item. It contains solely printed pages. Unlike the printing house’s other publications, this Maḥzor does not bear the printer’s mark.
The Maḥzor s cover page claims to be “better than other maḥzorim today” and states that “nothing of its sort has been printed until now.”[i] It advertises the addition of Yiddish explanations to and commentaries of the Hebrew prayers.[ii]The prayers and Torah readings in traditional Hebrew script act as the headers of each leaf, followed by a smaller text in Rashi script, and concluding with commentary in Yiddish (see figure 2). There are also smaller instructions inserted between prayers that detail the specific intentions and directions for the prayer leader (and for those using the prayer book as individuals as well). Despite the Maḥzor’s lengthy commentary, it is possible that the book was also meant for the broader Ashkenazi community. The numerous Yiddish books printed in 18th-century Amsterdam sometimes featured “marginalia in Yiddish explaining the order of the service, local liturgical customs, and various rules about worship.”[iii]Ashkenazi Jews were encouraged to read the Yiddish explanations and recite the Hebrew prayers in synagogue.[iv]
Amsterdam’s Ashkenazic community had been growing since the 17thcentury. Individuals fled Germany after the Swedish invasion during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1630s and established themselves at the margins of the thriving Sephardic community already present in the city (who themselves settled in Amsterdam following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century).[v] The Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam regarded the more recent Ashkenazi Jewish arrivals as a social blight but nevertheless provided minimal economic support for them. Ashkenazi Jews continued to move to Amsterdam in waves. Jews from Lithuania and Poland left their home countries for Amsterdam in the 1650s.[vi]As they became outnumbered by the Ashkenazim, the Dutch Sephardic Jews “encouraged the separatist tendencies” among Eastern Europeans in order to weaken intracommunal Ashkenazic relations.[vii]Whereas Ashkenazim numbered around 500 in the 1640s, a century later Ashkenazim outnumbered their Sephardic brethren by 80 percent: of the 13,000 Jews living in Amsterdam, 10,000 were Ashkenazic.[viii]
Maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity was important to the Dutch Ashkenazim who were disconnected from their home countries and alienated by the contemptuous Sephardic Jews. The Ashkenazim were more likely to retain their traditional attire than the Sephardim, as Dutch artists depicted Ashkenazi Jews as visually distinct from the assimilated Sephardic Jews.[ix]Publishing texts in Yiddish allowed the Ashkenazim to further distinguish themselves from the Sephardim. Yiddish books were previously printed in Poland and Italy, but many of these publishing houses had collapsed by the 1750s. Amsterdam printers thus filled the market void left by these printing centers.[x]
Printing was an economic enterprise that elevated Ashkenazic Jews whom the Sephardim had deemed tramps and beggars.[xi]Jewish printers in Amsterdam produced an unprecedented number of Yiddish books and “declared that Dutch Yiddish books were better than those produced elsewhere.”[xii]The Fordham Maḥzor reflects this pride in Dutch Yiddish identities when it proclaims itself superior to other maḥzorim. The flourishing Yiddish printing industry in Amsterdam attracted literary agents from throughout Europe[xiii]and led the Dutch Ashkenazim to market to Jews in Europe.[xiv]It is likely that copies of the Maḥzor in Fordham’s collections were distributed outside of Amsterdam. As Dutch printers realized the potential for a broader European market, they developed an interest in reporting news in Yiddish— the first known Yiddish newspaper was published in Amsterdam.[xv]Shlomo Berger posits that the Yiddish press’ ability to unite Ashkenazim both in Amsterdam and abroad “[testifies] to an interest in Jewish life outside the Holy Land that attaches a unique importance to Jewish existence in Europe.” The ability to read Yiddish connected diasporic Jews who were unable to read Hebrew fluently. Furthermore, Yiddish offered a more contemporary appeal than Hebrew, which the Ashkenazim deemed archaic. Indeed, 18thcentury Jewish printer Hayyim Druker claimed that “building a Yiddish literary corpus was… about being involved in a process of change.”[xvi]
The Maḥzor in Fordham’s collection was thus part of a movement to modernize Jewish liturgical practice and strengthen Ashkenazic identity. Amidst these changes, Ashkenazi Jews still maintained a sense of belonging to the city of Jerusalem. The particular Maḥzor in Fordham’s Special Collections contains prayers for the festival Sukkot. Jeffrey Rubenstein recounts how the biblical harvest festival of autumn gave way to the rabbinic festival of Sukkot, which celebrates God’s protection of the Israelites following their flight from Egypt. Sukkot has long been linked with Jerusalem, as evidenced by King Jeroboam’s efforts “to prevent Israelites of the northern kingdom from making pilgrimage to Jerusalem” during the autumnal festival.[xvii]During the time of Jerusalem’s First and Second Temples, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage festivals. Jews traveled to Jerusalem to make the obligatory sacrifices involved with Sukkot,[xviii]and the sukkah built on Sukkot “originated as the temporary shelters erected by pilgrims.”[xix] Even the timing of Sukkot links celebrants to Jerusalem, as Sukkot occurs at the “time of year that inaugurates the rainy season in the land of Israel.”[xx]
Beyond its pilgrimage ties to Jerusalem, Sukkot is intimately associated with the memory of the First and Second Temples. Torah readings for Sukkot include accounts of the sacrifices that were brought by priests in the temple on each of the days of the holiday. One of the haftorahs in the Maḥzor is 1 Kings 8: 2- 21, which contains Solomon’s Temple dedication address. This liturgical reading connects Sukkot with the time of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, and reminded those who attended synagogue services and heard the Torah chanted of their connection with Jerusalem and its temple.[xxi]The dedication of the second temple also fell around Sukkot.[xxii]
Rubenstein claims that Sukkot “gave expression to fundamental beliefs of the Israelites: the revelation and theosophy, salvation of Israel, the exodus, renewal of the covenant, and the inviolability of Jerusalem.”[xxiii] Observance of Sukkot, which survived the traumatic destruction of the First and Second Temples, continues to assert Jerusalem’s sanctity. It is possible that Sukkot, with its themes of displacement, God’s protection, and Jerusalem’s “inviolability,” appealed to Ashkenazic Jews in Amsterdam. Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, the Ashkenazim left conflict and persecution in countries such as Germany, Lithuania, and Poland. Another haftorah in the Maḥzor, Zechariah 14: 1-21, declares that Jewish survivors of a cataclysmic war must go to Jerusalem annually to pay homage to God during Sukkot.[xxiv]The scripture associated with Sukkot refers to war, something with which the Dutch Ashkenazim were familiar. Salvation from war, both in Zechariah’s time and the 18thcentury, involves reflecting on Jerusalem’s memory.
At the time of the Maḥzor’s printing, Jerusalem’s temples were long-destroyed and Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule. The Ashkenazim yearned both for their homelands and Jerusalem. As a commercial object produced by Ashkenazic printers for Ashkenazim around the world, the Fordham Maḥzor demonstrates the unique methods Jews employed in relating to one another as well as their Holy Land. Reading texts in Yiddish allowed diasporic communities to understand and continue their religious practices despite their distance from Jerusalem and inability to read Hebrew. At the same time the Ashkenazim were, as Druker believes, modernizing their language and faith, they were maintaining Jerusalem’s memory through their rituals.
The Maḥzor for Sukkot belongs to the exhibit’s “Regional Relations” section. The objects in “Regional Relations” span different eras of Jerusalem’s occupation. From Roman bottles to medieval European indulgences, the objects demonstrate how Jerusalem established itself in the imaginations and practical lives of those outside the city. The Maḥzor is at once an emblem of a successful Ashkenazic printing industry and a symbol of diasporic longings for Jerusalem.
Ashley Condeis a FCRH senior English and Theology major from Los Angeles, CA. She is interested in Jewish Studies and enjoys listening to music and playing Animal Crossing.
This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; the Maḥzor and this essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library.
Baskind, Samantha. “Distinguishing the Distinction: Picturing Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in
Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam.” Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry 1, no. 1 (2007): 1-13.
Berger, Shlomo. “Books for the Masses: The Amsterdam Yiddish Book Industry.” European
I arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania via El Paso, Texas and Prague, in the Czech Republic.
On October 27, 2018, I was in Prague on a research trip when the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation occurred. News was sparse, in large part because mass shootings in the United States are so common that international news organizations now present them as part of the daily news. 11 people were murdered, and others injured, during Sabbath prayer services that morning. When I returned to the United States from Europe that November, the midterm elections had occurred, and the Pittsburgh tragedy had already faded from the news and the nation’s awareness. Then, in August 2019, a gunman walked into a Walmart in my hometown of El Paso and opened fire with another assault rifle, specifically targeting Mexicans and Latinos, killing 23 and wounding 23 others. The frantic day of phone calls and texts focused attention narrowly on my community (very Latino), my family (half Latino), my childhood friends (mostly Latino). One month later, in El Paso, I was able to visit and to walk the wall of tributes that sprang up spontaneously, and it was there that I saw this message from the Jewish Community Center—of Pittsburgh.
Suddenly it became clear to me that communities seemingly separated by geography, culture, and ethnicity were in fact closely connected not only by tragedy and compassion, but also alas by hate. Pittsburgh, far from El Paso, now seemed very near indeed, and from there it was only a small journey to Charleston, South Carolina, and the church shootings of June 17, 2015, in which 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were gunned down during a bible study.
Three different cities, three different cultures, even three different religious traditions – same fate, similar cause. The United States has stopped listening to the “better angels of our nature” and is drifting back toward a history of violence based on racial and religious hatred fueled by conspiracy theories about children abducted and then murdered for obscure cultish practices. In this regard, the Pittsburgh attack is particularly instructive. The murderer is an acknowledged white supremacist whose extreme anti-Semitic convictions led him to target the Jewish community specifically. It’s also striking that an explicit motive for his attack was the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) support for refugees from Central America. He expressed concern about the “migrant caravans” supposedly hurtling northward in an assault on the American border before the midterm elections. El Paso, Texas, one must recall, was and is a major destination for immigrants and more recently refugees. The Jewish community of Pittsburgh came under attack in part for its compassionate response to the very people who would be attacked 1800 miles away and 9 months later. As history shows, any conspiracy theory or hysteria over immigration in the United States will inevitably touch the Jewish community. As William Faulkner famously noted, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This brings me back to Prague. On the day before the Pittsburgh attack, I was wandering through the amazing Jewish Museum spread throughout the Jewish Quarter, ending up at the old Jewish Cemetery. Of course it was a melancholy and profoundly moving experience—a graveyard, after all, and one of the few Jewish cemeteries in Central Europe to survive the Nazis. Looking about me, I thought of the vibrant but nonetheless embattled community these graves represented. Their existence—and survival—in a turbulent and often-hateful environment are testimony that for this community, these lives mattered and still matter, not just generally, but in their particularity as Jewish lives. My visit to the Pinkas Synagogue – the second oldest surviving synagogue in Prague—only strengthened this sense, because inscribed on its walls are the names of 77,297 Moravian and Bohemian Jews killed in the Holocaust. “Say their names” is no empty slogan but an affirmation of existence and humanity.
That, for me, is one of the takeaways from the Pittsburgh tragedy, and from those other tragedies that have intersected with it. In the United States today, a central cultural and political debate focuses on whose lives matter. For some, the easy fallback is the claim that all lives matter. On the other hand, in Prague the destruction of the cemetery would have meant erasing not just individual lives, but the life of the Jewish community. Only by preserving the particular was it possible to recognize that Jewish lives counted, that they matter. This is why we must say their names. The same is true for Latinos in my hometown, and for Black Americans in Charleston and elsewhere who have to fight for the simple recognition that Black Lives Matter. Only when we finally accept this can we move on to some more universal affirmation.
W. David Myers is Professor of History at Fordham University. He is the author of “Poor, Sinning Folk”: Confession and the Making of Consciences in Counter-Reformation Germany (1996) and Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt (2012). He is currently the reviews editor of Renaissance Quarterly. Professor Myers is completing a new book, “American Torture and the Experience of the West.”