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 

Jerusalem Series: An Ashkenazi Maḥzor from Amsterdam and Diasporic Longings for Jerusalem

Ashley Conde FCRH’21

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]

Figure 1: Maḥzor ʻim Kaṿanat ha-paiṭan (Amsterdam: Kashman ben Yosef Barukh ha-ḥotem Hirts Levi Rofe ṿa-ḥatano Kashman, 527 [1767]). Title page of with examples of different scripts used. SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1767 1|V.3
Figure 2: Maḥzor ʻim kaṿanat ha-paitan. First page of the prayer text, featuring the “ma tov hu” prayer with commentary.

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 Mazor 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 Mazor 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 Mazor 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 Mazor 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 Mazor 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 Mazor, 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 Mazor’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 Mazor 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 Mazor 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 Mazor is at once an emblem of a successful Ashkenazic printing industry and a symbol of diasporic longings for Jerusalem. 


Ashley Conde is 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.  


Bibliography:

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 

Judaism: A Journal for New Europe, 42, no. 2 (2009): 24-33, accessed online December 7, 2002. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41444027.

“First Days of Sukkot: Haftorahs in a Nutshell,” Chabad.org, accessed online December 2, 2020, 

https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/742779/jewish/First-Days-of-Sukkot-Haftorahs-in-a-Nutshell.htm.

Kaplan, Josef. “Amsterdam and Ashkenazic Migration in the Seventeenth Century.” Studia 

Rosenthalia 23, (1989): 22-44, accessed online December 7, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41481726.

Mazor for Sukkot, 1767, Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies— Judaica Collection, Fordham 

University Archives and Special Collections, Fordham University Libraries. https://www.library.fordham.edu/digital/item/collection/p17265coll5/id/5220

Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods.

Providence: Brown UP, 2020, accessed online December 2, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvzpv502.1.

“Sukkot in LBI Collections,” LBI.org, accessed online December 13, 2020, 

https://www.lbi.org/collections/jewish-holidays-lbi-collections/sukkot-lbi-collections/.


[i] Conversation with Professor Gribetz, December 2, 2020

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Berger, “Books for the Masses, “25.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kaplan, “Amsterdam and Ashkenazic Migration in the Seventeenth Century,” 25.

[vi] Ibid, 37- 38.

[vii] Ibid, 38.

[viii] Baskind, “Distinguishing the Distinction,” 7. 

[ix] Ibid, 10.

[x] Shlomo Berger, “Books for the Masses,” 25.

[xi] Ibid, 27.

[xii] Ibid, 27.

[xiii] Ibid, 28.

[xiv] Ibid, 30.

[xv] Ibid, 31.

[xvi] Ibid, 28.

[xvii] Rubenstein, A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, 19..

[xviii] Ibid, 25.

[xix] Ibid, 27.

[xx] “Sukkot in LBI Collections.” 

[xxi] “First Days of Sukkot Haftorahs in a Nutshell.”

[xxii] Rubenstein, A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, 41. 

[xxiii] Ibid, 21. 

[xxiv] “First days of Sukkot Haftorah in a Nutshell.” 

The Ethical Will, Embodied: American Jewish Museums and the Women Who Created Them

By Ariel Paige Cohen

We are on the precipice of the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in human history. Over the course of the next 10 years alone, at least $4.1 trillion is expected to change hands from American baby boomers to their millennial and Gen Z children. The United States is currently the country with the most ultra-high net worth individuals, and individuals account for four out of every five philanthropic dollars in the United States (foundations and corporations account for the other 20%). Additionally, of all ethnic groups in North America, Jews give the most to charity per capita as of 2016 reports by Giving USA.[1] As a result, many of those who will be giving wealth to and receiving wealth from their loved ones over the course of the coming decades are, or might become, Jewish philanthropists – that is, self-identifying Jews who are donors, and/or people who give to Jewish organizations and causes. 

History is informing these donors’ giving practices even if individuals aren’t always aware of it. Some scholars are exploring the ways in which philanthropy has defined the twentieth-century evolution of the American Jewish community, including Lila Corwin Berman in her new book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex. These important studies show us the processes from history that created the present giving landscape. But the “ethical will” concept and the legacy of cultural philanthropy are both largely ignored in American Jewish studies, and both are vital keys to understanding the history of American Jewish philanthropy as a whole. This article offers two American Jewish museums as case studies for the ways in which the built environment can serve as an embodied version of the ethical will. Perhaps with a greater understanding of the history of American Jewish philanthropy, complete with intergenerational transfers of ethical values and the history of American Jewish museums, the next generation of donors will be empowered to lean on the tools and traditions of Jewish history in their own giving. Further, because Jewish cultural philanthropy was first envisioned by women, this history urges a move toward gender equity in the narrative of Jewish philanthropy. Let us examine what these intertwined histories of Jewish ethical wills and American Jewish museums have to offer us. 

The first Jewish museums in our country with their own independent addresses were created by women in New York and in Boston. Through their visionary writings and donations, these two philanthropists, one a wealthy German Jewish heiress and the other an educated middle-class rebbetzin, promoted a vision that left an indelible mark on American Jewish identity and that shaped the earliest Jewish museums in North America. By creating the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue (famously still extant today) and the historical Jewish Museum of Boston, Frieda Schiff Warburg and Mignon Levine Rubenovitz wrote their own ethical wills, reclaiming and reinventing a masculinized practice from medieval Judaism.

Left: Entrance hall of the Warburg mansion, as it was originally furnished. Right: the entrance as it appears today as the Jewish Museum’s Skirball Lobby; installation view from the exhibition Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Valeska Soares, November 6, 2015-April 25, 2016. Photo by: David Heald.

The ethical will hails from the men of medieval Jewish communities primarily residing in France and Germany. Leaning on biblical precedent, the first medieval writers of ethical wills used Genesis 48 as a template for their own writings and cited it as a binding decree for fathers to write “moral exhortations” for their children.[2] In Genesis, Jacob gathers his sons and grandchildren before his death and says: 

May the G-d before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the G-d who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm – may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly on the earth. (Genesis 48:16).

In medieval Europe, ethical wills were written exclusively by Jewish fathers to their children. Designed for private, familial use and written in informal language, they revealed the emotional composition – fears, hopes, dreams, frailties – of the author. As Stefanie Siegmund has shown, some ethical wills hailing from the Spanish inquisition commanded readers to do business honestly, wear special clothes on the Sabbath and other occasions, honor one’s body, and practice sexual modesty. As Jacob Marcus has uncovered, some from fourteenth century Germany discuss charity, refraining from speaking out of turn, reciting blessings, and living in primarily Jewish neighborhoods. As Israel Abrams has demonstrated, some ethical wills even enter into Jewish philosophical debates and command children to adhere to one leader or another (for example, Maimonides).

The ethical will was scantly present in the later early modern Jewish communities but has not disappeared from the Western world. During industrialization in the 1880s, wealthy Americans, Christian and Jewish, revived the concept, writing ethical wills as detailed estate plans to be used by their families after their deaths. In the early 20thcentury, chaplains and caretakers for patients in hospice began to help men and women compose ethical wills orally or in writing as a comfort to the dying and an offering to the living. American celebrity physician Dr. Andrew Weil now defines ethical wills as documents of intergenerational spiritual healing, bridging gaps between parents and their sons and daughters. 

In 1926, the first-ever compilation of Hebrew ethical wills was published in the United States by the Jewish Publication Society.[3] During this interwar period, as many American Jews became middle-class, they confronted massive societal changes and decentralized communities. The immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 dramatically decreased the number of Jewish immigrants, and successful American Jews began searching for the instruments of community that would not only keep Jewish global heritage alive but could creatively remake it with each generation. Frieda Schiff Warburg, named JTS’s first female board member in 1937, began to consider creative ways to commemorate and breathe life into the global Jewish experience of millennia past, and to pass Jewish history and ethics on from her own generation to the next. 

 In January 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg wrote a seminal letter to the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary announcing her donation of the Warburg family’s three-story Gothic mansion on the corner of 92nd street and Fifth Avenue. She envisioned her home as a museum:

With the consent of my children, I am now ready and glad to offer my former home… to the Jewish Seminary of America to be used as a Museum… I would like my gift to be [remembered as]… my affirmation of my faith in the fundamental principles of our Jewish Traditions, which can be helpful and constructive in the problems of the World Today… It gives me great happiness to think that the house… should now continue to live on to further the ideals of our family traditions.

Schiff Warburg’s correspondences and 1956 memoir reveal that she imagined the Jewish Museum as an ethical will to her own children and grandchildren as well as to the American people. When Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, which is often cited as a second template for the ethical will, he predicted their successes if they adhered to G-d’s ethical code. Similarly, in her writings Frieda Schiff Warburg predicted the open-mindedness and successes of the Jews and Americans who would walk through the halls of her former home. Invoking her children and future grandchildren in her letters and speeches leading up to the opening event, Schiff Warburg clarified her mission: to steer future Americans in the directions of cultural pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and artistic richness. 

 In Boston, there was another American Jewish woman moved to display Jewish objects as pleas to present and future Jews to pass along values from one generation to another. Motivated more by fear, loss and devastation than her distal friend Schiff Warburg, Rebbetzin Mignon Levine Rubenovitz of Boston’s prominent Conservative outpost Temple Mishkan Tefila called upon American Jews to “rescue Jewish history from the broken hands of those who live under the malignant skies of Europe.” Levine Rubenovitz began to collect objects and to write about a future Jewish Museum in Boston when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1940, she founded her museum as a model of the “great responsibility” of American Jews: to liberate Jewish objects from Europe and guard them in the United States on behalf of world Jewry. In other words, her museum was her own version of an ethical will, too, pleading for American Jews to keep Jewish ritual objects safe for future generations. In her founding museum document, she wrote: 

Perhaps I have told you enough to convey our underlying purposes – the quiet, painstaking salvaging of the symbols of Jewish values, of Jewish idealism and dignity, at a time when millions of our innocent and unoffending coreligionists were ground into the dust. Here a precious few of Jewish treasures are treasured: Jewish aspirations made concrete. While the guns roared in Europe where our people, martyred, fed the flames, we unceasingly pursued our peaceful task of succoring, albeit in small measure, the things they wrought to express their belief in the sacredness of human personality and its corollary, the faith that freedom would not, must not, perish from the earth.

Now, in 2020, as Jewish elders prepare to leave our earth, many are concerned with imparting their legacies and inherited Jewish values to the next generation. Several years ago, a group of Jews got together to form the Jewish Future Pledge which calls upon all Jewish donors to give 50% of their philanthropy to Jewish causes. American Jews are increasingly turning to outside organizations for help in facilitating conversations with their children, who they hope will be next-generation givers to Jewish causes. Many fear a looming loss of Jewish history, culture, and practice in next-generation America. Some want to invest in the Jewish non-profits that will serve and maintain community for generations to come.

Some Jews are now also reviving an ancient and medieval Jewish concept to pass along their ethics to their children. The ethical will, filled with spiritual, religious, and ethical significance to the Jewish people specifically, is serving a renewed purpose in families and private spheres as we prepare for the world’s largest-ever transition of intergenerational wealth. One might wonder whether the next Frieda Schiff Warburg or Mignon Rubenovitz is on the horizon to explore the ethical will through an altogether new modality. As more ethical wills are being written in the traditional style – with words on paper – I am curious to see whether more will be written in nontraditional styles that set precedent for future Jewish ventures. I predict that women, again, will imagine them. 


Ariel Paige Cohen was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in the Fall of 2020. She spoke about “Feminine Power in the History of American Jewish Museums” in September, 2020.


[1] https://givingusa.org/just-released-giving-usa-special-report-on-giving-to-religion/

[2] I. Abrahams, “Jewish Ethical Wills,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 3, no. 3 (1891): 436–84, https://doi.org/10.2307/1450009, 448.

[3] Israel Abrahams,צואות גאוני ישראל (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1926).

“Sarasohn vs. The Workingmen’s Publishing Association”: Socialism, Capitalism, and American-Jewish entrepreneurs in the Yiddish Press in 1890’s New York

By Yael Levi, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On August 22nd, 1898, the Jewish-Russian journalist Phillip Kranz, pseudonym of Jacob Rombro, received a subpoena from the Supreme Court of New York City. Kranz and other writers and editors of the “Workingmen Publishing Association” learned that “the action is brought to recover damages for libel, for a willful, reckless and atrocious libel.” The plaintiff was Kasriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the most important Yiddish and Hebrew press publisher in New York at the time. Sarasohn was represented by his son Abraham, a young and successful lawyer.

The trial revealed some of the most fundamental tensions in the Yiddish press in 1890s New York: orthodox versus secular; capitalism versus socialism; a family business versus a workers‟ organization, popular journalism versus cultural elite journalism, etc. All of these tensions presented themselves openly.

Dos Abendblatt, 1898, NYPL-Dorot Jewish Division

The cause for Sarasohn‟s complaint was an article from the socialist Yiddish daily “Dos Abendblatt” (The Evening Paper; founded in New York on 1894). The socialist daily had been attacking Sarasohn for months, publishing one investigation after another about his misuse of charities, as well as misrepresenting himself as a friend of the workers‟ class supporter, a supporter of the Zionist cause, a charity organizer – thus gaining support, good reputation and capital – while using them eventually for his own profit. Sarasohn demanded 20,000 dollars for the damage to his reputation within the Yiddish speaking community in New York.

Sarasohn was born in 1835 in Paiser, Suwalki County in North-Eastern Europe. His brother in law, the typesetter and editor Mordechay Yahlomstein, escaped to America in 1861, and on 1865 he wrote back to Sarasohn, recommending him to immigrate to America and to found a printing business. Sarasohn settled in New-York in the early 1870s and opened a small printing house. The business grew successful, and the Sarasohn family would later become a prominent force in the Yiddish and Hebrew press in America.

The defendants in the trial, Phillip Krantz and Bernard Feigenbaum, were also Jews from an East-European origin. They came to America in the early 1890s with a solid socialist ideology. After arriving to New York they were involved in writing and editing the socialist weekly “Arbeter Tsaytung”, and later the socialist daily “Dos Abendblatt”, both of which funded by the Socialist Labor Party.

The articles against Sarasohn were originally published in Yiddish; the plaintiff provided a transcript and an English translation to the court. Soon enough the trial shifted from Sarasohn‟s misdeeds to the political affiliation of the defendants. In an article which was published in “Dos Abendblatt” during the trial under the title “Sarasohn informs the court on us as anarchists”, the paper claimed: “Sarasohn writes in his prosecution that we are heretic socialists, „anarchists‟, „demons‟, hoping thus to convince the American jury”. According to the journalist, Sarasohn aimed to put “socialism on trial.”

On his final address to the jury, Sarasohn‟s lawyer – his son Abraham – accused the defendants of being “socialists, anarchists, nihilists […] He told the jury that we are coming from a country (Russia) when every written line must be signed by a policeman, and because of that when we came to this free land – where there is freedom of the press, we misuse this freedom”. The verdict of the trial, given on March 1901, was in favor of Sarasohn; the jury accepted his claim and decided that the “Workingmen‟s Public Association” will pay him 3,500 dollars plus trial expenses.

The fact that Sarasohn was accusing the socialist journalists of being Russian is counterintuitive: after all, he came from a not so far region three decades earlier; he surely didn‟t think any of his newspapers were misusing the very same freedom of the press. However, by using this argument, Sarasohn was able to differentiate between himself, the “good” immigrant, and the socialists, the “bad” immigrants – a very useful differentiation in Fin-de-Siècle America.

This legal case can serve as a key for understanding the ideological and political trends of Jewish immigrants from Eastern-Europe in the first two decades of mass migration. It can also shed light on two major types of economic immigration and Americanization. These types represent different aspects of American capitalism in the 19th century: the worker(s) and the entrepreneur(s).

Sarasohn was different from his opponents in the type of the project each of them ran: “Dos Abendblatt” was an ideological and political project, rather than a profit-oriented business. Sarasohn on the other hand had a family business, not very different from other immigrant entrepreneurs in the late 19th century: it was a small scale project, ran and operated from his home at 175 East Broadway during the first years; his children were his typesetters and later became his business partners; and he didn‟t have any local background both financially and administratively. Put it this way – Sarasohn was an immigrant and an entrepreneur.

Sarasohn’s enterprise – a weekly and later a daily newspaper in Yiddish – was indeed an early form of American Jewish entrepreneurship. He had to count on family labor, communal support and home-based production. But Sarasohn‟s sweatshop was different: his product was a “Jewish” product. Unlike a pair of pants, a tie or a box of cigars – it couldn‟t have been produced and couldn‟t have been bought by non-Jews. Sarasohn needed typesetters who could read the Hebrew Alphabet, and he counted on Yiddish readers to buy his newspapers. The type of the project can also explain why Sarasohn was so worried about his reputation in the Yiddish speaking world: it was his clientele.

The 1890s New York Yiddish press represented vividly the Yiddish worlds of the city, and the main ideological debates were represented in its papers both as a subject and as an object. As the Sarasohn case shows us, understanding the role of the Yiddish press in the Jewish community of the East Side is crucial for portraying the historical and political context of the era.

Yael Levi was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in Jewish Studies in the spring of 2019. Below is the lecture she delivered at Fordham University in April 2018.