September 18, 2018

Why I celebrate on a day of mourning

The sovereignty of the Judean kingdom in the land of Israel came to an abrupt end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the leading citizens to Babylon in 586 B.C.E.

Just over 2600 years ago, Babylonian armies destroyed the holy temple in Jerusalem, ransacked the ancient Kingdom of Judah, murdered scores of people throughout the kingdom (known as “Jews” – ie, the people of Judah), and hauled off scores more as captives, to the land of Babylon.

Fifteen years ago, around this very day, I stood on the edge of the land that once was a small city in that ancient Kingdom of Judah – on the exact spot where the city guard looked from his tower into the distance and saw flames of light extinguishing in surrounding towns. The ensuing darkness signaled that the Babylonians were approaching and the end was near.

A chill went through my spine.

While the rest of the people on the tour continued walking around the ancient city ruins, I stayed glued to that spot, feeling the warm breeze on my face, looking out into the expansive distance, imagining the terror that must have shot through the city people as they awaited their fates.

Their end was my beginning: the beginning of an exiled people in Babylon, who over the millennia transformed into a thriving, vibrant community — writing the authoritative Babylonian Talmud, launching the first ever Jewish learning institutions (yeshiboth, commonly known as yeshivas), and otherwise developing a rich and unique culture full of stories, music, language, spiritual teachings, architecture, prayers, dance, scholarly works, art, and religious rituals.

After nearly three millennia, my ancestors were sent packing once again: In 1950, my family was among the 100,000 Jewish refugees from Baghdad alone – forced to flee after a surge of anti-Jewish violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Most of these refugees, including my family, were absorbed by the modern state of Israel. As in hokey-pokey style: One foot in, one foot out.

While my grandparents, six aunts and one surviving uncle remained in Israel, my father continued his migration to Massachusetts, where he chose to go to graduate school.  There he met my mother, who had been on her way to New York from Colorado. When she’d gotten to the Massachusetts/New York fork in the interstate, however, she spontaneously decided to go north instead.

Together, they raised my sister and me as headstrong Iraqi Jews in Canada and California — teaching us the songs, prayers, religious rituals, food, personal and communal stories, Hebrew pronunciation, and a little of the language of Iraqi Jews.  (I can say the most important things in Judeo- Arabic: “watermelon,” “barefoot,” “hammer,” and “my stomach hurts.”)

I went on to disseminate this knowledge across the world, over the course of two decades, as part of my ground-breaking Jewish multicultural work. Still, as tirelessly as I worked, I could not re-create Jewish life in Baghdad. I was unable to undo the violence and destruction that Iraqi Jews had faced. I was unable to bring back everything that was lost in the upheaval and uprooting. I was unable, in short, to resurrect the Iraqi Jewish community — to bring it back to life as it once was, in bold Technicolor.

What’s worse, over the past few decades, those who grew up in Iraq have been growing old and dying. Meanwhile I have been isolated from so many of these people, for a number of complex reasons. I am an exile within a family and community of exiles. So where does that leave me?  Who am I?  And who will I be when the older generation passes?

Throughout the Jewish community around the world, thsa b’ab is a memorial day — a day of fasting, prayer, and commemoration.  It is a dark day, when people read paradoxically depressing yet triumphant stories about Jews who chose death over forced conversion, even when they had to watch their own children be killed before them. Today is also considered a day of terrible luck, replete with trembling fear, because the temple was destroyed not once, but twice on this day (the second time by the Romans, 656 years later).

I always have struggled with what exactly to do on this day. We are guided to actively induce a sense of grief and despair, so as to honor those before us and to remember being cast from freedom in our own land to captivity in someone else’s. But how, I wondered as a 14 year old in San Francisco, was I to do that, and what use was it anyhow? Actively feeling miserable and scared of moving all day long, because lordy knows what might go wrong next?

About a decade ago, I read an article by someone who suggested that this day actually should be one of celebration and honor: Yes, the temple was destroyed. Yes the kingdom was ransacked. Yes the people were hauled off as exiles. But look what’s come of it: vibrant Jewish life around the world, with the Babylonian exile reaching the far corners of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central, East, and South Asia, and the Roman exile stretching across all of Europe and the Americas.

As a Jewish multicultural educator, that spin resonated with me. Plus it was just so positive, so full of life and the pulsing rhythm of eternal change and transformation. It celebrated Jewish resilience and creativity and adaptation as a people, always surviving, always thriving, always pushing forward into new horizons.

And so, I realized, it is with me personally: Iraqi Jewish life is now gone, as Judean Jewish life once was gone as well. What stands in its place, in my shoes, is a vibrant, creative, pulsating mix of East and West, old school and cutting-edge, religious and secular, traditional and feminist. I express this mashup of perspectives by writing original songs for my band, Iraqis in Pajamas, which fuses punk rock with Iraqi Jewish prayers – making me a living, breathing, invigorating 21st century incarnation of all who came before me. Just like my Jewish ancestors on the rivers of Babylon, I am the beginning of something new.

And that is cause for celebration.

For two decades, Loolwa Khazzoom served as a pioneering Jewish multicultural educator, offering programs worldwide and publishing books and articles teaching about global Jewish heritage. She now channels her Jewish multicultural passion into her all-originals band, Iraqis in Pajamas, for which she is the singer, songwriter, and bass player.

Custody battle over rare Iraqi-Jewish historical documents

On May 6, 2003, 16 American soldiers of a special unit searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction entered the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

While the soldiers found no nuclear or chemical arms, they did discover 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the lives and history of the Iraqi-Jewish community from 1524 to the 1970s.

The historical trove was slowly disintegrating under 4 feet of water, so U.S. authorities in Iraq sent an urgent request to Washington for top conservation experts.

One week later, Doris Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the National Archives, arrived in Baghdad and was taken to the flooded basement. “When we opened the trunks where the documents were stored, we were hit by an overpowering moldy smell,” she recalled in a phone interview.

On Sept. 4, an exhibition including 23 of the recovered items, along with videos of the painstaking restoration effort, will open at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

The 2,000-square-foot exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” will continue through Nov. 15 at the Orange County site.

Among the show’s highlights are a Hebrew Bible with commentaries published in 1568, a Babylonian Talmud from 1793, a hand-lettered and decorated haggadah, and a lunar calendar in Hebrew and Arabic.

One section of the exhibition shows how the moldy mass of material was saved by the National Archives experts. “Every page had to be vacuumed, freeze-dried, preserved and digitized,” Hamburg said. On the Sept. 4 opening day, Hamburg will give a free public lecture at 10 a.m. at the Nixon Library.

After restoration: Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The exhibition is of particular significance to the roughly 3,000 Jews of Iraqi descent in Los Angeles, who make up the largest concentration among the estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Iraqi Jews in the United States. Other sizable communities are in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Arizona; Connecticut; Florida; and New Jersey.

The spiritual center of the Los Angeles community is Congregation Kahal Joseph, a Sephardic synagogue on the city’s Westside. It has a membership of some 400 families, about 90 percent of which are of Iraqi descent, with the remainder from Burma, Indonesia, India and Singapore.

After a number of years without a spiritual leader, Kahal Joseph welcomed Rabbi Raif Melhado to its pulpit last month.

The congregation’s former president and current chairman of the board is Joseph Dabby, who said he lobbied intensively to bring the exhibition to Los Angeles after it had been shown in New York;, Washington, D.C.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Asked why the exhibition venue would be located in Yorba Linda rather than at a central Jewish site in Los Angeles, Dabby said he had asked the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to host the show but was turned down by both.

Skirball museum director Robert Kirschner explained, “Of the many exhibitions proposed to us, unfortunately we can present very few. The museum gave this exhibition serious consideration several years ago, and I subsequently went to see it in in New York City. While it is a worthy exhibition, our decision was that it did not resonate closely with the Skirball’s mission, which focuses on the American-Jewish experience.”

At the Museum of Tolerance, director Liebe Geft stated that no one at the museum had been contacted about the exhibition.

She added that potential exhibits are judged on whether the subject matter and content are consistent with the museum’s mission, as well as with the logistics and available space. Currently, she said, the new Anne Frank installation is occupying all available space.

Dabby’s greatest concern, however, is whether the thousands of books, documents and artifacts will remain in the United States or be returned to the government in Baghdad, as was stipulated in the initial agreement allowing the transfers to the U.S. National Archives.

Given the unsettled conditions in Iraq and the presence of the Islamic State, with its penchant for destroying ancient monuments and historical religious artifacts, Dabby asked how anyone could guarantee the survival of the Iraqi-Jewish collection. His question was echoed by Maurice Shohet, the Washington-based president of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq.

“All the books and documents were taken forcibly from the Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and they still belong to us,” Shohet said. “I don’t know what the State Department plans to do, but at this time, it seems to be postponing any decision.”

The Journal asked the State Department for its view, and the same day received a lengthy response from spokesman Michael Lavallee, who made the following points:

As agreed to by the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Jewish Archive (IJA) is in the temporary custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for conservation, preservation, digitization and exhibition in the United States.

In May 2014, the Iraqi government extended IJA’s stay in the United States to allow its exhibition in more cities. After its Nixon Library display, the exhibit is due at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in December.

There are no definite plans for subsequent exhibits, but the United States “remains committed to the return of the IJA to Iraq, as per prior agreement,” Lavallee stated.

To the Journal’s question regarding the security of the IJA material should it be returned to Iraq, Lavallee responded diplomatically: “We will continue to partner with the Government of Iraq in countering the threat that [Islamic State] poses to the Iraqi people and heritage. Iraqi forces continue to make progress against [Islamic State] and it is impossible to speculate what the security situation would be at the point in the future when the collection would return to Iraq.”

Admission tickets to the Nixon Library ranges from $11.95 for adults to $4.75 for children. For additional information, visit ” target=”_blank”>ija.archives.gov

ISIS troops 10 miles from Nahum’s Tomb, Iraqi Jewish pilgrimage site

The Iraqi site believed to be the burial place of the biblical prophet Nahum is in danger of being destroyed by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Nahum’s Tomb in Al Ooosh, an annual pilgrimage spot for generations of Iraqi Jews, is 10 miles from territory controlled by ISIS, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

Until the early 1950s, thousands of Jews gathered at the site during the Shavuot holiday, some staying for as long as two weeks.

The tomb, inside an abandoned synagogue, is cared for by Asir Salaam Shajaa, an Assyrian Christian whose father and grandfather also cared for the site at the request of Jewish community leaders who fled, along with the majority of Iraq’s Jews, after the Iraqi government vowed to expel them following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1949.

Shajaa told Haaretz that he worries about the future of the tomb and the abandoned synagogue adjacent to it.

“I’m not sure how long my family will continue to stay in Iraq — we want to leave, most of the Christians want to leave,” Shajaa told Haaretz. “My brother says he will stay, though. If my family gets to leave Iraq, my brother and his children will look after the tomb. It will stay in the family, God willing.”

Joseph Samuels: Exposing crime against Iraqi Jews

His voice cracking with emotion, his eyes welling with tears, Joseph Samuels, 84 and a retired Jewish real estate developer, recalled the pogrom’s angry Muslim mobs in Baghdad that his Iraqi family and the Jewish community there faced during the Holocaust. Known as the “Farhud,” this violent pogrom was carried out against the Jews in early June 1941 and has rarely been spoken about publicly by those who survived the massacre. 
 
Samuels is one of a small remaining group of survivors of the Farhud, and during the past decade he has begun to write about and speak publicly about this dark chapter to various groups in Southern California.
 
“I was 11 years old when the Farhud broke out in Baghdad against the Jews,” said Samuels, who now lives in Santa Monica. “It was a horrible massacre of Jews for two days straight, with mobs of Muslims slaughtering the Jewish men, raping the Jewish women and throwing the little kids in the Tigress River.”
 
Samuels said Jewish homes and businesses in Baghdad also were looted during the Farhud, which was incited by the pro-Nazi regime in control of Iraq and by daily anti-Semitic radio broadcasts made by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. “My two uncles had their homes looted but escaped the mobs by jumping from the different roofs of homes in Baghdad’s Jewish quarter,” he said. “I was so frightened as a child — we brought furniture to reinforce the door in our home, which was located just outside the Jewish quarter. I saw Muslims looting outside, and I still remember them saying, ‘We’ll come back for you!’ since they knew which homes were Jewish because of mezuzahs.”
 
Although official records of the massacre claim nearly 180 Jews were killed and a few hundred injured, Samuels said the Iraqi Jewish community long has believed the number of Jews killed is closer to 1,000. He said he and his family survived the Farhud because British forces invaded Baghdad and stopped the violent mobs. Still, the memories of that pogrom haunted Samuels for nearly six decades, along with the painful memories of his escape with his brother from their homeland in 1949 due to the constant persecution of Jews. For many years, he said, he never even spoke to his children or anyone about his difficult life in Iraq, but he finally decided to open up after taking a memoir-writing class.
 
Samuels since has dedicated most of his free time to raising awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands during the last century. He has written articles about his own experiences during the Farhud and in fleeing persecution in Iraq that have drawn positive feedback from thousands of readers worldwide.
 
Samuels also has joined forces with the nonprofit group JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) to speak to Jewish students at local venues, including UCLA’s Hillel, Congregation Kahal Joseph in West Los Angeles and Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA). He said he is also slated to speak at a gathering of Christians United for Israel in San Bernardino in May.
 
“For me, it is important to bring out the story to the public for all to understand what happened to the Jewish community in the Arab lands,” Samuels said. “We were a 2,700-year-old community that was tortured, imprisoned, killed; [we] indirectly or directly had our properties confiscated and either had to escape from our homes or were forced out by the Arab regimes just because we were Jews.”