Days of Learning and Bounty

Every Jewish community has its own sorrows to bear, but perhaps none quite so poignant as the Jews of Iraq. The life of the oldest continuous Jewish community in all the world has now come to an end, and has done so in the saddest possible way: in silence and without marker. In the capital city of Baghdad, no museums honor the glories of Babylonian Jewish culture; no monuments stand in memory of the Jews who lived there, or those who fled in terror; no schools cultivate the talents of future generations. Indeed, virtually no Jews remain at all in a city where, within the past century, Jews constituted roughly 20 percent of the population.

The Iraqi Jewish community — nearly all of whom immigrated to Israel in 1950 — can trace its origins as far back as the year 586 B.C.E., when, after the destruction of the First Temple, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and deported most its inhabitants to his kingdom. ("By the rivers of Babylon," says Psalm 137, "where we sat down and wept/when we remembered Zion.") In 525 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar was defeated by Cyrus, the king of Persia, who possessed a more tolerant attitude toward his Jewish subjects and invited them to return to Jerusalem and build a new Temple there. Many of the Babylonian exiles returned to Jerusalem, but many others decided to remain in Babylonia (now Iraq), where a large and stable Jewish community existed until our own time.

In Babylon, the Jewish community grew into the leading center of Jewish scholarship, producing, among other works, the Babylonian Talmud. In later centuries, the community established world-renowned educational institutions, including the academies of Sura and Pumbedita, led by the gaonim (genius rabbis) who answered Jewish religious questions posed to them from all over the world. The community was largely self-governing, ruled by the exilarchs, who had broad powers of taxation and even imprisonment.

Arab rule over Iraq came to an end in the 13th century, and over the next 700 years the land was dominated by a series of invaders, from the Mongols to the Persians and, finally, the Turks, who ruled from 1638 to 1917. As was true in that other great Jewish commercial center, Salonika, the Jews of Baghdad thrived under Ottoman rule, becoming centrally involved in the country’s commercial life. Jewish merchants traded with their contacts, often fellow Jews, throughout Europe and the Far East. (It was during this period that Iraqi Jewish traders began to settle in Calcutta, where the community became known as the "Baghdadi Jews" of India.) Baghdad’s Jews traded in a wide range of goods, notably textiles, silk, precious stones, metal, porcelain and various foods and liquors. As in Salonika, the city’s markets were run primarily by Jews and were closed for business on Saturdays.

The year 1908 brought the rebellion of the so-called "Young Turks" in Istanbul, who installed equal rights and freedom of religion, further improving the lot of the Iraqi Jews (several of whom were elected as Iraqi delegates to the Turkish parliament). Progress accelerated in 1917, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the country was placed under the British Mandate. By this time, the Jews of Baghdad had grown to perhaps 120,000. This period, between the world wars, was a kind of golden age for the Iraqi Jewish community. As David Kazzaz writes in "Mother of the Pound" (Sephor-Herman, 1999), his history and memoir of the Jews of Iraq, "In my memories of the 1920s in the city of my birth, it is always springtime."

Most of the houses in the city were made of brick, one or two stories high, surrounding a central courtyard. When the weather grew warmer, the air carried the scent of roses and orange blossoms from backyard gardens. Sabbath afternoons meant a leisurely stroll over the pontoon bridge that had been built across the Tigris River. In the summer, when it was very hot, families would haul cots up to the flat, tiled roofs of the houses and sleep under the stars; in the dry night air, the families drank water from porous clay jugs that evaporated freely and so kept their contents cool.

Mothers and fathers were called not by their first names, but rather as um (mother of) or abu (father of), followed by the name of the first-born son. For centuries the men of the community had worn Middle Eastern robes, and women had covered themselves from head to toe in black silk abayas, sometimes with a black veil; by the early decades of the 20th century the robes had been replaced by Western suits, and women shed the abaya except when going to the marketplace or to Muslim neighborhoods. They spoke Arabic or French or English when conducting business with the outside world, but to each other they also spoke Arabi mal Yehud (Judeo-Arabic), a language spoken only by the Jews of Iraq, consisting of a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew, as well as scattered words from Aramaic, Persian, Turkish, French and English. Judeo-Arabic was thus a kind of repository of the Iraqi community’s history; as with so many of the world’s traditional Jewish languages, it is today spoken mostly by the elderly.

Like language, cuisine is a repository of a community’s history, often in the vestigial foodways of foreign invaders long-since repelled. Some of this can be seen in Iraqi Jewish cuisine as well, such as in the Persian-inspired combination of fruit and meat (one popular dish is meatballs in apricot sauce). Traces of the Ottoman Empire also appear, for instance, in the use of filo in sweet and savory pastries. In general, the cooking was less influenced by Turkey than was that of other Jewish communities who were closer to the center of the Ottoman Empire. Iraqi Jewish cuisine featured lots of fresh fish, caught from the nearby Tigris; sweet-and-sour stews flavored with tamarind or pomegranate; a Sabbath chicken-and-rice dish perfumed with aromatic spices, including dried rose petals; meat-filled rice dumplings called kooba, in a variety of sauces; and perhaps most distinctive of all, a Passover charoset made from date syrup. Like the community that produced it, this was once one of the world’s most important Jewish cuisines, and one that today exists only in memory.

Ingriyi (Iraqi Sweet-and-Sour Meat with Eggplant)

Ingriyi was a festive dish among the Jews of Iraq. This recipe comes from Monique Daoud of Bethesda, Md., who left Iraq in 1972. At the time, she was one of the last few hundred Jews still living in Baghdad.

1¼4 cup olive or vegetable oil

1 onion, finely chopped

11¼2 pounds beef or lamb stew,

cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 large eggplant, about 11¼2 pounds,

cut into 1¼2-inch slices

1 red pepper, thinly sliced

1 green pepper, thinly sliced

2 tomatoes, thinly sliced

1 cup tomato juice

1¼2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 4 lemons)

3 tablespoons sugar

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Add the meat to the pot, raise the heat to medium-high and continue cooking until the meat is well browned on all sides.

2. Cover the meat and onions with water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for one hour, skimming off any foam that may develop on the surface. Drain and set aside.

3. While the meat is cooking, place the eggplant slices in a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt and cover with paper towels. Place a heavy object on top and let stand for 30 minutes, then rinse the slices and pat them dry with paper towels.

4. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. In batches, add the eggplant and cook until lightly browned on both sides. (Add a bit more oil if necessary.) Drain on paper towels.

5. Preheat the oven to 350F. Arrange the eggplant in a large baking dish. Cover with a layer of meat and onions, and then the tomatoes and peppers. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

6. In a small bowl, combine the tomato juice, lemon juice and sugar. Taste and adjust the flavoring as desired. Pour the mixture over the layered meat and vegetables.

7. Loosely cover with foil and cook for 1 to 11¼2 hours, until the meat is very tender. Transfer to a large serving platter and serve hot with rice.

Serves 6.