Letter From New York: Beyond Babylon and Baghdad
Unsmiling figures with long beards and head scarves greet any visitor walking through the unmarked door at 85-34 Midland Parkway. These portraits - rabbis who lived in a faraway land centuries before it was known as “Iraq” - are a reminder that the Babylonian exile continues here, albeit comfortably, in a converted brick ranch house in Queens.
In New York City, there are perhaps a few thousand Iraqi-born immigrants. Most of them are Jews, and most of them, about 400 families, are on the mailing list of Congregation Bene Naharayim (”Children of the Two Rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and the Euphrates), which was founded in suburban Jamaica Estates in 1984.
Many of the members here left Iraq more than 30 years ago, often finding their way through Iran, India, or Israel before re-communing in New York. “Somehow the Iraqis stay together,” says Josephine Akerib, a former president of Bene Naharayim who was born in Basra and lived in Egypt, Morocco, and Iran before coming to Queens in 1955. “When you see them all sitting there, it looks like a big family.”
About 70 members gather in the sanctuary on this Saturday morning. Men and women sit separately, though less by religious principle than by tradition, which governs every practice. The Torah scroll, one of several that were brought out of Iraq, stands upright as it is read, encased in its cylindrical wooden shell. Each man called for an aliyah announces an amount of money he is donating - in lieu of major dues, this is how members help the synagogue meet its finances. The Arabian-influenced melodies and inflections - a hard “w” replaces the Ashkenazi “v,” a strong, gasping “h” takes the place of the throat-clearing “ch” - sound exotic and somehow more authentic.
“This is the only place where we can hear our own way of doing things,” says current synagogue president Maurice Shohet. “We feel that we are perpetuating our tradition, our minhag.”
This morning’s portion, from the last chapters of Genesis, contains the blessing Jacob gave his son Joseph before dying, an especially significant passage to Iraqi Jews. “Ben porat yosef… ‘a charming son is Joseph,’” Shohet explains. “We bless our children with the same blessing.”
It is also inscribed on most Iraqi hanukiot, the Hanukkah menorahs, including the one that made international headlines when it was used to rededicate Saddam Hussein’s palace on the first night of Hanukkah 2003. The hanukiah was designed and donated by Oded Halahmy, a Baghdad-born sculptor who now lives in Manhattan. “For me, it was another [Hanukkah] miracle,” he tells me. “It’s a great feeling.”
Almost without exception, the members of this community supported the war against Saddam. This month marks the 35th anniversary of the public execution of nine Baghdad Jews accused of spying for Israel - the beginning of the Baath Party’s terrifying reign. “They wanted to show their power, to intimidate other groups and the Jews were the first example,” Shohet says. Among those murdered was one of his neighbors. A year later, Shohet’s family made their escape to the north, where Kurdish smugglers escorted them across the mountains into Iran.
Besides religion and politics, the community is also held together by its common dialect: Judaic Arabic, which dates back to the Arab conquest of 638 BCE (prior to that, Babylonian Jews spoke Aramaic). It’s actually a much purer strain than modern Iraqi Arabic, which has been influenced by Turkish and Persian and Bedouin languages.
At the kiddush luncheon following services, it is the vernacular of choice, at least among the older members - as with Yiddish, the dialect is disappearing among younger generations.
Everyone, however, can enjoy the food. There are bagels and tuna salad, but also pita and hummus, hard-boiled brown eggs (an Iraqi specialty), fava beans, and spicy pickled mangoes. “Rabotai…please wait for the motzi,” Shohet beseeches, as hungry congregants start to dig in. Some Jewish customs are universal.
The walls of the social hall are adorned with maps detailing 2,700 years of Jewish life in the region. Outside of Israel, no part of the world claims more historical ties to Judaism than the swath of Mesopotamia currently known as Iraq. Abraham was born there, and it was there that the great prophets later preached to the Jews during the exiles and that the Babylonian Talmud was redacted into the most authoritative compilation of Oral Law.
By 1948, there were nearly 150,000 Jews in Iraq. Over the next three years, all but a few thousand left everything behind and fled to Israel. Following the Six-Day War, most of those remaining followed. Today, there are perhaps a few dozen Jews left in the entire country.
Shohet shows me a report on Jewish holy sites that he received from the provisional government in Baghdad. There are pictures of the elaborate tombs of Ezekiel, Joshua, Ezra and others (more prophets are buried in Iraq than in Israel), covered in Hebrew lettering that dates back more than 2,500 years.
Now, he is involved with a group called Iraqi Civil Society and hopes to get his community involved in exchanges with other expatriated Iraqis. He also hopes to return to Iraq for the first time in 34 years, perhaps as part of a mission to visit and help restore the Jewish holy places. At least one community member has already traveled back, and Shohet predicts others will follow when the country is more secure - though certainly not everyone.
“You can give me all the millions in the world, I wouldn’t go back to Iraq,” Akerib says. “I never felt I belonged there. But here, this is my home.”