As a student of history and Judaism, the Diaspora has always intrigued me. I have always found it fascinating that a tribe of nomads from the Levant could spread so far across the globe. Most Jews are familiar with the two largest Jewish ethnic divisions: Ashkenazim are Jews who lived in Central and Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish and, overwhelmingly, were victims of the Holocaust. Sephardim are Jews originating in Spain or Portugal who fled the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the expulsions of the fifteenth century. Legend has it that Beyazid II of the Ottoman Empire, hearing of the Jews’ penchant for banking and finance, invited these newly homeless refugees to settle in Muslim lands. It is said that the Sultan scoffed at the Spanish ruler’s shortsightedness and proclaimed, “Ye call Ferdinand a wise king; he who makes his land poor and ours rich!”
When these exiled Iberian Jews reached North Africa and the Middle East, they found already thriving communities of Jews whose practices and cuisine differed greatly from their own. In fact, it is said, some of these indigenous Jews were hardly distinguishable from their Muslim and Christian-Arab neighbors. Many of these scattered “tribes of Israel” retained their ancient Jewish traditions while adapting the local aesthetic. They wore customary business attire, spoke Turkish or Arabic, and lived in mixed communities with Christians and Muslims. These were the Mizrahim, some of the oldest communities of Jews in the world.
One of these communities resided in what is now modern Iraq. The legacy of Jews in Iraq dates back more than two and a half thousand years to ancient Babylon. It was here the exiled Israelites wrote the Talmud and ushered in the age of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. In 2003, United States forces stormed the basement of Saddam Hussein’s military intelligence headquarters in search of nuclear weapons. Little did they know that they would unearth a Jewish literary treasure trove to rival the Cairo geniza excavation. “In the basement, in four feet of water, they found thousands of books and documents relating to the Jewish community of Iraq–materials that belonged to organizations and synagogues in Baghdad.” The U.S. Government and the National Archives worked together to preserve these precious artifacts and manuscripts in order to shed light on a bygone age. Recently, I had the privilege of attending an exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum where some of these documents and artifacts were being showcased.
Perry Fein is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.
“Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” runs from Sept. 4th to Nov. 15, 2015.
For more information please visit: www.nixonlibrary.gov/themuseum/exhibits/2015/DiscoveryRecovery.php.