The following book review by Lyn Julius of Nissim Rejwan’s The last Jews in Baghdad was published in the Rosh Hashana 2006 issue of Sameah:
The last Jews in Baghdad is really the story of the last intellectuals of Baghdad. The storyteller is Nissim Rejwan, who is now in his 80s.
Rejwan had a very tough childhood. His father being both blind and housebound, the family breadwinner was Nissim’s elder brother Eliahu. The family moved house constantly in Baghdad. The roles were later to be reversed when Eliahu arrived penniless in Israel, and Nissim, by then an academic with a steady income, helped pay Eliahu’s rent in a Ramat Gan slum.
Life in Baghdad during the 1920s and 30s is vividly described, although some readers may find Nissim’s account of his romantic adventures embarrassing. He lived through the cataclysmic Farhoud pogrom which killed around 180 Jews, but, disappointing perhaps for the reader, saw nothing of it. We do, however, get a clear sense of how politics and discrimination managed to close in on this apolitical, non-Zionist, who was eventually sacked – purely for being a Jew – from his job at a bookshop and excluded from writing eclectic reviews for the Iraq Times. He was wrenched from his cosy bubble of an intellectual circle, forced to dispose of his cherished library, smuggle out his savings and join the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1950.One senses that even now he is at a loss to explain how the deeply-rooted Jewish community of Iraq came to such a swiftly dramatic end.
One cannot but admire Nissim Rejwan: unlike the rest of the Alliance-educated Jewish elite, he attended government schools, supported and taught himself English and French. A voracious reader, he immersed himself in the English literature of the day. He flirted fashionably with Marxism and Communism. After 1950 his Jewish friends went their separate ways: Elie Kedourie, his close friend and literary mentor, became a celebrated professor of political science in London. Naim Kattan became a novelist in Canada. Only Charles Horesh stayed on in Baghdad, and ended up hanging from Saddam’s gallows in 1969.
The other members of Rejwan’s circle were mainly Shi’a intellectuals with whom he rarely discussed politics. Rejwan tried to re-establish contact with them after moving to Israel.
There is little about Rejwan’s life in Israel except an appreciation that the ‘Iraqi Jews came to Israel ill-equipped for the kind of political power struggle which awaited them’. The Zionist leadership of the Iraqi community in Israel failed to translate its almost mystical Zionism into influence within the Israeli establishment.
This is a well-written memoir with a somewhat banal title, but one cannot help feeling that Nissim Rejwan has padded out an earlier essay with reminiscences, a potted history of the Jews of Iraq and assorted esoteric reviews he wrote for the Iraq Times. The book does not come to any definite conclusions but the author epitomises the apolitical Iraqi Jew, uprooted by historical forces stronger than himself.