Month: May 2007

Journey back to my mother’s Baghdad…

The son of an Iraqi-Jewish mother, Joseph Braude ‘s work took him across much of the Arab world, but it was only when he met two of the last Jews in Baghdad that he felt he could be himself. Sentimental but elegantly-written essay in Best Life magazine.

“Maybe this passion to listen, to understand, to explain is the inevitable fate of a man born into a family whose history straddles the fault lines of today’s sectarian conflicts. Perhaps it all leads back to my mother, who became a refugee from Baghdad at age 5, one of more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews who fled their native soil in 1951 after 2,800 years of continuous history in Mesopotamia. But a refugee never entirely leaves the city of her birth. Memories of the place trail her through life, then live on in her children’s dreams. My brother and I grew up hearing her speak of a Baghdad that no longer exists—a peaceful multiethnic city, once a jewel of the Middle East, which has been fading from the war-torn landscape of Iraq for decades.

“Behind high vine-shrouded stone walls, my mother listened to her nanny tell animal fables under a palm tree’s restful shade. Roses, gardenias, lemons, strawberries, and okra grew in a garden flanked by water fountains. My mother tells me there were family outings in a colorful bustling town, of pastoral scenes at home that changed with the seasons. When winter’s cold crept into her house, the Persian carpets were spread across the chilly tiles on the ground floor, only to be rolled up and transplanted to the rooftop for the summertime, “when the family went up and slept in the open air to keep cool.” The Tigris River, too, brought a welcome breeze during the hot season: “We would take a boat to a little island in the Tigris, and your grandfather and your uncles would catch fish and spit grill them for our picnic.”

“Why, then, did she, her parents, five siblings, and tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews leave this wonderful place—nearly all at once? By the time we’d grown old enough to learn the answer, the sunnier parts of my mother’s youthful Baghdad had seeped into us.

“Even as a 5-year-old, my nose knew the smell of an Iraqi kitchen: Tbeet, a centuries-old Babylonian dish that cooks overnight on the Sabbath, features stuffed chicken quarters and whole eggs in their shells sitting in a reddish-brown cloud of rice, cardamom, diced tomatoes, cinnamon, and onions. This dish, she quipped, sometimes had to serve as a Baghdad mother’s tool of last resort to dissuade her son from leaving Judaism for Islam—not an unheard-of occurrence. “You can abandon our community, but are you ready to give up the eggs in this tbeet?” was supposedly the question that stopped many a prospective convert in his tracks.”

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Of refugees and Kassam missiles…

What do Arab refugees and Kassam missiles have in common? Gerald A Honigman, one of the few writing on the Middle East with a sense of context, explains in The American Daily that the Kassam was named after a Syrian-born ‘Palestinian’ leader, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam. Many of the ‘Palestinian’ refugees now in Lebanon are also of Syrian or Arab immigrant stock. But what is not often mentioned is that Jews from Syria were forced to flee in the opposite direction.

“Izz ad-Din made his name by butchering “Zionist invaders” during the early mandatory period after World War I.

“What else do we know about this legendary leader of the “Palestinians?”

“Well, for starters, Hamas’ hero–like most other allegedly “native Palestinians”–was born elsewhere. In his case, this killer of Zionist invaders was himself an invader from Ladeqiya–Latakia–Syria.

“In just one three month period alone, the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commissions documented scores of thousands of other Syrian Arabs pouring into the British Mandate of Palestine.

“Like numerous other Arabs moving in from elsewhere, they came to the Palestine Mandate to take advantage of the economic boom going on because of the influx of Jewish capital. And for every Arab newcomer–i.e. settler–that was documented, many more slipped in under cover of darkness and were never recorded. Add to this the fact that, for a number of reasons, the Brits were more concerned about entering Jews than entering Arabs.

“So lots of evidence exists which shows that–like the murderous Sheikh–most “Palestinian” Arabs were no more native than most of the returning, forcibly exiled, Diaspora Jews.

“Recall that so many Arabs were recent arrivals into the Mandate that when UNRWA was created to deal with the Arab refugee situation–again, created as a result of the invasion by a half dozen Arab states of a reborn Israel in 1948–it had to adjust the definition of “refugee” from the prior meaning of persons normally and traditionally resident to those who lived in the Mandate for a minimum of only two years prior to 1948. Keep this in mind regarding current discussions about those refugee camps in Lebanon.

“Also consider that for every Arab who was forced to flee the fighting that Arabs started themselves in their attempt to nip a nascent Israel in the bud, a Jewish refugee was forced to flee Arab/Muslim lands…but with no UNRWA set up to help them.

“Indeed, scores of thousands of Jews fled the same Syria that Sheikh al-Qassam migrated to Palestine from. Greater New York City alone now has some tens of thousands of these Syrian Jewish refugees. And hundreds of thousands of other Jews fled Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and so forth.

“Now bring this all together…

“An Israel not even the size of New Jersey absorbed more Jewish refugees fleeing Arab lands than Arabs moving in the other direction.”

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Alliance school still popular among French Jews

Some 60 percent of Jewish students attend Jewish schools in France. The Alliance school in Paris, continuing an educational tradition well established in North Africa, has 440 students. Orli Katz reports in Haaretz:

“Between the first round and the second round of the French presidential elections, the students at the Alliance school in Paris hung up a large poster that presented the two main candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. “You won’t find posters like that at Otzar Hatorah (an orthodox Jewish school),” says the principal, Michele Sarrabia.

“The founders of Alliance believed in a single basis for Judaism and the republic, that it is possible to be both Jewish and French. The parents who send their children here want exactly the same thing. There has to be congruence between the parents’ outlook and the spirit of the school. I do not think this happens at the Otzar Hatorah schools: They prefer separation from and not integration with the general society.”

Until the 1960s, the Alliance network hardly operated in France, but mainly in North African countries. This was, to a large extent, an ideological decision – to bring modernization and French progressiveness to the region. “When the Jew becomes a Western person and a cultured individual, he will become a fair and honest citizen of the country in which he lives. The model is the liberated and modern Jews of Western Europe,” says the motto of the Alliance Israelite Universelle movement, which was founded in 1860. At the height of its strength, there were 46 Alliance schools operating in Morocco.”

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Unloved last Jews of Lebanon live in the shadows

The Beirut Daily Star reports on the shadowy existence of what remains of the Lebanese Jewish community:

BEIRUT: Just a two-minute walk from the sit-in launched almost five months ago by the Hizbullah-led opposition, an abandoned and crumbling synagogue stands as the last remnant of a once-thriving Jewish community in Beirut. Known as the Magen Abraham Central Synagogue, it is located in the heart of Beirut in Wadi Abu Jmil, directly under the Grand Serail where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora works – an area that has become the focus of ongoing political tensions in Lebanon.

Lebanon's few remaining Jews live out their lives in the shadows The synagogue’s rusty gates are held shut with chains, and its punctured roof howls when the wind blows. While thick weeds and grass have taken up residence around the building’s foundations, the Star of David still crowns its every column.

Given the obscurity of the structure – which dates to 1925 – amid the posh new edifices of the Beirut Central District, some people in the locale understandably said they were surprised a synagogue sits in the area.

Several private security guards patrol the area around the synagogue and have been instructed by Solidere, the publicly held company that owns many properties Downtown, to keep an eye on the place.

“Just in case of trouble,” said one security guard. “Besides the synagogue, there is also some private property around here [owned] by Jewish Lebanese.”

The site was allegedly part of Solidere’s renovation plan, initiated by slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but that has been put on hold.

Not far from Downtown, a Jewish cemetery in Sodeco contains hundreds of tombstones with names and epitaphs etched in Hebrew.

The Jewish community in Beirut, estimated at less than 100 and nearly impossible to identify, once numbered as many as 14,000 and can trace its roots bacy to 1000 BC.

The Jews are one of 18 religious groups officially recognized in Lebanon but generally keep their religious identity secret for fear of persecution from other sects.

“No one likes us here, so we keep a low profile and pretend to be Christian or Muslim,” said one Jewish Lebanese businessman who spoke on the condition that he remain “untraceable.”

“We can’t even bury or visit our loved ones in the Jewish cemetery out of fear someone might see us,” he added.

A 2004 report said one out of 5,000 Jewish Lebanese citizens registered to vote had actually participated in municipal elections held that year. Most of those registered are believed to be deceased or to have fled during the Civil War that divided the country along sectarian lines in 1975.

The largest exodus of Jews from Lebanon began in earnest after 1982, when Israel invaded the country (An unfair dig -many left in 1967 and after 1975, during the Lebanese civil war – ed).

Some say most of the remaining community consists of old women, and one particular one, a 50-year-old known as Liza Sarour,lives in grave poverty in Wadi Abu Jmil and refuses to talk to the media.

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Restoration of Jewish cemetery(via Jews of Lebanon blog)

Maurice el Medioni, French-Algerian music legend

If there is one Jewish musician who knows about breaking down barriers, it is the 78-year old French-Algerian pianist Maurice el Medioni – barriers between Jews and Arabs, between Europe and Africa, between musical genres and between the generations. In London to receive a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, he was interviewed by Lemez Lomias in The Jewish Chronicle of 25 May.

“Born in the Derb, the Jewish quarter in the coastal town of Oran, Algeria in 1928, his music is a glorious flashback to a golden age of post-war optimism. (…)

“The longstanding Jewish community – records indicate Jewish presence in Algeria since at least the late Roman period – was stilll managing to tread the fine balancing line between the Muslim majority and their French masters, and local Jewish stars serenaded the crowds who flocked to the coastal clubs to hear love songs that flitted between French and Arabic, sometimes from line to line. (..)

“I play la musique orientale, la musique andalouse,” (he said). “Us Jews, we call it judeo-andalouse; the Arabs call it arabo-andalouse. But there is no difference – it is a kind of traditional music that came to us from Spain after 1492, (the year of the expulsion from Spain of the country’ s Jews) and it was kept alive all across North Africa.” (…)

“Although much has been written retrospectively about this era as a golden age of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, Maurice is keen not to let nostalgia cloud his memories of the time.

“I was on good terms with everybody, because that is the type of person that I am. But I wouldn’t say that the Jews and Muslims got on particularly well,” he said.

“Relations were soon to reach their nadir in the bloody War of Independence in the 1950s and early 60s, and the Jewish community – who, unlike their Muslim neighbours, had been given French citizenship a century earlier – were suspected of having pro-French sympathies and ejected from the country in no uncertain terms.

“It was la valise ou la tete – to leave immediately or be killed. But when we left Algeria in 1961 – 62, we had the feeling that we were leaving our soul behind, our guts, our entrails. When we arrived in France, it was as though we had left a good land and we were being planted in cement, It was very difficult – a tree cannot grow in cement.”

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