Month: January 2015

How Jewish exiles lived in Babylonia


An exhibition shedding new light on the Jews who settled in Babylonia  in the 6th – 5th c. BCE is set to open at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalemon 2 February, i24 News reports.

Among the rare artifacts are 100 clay tablets from the Al-Yahudu
archive (named after the city that the Judean exiles settled, in
southern Iraq) which display evidence of the lives of the exiles.

The Al-Yahudu archive is a large archive of over 200 tablets, which
surfaced on the antiquities market in the early 1970s, and is currently
owned by two private collectors, according to museum’s site.

Each small tablet contains texts written in cuneiform in the Akkadian
language with sporadic writing in Aramaic and Paleo-Hebrew. Under the
supervision of Prof. Wayne Horowitz, the tablets have now also been
translated into Hebrew,

Complementing these artifacts are illustrations from the Medieval and Modern eras of the dramatic events.

Dr. Filip Vukosavović, the curator of the exhibition, explains that,
“the Bible Lands Museum has had the opportunity to receive on loan the
Al-Yahudu Tablets – approximately 100 Babylonian texts documenting the
lives of the exiled Judeans in Babylon in the 6th-5th centuries BCE .”

“We now know so much,” Vukosavovic adds. “They were considered state
dependents, paid taxes and followed Babylonian law. It was a
multi-cultural society, since there were also groups exiled from other
nations in addition to the Judeans.”

The Babylonian Empire”

The exhibition focuses on one of the people who is mentioned in the
tablets, Haggai Ben Ahiqam, and tells the tragic story through his eyes.

Haggai’s great-grandfather, who was from Judah, was exiled to

“Thanks to the tablets, we know a great deal about Haggai Ben
Ahiqam’s father, four siblings, grandmother, grandfather and
great-grandfather,” explains Vukosavovic. “We are going to show what
really happened in Babylon behind the scenes, the way the people lived.”

Read article in full

President Rivlin’s Iraqi family

With thanks: Sami

On his father’s side, Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin (pictured), is descended from the Vilna Gaon. His family have been established in Jerusalem since 1809.

However, his father ‘s first wife was Rahel Ftaya, of a distinguished Baghdadi family.

Rahel was a scholar who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and collaborated with her husband Yoel, who later became a professor of Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University. She died childless after 13 years of marriage.  In her memory, Reuven Rivlin’s father Yoel translated  the Koran from Arabic into Hebrew.

Rahel was the daughter of Rabbi Yehuda Ftaya, who was born in Baghdad in 1859 and was a disciple of the Ben Ish Hai.

Rabbi Yehuda was a famous kabbalist and saw himself as the reincarnation of Rabbi Yehuda Landau, a great Ashkenazi Halakhist.

It is said that during
the Second World War, the Nazis had reached Greece and
Rommel was on the borders of Egypt. Israel was caught in the middle. Rabbi
Yehuda prayed intensely at Rachel’s tomb and
went with other kabbalists to the boundaries of the Land of Israel where
they read Tiqqunim (rectifications).

Before he died in 1942, he received a sign from Heaven that the Nazis would not enter the Land of Israel.

After the death of his first wife, Yoel married Reuven’s mother, also Rahel, who belonged to the Rivlin clan.

Eichmann hoped Arabs would finish off Jews

A new book by Bettina Stangnethreveals that the leading architect of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, Adolph Eichmann – abducted from Argentina in 1961 and sentenced to death by an Israeli court – hoped that his Arab friends would complete his task of ‘total annihilation’ of the Jews. Review by Douglas Murray in the Spectator:

Eichmann (pictured) goes on to say that if he himself were ever
found guilty of any crime it would only be ‘for political reasons’.  He
tries to argue that a guilty verdict against him would be ‘an
impossibility in international law’ but goes on to say that he could
never obtain justice ‘in the so-called Western culture.’  The reason for
this is obvious enough: because in the Christian Bible ‘to which a
large part of Western thought clings, it is expressly established that
everything sacred came from the Jews.’  Western culture has, for
Eichmann, been irrevocably Judaised. And so Eichmann looks to a
different group, to the ‘large circle of friends, many millions of
people’ to whom this manuscript is aimed:

‘But you, you 360 million Mohammedans, to whom I have had a
strong inner connection since the days of my association with your
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, you, who have a greater truth in the surahs of
your Koran, I call upon you to pass judgment on me.  You children of
Allah have known the Jews longer and better than the West has.  Your
noble Muftis and scholars of law may sit in judgement upon me and, at
least in a symbolic way, give me your verdict.’ [pp 227-8]

Elsewhere Stangneth shows how open Eichmann must have been
in his admiration for Israel’s neighbours.  After Eichmann’s abduction
his family apparently became concerned about his second son.  According
to a police report, ‘As Horst was easily excitable the Eichmann family
was afraid that when he heard about his father’s fate, he might
volunteer to fight for the Arab countries in campaigns against Israel.’ 
As Stangneth adds, ‘Eichmann had obviously told his children where his
new troops were to be found.’ [229]

Of course for years after the war there were rumours that
Eichmann had fled to an Arab country.  He might have had a better time
there.  Other Nazis certainly did, including Alois Brunner – Eichmann’s
‘best man’ – who settled in Damascus after the war and who is now
believed to have died in Syria as recently as 2010.  Eichmann’s
Argentina years were certainly filled with frustration and rage.  What
is most interesting is how mentally caught he remained even before he
was captured, principally by the impossible conundrum of how to persuade
the world to accept what he had done and simultaneously boast about his
role in the worst genocide in history.

There is much more to say about this book.  But I do urge
people to read it.  Not least for the way in which Stangneth sums up the
problem with the only strain of Nazi history which really remains
strong to this day.  ‘Eichmann refused to do penance and longed for
applause.  But first and foremost, of course, he hoped his “Arab
friends” would continue his battle against the Jews who were always the
“principal war criminals” and “principal aggressors.”  He hadn’t managed
to complete his task of “total annihilation,” but the Muslims could
still complete it for him.’

Read article in full

Nessim Dawood: master of language

The Jerusalem Post has been interviewing the late Nessim Dawood’s Israel-based family and friends in order to put together this tribute to the Iraqi Jew best known for his translation of the Koran into English.

On November 20 the world lost a rare talent with the death of Nessim Joseph Dawood (pictured).

An Iraqi Jew, he is revered for his masterful translation of the Koran into English for Penguin Classics, never out of print since 1956. He was the 20th century’s most outstanding translator of Arabic to English and English to Arabic, and a man with an extraordinary sense of language and poetry. To paraphrase William Shakespeare, whose work fascinated the scholar from an early age: The man had music in himself.

Dawood’s translations of tales from The Thousand and One Nights collection put the original Arabic stories of Shahrazad onto the bookshelves of many an English- speaking living room, and his idiomatic version of the Koran became the go-to text for those who, while interested in its content, had been unable to contend with the old-fashioned and more literal renditions previously in existence.

The descendant of an ancient Jewish family that had left the Land of Israel before the destruction of the Temple, he was born in Baghdad, the sixth of seven children.

Yakov Yehuda, the youngest of the seven, and today one of Dawood’s three surviving brothers, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his scholarly sibling and their family history.

Their parents, whose marriage had been arranged – as was the custom at the time – both attended the Alliance Française (sic: Alliance Israelite – ed) school in Baghdad. They were fluent in French as well as Arabic, and their mother spoke enough English to teach the rudiments to her children.

“Our father, Yosef, was a merchant who had been an officer in the Ottoman Empire. Before we were born he had business concerns in Iran, in Isfahan I think, and therefore also spoke fluent Persian,” said Yehuda.

“Our [original] surname is Yehuda,” he said, explaining that the family is related to Sarah Yehuda, the mother of David Yellin, of David Yellin Academic College fame. This ancient family name did not, however, appear on Dawood’s Iraqi ID card, just his own given name, plus those of his father and paternal grandfather, “Nessim Yosef [Joseph] David.”

When he left his native land for England in 1945, the third name, adapted from David to Dawood (the equivalent in Arabic), became the surname on his passport. Later, his nom de plume was to be N.J. Dawood.

The Yehudas left Iraq for Israel when Yakov was 19, as a result of the difficult situation for Jews in Arab countries after the establishment of the state in 1948.

“Shortly after we came to Israel [in December 1950], we returned to the airport to collect a Torah scroll that my father had commissioned in Baghdad in the name of his brother, Salah, who died at a very young age, and that Torah scroll is now in an Iraqi synagogue, Ohel Ari, in Ra’anana.”

Yosef’s sons did not know “much” about their father’s side of the family. Yakov said that they were aware that their mother, “had two uncles, Aharon and Ephraim Tweg, who went to Turkey, to Istanbul, to learn to be pharmacists and then became the first two pharmacists in Israel.”

The medical vocation appears to have run in the family, as Dawood’s eldest son, Richard, is a doctor, author of Traveler’s Health, and his youngest, Andrew, a dentist, is involved with 3D printing, which includes making medical applications. The middle son, Norman, however, followed his father’s professional footsteps and works in translation.

Arriving in the Promised Land in the ’50s “was very difficult, we had left everything behind. There was not much money and we lived on a moshav at first, and after two years moved to Tel Aviv,” Yehuda explained.

The eldest of Dawood’s brothers, David, who left Iraq at the age of 16 to study in Beirut, was already in Israel, having arrived in 1930. Upon immigrating, he changed his last name to Eshed.

“It was usual for people to change their names when they came to Israel in those days,” explained Yehuda.

David spent some time in the UK, only to return to Israel and work in the government, in the Agriculture Ministry. Another brother, Fouad Salah Yehuda – named after his uncle – (who changed his name to Gad Eshed when he came to Israel, at David’s suggestion), “studied aviation in the UK, and when he finished [his studies] El Al contacted him and he came to work with them at the airport. He left [that position] after a few years and opened a motorcycle shop and a driving school for motorbikes,” said Yehuda.

The fourth of the brothers, Heskel, worked at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv as commercial attaché.

The two sisters were Matilda, who came to Israel in 1946, and Flora, who married in Iraq and moved to London, then Nice, and spent her final years in Monaco.

Upon arrival in Israel, Yakov enlisted in the IDF and then “worked in a factory, and after that I went to Bank Leumi at the airport at the age of 25; I left in 1985 having attained the position of assistant manager.”

Dawood did not immigrate to Israel with the rest of his family. He had been in the UK since 1945, sent there at age 17 on an Iraqi state scholarship to study English literature. He had exhibited an uncanny knack for this from an early age, having fallen in love with Shakespeare’s works as soon as he came across The Merchant of Venice while still a schoolboy.

He left Iraq on August 15, 1945, recalled Yakov, “the very day the atom bomb exploded on Hiroshima.”

His natural gift for language, and his perseverance, enabled Dawood to publish Arabic translations of English short stories in local publications while still in school in Iraq. According to researcher and fellow Iraqi Emile Cohen (“Tribute to Nessim J. Dawood: An Arab Jew in a Muslim World”), this attracted the attention of a respected democratic politician, Kamil Chadirji, owner of the Al-Ahali newspaper, who asked Dawood to translate articles from English for his periodical.

Chadirji, who also hired Dawood to teach English to his son, was to sign as guarantor for Dawood when he received a grant from the state to study in London.

Years later in the UK, Dawood – an assiduous book reviewer and contributor to letters to the editor of The Times – wrote a eulogy of Naim Tweg, his uncle and a former colleague at Al-Ahali.

Dawood’s received a scholarship to London University in the capital, but the university was evacuated to Exeter during World War II, where he toiled the next four years. The result of his labors was a double degree in English literature and Arabic.

Subsequently Dawood – whose fantasy was to translate Shakespeare into Arabic – qualified as a teacher and taught English at a secondary school in South London. He also spent three years as a journalist at The Jewish Chronicle.

In 1948, as an international student in London, he was thrilled to be invited to attend Shakespeare’s birthday celebration in Stratford-upon-Avon, a previously annual event that had only just resumed, following the end of the war. Years later – in 2011 – he was asked to speak at the same anniversary as the oldest survivor of that first postwar lunch, and shared anecdotes of the time, including how he met Shakespearean actors Claire Bloom and Alfie Bass at the theater bar. Over the years, Dawood attended several such lunches in commemoration of the Bard, whose work he continued to delight in.

In 1949 he married Juliet Abraham – the sister of his childhood friend Eliahu Abraham – at the Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London.

The couple were married for 65 years and had three sons and nine grandchildren.

But it was in 1952, when the young scholar attended a talk by E.V. Rieu, renowned for his Greek-to-English translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and founding editor of Penguin Classics (a subdivision of Penguin Books), that his life-course would change.

Rieu’s novel concepts went straight to Dawood’s core, as he explained in a 1990 interview with The Bookseller magazine.

The publisher spoke of “a new kind of translation,” of the “challenge of emulating the excellence of the original”; and the concept that “a good translator must be a good writer” and should use “idiomatic English”; that “a translation had to sound well when read out loud.”

“I was enthralled,” said Dawood in the interview.

He wrote to Rieu, enclosing a translation of the prologue to the book of Eastern tales that was to become a household name, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.

To Dawood’s amazement, what he received by return mail from Rieu was the offer of a contract to translate the Tales themselves.

Read article in full (Subscription required) 

Tribute to Iraqi Jew who translated the Koran

Baghdad hangings commemorated

Commemorations have taken place in Israel  on the anniversary of the hangings in Baghdad’s liberation square of nine Jews on 27 January 1969.

Over 40 years later, the community and its representatives are still
trying to grapple with the consequences of that fateful day.

the defeat of Arab armies on all fronts by Israel in the 1967 Six Day
War and the 1968 ‘war of attrition’, the 3,000 Jews who remained in Iraq
following the mass migration of the 1950s were being singled out for
vengeance by the Iraqi regime. Dozens of Jews had been arrested and
imprisoned. The remainder were placed under virtual house arrest. One
Jewish girl remembers that secret service men installed themselves in
armchairs opposite her house in order to keep her family under 24-hour
surveillance. The tension was such that she and her mother made a suicide pact.

bank accounts were frozen. Jews lost their jobs. Jewish students were
not allowed to pursue their university studies. Foreign trade agencies
were taken away from Jews and handed over to Muslims. Telephones were
cut off. There was no escape: Jews had to carry special identity cards
and could not obtain the necessary passports in order to leave the
country. They were virtual hostages to the regime.

intensified with the rise to power of the Ba’ath party in 1968. Saddam
Hussein was its deputy leader. Before long the regime had concocted a
story of ‘Zionist espionage’. The stage was set for a show trial of
unspeakable cruelty and cynicism. Of nine Jews falsely accused of being
Zionist spies, four were under the legal age to face execution. No
matter – the regime falsified their ages.

The late Max Sawdayee describes the scene on 27 January 1969 in his book All waiting to be hanged:

of people, red, excited, smiling, laughing, walking fast, running,
jostling – all with one and only one goal: to reach as quickly as
possible the square where the ‘traitors’ are hanged. We take the same
streets we came from, and return home. Wife tells us that she has heard
from neighbours that the ‘spies’ now hanged in the Liberation Square
were actually executed at the central prison at about eleven o’clock
last night. They were brought to the Liberation Square at about two in
the morning after improvised scaffolds had been erected by prisoners
mobilised from the central prison, and by soldiers. She has heard also
that many people were already there at two in the morning watching the
scene of preparations for the hanging.

“The poor ‘actors’ of
the scene… are dressed in special, humiliating brown linen trousers
and shirts, barefoot, with the hands of some of them (for some
mysterious reason) dressed in special white gloves. All of them are
labelled with large sheets of paper stating, first of all and in big
letters, their religion, then in small letters the reasons why they are

“ The sight of the nine, their heads twisted and
drooping, their bodies dangling from the gallows and swinging high in
the air, with all these vengeful mobs, all excited, agitated, cheering,
dancing, chanting, singing, cursing the dead, spitting and throwing
stones on them, or jumping high to catch their feet or their toes –
well, this sight is most humiliating and sad, and most unforgettable.
It shakes one to the bones. It shakes even one’s faith in humanity.

we tune in to our car radio, the announcer is still howling madly.
‘Great people of Iraq! You great people of Baghdad and Basra! Today is a
holy day for all of you! Today is your feast! The day of your joy and
happiness! The day on which you have got rid of the first gang of
despicable spies! Iraq, your beloved Iraq, has executed, has hanged,
has settled the account with those traitors! You great people of
Baghdad and Basra, get free, move, go to your Liberation Squares to see
with your own eyes how the traitors are hanged!’ then he goes on to
read the names of those ‘traitors’, perhaps for the third or the fourth
time. “

Morris Abdulezer, an Iraqi Jew now living in Canada, describes the lead-up to the hangings:

innocent men were tortured then put through a televised mockery of a
military trial, which culminated in nine of them being publicly hanged,
one acquitted and two others were sent to Basra to face another trial
and then were hanged on August 25, 1969 in Basra.

“I can recall
precisely how terrified and confused we were throughout the entire trial
and, more precisely, the night of January 26 when the guilty verdict
was announced by the military judge. We did not believe that the
sentence of death by hanging would be carried out because the whole
court process did not make sense, from the defendants who were not
allowed to appoint their own lawyers, to the stories and accusations
that were outrageous and full of lies, where the defendants were being
asked to bear witness against each other.

“We waited in fear,
praying and trusting in our Jewish faith and hoping for pressure to come
at the last minute from the international community to end this

But international pressure did not come – until it was too late.

reign of terror continued. Iraq’s rulers promised that there would be
further hangings. Every citizen was urged to inform against their Jewish
neighbours. Scores of Jews disappeared. Linda Menuhin, now a columnist
and peace activist in Israel, recalls that her own father was abducted
on the eve of Yom Kippur on the way to the synagogue. He was never heard
of again. “We don’t know what happened to my father exactly. Until
today we have never said Kaddish for him.”

Maurice Shohet,
president of the World Organisation of Jews from Iraq (WOJI), believes
that the number of Jews who were executed in prison, abducted, or simply
vanished without trace exceeds 50. After the American invasion of Iraq
in 2003, a young Jewish jeweller, newly-wed to one of the few eligible
Jewish women in Baghdad, was abducted in December 2005 and never found

Only five Jews remain in Iraq.

Article by David Kheder Basson in Elaph (Arabic)


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