Month: August 2017

Recalling the Baghdadi music of India

In the cosmopolitan culture of the 1930s, the Baghdadi Jews of India had  their own record labels: the Iraqi-Jewish tunes performed by the oud player  Isaac David even found their way into Bollywood musicals.  In 2009, Sara Manasseh, a Mumbai-born ethnomusicologist, put together 15 tracks on an album called Shir Hodu. Fascinating interview in the Scroll magazine (with thanks: Dominique)

The dulcet ring of the oud is impossible to miss on the soundtrack of Yahudi,
Bimal Roy’s unlikely Bollywood historical made in 1958 about the
persecution of Jews in ancient Rome. The background score, composed by
Shankar and Jaikishan, has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel to it and as
the plot twists and turns, it often falls to the versatile Arabian
stringed instrument to signal the swirling emotions. As massacres are
ordered, betrayals ensue and Dilip Kumar falls in love with Meena
Kumari, the oud sobs, sighs and sings to enhance the mood on screen. It
could easily have descended into kitsch. Perhaps the reason it didn’t
was the fact that the man plucking the strings, Isaac David, was well
acquainted with Middle Eastern music.

David was Jewish himself
and in the early years of the last century, he had polished his art by
playing with an ensemble in Mumbai that recorded four discs of Iraqi
Jewish tunes for the Hebrew Record label.

Some of those tunes can be heard on a collection called Shir Hodu: Jewish Song from Bombay of the ’30s, which
offers a fascinating reminder of the city’s cosmopolitan heritage.
Released in 2009, the 15 archival tracks on the album have been
painstakingly put together by Sara Manasseh, a Mumbai-born Iraqi Jewish
ethnomusicologist who now lives in London. During the 1930s, Mumbai was
“a musical kaleidoscope”, Manasseh says in her liner notes, and the
pieces included music and Jewish prayer chants in Hebrew.

In 2012, Manasseh explained the historical and theoretical context of this music in a book titled Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition: From Baghdad to Bombay to London.

has long been home to three distinct Jewish groups. The largest is the
Bene Israel, who believe that their ancestors were shipwrecked off the
Alibaug coast in 175 BCE. From the nineteenth century, Iraqi Jewish
traders – Manasseh’s ancestors – fleeing religious persecution began to
settle in the commercial capital. This group came to be known as the
Baghdadis. In the 1930s, a small number of Jews from Kochi, whose
ancestors had arrived in Kerala in the 10th century BCE, also lived in

Both the Bene Israel and the Baghdadis had vibrant musical
traditions in the 1930s. The Bene Israeli repertoire was in Marathi,
drawing its themes from the Psalms and other Biblical sources. Among the
prominent community musicians was Nathan Solomon Satamkar, a dashing
silent movie actor whose family established two musical schools to
provide instruction in such instruments as the sitar and the dilruba,
Manasseh said.

To Mumbai’s ears, the music of the Baghdadis must have seemed far more exotic. Shir Hodu includes
tracks by Silman Museri, whose group included “dancing girls who would
balance candelabras on their heads”, Manasseh said in an email
interview. Also popular was Mnashi Abu Moshe, a blind singer who
sometimes entertained at parties thrown by Manasseh’s grandparents. “He
would sing popular Arabic songs from Baghdad, and also improvise
songs…about people who were at the party,” Manasseh said. “My
grandmother would sit by him and tell him who was there.”

Read article in full

Yemenite festival attracts thousands

Visitors will be flying in from New York and Los Angeles to attend this year’s Timanyada, a celebration of Yemenite Jewish culture and music in Eilat – the biggest yet. The Jerusalem Post reports:



HaMori Hazaken, a tribute to the strict religious teacher to which young Jewish boys were sent in Yemen. 

The festival held annually in Eilat has grown from a small event serving
a few hundred to a massive cultural event that attracts thousands of
people, with some people even booking flights from New York and Los
Angles just to attend.

This year, Yemeni culture will be celebrated with Yemenite costumes, traditional foods, and a special Shabbat custom called Ghala. Ghala,
which is essentially a Yemenite version of the American potluck dinner,
a community event in which each person brings his or her own food and
the group shares each others’ treats.

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Arabic site throws light on synagogue funding controversy

 The pan-Arab publication Al-Monitor has thrown some light on the controversy surrounding who should pay for repairs to the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria. According to one report, the tiny Jewish community was legally responsible. But the Egyptian government has decided that it would be unfair for the 13 Jews (the figure quoted in the article is exaggerated) to bear the burden (with thanks: Boruch).

Former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass told Al-Monitor that
Eliyahu Hanavi is one of the biggest synagogues in the Middle East, and
it is characterized by its unique architecture. The ceiling of the
women’s prayer room collapsed in January 2016 due to bad weather. At
that time, the Ministry of Antiquities formed a committee — led by
Mohamed Mahran, the head of the Central Administration for Antiquities
under the ministry and responsible for preserving Jewish heritage — to draft a plan to restore and protect the temple.

Magda Haroun, the head of the Jewish community in Egypt, has fought
many battles to preserve Egypt’s Jewish heritage, including one to
renovate temples — 10 historical ones remain — and turn them into
tourist sites. The walls of the temples have been weakened through
deterioration due to lack of funding for maintenance.

The Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue will be renovated at government expense (Photo: AFP)

The Ministry of Antiquities has suffered from low budgets and has
therefore not been of help. Haroun, an anti-Zionist, opposed accepting
foreign funding on the grounds that most Jewish associations abroad that
might be interested in donating such funding are groups supportive of

The funding to renovate Eliyahu Hanavi became somewhat controversial
when on July 5 Saeed Helmy, the head of the Ministry of Antiquities’
Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Monuments Department, pointed out that
Article 30 of Law No. 117 (1983), on antiquities, and amendments to it
in Laws Nos. 3 and 61 (2010) state that the Jewish community,
being occupants, shall bear all renovation costs for synagogues. Some
have therefore argued that the Ministry of Antiquities footing the bill
for renovation of Eliyahu Hanavi is a violation of the law.

According to the statute, the head of the Jewish community in Egypt —
for the time being Haroun — is in charge of the maintenance and
renovation of Jewish temples, whereas Egyptian churches and the Ministry
of Awqaf (or Religious Affairs) are in charge of renovating historic
churches and mosques. Maintenance and renovation have in the past been
funded by foreign Jewish figures and organizations given the small and
declining number of Jews in Egypt. Today only six Jews live in Cairo, and another 19 are thought to reside in Alexandria.

In 2015, the Ministry of Awqaf called on the Cabinet to amend Article 30,
which the ministry considered to be unjust. The ministry cannot cover
the project renovation costs, often in the millions of dollars, which
are based on decisions and recommendations of the Ministry of
Antiquities. Thus, the Ministry of Awqaf argued that its role be
restricted to providing funding to hire Muslim preachers (Christians are
responsible for their own), while the renovation of mosques becomes the responsibility of the Ministry of Antiquities. Article 30, however, remains in force.

The Ministry of Antiquities does not receive an allocated share of
the state budget. Rather, it is provided funding from revenues from Egyptian antiquities
expositions and tourism at shrines and museums. After the January 25
Revolution (2011), revenues dropped due to the decline in tourism
resulting from the security situation.

In July, the Ministry of Finance decided to allocate 1.27 billion Egyptian pounds
(about $70 million) for eight renovation projects, including the
Alexandria synagogue. The others were the Greek-Roman Museum, Mohammad
Ali Beshbara Palace, Baron Palace, King Farouk Rest House, Kassan
Palace, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization and the Giza

Hawass told Al-Monitor, “The listed Jewish temples
in Egypt amount to 10, nine of which are in Cairo, including the Adly
Street Synagogue [or Sha’ar Hashamayim] and Ben Ezra Synagogue, while
Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue is in Alexandria. The Ministry of Antiquities
is equally interested in Jewish, Pharaonic, Islamic and Coptic
antiquities as part of Egypt’s cultural heritage.” Prayers are still
occasionally conducted at Adly Street and Eliyahu Hanavi as well as other synagogues not listed by the Ministry of Antiquities for historic preservation such as the Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.

Hawass said that misunderstanding of Article 30 is responsible for
the funding controversy surrounding Eliyahu Hanavi. Preserving
antiquities is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of
Antiquities. He explained that in the absence of worshippers from a
community or their inability to bear the renovation costs, in this case
the Jewish community, the Ministry of Antiquities is supposed to assume
responsibility for preserving historical structures. By Hawass’
accounting, the number of Jewish worshippers in Alexandria stands at 18
elderly women and one man, Youssef Bin Jaoun. The last time prayers were
held in Eliyahu Hanavi was in 2012.

Hawass asserted that this is not the first time the Ministry of Antiquities has renovated a synagogue at its own expense. The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue
was restored in 2010 with ministry funding. The government refused to
take donations from the Israeli government for the project.

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A flawed view of Mizrahi history

This Haaretz article by Ron Cahlili misleads by positing an idealised view of ‘Mizrahi’ history under Muslim rule. The oriental Jews, he says,’chose’ to side with European Colonialism and Zionism: how much better might matters have been had they not have been so foolish. How absurd of them to want to escape from their status of precarious ‘dhimmi’ inferiority!  

Inside a Tehran synagogue.

“Dhimmi” is a deceptive term. On the one hand it implies an inferior, controlled civil and religious status, but it also defines the Jewish (and Christian) populations as religious minorities that are due protection. Yes, there were still some incidents of violence and oppression and harassment, but the system also enabled coexistence, shared culture, language, innovations and great achievements in philosophy, religious jurisprudence and other fields. One can certainly say that the current Jewish world would look completely different were it not for the innovations and changes wrought by Mizrahi Judaism, long before the Ashkenazim were born.

The entry of a foreign entity into this delicate fabric of relations – first in the form of Christian-European colonialism and later by Jewish-European Zionism – essentially undid it. At first, most of the Jews in the Muslim world chose to side with colonialism and turned a cold shoulder to the longtime Muslim neighbor, which the neighbor perceived as ingratitude; and at a later stage, right after David Ben-Gurion’s 1941 “One Million Plan,” and the acknowledgement that Zionism needed Mizrahi Jews to realize its vision, many Jews once again chose (or were forced to) turn a cold shoulder to the Muslim patron. The latter also began to dream of a separatist nationalism, and couldn’t abide the repeated insult from its loyal subjects, and began attacking and plundering and also expelling the Jews of Arab lands to their new homeland.

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Ceremony marks first airborne evacuation of Iraqi Jews

Operation Michaelberg was the first attempt to use aircraft  secretly to evacuate Jews from Arab countries to mandate-era Palestine. Shlomo Hillel, now 94, describes the nail-biting episode in detail in his book Operation Babylon: sent by the Mossad back to Iraq without notice and with no real idea of where they might land the ‘plane, Hillel had to pretend to be a member of the flight crew to evade the attention of the British authorities. The Jerusalem Post covers the 70th anniversary celebrations (with thanks Lisette, Ruth and Imre):

 Shlomo Hillel: led operation

Seventy years after the Mossad LeAliya Bet’s Operation Michaelberg brought 100 Iraqi Jews to British
Palestine by air, Israelis who were on the flight marked
the anniversary together, at the site of the former Atlit Detention

The hundreds of guests who attended the event on Wednesday night also
included family members of the rescued Jews and aliya activists who had
been involved in their immigration.

An aircraft of the same model as the one they traveled on to the Lower
Galilee village of Yavne’el in 1947 featured at the ceremony. Earlier
this year, the Curtiss C-46 Commando transport aircraft was brought to
Israel from Alaska, and restored.

The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, which brought the
plane to Israel with the support of the Jewish National Fund USA,
intends to turn it into an interactive display that will tell the story
of the immigration to visitors to the Clandestine
Jewish Immigration Information and Research Center, which is located at
the site of the former British detention camp.

“I am excited this evening, here in the Atlit refugee camp, as I was 70
years ago when I landed in the plowed field at Yavne’el,” said former
Aliya Bet agent Shlomo Hillel, 94. Hillel led the operation, which was
the first to bring Jews to British Mandate Palestine
illegally via the air.

Immigrants told their children and grandchildren the story of their
immigration to Israel. The operation was complicated and dangerous,
carried out under the noses of the Iraqi authorities, and landing in
Palestine in violation of British White Paper restrictions.

The Iraqi-born Hillel made aliya in 1934 with his family, at age 11. In
1946, he flew to Baghdad on an Iraqi passport and remained there for one

After Operation Michaelberg, Hillel visited Baghdad again in 1950 to
negotiate the mass immigration of the Jews of Iraq, 120,000 of whom were
airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah between 1950 and
1952. On these trips, he disguised himself as either
a Frenchman or an Englishman. The airlift was made possible through the
cooperation of Iran.

Read article in full


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