‘I’ve been cut off from my Baghdad soul’

 A young Israeli living in Berlin, Orit Arfa, asks why the Jewish world hardly ever talks about her Iraqi grandmother’s heritage. Why are there no serious attempts to recover Jewish property there, to open Jewish archives in Arab countries or evn to plan a Mideast ‘March of the Living’? Read her article in JNS News (with thanks: Claire)

 Orit Arfa: ‘you would have thought Jewish life never existed in Baghdad’

I remember one night, when I lived for a few months with my Iraqi
grandmother in Givatayim near Tel Aviv, I saw her cry in the corner,
listening to Arabic love songs on the radio. I asked her if she was OK
as tears rolled down her wrinkled, 80-something-year-old face. She said
the songs make her think of Iraq, and the good times she had there.
Since the Nazi-inspired Farhud pogrom drove Iraqi Jewry out, I don’t
think she ever really enjoyed life in Israel as much as she did in
Baghdad, where she married and gave birth to my mother. She suffered a
lot in Israel, with the premature loss of her husband and brother to
health compilations. She didn’t live with as much luxury and even, up
until the persecution of Jews in Iraq, with as much security.

She made the most delicious Iraqi foods, which I long to replicate but which are way more complicated than matzah-ball soup. Safta knew the recipes masterfully by heart for kubba, tibit
and those Iraqi, date-filled Purim hamantaschen. The Jewish world
produces countless kosher cookbooks on Ashkenazi delights, but hardly
any for Iraqi delights.

My mother is extremely proud of her Sephardi heritage, even though
she has since been “Ashkenized.” She prays at an Ashkenazi shul every
Shabbat, but she still takes her Sephardi machzor, prayerbook,
with her on the High Holidays, feeling great nostalgia for the Iraqi
cantors that make her almost as emotional as my grandmother was that
night she cried.

But the Jewish world also hardly ever talks about Iraq and Jewish
life in Arab lands. Every other day you’ll see a headline about Germany
or Poland, and something Holocaust-related, but one would think, from
the dearth of coverage, that Jewish life never existed in Baghdad, when
it was Baghdad—Babylon—that was the cradle of Jewish intellectual
civilization, the first Diaspora where Jews thrived and developed their
great legal, literary and religious traditions.

Aside from the work of a few underfunded organizations, we don’t hear
of any serious attempts to recover Jewish property there, to open
Jewish archives in Arab countries and to create Jewish “heritage” tours
in those lands. I realize that it’s physically unsafe, but why not
prepare for an eventual Mideast “March of the Living”?

‘ March of the Living to Baghdad’ drawn by Point of No Reader reader Ala Atar.

Baghdad is a part of my soul from which I’ve been largely cut off.
Jewish life in Middle Eastern lands has become a side note to Jewish
history. Perhaps, when Israel was founded, Jewish life in former Babylon
no longer wanted to be glorified. After all, Babylon is the
archetypical symbol of the Diaspora, and here Jews are returning from
the seat of the first exile! Why cry by the rivers of Babylon now?

But we should. While Germany owed the Jewish people the most after
World War II (so the focus on German restitution is understandable),
these days the Jewish people are in conflict with Arab lands, not
Europe. While Palestinians lay exaggerated and often illegitimate claims
for their own land, Jewish property in Arabs lands has never even been
put on the table.

Read article in full


  • She should be worried about her own soul. Why for goodness sake are you living in Berlin? What on earth has Germany got to offer you as a Jewess? You have zero connection to old Baghdad – but to Israel!!! So your dear grandma remembered some nice days from her youth. – so what ! All of us who made Aliya had very good days from our countries of birth. She could have stayed of course and been murdered? Her husband and brother died in Israel – Ok – but that's not Israel's fault – health complications do cross boundaries. Sephardi recipe cook books do exist but that a minor issue . I suggest you talk with some Sephardim with an Arabic background – I think they will tell you that they have no wish to go back there – because you cannot trust the natives there. Dream on !!

  • Although I really do not want to proclaim that I deeply understand the perennial bitter divide between Ashkenazism and Sephardism, I found her article interesting only in lamenting the lost Baghdadi Jewish world as a way to counter the incredulous idea of Arab displacement. Other than that, the article is pretty much rehashed naïve and mushy lament of something that we all should have by now overcome. I must remind Orit that the countless shtetels that housed millions of Jews have pretty much vanished from the European landscape, yet almost all Ashkenazim have not lost sight of their ancestors previous rich culture and contribution to Jewish social well-being, regardless of the utter physical destruction of their dwellings. If it were not for the few resting places of some prominent Hasidic Tzadikim, they would have turn the page and disconnect forever from any connection with the Edom and its blunt anti-Semitic mantle.

    Yes, Baghdad was a place of Jewish wonder and joy but it is no longer a place to even contemplate to visit, simply because by now all edifices would have been stripped of everything Jewish (Check the latest about Ezekiel tomb). I must remind Orit that the primary determinant of Jewish survival is memory and not physical places and edifices, although these are important, but they cannot endure the test of time, memories do.

    I had the opportunity by reading this entry to read through Orit's website. I am puzzled and pretty eager to understand what is her vocation (spiritual one I mean. I read she is that, that, and that. Too much "that's". I am old fashioned I guess. I'd rather stop now before I start kvetching about her marketing methodology.

  • I agree that it is increasingly hard to find Ashkenazi cuisine in the diaspora!

  • This girl is an idiot and I'd tell her to her face if I could. If her grandmother had nostalgia for the good life in Baghdad so be it.
    As regards Ashkenazi Jews, stop mocking and dissing us so as to show your superiority. Really now matzo ball soup a staple of every kind of diner in NYC has to disparaged? How petty. NY Time for at least forty years has been running Sephardi, Indian, Ethiopian, Baghdadi, Kurdish and other Jewish diaspora foods and dishes. So have scores of other publications. The largely Ashkenazi synagogue I attend has incorporated Mizrahi piyuttim. Stop your kvetching or is that too Yiddish for you?


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