Month: March 2020

How Baghdad plague led to Sephardi cultural revival

In these coronavirus days, Point of No Return is moved to reflect on the impact of epidemics through the ages. Quite a few affected the Middle East, and no doubt devastated the local Jewish communities. But the plague of 1743 brought an influx to Baghdad of 50 Sephardi families from Aleppo, led by Rabbi Sadka Hussein, born in 1699. Although he and his sons Nissim and Yacoub were to die in the plague of 1772 -3*, he exerted a significant Sephardi influence on Jewish cultural life in Baghdad.

 According toWikipedia:

In 1743 there was a plague in which many of the Jews of Baghdad, including all the rabbis, died. The remaining Baghdad community asked the community of Aleppo to send them a new Chief Rabbi, leading to the appointment of Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein.[26]

 Culturally, it would prove a decisive moment when Chief Rabbi Shmuel Laniyado of Aleppo picked his protegé for Baghdad. It is said he was accompanied by fifty Sephardic families from Aleppo.[27]

Many of them were Rabbis who were to sit on the Beth Din of Baghdad and Basra.[27]

 This led to an assimilation of Iraqi Judaism to the general Sephardic mode of observance. Jewish culture revived, with communal leaders as Solomon Ma’tuk being renown for his work as an astronomer, library and piyyutim.[28]

The Ottoman empire in 1774

This brought the leading Jewish families of Baghdad, and with it, their Jewish practice into the network of Sephardic scribes and later printing presses established in Aleppo, Livorno and Salonica. Surviving records of the contents of the library of Solomon Ma’tuk shows a great number of books purchased from Sephardic scribes and some even originally from Spain.[29]

Further driving this process was the high esteem in which Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussein was held as a halakhic authority.[27] This saw him accepted as a halakhic authority by the Jews of Persia, Kurdistan and the fledgling Baghdadi trading outposts being established in India.[27]

 Sephardic Rabbis and their rulings and practices were held in higher esteem. The historian Zvi Yehuda says the period saw the wheels turn in the relationship between the Babylonian Jewish communities and those of Iraq and Persia: “Before the 18th century, the Baghdadi Community needed the support of those communities; now the Baghdadi Community influenced them.”[24]

 The 18th century saw the Jewish community of Aleppo exert a significant influence over the Jewish communities of Baghdad and Basra not only culturally but economically.[27] Syrian Jewish families establishing themselves in Iraq were often formerly Spanish Sephardic families from Aleppo. These were typically high-class families such as the Belilios family who were frustrated with the dimming prospects of Aleppo and attracted to Baghdad and Basra’s booming trade with India.

This process saw the leading Jewish families of Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo grow to be heavily interlinked through marriages, religious life, partnership and trade in the 18th century.[27]

 As this process of cultural assimilation saw the Jews of Baghdad come to more closely resemble the Jews of Aleppo, economic decline in Syria, Kurdistan and Persia worsened. The 18th century saw a growing number of Jews leave from there to Baghdad, Basra or the Baghdadi-led outposts being established in the Far East.[27]

The still small and reemerging Jewish community of Baghdad became a migration destination with Jewish families settling in Baghdad from Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Ana and Basra. A key driver of this was decline of the old caravan route running between these cities.[27]

There was also migration from the communities of Palestine, the villages of Kurdistan, and it is said that a handful of Jews settled in Baghdad from Germany.[27]

By the early 19th century, Baghdad had been reestablished as a leading Jewish center in the Middle East. There were over 6,000 Jews in city, two synagogues and strong community institutions.[27]

 This was not a golden age, however. Over time, the centralized Turkish control over the region deteriorated and the situation of the Jews worsened, but the population continued to grow very rapidly. An example of this deterioration is the persecution of Dawud Pasha, which began in 1814 and lasted until 1831. Many leaders of the Jewish community, such as Solomon Ma’tuk, were forced to flee. One of the foremost leaders of the community, David Sassoon, was forced to flee first to Busher and then to India.[30]

*This outbreak is  recorded as being one of the most severe, killing an estimated two million people in Persia (Iran) and Persian-controlled lands to the west, including 250,000 in the city of Basra alone. 

Postcript: the Iraqi Jewish Archive, now in the US, has a treasure trove of original manuscripts by Rabbi Sadka Hussein that have never been published. There are enough manuscripts of sermons and novellae to publish three volumes,  and manuscripts on Jewish law to publish a fourth volume. The Sephardic Heritage Museum is currently having them printed.

Maimonides on Jewish humiliation under Muslim rule

We should not idealise Jewish life under the Muslims, which in some cases, was just as bad as life in Christian lands, writes Eli Kavon in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle) :

Maimonides: Jews bear burden of humiliation

Judaism and the Islamic world, “God has entangled us with this people, the nation of Ishmael, who treat us so prejudicially and who legislate our harm and hatred…. No nation has ever arisen more harmful than they, nor has anyone done more to humiliate us, degrade us, and consolidate hatred against us.”

The myth that historians have propagated is that Jewish life under the Muslims was safer and more successful than the life of Jews in Christendom. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in this proposition; “Golden Ages” in Baghdad, Andalusia, and the Ottoman Empire highlight periods of tolerance and the powerful status of court Jews.

Read article in full

Pillar of Casablanca community dies of coronavirus

With thanks: Vanessa

Coronavirus  has claimed the life of a pillar of Jewish life  in Casablanca – Meir Michel Tordjman. An entry by a wellwisher on his Facebook page on 25 March records that he had been ill.

Born and bred in Casablanca, Tordjman, 62,  was open-minded enough to make available the Benarroch synagogue, built in1912 and famous for its acoustics, for concerts. One such concert  in 2013 was  the first public concert in a working synagogue in Casablanca,  and was arranged as as a goodbye gift to US Ambassador Sam Kaplan and his wife Sylvia.

The Tordjman family are responsible for maintaining the Benarroch synagogue, which is in the centre of town and popular for Barmitzvahs and other communal occasions. Casablanca has about 2,000 Jews.

Casablanca has the highest number of cases of the virus in Morocco, with 133 cases on 29 March. There have been 24 deaths in the country.


Meir Michel Tordjman z”l

Some other Jews lost to coronavirus

Gaza in a bygone age of Jewish-Arab cooperation

Fascinating piece by Nadav Shagrai in Israel Hayom exploring Gaza’s unknown Jewish history, before the strip became associated with religious extremism:

The old town of Gaza before 1963

Who would believe that only 110 years ago, then Chief Rabbi of Gaza Nissim Binyamin Ohana, and then mufti of Gaza Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, co-authored a book?

 “In Gaza,” Ohana wrote in one of his essays, “I wrote a book, Know What the Heretic Will Say in Response with the mufti of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah, who would visit my home twice a week because he wanted to know the exact meaning of the verses copied from the Old Testament into the New Testament by the apostles.”

 Ohana also wrote that he initiated the construction of a mikveh (ritual bath) for women in the city, as well as a project to purchase ground for a Jewish cemetery after he saw how the dead of Gaza were transported to Hebron for burial on the backs of donkeys.

 The children of Gaza – Jews and Arabs – liked to wear daggers embellished with locally produced beads. On Muslim holidays, Avraham Elkayam would take part in horseback and wrestling competitions.

“We purposely lost to the Bedouin, lest they be offended,” the Jews of Gaza would later recall.

 In September 1910, the newsletter “HaPoel HaTzair” reported that “relations between Arabs and Jews are very good, and no Jew has ever suffered in Gaza for being a Jew.”In 1914, Zvi Hirschfeld, the founder of the Ruhama moshava in the western Negev, wrote in his diary that “On Tu BiShvat the children from the Gaza school had an excursion on our land and planted trees and ate the fruits of the land and celebrated the New Year for trees in a befitting manner, with songs and poetry.”

Read article in full

More about Jewish Gaza

How a Canadian musicologist helped rescue 3,000 Syrian Jews

This is the story of Judy Feld Carr, a Canadian musicologist, who played an important part in the rescue of Syrian Jews, held hostage by the regime until the 1990s. Article in the Jerusalem Post magazine: 

Judy became involved in saving Syrian Jews from 1975

Judy came across an article from The Jerusalem Post that reported on the tragic deaths of 12 Syrian Jewish men, who ran across a minefield while attempting to flee the country to Turkey.

Judy was struck by the fact that the Syrian guards callously stood by and watched them die, one by one.

 “I was a musicologist, I didn’t know anything about Syria,” says Judy. “But something inside of me wanted to learn more and raise awareness.”

 Judy and Rubin approached the Israeli Consulate to see what they could do, where the consul instructed: “schrei gevalt” (Yiddish for “yell a lot”).

 Since independence, Syria’s estimated 40,000 Jews were subject to some of the worst forms of violence and discrimination imaginable. Unlike other Arab states,Syrian Jews were not officially expelled from the country.

 That did not stop the government from torturing and murdering anyone attempting to flee, while holding their families hostage. Sporadic riots killed dozens of Jews and destroyed hundreds of homes, shops and synagogues. The community itself was under heavy surveillance by the Mukhabarat (Syria’s secret police) and Jews could not travel more than three km from their neighborhoods without a permit.

 In 1975, Syrian president Hafez Assad explained why he refused to let the country’s Jews leave. “I cannot let them go,” he says, “because if I let them go how can I stop the Soviet Union sending its Jews to Israel, where they will strengthen my enemy?” Judy explained, given the narrow streets and where Jews were physically located, they were being leveraged as hostages against Israel.

Read article in full

More about Judy Feld Carr


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.