Book Review


On Saturday evening, March 17, Yair Dalal, an Israeli performer whose family came from Iraq, performed live with Hamza El Din in the 16th annual Jewish Music Festival, in Berkeley.

Following the concert, the Berkeley Richmond JCC, with assistance from Ivri-NASAWI, organized a reception which celebrated Iraqi Jewish cultural history in particular and Sephardi/Mizrahi cultural histry in general.

Two native Iraqis, Daniel Khazzoom and Sadok Masliyah, addresed the audience. 


The Jews of Iraq: A Brief by Daniel Khazzoom




      I am honored and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to
     address you. I hope you've all enjoyed this eveningís concert. I
     hope also that to night was only the beginning, that  you will go
     beyond and explore more the heritage, culture and the history of
     Babylonian Jewry. The history of the Babylonian Jews is really the
     history of us all. That is where it all started. That is where we
     all came from. That is where much of what we call Jewish
     originated, including the institutions we call synagogue, public
     prayer, prayer book, Academies and the magnum opus of them allóthe
     Talmud.   But beyond the historical past, I hope that to nightís
     experience will stimulate your interest also in the more recent
     life story of this community ­ its recent past in Iraq before the
     mass immigration to Israel and its contemporary life, struggle and
     remarkable achievements in Israel. It is a unique community. And
     it is an amazing story. There is much to tell. But let me share
     with you some highlights.

     The history of the Jewish community of Iraq goes back two thousand
     eight hundred years. It began with two waves of exiles from the
     Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria in the eighth century BCE.
     This was followed a century and a half later by two waves of
     exiles from the Kingdom of Judah to Babylonia. They settled near a
     canal called Kebar near Babylon, located about fifty miles
     southwest of Baghdad. And it was there that they composed the
     famous ode ìBy the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, as we
     remembered Zionî. And it was there that they sat and coined what
     became the national motto for generations to come: If I forget
     thee, O Jerusalem, may my right forget its cunning.

     They established new towns not long after they arrived. One of
     those towns was called Tel Aviv. It became the communal and
     spiritual center of the elders of the Jewish community, including
     the master preacher, the prophet Ezekiel. But this town is
     significant not only because of those who resided in it, but also
     because of the theme that underlay its name ­ namely, we are down
     today, but we are not giving up; a brighter future lies ahead. Tel
     Aviv is made up of two words: Tel, which means a mound of ruins --
     and that is probably how they saw things when they were led to
     Babylon ­ total ruins, having lost their spiritual center, their
     families, their homes, their friends, their possessions and their
     dignity. The second word is Aviv, meaning the spring season, which
     symbolizes revival and rejuvenation. So it is all ruins now, but
     it will blossom again, spring is ahead, we will rebound. This
     theme, which borders on invincibility, escorted the Babylonian
     Jewry throughout its history, including the dark years of
     persecution in Iraq that preceded the mass immigration to Israel.
     It was also a major driving force behind the remarkable
     accomplishments of this community in Israel. Iíll give two
     illustrations of that toward the end of my talk.

     Ninety years ago, on May 21, 1910 the modern city of Tel Aviv in
     Israel was officially named after the city of Tel Aviv established
     by the Jewish exiles two thousand five hundred years ago in what
     is Iraq to day. Perhaps a similar theme was on the minds of the
     founders of modern Israel: It was all ruins, wherever you looked.
     But rebirth lay not far ahead.

     The period that saw the end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth saw
     also the beginning of a new and a glorious era in the history of
     Babylonian Jewry. For close to a thousand years the Babylonian
     Jewish community was the Jewish worldís spiritual center, the only
     center, at a time when Jewish institutions and Jewish learning had
     all but collapsed in Judea.

     But what characterized this community more than anything else were
     its institutions of learning. The famous Academies of Nehardea,
     Sura and Pumbeditha were the Harvard and the Yale of the Jewish
     world. These academies were headed by leaders who, as a group,
     were remarkable for their erudition and originality. They were
     also bold and civic minded.

     A major innovation introduced by the Babylonian Academies were the
     months of Assembly, called Yarhei Kallah. Twice every year, once
     in the month of Adar (before the Passover) and another time in the
     month of Elul (before Rosh Hashanah), lectures were given every
     day at one of the Babylonian academies from early morning until
     the evening. During those two months, the Academies burst with
     people. They came from all over the world to learn and to update
     themselves on the new responsa and the Talmudic deliberations in
     those academies during the preceding five months. It is said that
     the crowds were so great that there were not enough rooms to hold
     them. Many slept in the open air. They slept in the fields and on
     rooftops, and they drank thirstily from the lectures of the heads
     of the Academies. At the end of these Yarhei Kallah they returned
     to their own countries, cities and villages inspired and
     rededicated to Jewish living. Those Yarhei Kallah continued
     unchanged in Babylonia for centuries.

     In gratitude to these academies, congregations that follow the
     Ashkenazi rite recited during the services and they still recite,
     to this day, a passage on Saturday morning known as ìYekoom Purkan
     Min Shemayaî (May deliverance arise from Heaven). This passage
     includes a prayer for the welfare and well-being of the students
     of the Babylonian academies, their teachers, and the Head of
     Babylonian community. This prayer was never dropped from the
     Ashkenazi prayer book even after the destruction of the Babylonian

     We were in dire straits in the early fifties when we were poised
     to leave for Israel. The Iraqi authorities froze, more accurately
     confiscated all of our assets, except for our clothing and other
     minor personal belongings. Many sold the meager personal
     belongings they were allowed to keep in order to pay for their
     airfare to Israel. Usually immigrants from other countries to
     Israel were brought in at the expense of the Jewish Agency. The
     Babylonian community never received and never asked for help from
     the Jewish Agency to defray the cost of our immigration to Israel.
     We paid our own way. Somehow there was a deep-seated feeling that
     the community had a responsibility to help the rest of the Jewish
     World and not the other way around. It was unthinkable that the
     community should become a burden on the Jewish worldís

     Finally it is interesting to look at two examples of how the
     Babylonian community in Israel responded to adversity, keeping in
     mind the theme of invincibility to which I alluded earlier.

     The first is high school education.  In Israel high school
     education was not free. Since the Babylonian Jews were stripped of
     their assets before they left Iraq, many were unable to round up
     the required tuition fees. The Babylonian Jews did not run begging
     the ìall powerfulî government. Instead they took matters into
     their own hands. In a characteristic manner, several former high
     school teachers and administrators from among the Babylonian
     immigrants in Israel got together and opened a free high school in
     Ramat Gan. It was taught and administered totally by volunteers
     from among the Babylonian immigrants. It was overseen by a
     committee of educators, including my high school chemistry
     teacher, the late Dr. Ezra Nissim, himself a graduate of the
     University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The school took in every
     child who applied for admission, regardless of his or his parentsí
     country of origin. All that was required to gain admission was for
     the parents to tell the schoolís principal that they could not pay
     the tuition fees.  No forms had to be filled out; no paperwork was
     required; no bureaucracy. The school had one of the highest
     student retention rates in the country.  Many of its graduates,
     who probably would have never attended high school otherwise, went
     on to college.

     The second example, with which I will close, is the Babylonian
     Jewry Heritage Center. When you visit Israel, I would like you to
     travel to Or Yehuda, a town near Tel Aviv, and pay a visit to the
     Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. This is a combination of a
     research institution, a museum and a conference center. And it has
     a history: When we left Iraq, we were not allowed to take any
     documents or records with us. Our homes and assets were
     confiscated. Additionally we left behind our historical sites and
     religious shrines. All at once, we were stripped of all of our
     points of reference. We no longer had a historical anchor. There
     was just a big vacuum. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, which
     is the only institution of its kind in Israel, was the community's
     response to this vacuum. It was initiated with the help of a
     donation by a Babylonian family in San Francisco, and it is
     supported primarily by private donations. It is staffed by
     volunteers from the Babylonian community. As a research center,
     its goal is to research and document the heritage of the
     Babylonian Jewry and to fill the gap created by the loss of our
     ancestral records in Iraq.  It sponsors graduate studentsí
     dissertations and research work by faculty members at universities
     in Israel. The Center holds conferences regularly. During the last
     four years, the Center held two international conferences.
     Scholars attended from all over the world - Jews and non-Jews -
     all engaged in research work on one topic or another connected
     with Babylonian Jewry. I was privileged to address both
     conferences. . The Center publishes two journals, in Hebrew and in
     English. It has published numerous books on Babylonian Jewry
     during the last one and a half decades. Thanks to the Centerís
     work much of the lost records on the history, culture, education
     and social organizations of Babylonian Jewry has been
     reconstituted and is now accessible from readily available
     publications. Currently, the Center is in the process of expanding
     its building to accommodate the increasing demand for its
     facilities by the school system in Israel. The Centerís greatest
     enthusiast from the day when it was only a concept on paper up to
     this day is Israelís current Prime Minister. It is a wonderful
     place to visit. But above all, it is a heart-warming testament to
     what a community who refused to surrender to adversity was able to

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