The nearly extinct Jewish tribe in Baghdad has become an evergreen religious story. Strange.
Time magazine reported last summer that one of the most significant Jewish communities in history had dwindled to eight. As in barely more than in Kabul. The New York Times followed up this weekend with a much more colorful story that begins:
“I have no future here to stay.”
Written in broken English but with perfect clarity, the message is a stark and plaintive assessment from one of the last Jews of Babylon.
The community of Jews in Baghdad is now all but vanished in a land where their heritage recedes back to Abraham of Ur, to Jonah’s prophesying to Nineveh, and to Nebuchadnezzar’s sending Jews into exile here more than 2,500 years ago.
Just over half a century ago, Iraq’s Jews numbered more than 130,000. But now, in the city that was once the community’s heart, they cannot muster even a minyan, the 10 Jewish men required to perform some of the most important rituals of their faith. They are scared even to publicize their exact number, which was recently estimated at seven by the Jewish Agency for Israel, and at eight by one Christian cleric. That is not enough to read the Torah in public, if there were anywhere in public they would dare to read it, and too few to recite a proper Kaddish for the dead.
Among those who remain is a former car salesman who describes himself as the “rabbi, slaughterer and one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Iraq.”
Although many of his Muslim friends and immediate neighbors know he is Jewish (“I’m proud, I’m Jewish, not ashamed. I’m not hiding,” he wrote at one point.), he was wary of being named because it could draw more dangerous attention to him or his friends. To protect him, he is referred to as Saleh’s grandson, because his or his father’s name would be too easily recognizable here. Interviews with him were conducted by correspondence over the course of several months.
He lamented that Jews in Baghdad had had no meeting place since the Meir Tweig synagogue, the last in the city, was closed in 2003, after it became too dangerous to gather openly.
“I do my prayer in my house because we closed the synagogue from the war until now. If we open it, it will be a target,” he wrote, adding later: “I have no future here, I can’t marry, there is no girl. I can’t put my kova on my head out of the house. If I’m out of Iraq, I’ll share with people in all our feasts and do my prayer in the synagogue and will be with my family.”
Now in his early 40s, he exists as anonymously and discreetly as he can. He cannot reliably hide his religion: it is stamped on his official identity card, which he must present at any security checkpoint. So he stays mainly in his own neighborhood, protected by Muslim neighbors who have been family friends for decades.
A prisoner of his own neighborhood, having to pray in hiding like Daniel was required to (though, obviously, did not do). It’s difficult to imagine this story being available for the longterm.