Connecting New Audiences With Iraqi Jewish History and Culture

Written by Jackie Feldman on . Posted in Community News

From spice and song to recovered Jewish texts, Iraqi Jewish culture was on full display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s “Talmud to Tik: Iraqi Jewish Heritage Day” on Dec. 3 in Baltimore. The event featured presentations about Iraqi Jewish music, food, and culture, but the focal point was the “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” exhibit.

The exhibit was produced by the National Archives with the generous financial support of the U.S. Department of State. Running through Jan. 15, it showcases 23 items from the Iraqi Jewish community that were found by U.S. soldiers in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. The dramatic tale of how the archives were found and recovered and the history of Iraq’s Jews are included in the exhibit.

Originally, the archive was meant to be returned to Iraq, but the U.S. government has delayed returning the documents due to the volatile conditions in the region and latent anti-Semitism. Many in the Jewish community, especially the Sephardic community, have been fighting to keep the documents in the U.S. in order to protect them from harm.

For thousands of years, there was a vibrant Jewish community in Iraq. For the most part, Jews co-existed peacefully with their neighbors, were highly educated, and were involved in trade and other important roles in government and industry. Coupled with a burgeoning Arab Nationalist movement, the establishment of the State of Israel served as a turning point and the community fell under attack by their Muslim neighbors. Hundreds were killed in violent pogroms (called the Farhud), during which homes, businesses, and synagogues were looted. The Iraqi government began targeting Jews as collective punishment for their Zionist beliefs. They were forced out of jobs, their businesses were boycotted, and hundreds of Jews were arrested, tortured, and even hung for their involvement in the Zionist movement.

The Jews of Iraq were able to flee, but they were forced to leave behind many of their possessions, including ancient historical documents and books. Additionally, many of their possessions were confiscated by the government. After the majority of Jews fled Iraq, the country changed dramatically, and the government became totalitarian, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western.

Sixty years after the Iraqi Jews fled, the U.S. invaded Iraq and seized control of the country. While conducting a search of government buildings, they found a trove of 2,700 historical Iraqi-Jewish documents. The soldiers who found the documents requested help from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to preserve the documents. Since then, the documents have been exhibited across the U.S. at various museums and studied by scholars to help illuminate the Iraqi Jewish community.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland hosted 16 programs related to the exhibit, including the Iraqi Jewish Heritage Day celebration. I was lucky enough to visit the Iraqi Jewish Archive and participate in this event, which focused on educating museum visitors about the rich and fascinating legacy of Iraqi Jews. There was a musical performance and lecture by Rabbi Haim Ovadia (who is of Iraqi-Jewish descent) of Magen David Sephardic Synagogue in Rockville, Maryland, samples of traditional Iraqi food, such as date cookies, and many activities for young children, such as henna and decorating makeshift Torah holders. As a leader in the Sephardic community of DC, I was privileged to present a workshop on the history of Iraqi Jewish cuisine and demonstrate how to make baharat, a spice mixture that forms the base of many Iraqi-Jewish dishes.

The museum will host another major program on Jan. 14 with Henry Green, who leads the "Sephardi Voices Project."

By Jackie Feldman

 Jackie Feldman is a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C. She runs the group Sephardic Jews in DC, which hosts events in the metro DC area that celebrate Sephardic culture, religious tradition, and customs. She also has a food blog that features a healthier spin on many traditional Jewish and Sephardic recipes: https://healthysephardiccooking.wordpress.com/.