Paradise Lost - An Iraqi Jewish Story
Tamara Ruben, the education director of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey, was born in Iraq in June 1950, only two weeks before her family, along with thousands of other Iraqi Jews, fled their country in search of a safer life. She was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.
What was life like for your parents in Iraq?
They enjoyed a great deal of freedom and affluence in Iraq in the 1920s and '30s under the British, who had taken over the country from Turkey after WWI. In gratitude, many of the more well-to-do Jews emulated the Brits, dressing in the latest London fashions, speaking British English, even giving their children British names. So it was that my mother was named Violet and her sisters Madeline, Daisy, Clair, and Amy. My father, Shaul, spoke English beautifully, with a British accent, which came in handy during the years when he worked for the British Petroleum Company and also as a customs officer. He could frequently be seen riding Arabian horses across the desert landscape.
My mother and father lived a good life, a privileged life. For example, their house in Baghdad was built in the old-fashioned, oriental style, composed of two floors with a large, open-square courtyard in the middle. The cook and maids lived on the ground floor, by the kitchen; our family's quarters were on the second floor, overlooking the courtyard, though they enjoyed sleeping on the roof on hot summer nights. For leisure they loved to take boat rides on the Tigris River. They would stop at a little island where they were served fresh charcoal-grilled shibbutta, a fish similar to striped bass that can grow as much as three feet in length.
Did your parents lead a religious life?
As a child my father went to a midrash, which was like the cheder in Europe. His memories of waking up early in the morning to arrive at the midrash in the cold of winter were not very pleasant, so as a young man he vowed to lead a less restrictive life. Also, I think his travels within Iraq as well as to Turkey and Palestine led to his becoming a more secular Jew. Yet, he was deeply rooted in Jewish life. Like the community as a whole, our family observed all of the Jewish holidays and life-cycle events. Work around the house always centered on preparing foods for the next Jewish holiday. A favorite Shabbat dish was t'bit, the Iraqi version of the Ashkenazi chulent, in which pieces of chicken, beef, or lamb and rice are seasoned with turmeric, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon and simmered overnight. Eggs were placed on top of the rice and turned brown in time for Saturday brunch. A month before Passover, my parents would begin preparing silan, a dark syrup made from dates which, when mixed with chopped walnuts, created a delicious haroseth. Often on the holidays our house was full of relatives and other visitors. And when guests came for a wedding, they stayed for weeks. A famous Jewish music ensemble called Chalri Baghdad would play the ud (lute), kemenje (fiddle), dumbuk (drum), qanoon (dulcimer), and ney (flute), regaling the celebrants with popular Iraqi tunes on the theme of love. Also, groups of three to seven women would entertain the wedding party with a form of drumming called daqqaqat. The women would recite poetry and chant the names and the special qualities of the bride, the groom, and other celebrants. Extended families and friends would arrive in large groups, bringing trays of food filled with sweet pastries and popular Iraqi Jewish dishes such as kubbah--meatballs covered with farina dough and cooked in a spicy sauce with okra. So Jewish festivals were times of great feasting as well as opportunities for connecting as a community.
Was the Jewish life your family enjoyed normative for Iraqi Jewry?
Not all Iraqi Jewish families lived a comfortable life. Some lived in poverty, receiving assistance from the kehilla, the organized Jewish community, which provided charitable relief, including medical care. Our family was among the fortunate Iraqi Jews, but in time we would all become impoverished.
When did your family sense the storm that was about to engulf Iraqi Jewry?
In the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism in Europe, venomous manifestations of anti-Jewish attitudes spread throughout Iraq. In 1939 some pro-Nazi Arab activists from Syria and Palestine--chief among them Haj Amin El Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem--found a haven in Baghdad. They spread malicious propaganda against the British and instigated a hate campaign against the Jews.
Our family's idyllic life in Iraq ended during these tense years. The most devastating event took place around Shavuot on June 1, 1941. Many Iraqi Jews were getting ready to celebrate the festival, which we called Id El Ziyarah, the Holiday of the Visit. Jews would make pilgrimages to the various tombs of the prophets--particularly the tomb of Ezra the Scribe, but also the burial place of Ezekiel at Al Kifl, a village by the Euphrates near Basra; the tomb of Joshua the Priest in the northern outskirts of Baghdad; and the gravesite of Jonah in Nineveh, which is modern-day Mosul. People would set up tents outside their shrines and feast on fish, chicken, lamb, fruits, vegetables, and lots of sweets while listening to musical ensembles. For Iraqi Jewry, Id El Ziyarah was one of the high points of the Jewish calendar.
So was the Shavuot festival canceled that first day of June 1941?
Yes. Suddenly no Jew was safe. Hundreds of Jews in Baghdad were dragged from buses and beaten to death in the streets. Moslems shot the locks off doors and looted Jewish businesses. Pro-Nazi Arab bands broke into marked Jewish houses and stores, raping, kidnapping, and savagely murdering children, men, and women. They were about to do that to my in-laws' home when their courageous Moslem neighbors blocked the door with their bodies and said, "You're not entering here, leave them alone"--and that's how the family was spared. For the first time my parents and many other Jewish families considered emigrating.
Another defining event was the trial and execution of a prominent Iraqi Jew, Shafiq Ades, for allegedly doing business with Israel. In sentencing Ades to death, the president of the military court acknowledged: "I was aware that the Iraqi people were seeking a sacrifice. If Ades were not hung, they would have made pogroms against the Jews in Iraq in revenge for the many Iraqi soldiers who died fighting [the Israelis in the War of Independence]. By hanging Ades, I have saved the Jews from massacre." Ades' wife pleaded with the prime minister, who was their friend, to spare the life of her husband. He told her the matter was political and out of his hands. Ades was the Rothschild of Iraq. He had been close to the government elite. Yet all his connections did not save him. So the writing was on the wall for Iraq's Jews.
What induced your family to leave Iraq?
The persecutions intensified after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Some 15,000 Iraqi Jews escaped illegally to Israel, but most wanted to believe that order would be restored and life return to the way it was. Yet no one could be sure when the next anti-Jewish riot might erupt. Finally in 1950 my parents decided to leave and obtained the necessary laissez-passer (permit of passage). They had only about a month to get out of the country, hardly enough time to liquidate their belongings. Moslems would knock on my parents' door and say, "Bet el yahud?" meaning, "Is this the house of Jews?" and when my parents said, "Yes," the bargain hunters knew they could buy anything--from our candlesticks to our carpets--for pennies. My parents faced many tough decisions, such as what to do with my ailing grandparents, who remained behind, but later joined us in Israel. In the words of my husband, Zadok, who was 9 years old when his family left Iraq: "Uprooting is awesomely difficult, especially when the roots extend back to two and a half millennia."
Did your family encounter any sympathetic Moslems during this period?
While the authorities were able to turn many Arabs against us, some Jewish families retained strong friendships with Moslems. People in my husband's family recall that Moslems wept as their Jewish neighbors were preparing to leave.
How did your family escape Iraq?
Due to the scarcity of flights, my parents chose the perilous land route through the steep, winding mountains into Iran. As the departure time drew near, however, my father, who was very intuitive, became suspicious of the Moslem he and a few other Jewish families had hired to drive them across the border. At the same time, it was unwise to just back out of the deal because, as Jews, we were at his mercy. So when the driver arrived in a beat-up car, my father said, "How do you expect my family to go into the mountains in that! The deal is off unless you can promise me another car." "I'm sorry," he said, "I can't...." We later learned that this driver had robbed his Jewish passengers and abandoned them in the mountains; nobody knows what became of them.
At the end of June 1950, my family managed to secure seats on the fourth plane of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the secret Israeli airlift of Jews out of Iraq. At the time I was 15 days old, and, as my relations often remind me, I was known as "the baby in the basket" because my father carried me on his shoulders onto the plane in a white straw basket. We were flown first to Cyprus and from there to Israel, fulfilling the prophetic words in Exodus: "I bore you on eagle's wings, and brought you to myself" (Exodus 19:4).
Picture the scene at the airport in Lod. Aliyah representatives are waiting to welcome us, expecting ravaged refugees. My mother, still weak from childbirth, descends from the El Al plane in a tailored Chanel suit with black stockings and high heels--which immediately get stuck in the sand.
We were taken to the Sha'ar Aliyah absorption center near Haifa. Unlike most other Iraqi refugees, who remained for months in tents, my father tried his luck outside the camp and soon started a real estate business, matching apartment buyers with sellers. Within a few months we moved into our own apartment in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Then my father and his two brothers (who'd arrived after us) formed a construction company and began to build and sell apartments. My parents' home became the meeting place for our extended family and friends from Iraq. Every night, as immigrants do, they would gather on our balcony, drink Turkish coffee, and reminisce about the land between the two rivers and the boat rides under the moonlit Arabian sky.
As a builder, did your father have dealings with Arab workers in Israel?
Yes. He became good friends with some of the Arabs he hired from the villages in the Galilee. In odd ways he felt more akin to our Arab friends than to some Ashkenazi Jews. With his dark skin and towering presence, he looked like an Arab sheikh; and he would tell stories like an Arab, making these big gestures with his hands. So, our family would go to the Arab villages in the Galilee, eat and drink with the Arabs--the women with the women, the men with the men--and enjoy the music and the belly-dancing--it was great fun. "Finally I can drink decent coffee here," my father would say, sitting amongst his Arab friends.
So your father was trusting of Arabs.
He trusted those he knew well, but wisely he kept vigilant. One day while riding on a Haifa bus, he overheard two Arab men plotting an action against the Jews. Interrupting their conversation, he said in Arabic, "Oh my God, I'm so glad I met you. I'm from Iraq and I can't stand my life here, whatever you're planning, let me help you." He then gave them his phone number. Shortly thereafter, the plotters called to invite him to their village. Before leaving, my father arranged for the Israeli army to rescue him if he wasn't back by an agreed-upon hour. It was getting dark and late. As my father told it, he was sitting with about thirty Arab men. At first they didn't trust him, but finally they revealed their plan and my father was free to go. The army was standing by. As soon as he was safe, they went in and broke up the terrorist ring.
Did your family prosper in Israel?
Our business did well for a while, but in the mid-'60s the economy took a dive. That's when my parents started thinking about coming to America, the land of opportunity. They arrived in 1968 and settled in Queens, New York. Unfortunately, at age 60, my father was overqualified for most entry positions--nobody wanted to hire him. My mother, who'd never had a job, suddenly had to learn a profession. She secured a job in the New York garment district and eventually rose to become a clothes designer. My father died in 1984. Today we are left with his vivid stories, and savor every opportunity to hear more of them from my mother.
Does your family keep alive Iraqi Jewish traditions?
We Babylonian Jews proudly represent what had been one of the oldest Diaspora Jewish communities in existence--ever since 568 BCE, when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem and deported the Jewish population to Babylon. We were an insular community, speaking a distinct Arabic dialect that included Iraqi Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, and Turkish words. Today we also take great pride in our unique prayer chants--a beautiful, soulful liturgy which was passed on from one generation to another--and the fact that our community produced some of the greatest scholars, spiritual leaders, and prophets Judaism has ever known. What greater legacy can a Jewish community have than the Babylonian Talmud and the legendary academies of Jewish scholarship in Sura and Pumpadita?
A verse in an Arabic song describes my family's attitude about the past: "El'li ma andou atique, ma yijinou jdid"--"one who does not hold on to that which is ancient will not be able to have that which is new." Today, many Babylonian Jews continue to identify with this splendid Jewish culture. We are determined to enrich our new surroundings with the language, music, food, and marvelous stories bequeathed to us by our ancestors. When I sit in the Babylonian Jewish Center in Great Neck, NY and join in the chanting of the Shabbat morning liturgy, I hear the voices of the exiled Jews who wept by the rivers of Babylon; the voices of Ezekiel, Ezra, Jonah, and other prophets of Israel; the voices of students and rabbis in the great academies; the voices of dear ones in my family who are buried in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers; and the voice of my late father, Shaul, the son of Benjamin and Salha Darwish of blessed memory.