Burial in Babylon

dec13 122

On a blustery December day, I stand with 100 Jews of Iraqi descent at Section Five Block Two of the New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, NY—6,000 miles from the primal Babylon. I can’t help but think of the ironic confluence in names—coincidental, redolent and so appropriate to the occasion.

We are gathered together to bury 49 Torah and megilla fragments from among the 2700 books and tens of thousands of documents, manuscripts and scrolls recovered by a U.S. Army team in 2003 from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence Services. The materials, in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and English, had belonged to synagogues and Jewish organizations in Baghdad but were confiscated by the Iraqi government. They were shipped to the U.S. for preservation and exhibition at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC under an agreement with the Iraqi government that they would later be returned.

Ten years and $3 million later (spent by the U.S. government with some additional funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private donations), most of the documents have been repaired, conserved, catalogued and digitized (www.ija.gov). These scrolls, however, are too badly damaged by water and mold to be restored. In accordance with Jewish law, they are being buried out of respect.

In a tent constructed for the ceremony, I am sitting next to Tikva Mahlab, born in Iraq, raised in Israel, now a resident of New York. “This is very emotional,” she says. “My mother always told us our grandfather had a Torah in Baghdad which we were afraid to take out. I wonder if one of these scrolls was his.”

Iraqi Jewish history is, in fact, a history of riches. Iraq is the site of ancient Mesopotamia, where Abraham was born; birthplace of the Babylonian Talmud and famous academies of Jewish learning. In modern times, under Kings Faisal I and II, the vibrant community of 150,000 played leadership roles in Iraqi society. But anti-Zionist and Nazi sympathies led to pogroms (the farhood of 1941) and persecution, until in 1951 the majority of the community was airlifted to Israel, forced by the Iraqi regime to leave most of its possessions behind.

My own family had left Baghdad long before: my paternal great-great-great-great grandfather Eliyahu, grandson of the nasi of Baghdad [head of the community], settled in Calcutta in 1820; my maternal grandfather, also descended from a rabbinic family, arrived in 1902. I share a love of the Baghdadi heritage. I cherish my own family Torah scrolls, which we are privileged to have in safekeeping.

I think back to earlier in the week, when I visited “Discovery and Recovery,” the exhibit of the Iraqi Jewish Archives at the National Archives in DC (it is now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan). The mammoth nature of the preservation project is clear in a photo of the documents’ discovery in Iraq—strewn on the ground like so much garbage.

The metal shipping trunks that had contained the parchments and books are stacked at the entrance. [note: they are marked with the name Rhode, the US Defense Department cultural expert who discovered the archive] Their promise of treasure does not disappoint, even though only 24 documents are on display: A book of Psalms from 1568. A haggada from 1902 decorated by a young Iraqi boy. Kanun el Nisa, laws for women. The story of Hanukkah and a Rosh Hashanah mahzor. A Hebrew primer glorifies King Faisal II like a modern-day David: “Yehi Hamelech, Yehi hamelech!” it declares. Long live the king! A nearby case contains a copy of the 1951 law freezing Iraqi Jewish assets.

Maurice Shohet, president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq (WOJI), which negotiated the return of the fragments with Iraq, contributed family photos to the exhibit. There he is as a bar mitzvah, winding tefillin around his arm with the help of the chief rabbi Sasson Khedoorie, and in a class picture at the Frank Iny School. On an outing on the Tigris River when he was eight, he and his two brothers pose in a tar-covered wooden balam (canoe) with their mother Violette. She is carefree in a sleeveless dress, a far cry from the burka-covered women today. Shohet escaped Iraq in 1970 at the age of 21.

Many Jewish groups have expressed strong opposition to the return of the archives, charging they are stolen goods and that they belong to the worldwide Iraqi Jewish community (There are five Jews left in Iraq today.) The Iraqi government says the documents are Iraq’s, an integral part of its history that cannot be relinquished.

If controversy is on anyone’s mind, it is not evident at the cemetery, where the religious ceremony trumps politics. “This is a sign of the new Iraq,” says Lukman Faily, Iraq’s Ambassador to Washington, DC. “We are here to respect and protect the heritage of Jews and other minorities. We want to open this rich history.” Faily and other U.S. and Iraqi dignitaries empty the sealed metal box that contains the scrolls onto a series of long tables, and members of the Jewish community walk by to view the blackened, torn and wrinkled deerskin parchments.

Phrases from the scrolls rise up fleetingly to meet my eyes. The Ten Commandments. Anochi Adonai Elohecha. I am the Lord Your God. Lo tisa et shem Adonai eloheicha lashav. Do not take God’s name in vain. Ad hatzi hamalchut vatinaten. King Ahasuerus promises Esther up to half his kingdom. Uv‎yom habikkurim b’hakrivchem minha hadasha ladonai. On Shavuot you will offer a new sacrifice to God. Shavuot, 49 days from Pesah; 49 documents to be buried. The date of the farhood, Shavuot 1941. Vadonai berach et Avraham bakol. And God blessed Abraham with everything. Rashi equates the numerical value of bakol (everything) with ben, son. Children are everything.

Today, I think, we are witnessing the closure of this chapter in the story of Abraham’s children. The scrolls are stacked, swaddled in tallitot, placed in a plain coffin, and lowered into the grave in the section belonging to the Iraqi community. I anticipated a purely solemn occasion. But it turns out to be a social reunion as well. Iraqis and Jews chat with each other in Iraqi Arabic and Judeo-Arabic while religious adviser Aaron Abrahams chants the kaddish and psalms, and shovels scrape dirt from a mound of earth onto the coffin. You have the same eyes as my father. Adonai maoz hayay, mimi efhad? [God is the fortress of my life, whom shall I fear?] Did you know my father? He was a doctor.

“It’s a double feeling, mourning and celebration,” says Alice Aboody, who was born in Iran to Iraqi parents and is past president of the sisterhood of the Babylonian Jewish Center in Great Neck, NY. “There is sadness for the destruction of our community, and of all humanity when we destroy each other. But it’s also a celebration of something that never dies. Our Torah is alive. Muslims and Jews were together today. I thanked them and blessed them.” The scrolls, she says, “are part of the heart and prayers of my ancestors that I cannot visit anymore. We buried them like human beings. I felt I’d lost a precious part of my family. I’m glad I can come visit when I visit my parents and husband, who are also buried here.”

Yitgadal v’yitkadash.