'Their stories remain virtually untold'

As Iraqi Jewish voices die out, a project seeks to preserve their rich history

A handful of scholars are creating a multimedia resource to give Mizrahi Jews the same platforms to tell their stories as Ashkenazim who suffered in the Holocaust

Left to right: Linda Munuhin, Yair Dalal, (credit: David Blumenfeld) and Yehezkel Kojaman (credit: Liam Sharp), photos taken for the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project.
Left to right: Linda Munuhin, Yair Dalal, (credit: David Blumenfeld) and Yehezkel Kojaman (credit: Liam Sharp), photos taken for the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project.

NEW YORK — Although Oded Halahmy left Iraq in 1951, Iraq has never left him.

“Every aspect of my life has been influenced by my first home, the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ I remember from my childhood. Palm and pomegranate trees dance in the wind,” said Halahmy, 79. “I can visualize the narrow alleyways, the houses built of ancient stones with beautifully sculpted doors, circular windows of exquisitely colored glass. My memories of Iraq are real and alive, and my attachment to Iraq is very strong. My Baghdad is the most beautiful place on earth, the Garden of Eden.”

Halahmy was 13 when he, his parents, his siblings as well as hundreds of other relatives left for Israel. Now, as his generation ages, first-person stories like Halahmy’s are slipping into the shadows of history.

“These are the very last years to capture firsthand accounts of Jewish life in Iraq. There will be no witnesses left and so there is an urgency to get the stories. It’s a last grasp. Mizrahi Jews account for half the world’s Jewry, yet their stories remain virtually untold,” said Tamar Morad, a writer and editor living in Israel.

That’s where The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project, IJVP, comes in. Using black and white portraits, interviews, and scanned historical documents, the multi-media project records the stories of the last Jews of Iraq and what it was like for them to immigrate to Israel, France, the United States and beyond.

Oded Halahmy for the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project. (Liam Sharp)

The project aims to shift the meta-narrative of world Jewry in the 20th Century, which has almost always revolved around the history of European Jewry. The bold initiative might just be the thread that stitches the Jews of the Mideast’s past to the future.

Morad, who grew up in Boston, is of Ashkenazi descent. Her husband’s family came from Iraq. In no time she realized the more she asked her father-in-law, as well as her husband’s 105-year-old grandfather, about what life was like in Iraq before they left, the more she wanted to know.

She found others wanted to share their stories as well. “You see the eagerness of people to tell their stories. It’s the first time some of them have told their stories in full,” Morad said. “It’s time the world should know it. To progress we need to be educated about the past.”

Morad co-manages the project with Henry Green, executive director of the NGO Sephardi Voices, and professor of Judaic and Religious Studies at the University of Miami.

Morad is basing the project on the book, “Iraq’s Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon” — an oral history collection co-edited by Morad with Dennis and Robert Shasha — and plans to revisit and expand on some of the people and places featured in it.

The Iraqi Jewish Voices Project comes under the auspices of the nonprofit Sephardi Voices (SV), which aims to collect thousands of interviews of Jews who lived in Arab and Muslim lands. It wants to do for the Jews of Arab lands what the Shoah Foundation did for Holocaust survivors in collecting and preserving their testimony about life before, during and after World War II, Green said.

Iraqi Jewish Voices Project backers Robert Shasha, Tamar Morad, Dennis Shasha, and Henry Green. (David Langer)

SV has so far conducted hundreds of interviews of Jews from 10 countries including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Syria. Interviews are conducted in English, French and Hebrew as well as Judeo-Arabic, Ladino and Haquetia, an endangered Jewish Romance language.

“It will empower a population that has largely been invisible. It will make it so the children and grandchildren of these men and women will take pride in their heritage. If Jews are to understand their collective history then the story of Mizrahi Jews must be told,” Green said.

The long, rich history of Mizrahi Jews

The history of Mizrahi Jews is interwoven into the earliest chapters of the United States. Congregation Shearith Israel, established in 1654, is the oldest Jewish congregation in the US. It’s often called The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. And there’s the famous Floridian, David Levy Yulee, of Moroccan origin: In 1845 he became the first Jewish senator to serve in the US Congress, representing his home state of Florida.

Photograph of Raya Azar for the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project. (©David Blumenfeld)

Across the Middle East, North Africa and Iran, Judaism predates Christianity by 500 years and Islam by 1,300 years. Now less than a handful of Jews remain in most Arab countries, or, as is the case in Algeria and Libya, none at all.

The stories of interviewees often recall rich and colorful lives in their birth countries, “full of friendships, partnerships and political alliances with their Muslim and Christian compatriots,” said Dennis Shasha.

There was a time when Jews accounted for one third of the population of Baghdad and numbered 150,000 across Iraq.  Representing doctors and lawyers, teachers and scientists, musicians and politicians — Jews were integral to Iraqi life.

Then in the 1930s and 1940s political persecution and anti-Semitism swept across the region like a sandstorm and destroyed the vibrant community. With the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 the situation grew ever more precarious.

“Ambitious tyrants in their countries, using Israel as a bogeyman, made
Jews a scapegoat for those tyrants’ own mismanagement and corruption. So the Jews had to leave,” Shasha said.

And so between 1949 and 1952 nearly the entire Jewish community, about 120,000 people, was airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. It was the largest air migration of refugees in history. The remaining population left in the 1960s and 1970s because of the brutal persecution it faced under Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Writer and editor Tamar Morad, co-manager of the Iraqi Jewish Voices Project. (David Langer)

IJVP will also include new black and white portraiture. When complete, the project will be included with the SV archive, which will eventually be available free of charge on an Internet portal at the National Library of Israel.

Indeed, as well as collecting new stories, Morad, Green and producer David Langer will revisit those who are still alive today among the book’s original interviewees.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and I think it is important to keep and preserve our Iraqi Jewish heritage for future generations in every way that we can,” Halahmy said. “I hope that the project serves as a tool for a dialogue of peace and understanding, not only between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, but Jews, Muslims, Christians and all ethnic groups around the world.”

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