(April 16, 2018 / Sephardi Perspective) I recently met with a Jordanian couple on a day tour I give to Dresden from Berlin. They were friendly, even after learning that I’m Israeli (and American). We kept the topic of our conversations, at first, about life in Germany and the sites. But on the way back to Berlin, the topic turned political, yet amicable. Ironically, when Arabs and Jews meet in Berlin, they stand a better chance at seeing the “other” as individuals, and not an automatic representative of either the “Palestinian” or “Israeli” narrative.
The man told me how he has close family living in eastern Jerusalem, but that the Israeli government forbids him from visiting them. He is “Palestinian,” and his family lived in Jerusalem before the founding of the state. He can’t enter the land of his forefathers. He didn’t evince anger about the loss, rather shame. I agreed it was too bad and didn’t go into the usual polemics how the Arabs started the war and ran the risk of losing it, along with their land. Nor did argue that the Arab forces encouraged many to flee, with promises to return.
But as we said our goodbyes (they gave me a nice tip, too), I thought about the land of my forefathers that I haven’t seen. No, not Israel. Not Poland. I’ve already visited the graves of my paternal ancestors in Lodz, a few hour train ride from Berlin.
I’m talking about Iraq.
I remember one night, when I lived for a few months with my Iraqi grandmother in Givatayim near Tel Aviv, I saw her cry in the corner, listening to Arabic love songs on the radio. I asked her if she was OK as tears rolled down her wrinkled, 80-something-year-old face. She said the songs make her think of Iraq, and the good times she had there. Since the Nazi-inspired Farhud pogrom drove Iraqi Jewry out, I don’t think she ever really enjoyed life in Israel as much as she did in Baghdad, where she married and gave birth to my mother. She suffered a lot in Israel, with the premature loss of her husband and brother to health compilations. She didn’t live with as much luxury and even, up until the persecution of Jews in Iraq, with as much security.
She made the most delicious Iraqi foods, which I long to replicate but which are way more complicated than matzah-ball soup. Safta knew the recipes masterfully by heart for kubba, tibit and those Iraqi, date-filled Purim hamantaschen. The Jewish world produces countless kosher cookbooks on Ashkenazi delights, but hardly any for Iraqi delights.
My mother is extremely proud of her Sephardi heritage, even though she has since been “Ashkenized.” She prays at an Ashkenazi shul every Shabbat, but she still takes her Sephardi machzor, prayerbook, with her on the High Holidays, feeling great nostalgia for the Iraqi cantors that make her almost as emotional as my grandmother was that night she cried.
But the Jewish world also hardly ever talks about Iraq and Jewish life in Arab lands. Every other day you’ll see a headline about Germany or Poland, and something Holocaust-related, but one would think, from the dearth of coverage, that Jewish life never existed in Baghdad, when it was Baghdad—Babylon—that was the cradle of Jewish intellectual civilization, the first Diaspora where Jews thrived and developed their great legal, literary and religious traditions.
Aside from the work of a few underfunded organizations, we don’t hear of any serious attempts to recover Jewish property there, to open Jewish archives in Arab countries and to create Jewish “heritage” tours in those lands. I realize that it’s physically unsafe, but why not prepare for an eventual Mideast “March of the Living”?
Baghdad is a part of my soul from which I’ve been largely cut off. Jewish life in Middle Eastern lands has become a side note to Jewish history. Perhaps, when Israel was founded, Jewish life in former Babylon no longer wanted to be glorified. After all, Babylon is the archetypical symbol of the Diaspora, and here Jews are returning from the seat of the first exile! Why cry by the rivers of Babylon now?
But we should. While Germany owed the Jewish people the most after World War II (so the focus on German restitution is understandable), these days the Jewish people are in conflict with Arab lands, not Europe. While Palestinians lay exaggerated and often illegitimate claims for their own land, Jewish property in Arabs lands has never even been put on the table.
And now I understand why it didn’t even cross my mind to tell the Jordanians that my land was also taken away. I was never taught to believe that the heritage and property of my Iraqi forefathers are also my right.
But now that I think about it, Iraq is also my ancestral homeland—maybe not spiritually, the way that Israel is, but historically and culturally—and definitely culinary-wise. Why can’t I see the house where my grandmother’s family lived? To hear the music my grandmother loved, at its source? To see the land where the Babylonian Talmud was written? In Israel, Arabic is not taught as a mandatory language in schools, even though about half the country hails from Arab lands and Israel is situated in an Arabic region.
Since living in Berlin for two years, I’ve come to terms with my father’s Ashkenazi side. But now it’s time to come to terms with my mother’s Iraqi side, to push for the possibility for me to return there and see where my grandparents met, where my great-grandfather played drums for the royal court and where his family prayed. Just as we can’t be afraid that Jews are returning to Berlin, as a historical correction, let us now change focus to Babylon, where organized Judaism once blossomed.
And the next time Palestinians complain about land dispossession, let’s be sure to mention our losses in Arab lands and the blockade made against our Arabic heritage.
Orit Arfa is an author and journalist based in Berlin. She holds a BA and MA in Jewish studies. Check out her work at www.oritarfa.net.