Source: The New York Times
GIVATAYIM, Israel — During a boisterous Passover Seder with her extended family, Sabiha Ziluf, 75, paused and said softly that she could still see the Baghdad streets of her childhood. “I would love to visit Bab al-Sharji,” she said, referring to an old neighborhood near where her aunt lived.
Ms. Ziluf, whose first name translates roughly to “morning” in Arabic, is one of countless Iraqi Jews in Israel taking fresh interest in a heritage once considered unseemly, even shameful. Facebook pages with tens of thousands of followers debate the fine points of Iraqi Jewish dialect, music and cuisine. A Babylonian heritage center near Tel Aviv has drawn daily crowds of more than 1,300 people during Passover, and its number of yearly visitors has increased by more than 50 percent since 2011.
Among those viewing the center’s reconstructions of the shops and crooked alleys of Baghdad’s old Jewish quarter were swarms of children, generations removed from those who experienced Babylon’s allure firsthand. “They are heroes,” Liel Ovadya, 13, said of the Jews of Baghdad, who included his grandmother Oshrat Berko, who immigrated to Israel at 15. As of 2014, there were 227,900 Jews of Iraqi descent living in Israel, according to government data.
Families with ties to Iraq are among several communities of Israelis from Arabic and North African countries newly embracing their origins after struggling to be accepted by the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, who founded Israel and for decades dominated its political, military and academic elites. The resurgent interest comes as the number of Jews in Iraq has dwindled to nearly none, and as the Islamic State and other hostile groups are sowing chaos in the streets, shrines and graveyards where Jews lived, died and celebrated their faith for nearly three millenniums.
In recent interviews, many Israelis pointed to two unlikely cultural icons — Dudu Tassa, a 39-year-old rock star, and Eli Amir, a 78-year-old novelist — as forces that have accelerated Iraqi Jews’ efforts to preserve their past before it vanishes forever.
“The Dove Flyer,” a novel by Mr. Amir, and the 2014 film based on it, culminate in the 1951 Israeli airlift that brought nearly 110,000 Jews to Israel from Iraq with little more than the clothes on their backs. Arriving shortly after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the newcomers largely suppressed their culture, Mr. Amir said in an interview, because “their language was the enemy language and their music was the music of the enemy.”
An Iraqi-born Jewish woman with her two daughters next to a 1940 photograph of two Jewish sisters in Baghdad, displayed at the heritage center. Credit Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
“This was a kind of a terrible wound that each and every one of us tried to handle differently,” Mr. Amir said. His work, he said, was meant “to put my visiting card on the table of every Ashkenazi to let them know we didn’t come from the desert and caves and trees — that we came from a civilized country.”
Mr. Tassa, who was born in Tel Aviv, began an artistic journey that fused rock and traditional Arab music after discovering that his grandfather Daoud al-Kuwaiti had been one of the most important composers in the Arab world. A 2011 film chronicling that journey had a catchy title: “Iraq ’n’ Roll.”
Iraq’s Jewish history dates about 4,000 years to the birth of the biblical patriarch Abraham in Ur, where there is a shrine and archaeological digs. Long after Abraham left for what was then called Canaan, generations of Jews were sent to exile in Babylon, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq.