Survivor: Baghdad

By

SHORTLY AFTER SADDAM HUSSEIN'S ouster in 2003, I visited Emad Levy and his father, Ezra, at their starkly furnished home in Baghdad. Emad was the city's last rabbi, and he and his father were two of its only remaining Jews. I wasn't the only Westerner who stopped by their house in those heady days immediately following the end of Saddam's rule. Harold Rhode, a Pentagon official, had visited recently along with Tamara Chalabi, daughter of Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmad. So had a Daily Telegraph reporter from London. Everyone had their reasons for stopping in. For me, the meeting was an opportunity to connect with my roots. My mother was born in Baghdad, less than a mile from the Levy home. Here, I could listen to my family's dialect of Judeo-Arabicit is even rarer than Yiddish, alas, and growing rarer every dayspoken in its historic headquarters by the final holdouts from a once-proud Jewish community, reduced in the span of just a few decades from 140,000 to virtually nothing.

 

LAST OCTOBER, EMAD was the subject of an article in The Washington Post because he had finally decided to leave Iraq. "I have no future here," he explained. "I must go out to have a life for myself." If you didn't know Emad, you might have gotten the impression from the story that he was an ultra-religious symbol ofcontinuity with Jewish Babylonian history. In fact, Emad's relationship to Judaism is a bit more complicated than the Post let on. His father grew up in an Iraq where Judaism was still strong. He lived among massive numbers of Jews well into his adulthoodas late as 1941, Jews still made up a plurality of Baghdad's populationand, though almost all of those Jews had emigrated by 2003, Ezra still connected viscerally with the eclectic culture they left behind. He could recite from memory an old poem by Hayyim Nahman Bialik, penned in a Lithuanian yeshiva and taught to legions of Jews throughout the diaspora during the early twentieth century. It's a Jewish exile's ode to a bird he hopes has brought a message from his "brothers in Zion, both distant and near." And so, when the time finally came for Ezra to leave, he acted quickly: Shortly after I met him in Baghdad, he decamped to Jerusalem for good.

 

EMAD WAS DIFFERENT. His father had grown up in a time when it was still possible to live an openly Jewish life in Iraq, but Emad did not have that luxury: He needed to fit in. One of his friends told me that, when they hung out as kids during the 1980s, Emad spoke perfect Muslim dialect and watched "naughty German movies" on a bulky new VCR. I was a wild kid back then, Emad told mehardly religious. It was only later in life that Emad became devout. He was, in fact, a Baal Teshuvaha born-again Jew. He discovered his connection to Judaism on his own terms, teaching himself to read some Hebrew while conjuring a Jewish world he had barely knownand learning to live in it, nearly alone.

 

THE POST'S INTEREST in Emad comes as no surprise: Arab Jewry's scant remnants always make for compelling human interest storiesa media curiosity. For decades, Arab dictators would put their Jews on display for foreign writers, requiring them to provide scripted testimonials to the regime's supposed tolerance toward minorities. Meanwhile, some Israeli journalists would sneak into Arab countries and come back with tales of wealthy Arab Jewsmaterially comfortable but politically oppressedin golden handcuffs or not-so-wealthy Jews in ordinary handcuffs. The latter stories were,of course, more accuratebut also more damaging to theirsubjects. "We got spooked by the publicity," Bahraini Jewish leader Ibrahim Nunu told me recently, recalling an Israeli journalist's surreptitious foray into the country in the 1970s. "Some of the remaining Jews here have avoided reporters ever since." More recently, glib coverage of Iraqi Jewish issues appears to have unwittingly provided fodder for Islamist militants. Three years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page profile of eccentric millionaire Naim Dangoor, who had appointed himself "exilarch" ofIraq's Jewish community from his home in London. Though few Iraqi Jews actually recognized him as their leader, his claim on their behalf to $20 billion in Iraqi assets was deemed newsworthy by the Journal as well as The Guardian. On the trip where I met Emad in 2003, I read alarmist coverage in the local press of an Iraqi Jewish plot to snatch back real estate under Dangoor's leadership and a fatwa prescribing death to any Iraqi who sold his land to a Jew.

AT THIS POINT, Iraqis probably don't have to worry about Jews buying up land. In Emad's case, the reverse is happening: He is currently trying to sell his house so he can leave Baghdad for good. I called the family recently for an update. His brother Salih, who lives in Holland, gave me Emad's new Baghdad cell phone number and asked me to relay a message: "Tell Emad to get out as soon as he can. If the house won't sell, forget the house!" But Emad, who picked up his phone after sundown in Baghdad on a recent Saturday night, told methat his departure would take time. "You may question why I don't just leave, even now," he said. "But the house is more than just its value in money. It's my blood. I've spent my life defending the place. To leave and start again somewhere else with nothing would break my spirit." During a later conversation, I asked Emad whether it was harder to find a buyer for the house because he is Jewish."What do you think?" he replied. "It makes it harder to do everything. I can't easily leave the house, let alone sell it." So not only are Jews discouraged from buying property in Iraq, it turns out they can't get rid of it, either. Emad's fellow Iraqis are making it both impossible for him to stay and impossible for him to leave.

HIS DILEMMA BRINGS to mind Amos Oz's observation that Europeans long wanted Jews out of Europeuntil they finally left, at which point Europeans wanted them out of Palestine, too. The implication for Jews, Oz said, was "don't be here and don't be there. That is, don't be." Under circumstances like these, to be Jewish takes a lot of gumption and even a little blind faith. Maybe Emad Levy found religion just in time.

Joseph Braude is the author of  The New Iraq:Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and theWorld.

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