Thursday, March 08, 2007

Polyglot in the melting pot: an Iraqi Jew in Israel

Many Jews arriving in Israel from Iraq in the 1950s experienced 'culture shock'. It was often easier for those with no foreknowledge of Hebrew to adapt to life in Israel. Sasson Somekh recalls what it was like in this Haaretz article (with thanks: Albert)

"I arrived in Israel around Passover 1951 on what was known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. A ramshackle airplane, overflowing with some 200 Iraqi Jews of all ages and social classes, brought me from Baghdad to Lydda Airport in Israel. Upon arrival I saw no one kneeling down to kiss the sacred ground.

"For quite a few Iraqi Jews, immigration was an unexpected leap into the unknown. They were unprepared for the act; it came to them as a surprise. Get up, pack your things, give up your Iraqi identity (some 2,000 years old), and go up to Israel on eagles' wings. Apart from some young people who were active in the Zionist underground, and for whom Israel was their heart's desire, most of the approximately 120,000 Jews of Iraq were not ready for the drastic transition from an Arab country to the new Jewish State; for the shock of leaving their homes, their businesses, their well established educational and community networks, straight into a reality which was difficult and uncertain both spiritually and physically.

"During the flight, which lasted about three hours, I examined the faces of my fellow travelers. I saw little joy and a great deal of worry and anxiety about what lay ahead. My seatmate asked me if I was fluent in Hebrew, and I answered that I was not. He, on the other hand, had studied Hebrew as a child and had attended synagogue all his life, and could therefore speak at an advanced level.

"My generation, and even the one before mine, had already started to distance itself from religion. Our entire education had been conducted in literary Arabic, together with the study of English and/or French. Looking back, I am certain that my seatmate had greater difficulties acclimatising to Israel than I did, in spite of his abilities in Hebrew. It turned out that those among us who did not know the language, especially if they were young, had no difficulty learning Israeli Hebrew, whereas those who had studied Hebrew abroad had things no easier linguistically. In general, those who arrived tabula rasa in 1951, with regard to Israel, found their way with relative ease into normal life in the country, unlike those who thought that they were prepared for the move. Many such people experienced severe culture shock as they discovered that no great similarity existed between the picture they had created in their minds while they were abroad, and that which they encountered upon their arrival. Those who arrived without expectations were the ones who successfully survived the experience of the ma'abara, the immigrant transit camp.

Read article in full

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