Thursday, August 18, 2005

Back to Babylon

In the Jerusalem Post of 15 August, Judy Lash Balint reports on her visit to the Museum of Babylonian Jewry at Or Yehuda: (with thanks:Lily)

The epic story of the most ancient Diaspora community and its eventual immigration to Israel is graphically depicted at the Museum of Babylonian Jewry in Or Yehuda. Located 13 km east of Tel Aviv, Or Yehuda was once itself the site of two large ma'abarot (tent cities) set up in 1950 to accommodate an influx of thousands of Iraqi and Romanian Jews.

Several halls of the museum deal with the highly developed educational and communal structures of Iraqi Jewry during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Photos show stylishly dressed families at lavish weddings; well-to-do businessmen standing proudly at the doors to their Baghdad establishments; and orderly rows of children in neatly pressed school uniforms standing at attention on the grounds of one of the 32 Jewish schools in Baghdad.

But, as with so many other Diaspora communities, the mid-20th century saw the political and social situation in Iraq deteriorate rapidly. This occurred within the lifetime of the museum founders, so it is not surprising that the tumultuous changes of this century for the Iraqi Jewish community occupy so much space in the museum.(...)

One exhibit that is bound to stop you in your tracks is the recreation of a ma'abara, complete with clothesline, a finjan, and suitcases packed in the corner. Photos of the ma'abarot during the miserable, rainy winter of 1951 can give only an inkling of what life must have been like for the thousands of immigrants who called Or Yehuda home.

The government's crude attempts at immigrant absorption are also on display. Posters reading "Jew, Speak Hebrew" and certificates noting name changes line the walls.

There's plenty of visual interest at this museum. A life-size reconstruction of an alley in Baghdad's Jewish quarter is included, with merchants of every description, a coffee house, and homes with their overhanging balconies, all recreating the ambiance of early 20th-century Baghdad.

A new wing of the museum is nearing completion, which will expand the educational and archival space. In the new library, a display panel explains how US troops discovered a treasure trove of Jewish artifacts when they overran Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. Much of the material was damaged by fire and water during the battle for the Mukhbarat building, but the Americans salvaged what they could, dried it onsite, and sent everything to Washington, DC, for professional restoration. The museum would like to house and display the recovered books and community records, but so far American authorities have given no indication of their intentions regarding the legacy of the last Jews of Iraq.

The final hall of this compelling museum is a recreation of the Great Synagogue of Baghdad (Slat-li-Kbighi). Here, one may ascend the Holy Ark to look at Torah scrolls rescued from Iraq, and then exit to the streets of Or Yehuda to mingle with the descendants of those who might once have prayed there. Read article in full

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