Vibrant reminder of Iraq's
by Daniel Crewe
The title of "Miss Baghdad" may seem
improbable today, but in 1947 the competition not
only existed but was won by a Jewish girl, Renée
Dangoor. The photograph of Miss Baghdad, wrapped
in a sash marked in Arabic, is one of the most striking
images in an exhibition that opened in February
at the Jewish Museum in London. Using material from
Baghdadi Jews who now live in London, By the Rivers
of Babylon describes the glory years and final dark
days of the oldest of the Diaspora communities.
Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia, had taken
Jerusalem in 597BC and forced Jews to live in Babylon
in captivity. This was recalled in Psalm 137: "By
the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we
wept when we remembered Zion." The exhibition
is a timely reminder of Iraq's rich history. "A
lot of the Jewish institutions we take for granted
today come from the circumstances that Jews found
themselves in when they were exiled," says
Jennifer Marin, the curator of the exhibition.
It was the Jews in Iraq, for example, who established
Torah academies, so that over 300 years the compilation
of Jewish law and practice, the Babylonian Talmud
(Bavli), was written. They also established the
first synagogues, after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed
the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC.
Babylonia became the centre of the Jewish world,
and though Jews fled to Syria and Kurdistan after
the Mongol invasion of 1258, the religion was revived
in Iraq in the 19th century and many Jews became
The exhibition is set out in three parts. The first,
which includes the reconstruction of a house, looks
at social life in Iraq, taking in music, food and
even the "henna" parties at which the
dye would be applied to a bride's fingers.
Most striking, though, is the fine clothing that
is on display. Photographs demonstrate the transition
to Western attire in the 1930s and 1940s, and there
are fine examples of gold thread embroidery.
The second section consists of panels focusing
on 2,000 years of glorious times. "You can
see what a rich and important culture it was,"
says Marin. "It was side by side with the Muslim
culture and no one saw any conflict."
The third section, which includes the dark etchings
of the Baghdadi-born artist Irene Scheinmarm (née
Reuben Karady), looks at the community's tragic
decline, and at this point the coloured panels become
black and white. But the testimonies of those who
have talked about life in Iraq recall that even
during the pogroms of 1941, Jews were helped by
their Muslim neighbours.
It was after these riots that thousands of Jews
left the country, and between 1948 and 1951 more
than 120,000 Iraqis settled in Israel. There are
dramatic images of the Operation Ezra and Nehemiah
airlift and of crowds registering for emigration-outside
the Battaween Synagogue, which was described by
a Times reporter last month as having "padlocked
steel gates plastered with Saddam Hussein posters".
Several departing Jews formed a close-knit community
in London, where names such as Saatchi and Kedourie
became well known. In 1940 the Jews of Iraq numbered
more than 300,000 but by 1952 only 6,000 remained
. Now there are fewer than 40, and only two of those
Many people headed not west from Iraq but east.
The philanthropist David Sassoon (1792-1864), whose
family was a pillar of the Baghdad community, was
the first Jew 'to move from the city to Bombay,
starting a business there in the 1830s. His family
included Rachel Sassoon Beer (who simultaneously
edited the Sunday Times and The Observer), and Siegfried
Playing in the background at the exhibition is
music in the Iraqi Jewish tradition by the mixed-faith
nine-piece band, Rivers of Babylon, led by the ethnomusicologist
Dr Sara Manasseh, David Sassoon's great-great-great
Dr Manasseh will next month talk on the music of
the Baghdadi Jews as part of the museum's programme
of events and, in March, Rivers of Babylon will
give a concert as part of the Jewish Arts Festival.
The concert is sponsored by Naim Dangoor and the
Exilarch's Foundation, the publisher of The Scribe,
the journal of Babylonian Jewry. Dangoor, who lent
many items to the exhibition, is the grandson of
one of Iraq's leading Chief Rabbis, Hakham Ezra
Dangoor (1848-1930) - and the husband of Miss Baghdad.
The exhibition continues until April 6 at The Jewish
Museum, Albert Street, London NWI. Telephone: 020