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Where Judaism Began

From the Jewish Report

By Yigal Schleifer

Babylon looms large in Jewish history. It represents the land from which the patriarch Abraham emerged, and it is a name that nearly a millennium later became almost synonymous with the term "Diaspora" - the place where "we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." Ezekiel died here in exile, and Ezra returned from here to help re-establish the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Babylon, too, was the capital of the country, where in many ways, the Jewish practice of today was developed and codified, in the form of the Babylonian Talmud. Indeed though Iraq's modern-day Jews left almost entirely en masse a half-century ago, the unbroken presence of a Jewish community over a period of nearly two and a half millennia has left Iraq with many physical reminders of their time here.

History in Iraq is measured in cycles of thousands of years. Travelling through the land, one get the sense that Iraq's almost overwhelmingly rich past continuously in-forms its often-violent present. Past and present live side by side, sometimes jarringly.

For many of us. a place like Babylon is something of an abstraction, a fairy-tale place shaped in our consciousness by Bib-lical stories. In Iraq, it is a national treasure, but also, at one time, a place for collecting building supplies and, more recently, a place to-pick up an air conditioner and some office furniture.

If anyone was aware of the power of the country's history, it was Saddam Hussein. "He used Mesopotamian history for nation-building in Iraq," says Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle East politics at Haifa University, who has written extensively about Saddam. "He created, you can say, a new myth that today's Iraqis are the bi-ological offspring of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the cul-tural heirs of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

"Saddam would appear in pictures with depictions of Nebuchadnezzar, with Ham-murabi," who founded the original Baby-lonian dynasty in 1792 BCE. "There was an attempt to create an Iraqi national myth that goes back 5,000 years," adds Baram. "This would also give Saddam an ideolog-ical basis for hegemony in the Arab world."
Saddam was trying to cast himself as a link in a long chain of Mesopotamian rulers. At Babylon, the bricks inscribed with his name are copies of the originals that are engraved with Nebuchadnezzar's name, a crude attempt at making himself eternal. Presenting himself as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar, who conquered the Jew-ish kingdom of Judea in 586 BCE, fit in nicely with Saddam's efforts to portray himself as the leading Arab figure fighting Israel.

A major part of that long history is the area's Jewish past, which stretches back to the very beginnings of Judaism. The ruins of Ur, described in the Torah as the birth-place of Abraham, are in southern Iraq. In the north of the country, the remains of Nineveh, to which the Lord sent a reluctant prophet named Jonah to warn the residents of the Assyrian capital of their city's im-minent destruction, can be found in the middle of the contemporary city of Mosul. And then there's the actual Jewish pres-ence, beginning with the conquest of Judah in the 6th century BCE. "It's an area where there was continuous Jewish settlement longer than in Eretz Yisrael — 2,500 years." says Jacob Neusner, professor of religion and theology at Bard College, in New York. "There's no equal to that anywhere. It's quite an incredible record." "The [Diaspora] produced the Torah and the Talmud in Babylonia. What else mat-ters?" Neusner says. "The rabbis [of the Tal-mudic period] were ruling about the life of a regular, ethnic community that's not so dif-ferent from the Sunnis and Shi'ites of today," Neusner continues. "It's a polyglot, polycul-tural region. It's what it was and it's what it is today. You had Jews living side by side with Persians, Arabs and people speaking Arama-ic who were not Jewish. It was a mosaic. It was a meeting ground of peoples."

Almost all of Iraq's modern Jews, more than 100,000 people, left the country in air-lifts after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Today, fewer than 40 Jews remain in Baghdad

One of the prophets who warned against the destruction of the kingdom of Judah, Ezekiel was carried off to Babylon along with other members of the Jerusalem aristocracy 11 years before the destruction of the Temple, in 597 BCE. In exile, Ezekiel became the comforter of his people, a prophet who both helped explain to his people the reason for the their exile and provide them with a vision for a return to Zion.

I headed out of Baghdad in search of Ezekiel's Tomb. We headed south in the direction of Hilla, looking for a smaller town called Ki-fl. Avishur had told me Kifl might have been the site of Sura, one of the two academies of the Talmudic period, the oth-er being Pumbedita. It is an area that most Jews probably know little about and surely have rarely visited, but it was in this place that the Babylonian Talmud was compiled, an undertaking that, to a large extent, set the course of Jewish life from that time onward.

Kifl itself is a dusty, forlorn-feeling town of one-story mud-brick homes. Finding the site of Ezekiel's grave was surprisingly easy — the ziggurat-like, mud-colored top of the shrine built around it was visible as soon as we entered the town.

A small, covered bazaar led to a doorway into a large, open courtyard surrounded by very ancient-looking mud-brick buildings, some of them partially collapsed, revealing interiors with vaulted ceilings. A man in a white robe who was passing by told us the col-lapse was the result of a rocket that hit during the recent fight-ing. Another rocket fell on a house adjacent to another side of the tomb, but the shrine it-self was spared any damage, the man told us. A rocket or an artillery shell also hit his own house, the man said, killing his two-year-old son, flung across a room from the explosion, his head split open. He pulled up his robe to show a deep gash running across a meaty leg.
Soon somebody came to tell us the shrine was open and as we approached it, we stepped around the gray-colored sewage that was running down the mid-dle of the narrow alleyways.
According to former Baghdady Jews, large numbers of them would make a pil-grimage to the shrine for the holiday of Shavuot, sleeping in the small rooms of the building that encloses the peaceful court-yard, where olive, palm and fig trees grow.

Little is known about the death of Ezekiel, but his tomb is mentioned by the 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who describes it as revered by both Jews and Muslims, though in the care of Jews, with a large library of Jewish books inside, including some dating from the time of the First Temple.
We took off our shoes and entered the shrine through a green wooden door into what was clearly once a synagogue, with Hebrew writing running across one wall. Under one arched doorway, a Hebrew in-scription reads, "And this gravestone is the gravestone of our prophet Ezekiel." Two elderly Muslim men were in one corner, prostrating themselves in prayer. In another room also filled with Hebrew inscriptions, under a spectacular roof cre-ated out of right angles, sits a large wood-panelled vault. The walls, which are painted with a floral design that is faded but still exquisite, also have glass inlaid in them, giving the room a jewel-like quality. The caretaker, a 50-year-old named Abu Khadum, opened a small door near the front of the crypt and told me to look inside. The wood was covering a much older stone tomb that had two tablets engraved with Hebrew at the front. I couldn't make out the writing on them except for one word, which was the name "Yehezkel."

Abu Khadum said his family had been watching over the place since Ottoman times, appointed by the sultan. He told us the build-ing was 750 years old, and that "this is the burial place of a prophet of God, and it is mentioned in the Koran." He left Kifl for a few days during the recent fighting and came back to find the door open and a marble tablet and a seven-arm silver candelabrum missing. No Jews had come to visit in decades, but before the 1991 Gulf War, European tourists would visit occasionally.

"I think more tourists will come now," Abu Khadum, a quiet man with a stubbly beard and a tan, wizened face, said. "I think Jews will start coming also.

A few days later, we headed farther south to look for the tomb of Ezra the Scribe. Ezra, with official permission from the king of Persia, which by his time-ruled Babylonia, led a return to Judah of Jewish exiles in 458 BCE.
Ezra, the son of a priest, set about to restore Jewish life in the land and was re-sponsible, to a large extent, for codifying various aspects of Jewish practice, helping create the weekly division of Torah por-tions, for example. He died in Persia, ac-cording to historical sources, which could explain his being buried in southern Iraq, near the border with Iran.
The tomb, is located on the bank of the muddy and fast-flowing Tigris River in a town called Al-Uzair, some 250 miles south of Baghdad. Al-Uzair, like Kifl, is a run-down place filled with mud brick homes, its main street lined with peddlers selling vegetables and live chickens. The shrine of Ezra sticks out among the drabness, topped with a blue-tiled dome and enclosed with a high cement wall that has what seems like a small minaret rising from one corner.
Leaving our shoes outside, we entered the shrine and met Zayir Zahlan, an 80-year-old man in a grayish robe and white keffiya, who has been watching the tomb since the last Jewish family left town in 1950. Zahlan, who has a white beard and cloudy eyes, said he had guarded the shrine during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when most people had fled Al-Uzair, which was close to the front. He stayed here as well during the 1991 Gulf War and during the most recent fighting, he said. "I saw the prophet [Ezra] in a dream, arid he told me, 'Don't leave me, and I won't leave you,'" Zahlan said.

The 250-year-old building was renovat-ed two years ago with help from the Sad-dam government. Less ornate than Ezekiel's tomb, it also has a front room that leads into a domed chamber holding a large tomb covered in green cloth. The dome, painted white with blue outlines, has the name of God, YHWH, written in large He-brew letters on one side. Next door to the shrine stands what used to be a synagogue. White plastic lawn chairs were lined up against the walls of the room, which is used as an Islamic study center now. The caretaker and his grand-son, a 25-year-old Shi'ite imam with a wispy black beard, pointed to a large patched segment of the brick ceiling. An Iranian rocket came through that spot dur-ing the 1980s, tearing a hole in the ceiling but not exploding, they said. I asked if any old books remained from the time when the building was a syna-gogue. No, said the young imam, but we do have another book.
Walking over to a table lined with books in Arabic, the young man pulled out a brown hardback volume that turned out to be a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, donated by a member of the local community. I asked Zahlan if any of the old Jewish residents of the town had come back to visit since they left. He said many years ago some Jews had arrived, disguised in robes and keffiyas, but no Jew has come since. "They are afraid of the government," he said.

Back in baghdad, I visited a shrine, also topped with a blue-tile dome, that Iraqi Jews consider to be the burial place of Jeshua the High Priest, who helped lead the return from the Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE and was instrumental in restoring the Temple in Jerusalem. In the years since the Jews stopped com-ing to visit the domed Baghdad shrine, some confusion seems to have developed over whose remains it accommodates. A fairly new-looking tile inscription in Ara-bic declares it to be the grave site of Joshua, (Yehoshua Bin Nun), the disciple of Moses who led the children of Israel into the Holy Land. An old woman, who gave us direc-tions told us "the son of Moses" was buried there. Hassan Abu Nur, the 61-year-old caretaker of the shrine, wasn't sure, but said he knew it was a prophet and that he was dedicated to maintaining the place. "I'm a Muslim, but I don't distinguish between Muslims, Jews and Christians," said Abu Nur, who has a wild look in his eyes and a prominent nose. "We should honour every religion." Abu Nur showed us a spot where the old graves of two Jewish teachers were once located un-til the government had them destroyed in 1986. What look like the remains of a marble tombstone could be seen stick-ing out of the ground. "They wanted to destroy this shrine, so that the Jews wouldn't come back." Abu Nur said.

The condition of the Jewish shrines is actually much better than most of Iraq's other cul-tural-heritage sites. Like Baby-lon, Iraq's museums and ar-chaeological sites were picked over by looters during the final days of the war, the cost of the damage they inflicted so far unknown.


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