Jewish Mosul Revisited
Jewish heartbreak and hope in Nineveh,
By Carlos C. Huerta
The writer, a Major, is United States Army
Battalion Chaplain (Rabbi) 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery
101st Airborne Division (ScreamingEagles).
Jul. 24, 2003
'Climbing over the rotting garbage, I realised I was the
first Jew to enter this holy place in over 50 years' I am
writing to you from Nineveh, the city of the prophet Jonah.
Its present name is Mosul. I have had the privilege of seeing
its ancient walls, of touching its stones, of going to the
grave Islamic tradition says is the prophet Jonah's. There
is a mosque at the site; but hundreds of years ago, the
Iraqis we work with tell me, it was a synagogue. They tell
me the reason the site is so sacred is because of the sacredness
in which the Jews held it. Presently, there are no signs
of this ancient synagogue.
I am the rabbi of the 101st Airborne Division, the division
Steven Spielberg immortalised in his epic Band of Brothers.
We, the soldiers of the
101st Airborne, fought our way up from the south, from Kuwait.
The battle took us past Ur, the city where Abraham was born.
We maintained contact with the enemy, passed the site of
the great Talmudic academies of Sura and
Pumpadita, to the city of Babylon, where the prophet Daniel
There we engaged the Nebuchadnezzar Iraqi Armored Division
and beat them. We continued the battle to Baghdad, where
so many Jews lived and were massacred in the summer of 1941.
It was the city of so many of our sages, including the Ben
Now we are in Mosul. I ask about the Jews who lived here,
and very few remember them. Many say Jews never lived here;
but my heart tells me different. The old ones tell me there
was a Jewish quarter, a synagogue, study halls, and a cemetery.
One day, while searching the streets of the ancient city,
I came across a building missing half of its roof. The site
was a garbage dump and the building's interior was three-quarters
full of rotting garbage, feces and sewage. I had to crouch
down low to get inside as the doorway was almost completely
buried. As I entered light came through the half-open roof
and I could just make out writing engraved on the walls.
It was Hebrew. It was then that I knew I had stumbled into
the ancient synagogue of the city of Mosul-Nineveh.
My heart broke as I climbed over the garbage piles that
filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers
of Jews had reached the heavens. I realised I was probably
the first Jew to enter this holy place in over 50 years.
Over three-and-a half meters of garbage filled the main
sanctuary and what appeared to be the women's section. I
could barely make it out because of the filth, but there
was Hebrew writing on the walls.
Many Iraqis congregated around me, wanting to know what
I was doing. My translator said that the American army was
interested in old archaeological sites of all kinds. I asked
them if they knew what this place was, and they all said
in an instant: It was the house where the Jews prayed. They
told me that the houses in the streets surrounding the synagogue
had been filled with Jews. They took me to the children's
yeshiva, a marbled edifice that no longer had a roof, only
walls and half-rooms. There was a vagrant family living
there and when I asked them what this place was, they said
it was a Jewish school for children. As I walked through
the quarter I was shown the grave of the prophet Jonah,
once a synagogue. I saw that many of the doorposts had an
engraving of the lion of Judah on the top. I felt the presence
of our people, of their daily lives as merchants, teachers,
rabbis, doctors, and tailors. I felt their rush to get ready
for Shabbat, felt their presence as they walked to the synagogue
on Yom Kippur. I could almost hear singing in the courtyards,
in the succot, as they invited in the ushpizin. I could
hear the Pessah songs echoing through the narrow streets
late into the night. And the children, I could see their
shadows as they raced down the alleys and around the corners,
playing. 1 heard their voices learning the aleph beth in
the yeshivot as they prepared for their bar and bat mitzvot.
But I also heard the babies crying, and I could see the
young daughters of
Zion clinging to their mother's skirts, asking why the bad
people were killing them and making them leave their homes
of thousands of years.
Tears came to my eyes, but I had to hold them back lest
I put myself and the soldier with me in a dangerous situation.
I had to pretend that I was only mildly interested in what
they were showing me. How does one absorb this kind of experience?
How do I convey the feeling of hearing all those voices
reaching out in prayer at the synagogue as I stood on top
of all that garbage? How do I recover our history, how do
I bring honour to a holy place that has been so desecrated?
I have no answers. I only have great sadness, pain, and
Since then I have gone back to the Jewish quarter of old
Mosul with members of my congregation, Jewish soldiers of
the 101st: infantrymen, artillerymen, medics, pilots, lawyers,
doctors, all proud to be Jewish and serving their country.
Together we have found five more synagogues, more yeshivot
and many Jewish homes. They have all come away profoundly
affected by what they saw. They are saddened, but yet proud
to be connected to such an ancient and rich tradition in
this historic city of Nineveh. I searched the ancient city
near cemeteries in hope of finding the Jewish cemetery.
I found a Christian cemetery and a British War cemetery
situated next to each other. The British War cemetery is
now used as a soccer field. The cemetery was marked as a
war memorial cemetery and the dates were for World War I
and World War II. There was a marker in the cemetery written
in English and Sanskrit, dedicated to the Hindu and Sikh
soldiers of Her Majesty's army who died while serving. Another
one, written in English and Arabic, was dedicated to the
Muhammadan soldiers in Her Majesty's army who died while
serving, and a third marker had nothing on it. These markers
were over seven meters high. The third marker could have
had a dedication, but if so it had been destroyed or removed.
Scattered all through the cemetery were fragments of tombstones,
some with a few words of English, some with a cross on them.
Outside these three markers there were no standing tombstones
anywhere, only broken fragments scattered in corners. The
cemetery was surrounded by a 1.5 meter wall and an entrance
gate. About half a meter inside the cemetery, barely showing
through the surface, was a fragment my assistant, Specialist
William Rodriguez, discovered. By working with me over these
last few months he has learned to recognise Hebrew letters.
As we dug it out we noticed it had both Hebrew and English
on it. I was so excited to see it, yet so sad. There are
many possible explanations, but the one I think most plausible
is that it was the grave marker of a British soldier, a
young man by the name of Zev. The British Army had contacted
the local Jewish community to have a stone engraver put
Hebrew on the stone along with the English. It was their
way of honouring and respecting their fallen comrade. If
this explanation is true then this cemetery contains those
of the Hindu, Sikh, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faiths,
all soldiers who died in the service of their country. The
obvious question: Is death the only way these great faiths
can coexist in peace? We would hope not.
I have not yet discovered the ancient Jewish cemetery of
the Jews of Mosul- Nineveh. My instincts tell me it is nearby,
but in the last 60 years it has probably been desecrated
and obliterated. One native I talked to told me that a major
highway had been built through it. I will continue to search
as my military mission allows me. I have taken Zev's marker
and reburied it in the cemetery. I have said kaddish for
him and for all the other Jewish souls that may be buried
here. There is a great history to be written here, a great
opportunity to recover the lost narrative of our people,
the Sephardim of Iraq. My prayer and hope is that when the
gates finally open for scholars the remnants of our people
will still be here for historians to recover. I have taken
many pictures in case those who have no vision destroy the
few remnants that remain. I hope there are yet some Jews
from this important and holy community still alive in Israel.
If so they will be able to add to the oral history of what
will, God willing, be discovered here. If this chapter of
history is erased, it will never be recovered again. I pray
that those with more resources, more connections, and more
wisdom than I will be able to add to these pages of our
great history. I am only thankful that God has given me
a small part in it. May the memories of our brothers and
sisters - hakahal hakadosh d'Nineveh - the holy community
of Nineveh - never be forgotten.
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