Sunday, October 07, 2007

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Baghdad

The sound of the shofar rang out incongruously in Iraq as an eclectic bunch of Jews sat down to celebrate the Jewish New Year in a land rich in Jewish significance, but populated only by Jewish ghosts. Yochi Dreazen, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was there (with thanks: Helen):

"For obvious reasons, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I made plans to travel to a military base on the outskirts of Baghdad for Rosh Hashanah. I didn't know if there would be a minyan (quorum), if there would be Orthodox prayer services or a shorter Reform variant, or if there would be Kosher food. You can imagine my shock - the best kind of shock, the type that comes from being pleasantly surprised - when I found that Rosh Hashanah at Forward Operating Base Striker included all of those things, and a few more besides.

"The services were held in a small meeting room in the base chapel building, with signs outside listing that week's services, which ranged from Spanish-language Pentacostal to Latin Mass Catholic to Muslim jumma prayers. The back of the chapel faces onto a small yard, which is now almost entirely filled up by a newly constructed wooden succah (booth). The succah was built by a non-Jewish amateur carpenter from the Arkansas National Guard, who told me he built it in his spare time and was glad to have been able to help. In fact, the military,from the top level on down, went out of its way to help Jewish soldiers make it to the base for services. The Army issued a pair of FRAGOs - formal orders - ordering commanders to make arrangements for their Jewish soldiers to travel to the base for the services and giving Jewish soldiers permission to not shower or shave during the holiday (soldiers usually have to shave every day, and can be punished if they forget). Of the 40-odd soldiers who ultimately took part in the Rosh Hashanah services - plus a few civilians, including a self-described "Jewish grandmother from New York" who is in Iraq, incongruously, to help interrogate high-value terrorism suspects - more than half flew in from other bases.

"The services were arranged by a jovial chaplain with the wondrous name of Andrew Shulman, who had lived in Israel for a few years - studying at Aish Hatorah, in the Old City - and then gone to work for a synagogue in Massachusetts before volunteering to join the army and
come to Iraq as a military chaplain. He is the only Jewish chaplain in Iraq full-time, though others occasionally come in from Kuwait and other bases around the High Holidays. When I emailed him a few weeks ago to say that I would be coming and would be glad to help lead the
prayers or read the Torah, he said I was a lifesaver and that he would be glad to put me to work. He kept his word: I ended up leading the long Mussaf (additional) services both days of the holiday, reading both days' Torah portions (out of a Machzor (prayer book), because there was no actual Torah scroll, but still), and doing both days' Haftorah (Prophets) portions. With the exception of cutting out some of the optional poems in Mussaf, we did the entire Orthodox liturgy, and even found a young tzizzit-wearing (prayer vest) soldier from Milwaukee named Rafi Karran who was able to blow the shofar (ram's horn), so we had shofar-blowing, as well.

"The people who came to the services were an eclectic bunch. There was a full-bird colonel named Abramowitz, a bunch of young lieutenants with names like Frank and Hode, a command sergeant major (the highest position you can have as an enlisted soldier) named Soriano, and asergeant with the "Coming to America"-esque name of Kurt Love. Some of the soldiers were converts - Soriano, who gave his name as Ami, was once named Jorge Octavio - and others had a Jewish mother and didn't discover they were Jewish till they were adults. Virtually all knew some Hebrew, though, and were as thrilled as I was to be able to take part in a full, real service. The most fascinating soldier there, in my opinion, was a female sergeant named McCann, who grew up hunting and skinning animals in Montana and found out that her mom was Jewish right after she enlisted at 19. Before leaving for Iraq, she got herself trained as a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and now buys chickens while out on mission and ritually slaughters the chickens back at the base so she can have some kosher meat. She has gotten so religious that she won't shake hands with male soldiers. (..) To top it off, this blond-haired, blue-eyed farm girl is planning to marry an older Israeli soldier as soon as she finishes her tour in Iraq later this year.

"No Jewish event, civilian or military, would be complete without food, and Rosh Hashanah in Baghdad was no exception. Rabbi Shulman had hadan absolutely astounding amount of food sent in for the holiday, and the group of soldiers did an impressive job of plowing through it. He had kosher wine for kiddush (blessing over wine) (alcohol is strictly forbidden in the military, so for many soldiers this was the first taste of alcohol they had drunk in more than a year), pomegranates and prickly pears as the new fruit of the season, honey for the apples, gefilte fish (some of which splashed on me, which was as disgusting an experience as I
have ever had in my life), hummos and tahini, Israeli olives and pickles, and fresh Zomick's challah and rolls that had been sent in a short time earlier. (...)

I have talked a lot about the logistics of the holiday, but I want to take a moment to talk about the feel of the holiday, as well. In more than four years of living in, covering and visiting Iraq, this is the first time I have ever done anything Jewish here. When I lived in Baghdad, I had nothing with me that could identify me as Jewish and had scrubbed my Palm Pilot and laptop of any file that mentioned Israel or anything Jewish. When an Iraqi asked me my religion, I would always lie and say Catholic. It burned me deeply to have to lie like that; I am proud of being Jewish, and always have been. It was even more painful to lie about my identity while living in a place like Iraq, which had for millennia been the absolute pinnacle of the Diaspora Jewish world, a place that still uses city names - like Ur, in northern Iraq - that are mentioned in the Torah. But there was no choice, until now. This holiday was the first time in all of my years in Iraq that I was able to identify myself as a Jew and live accordingly.

"A final thought: the Iraqi Jewish community is down to barely six people, the last remnants of the once-proud, vibrant Iraqi Jewish world (there is a style of architecture in Baghdad that is even now called "Jewish style"). The final few elderly Jews are largely waiting to die, so they can be buried in the land of their ancestors. When they die, the Jewish community of Iraq - once so robust and important that the Talmud itself was written here - will for all intents and purposes cease to exist. For a few days, though, Hebrew was again heard in Iraq, as Jews sat down to eat, pray and celebrate in a country now populated mainly with Jewish ghosts. For a few days, there was again a Jewish community of Baghdad.

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