The Jewish palate: T'beet - Flavors of Iraqi Jewish Exile

From the Jerusalem Post by Chef Dennis Wasko

The history of Jews in Iraq can be traced back to the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. After Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon (part of modern-day Iraq), destroyed Judah and the First Temple in Jerusalem, he decided to put an end to the Jewish state once and for all. He captured the most influential citizens and brought them back to Babylon, leaving only the poorest citizens behind. As a result, the Jewish community in Babylonia flourished and even became more magnificent than that of ancient Palestine. In time, Babylon would become the focus of Judaism for more than a thousand years.

Babylonia became the seat of Jewish learning and wisdom. Great academies of Jewish learning were founded by the great Rabbis who would eventually be the first to write down the Mishna (Jewish Oral Law), and its commentary, the Talmud.

The Jewish community thrived in this part of the world and Jews became high-ranking officials in the government, owned businesses, and enjoyed peaceful relations with the native population. However, the rise of Islam opened a new chapter in the lives of Babylonian Jews. As time went on, persecutions became more frequent and it wasn't until the Ottoman Turks gained control of the area in 1638 that life for the Jews became secure. Over time however, centralized Turkish control waned, and the situation for the Jews worsened.

After gaining its independence, with help of Jewish support, in 1932, Iraq started out as a safe place for Jews. The first Iraqi minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskel, was even Jewish. At that time, Jews and Arab Iraqis lived and worked together, and saw themselves as one people. However on August 27, 1934 life for the Jews of Iraq changed forever. Fueled by Nazi propaganda, the Iraqi government passed a law that dismissed Jews from the government, set up quotas in colleges and universities, and made it illegal to teach Jewish history and Hebrew in Jewish schools.

It was the beginning of the end. On June 1 and 2, 1941 a pogrom broke out in Baghdad and approximately 200 Jews were openly murdered, and another 2,000 were injured. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 caused even more problems for the Jews of Iraq, and by 1951 Israel instituted Operation Ezra and Nehemiah to bring Iraqi Jews safely to the Jewish state.

The situation became progressively worse over the years to the point where a population of well over 120,000 Jewish Iraqis has dwindled to a population, at last count, eight Jews were left in what was once the greatest center of Jewish civilization.

Learn about the Iraqi Jewish Community through one of their renowned recipes:

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