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:

Tabyit - Spicy chicken stuffed with different meats and rice and is cooked over a bed of rice mixed witg zesty tomato sauce.

This dish is traditionally served for lunch on the Sabbath. As kindling fire and cooking are activities that are not permitted on the Sabbath, this dish is started on Fridays before sundown. It is then allowed to continue cooking in a very low oven for 14 - 18 hours!  Nowadays, slow cookers are also used for these types of dishes. The final result is a very tender and flavorful dish.

Tabyit
Serves 8
•    4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
•    1 large, whole chicken
•    3 1/2 cups basmati rice
•    1 pound ground chuck
•    1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes
•    3 teaspoons tomato paste
•    1 medium onion, finely diced
•    2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
•    2 tablespoons ground cardamom
•    1 tablespoon ground allspice
•    salt and pepper for flavor
•    cayenne pepper for flavor
•    3 cups water

Rinse the chicken thoroughly, and pat dry. Blend the cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice together. Season the chicken inside and out with salt, pepper, and half of the spice blend. Set aside.

To make the filling:
Wash and soak 1 1/2 cups of basmati rice for 30 minutes. After soaking, drain the rice and put it into a large mixing bowl. Add the meat and half of the diced tomatoes with their juice. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper for flavor. I recommend 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne. Mix all ingredients together. Add half of remaining spice mix and blend thoroughly.

Stuff the filling into the cavity of the chicken. Don't be afraid to pack it tightly. After stuffing, either truss the cavity closed, or tie the legs together in such a way that it somewhat seals the cavity (like a Thanksgiving turkey).

To cook:
Place a large, heavy, non-stick pot or a stove-safe slow cooker insert over medium high heat. Add the olive oil. When hot, add the chicken, breast side down. Allow to brown as best as possible, and then turn it over. Continue in this manner until the chicken is fairly brown all over. Remove the chicken and set aside.

Add onion to hot oil and sauté until translucent. Add remaining tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir to dissolve the tomato paste. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne for flavor. I recommend 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne. Add remaining spice mix. Add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil.

In the mean time, wash and soak the remaining rice for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, drain the rice and add to the pot. Add the chicken back to the pot positioning it so that it sits on its back in the middle of the pot. Bring the pot back to a boil, cover, and immediately place into a 200 degree Fahrenheit (95 C) oven. Allow it to cook slowly for at least 12 hours, but it can be cooked up to 18 hours. Alternately, place insert into slow cooker and cook on low for 18 hours.

To serve:
Carefully remove chicken from the pot. It will fall apart, but try to be gentle. Place on a platter and surround with the rice. A crispy crust should have formed on the bottom of the pot. Place this on top of the rice and be sure that everyone gets a piece as this is the best part. Serve with a simple salad to round out the meal.

The writer is an executive chef, and author of "Beyond the Kitchen Wall."

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