My Passover of years past: Heralding the spring of a nation

As customary in our family, we left our sterilized, Passover-ready home and flocked to do the Seder with Aunt Georgia and Uncle Ephraim and their family.

April 16, 2016 22:12
3 minute read.
Jewish Temple in Iraq

A JEWISH shrine containing the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel in the Iraqi town of Kifl, south of Baghdad. The author describes his last Passover in Iraq.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In 1948, Passover in the ghetto of our little town of Hilla, Iraq began like all past Passovers, but it led to a life-changing realization that our 2,000- year sojourn in Iraq had run its course.

Preparations for the Seder that year, like in all past years, started weeks earlier with thorough cleaning to rid our home of any leavened food, hametz. Every corner of our home had to be thoroughly scrubbed as if it were an operating room, and every plate, spoon and glass boiled as if they were operating tools that must be sterilized, otherwise the patients – we – might not make it. My mother and five older sisters would wake up earlier than usual in the mornings approaching Passover Eve, because one can never be too sure how many corners would have to be rescrubbed and utensils reboiled.

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As customary in our family, we left our sterilized, Passover-ready home and flocked to do the Seder with Aunt Georgia and Uncle Ephraim and their family.

Because of recent terrorist acts against Jews all over the country, including our little town 100 km. south of Baghdad, we avoided walking at night to the Seder and made our way to their home when the sun was still high.

Nearing our aunt’s home we saw Uncle Ephraim standing by the entry door. He was a member of the defense section of the local Zionist movement, but now seemed serious and a bit nervous. Ephraim pointed to the door without saying much, as a night guard in an army camp would do. He was guarding the home lest a passerby hear anything suspicious and report it to the authorities. He came inside with us and sent his son to guard the entry.

During the Seder, we read the Haggada, a section of which instructs all Jews to talk about their Exodus not only from Egypt thousands of years earlier, but about any Jewish exodus, past and present. This, of course, opened the discussion of the unnerving anti-Jewish terrorist acts in our town recently.

A few weeks earlier our synagogue and many others around Iraq were set on fire. This was followed by bombing of Jewish businesses in large cities like Baghdad and Basra. No one knew then who was responsible for those acts, but many suspected local Muslims.

Though the physical damage was relatively minor, the psychological wound was deep and transformative.

Also, shortly after the fires and bombings, the Iraqi police arrested hundreds of Jewish men, including one of my uncles, accusing them of being Zionists and sending fears into the Jewish community. These events, especially the arrests of the young men, made everyone in our community fearful and nervous.

Sitting around the Seder table, my father said that despite these events, our peaceful life in Iraq would continue. “Iraq is our home,” he said. “Our history here goes back thousands of years. This is where our culture is, where the Talmud was written, where our great prophet Yehezkel [Ezekiel] is buried.”

My sister Tikva, who was a member of the Zionist cell in our town, gave him a look but did not say a word. It was not a woman’s role in Iraq to disagree with her father, especially not in public. But Uncle Ephraim said: “The fires, the bombs and the arrests have changed everything for all Jews in Iraq, and maybe for Jews worldwide.” He took a deep breath and added: “No matter how comfortable our life is in Iraq, we must be ready to end our long and impressive history here, because Iraq is not our homeland; Israel is.”

About a month later, on May 14,1948, the state of Israel was reborn. Within three years, most Iraqi and other Middle Eastern Jews, three quarters of a million in all, made a modern exodus and doubled the population of the infant state.

I was six years old then, when I realized that Passover meant independence from all pharaohs, anywhere, anytime.

The author is a professor of International Business at the University of New Mexico. His book, Finding Home: An Immigrant Journey, is soon to be released.

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