Walking barefoot to the House of God: My childhood Slichot prayers in Iraq

I was six years old then, practically a man in the Jewish tradition, yet my eyes were still half-shut, my head in dreamland.

By AVRAHAM SHAMA
August 28, 2016 22:00
Iraq, Jewish

‘WE MUST walk barefoot to the Slichot prayers as an expression of mourning for the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem many, many years earlier. And if we step on gravel or shards and hurt the soles of our feet, then our pain will count toward our suffering for the destruction of the Temple.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It had become a tradition in recent years to participate in organized Slichot tours in Jerusalem’s ancient neighborhoods.

The tours are followed by the Slichot prayers of forgiveness at one of Jerusalem’s many synagogues or at the Western Wall. And it’s not only in Jerusalem, but also cities like Bnei Brak, Safed and Kiryat Gat.

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The tours have become a cottage industry, helped by the fact that the prayers are said over many nights, ending just before Yom Kippur, and by the fact the Sephardi and Ashkenazi prayer calendars are different, thus allowing for many organized tours. This year’s Slichot prayers begin September 4.

Year after year many Israelis and tourists flock to Jerusalem and other cities to take part in the tours and the prayers to satisfy their yearning for a connection with their Jewish essence and identity.

I still remember my first Slichot prayers in Iraq many years ago.

They were simple and profound, without neighborhood tours, an organizer or a master of ceremonies.

They happened some nights before the1948 High Holidays, only a few months after the rebirth of Israel that would change our lives forever, when Baba woke David and me a little past midnight to accompany him to the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto of Hilla for Slichot services.

I was six years old then, practically a man in the Jewish tradition, yet my eyes were still half-shut, my head in dreamland. But I could feel the cool, refreshing air demanding full appreciation, especially in view of the sweltering mid-day heat that would surely follow.

We walked on the paved street and then turned right into the alley leading to the synagogue.

The alley was a narrow and curvy dirt plank with a tall mud wall on each side and mud homes behind the walls. Every time David and I talked, or as much as said a word, Baba was annoyed and told us to be quiet, because this time of year was a sad time for all Jews. So sad, I thought, the three of us had to walk barefoot to the synagogue.

The night before, Baba said to us that “we must walk barefoot to the Slichot prayers as an expression of mourning for the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem many, many years earlier. And if we step on gravel or shards and hurt the soles of our feet, then our pain will count toward our suffering for the destruction of the Temple.”

On the other hand, Baba explained that “on the upcoming Yom Kippur we shall walk to the synagogue wearing pure white socks to deserve God’s forgiveness.” He added that “in this somber time of the year we must not laugh loudly,” and – noticing that David and I were sleepy – he added: “the Slichot prayers are said way before dawn because that time of day was a willing time, a time when the gates of heaven might be more open to accept our prayers more readily.”

I had no idea what Temple Baba was talking about, and why we had to be somber and pray in a “willing time,” but whenever he used that tone of voice, I knew better than to ask questions. And so we walked in utter silence next to the mud walls, our bare feet gliding quietly on the dusty floor of the alley, sometimes stepping on gravel and other sharp objects, adding to our suffering credit.

The alley was dark and eerily quiet, the mud homes in deep sleep. Maybe this heralded a willing time, I thought.

In the synagogue we proceeded to the kohens’ section, and David and I sat next to Baba – one on each side to keep us quiet. Our kohens’ section was very small, as very few Jews are the descendants of Aharon the Kohen – Moses’ brother – whose job had been to serve all other Jews in the Temple and facilitate their connection with God.

In biblical times, kohens could not own land or any other property, and were dependent on contributions from Israel’s 12 tribes.

The synagogue was already half full with fathers and sons coming together as a community to mourn the destruction of the Temple and to ask God for forgiveness for any sin knowingly or unknowingly committed in the past year. But having to ask God to forgive me for I-don’t-knowwhat made me feel like a sinner, whatever that meant to a six-yearold boy.

Across our section, I spotted several of my friends sitting quietly next to their fathers. They looked somber, their feet bare, eyes half-shut. I saw Ron from school and my cousin Yosef, and wondered if they were sinners too.

Secretly, I felt happy I had not been living before the Temple was destroyed, because I did not like the idea of having to depend on the contributions for my food, though having a shelter at the Temple felt vaguely intriguing.

I did not see any women or girls attending the Slichot services, perhaps because it was the middle of the night, or because they did not have any sins for which to ask for God’s forgiveness, or because Jewish men had different religious functions.

Services began a few minutes later and we followed the rabbi and cantor as one. The cantor’s voice and the sound of the prayer’s melody sent shivers into my body and propelled me to feel like a sinner asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness. By the time prayers ended, I felt peaceful and purified; the sun that would bake us later in the day was still asleep, and the promise of very early breakfast waiting at home felt inviting.

David and I continued going to Slichot services with Baba in the following two years in our Hilla synagogue, and then our lives were upended. In 1951 our family migrated to Israel like most of the Iraqi Jewish community of 120,000 people. Living in a Holy Land, David and I no longer felt the need to be religious and so we shed our religious practice, as did most immigrants from Iraq.

Now all grown up and living in a different continent, where one drives to the synagogue wearing designer shoes and socks of any color, I sometimes long for the special atmosphere of the Slichot services of my childhood, of walking barefoot to the synagogue in the ghetto’s dirt alleys after midnight and praying in a willing time.

The author is a professor of international business at the University of New Mexico. His memoir, Finding Home: An Immigrant Journey, is forthcoming.


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