Iraqi-Israeli Jews plan to visit their 'roots'

May trip will include stops at the graves of Abraham, Noah, and Jonah.

iraqi storyteller 298.88 (photo credit: Orly Halpern)
iraqi storyteller 298.88
(photo credit: Orly Halpern)
"On the Tigris River: A Trip To North Iraq," read the large pink sign at the entrance to the sixth annual academic conference of the Mosul Jewry Heritage Center in Haifa. Indeed, Iraqi-Israeli Jews who were born in the now violence-plagued city of Mosul will make a trip to Iraq to 'return to their roots' this spring. This trip, promises the sign, will include visits to the grave of Jonah the Prophet [which is in Mosul], the grave of Rabbi Nahum al-Kushi of Mt. Sinai, the cave of Abraham our Forefather, and the grave of Noah (of Noah's Ark). The first trip is limited to 12 people, but many more have expressed interest, said Gideon Oved, 59, a member of the MJHC board, which is organizing the trip, headed by Aharon Efroni, the center's chairman. "We might make two trips back to back," said Gideon Oved, a member of the center's board. If all goes well, say the planners, there will be many more trips in the future. Despite the bombs, the kidnappings, and the curses on their adopted homeland - Israel is widely believed by Iraqis in Iraq to be behind the US invasion and occupation of their country - Iraqi-Israelis are rushing to sign up. "I'm going no matter what," said Nahum Ballush, 72. "I want to go back and see the river, the Jewish quarter." His voice trailed off. For Iraqi Jews from the North of Iraq now living in Israel, the visit to the country they have not seen since they left some 50 years ago is an opportunity not to be missed - no matter the dangers. Over 120,000 Jews left Iraq during the early 1950's. Those still alive are yearning to return to the sights, sounds, and scents of the place they loved and left before it's too late. The group will fly to Turkey and then drive by bus across the border into the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq. There a Kurdish guide will join them. The trip is coordinated with the Kurds, said Oved. Like Jews of other Arab and Muslim countries, Iraqi Jews feel a strong bond with their former patria. In Israel they congregate regularly, often at parties specially-organized for Iraqi Jews, complete with Iraqi-Jewish singers singing Arabic classics The Muslawis - the Iraqi term for people from Mosul - are particularly tight knit. They are building their own center in Haifa, which will be complete in six months, and have regular events - both academic and social. One such event took place Tuesday. Some 50 Maslawi gathered from across Israel at the Meridien Hotel in Haifa to attend the academic conference about themselves. The lecturers spoke in the local Hebrew language but filled their talks with stories from far away Iraq. In between, people from the audience told funny stories in Maslawi Arabic - a dialect of the Iraqi dialect of Arabic or a combination of Hebrew and Maslawi. Every lecture was peppered with stories of someone's grandmother, the Jewish barber, or the Beit Midrash headmaster, who everyone knew. Most of the attendants were well into their Sixties and Seventies and understood the Arabic. But some of those who attended were the children of Muslawis and had the elders translate for them. Dr. Eilata Dalal and Shaul Oved, who discussed alternative medicine used by Maslawis, gave the key lectures. A couple men wore knitted skullcaps but all prayed together before the lighting of the Hannukah candles at the end of the conference. Meanwhile, it remains uncertain whether the trip to the Tigris will include a visit to Mosul, the city they want to see most. Mosul is outside of the Kurdish-controlled area. "If the situation does not improve we wont go there," said Oved. Efroni, the white-haired white-mustachioed 60-something-year old organizer has already visited the region once before, but did not go to Mosul. Some Israeli-Iraqi Jews expressed fear about joining the May trip. "I really want to go but I heard Yael Dayan [a reporter] on TV saying that it's very dangerous right now," said Nahum Bago, 69, also from Mosul. Bago lives in Petach Tikvah and learned about the trip through flyers distributed in an Iraqi coffee shop in his city. "I will wait till I see how it goes for the first one or two groups before I go myself."