'Roots' trip planned for Israel's Iraqi Jews

Iraqi Jews from Mosul to return to their now violence-plagued birthplace for the first time in 50 years.

iraqi jew 88.298 (photo credit: Orly Halpern)
iraqi jew 88.298
(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, in Mosul, the grave of Rabbi Nahum al-Kushi of Mt. Sinai, the cave of Abraham, and the grave of Noah. The first trip was limited to 12 people, but many more had 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 Oved. 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 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 Jews from the north of Iraq now living in Israel, the visit to the country they have not seen since leaving some 50 years ago is an opportunity not to be missed, no matter the dangers. Over 120,000 Jews left Iraq during the early 1950s and those still alive are yearning to return to the sights, sounds and scents of the place they loved and left before it is too late. The group will fly to Turkey and then go by bus across the border into the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq, where a Kurdish guide will join them. The trip would be coordinated with the Kurds, said Oved. Like Jews of other Arab and Muslim countries, Iraqi Jews feel a strong bond with their former homeland. In Israel they congregate regularly, often at parties specially organized for Iraqi Jews, complete with Iraqi-Jewish singers doing 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 completed in six months, to have regular academic and social events. One such event took place Tuesday. Some 50 Maslawi gathered from across Israel at the Meridien Hotel in Haifa to attend an academic conference. The lecturers spoke in Hebrew 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 Iraqi 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. Everyone prayed together before the lighting of the Hanukka 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, whitemustachioed organizer in his 60s has already visited the region once before, but did not go to Mosul. Some Iraqi-Israelis expressed fear about joining the May trip. "I really want to go but I heard a reporter on TV saying that it's very dangerous right now," said Nahum Bago, 69, also from Mosul. Bago lives in Petah Tikva and learned about the trip through flyers distributed in an Iraqi coffee shop in his city. "I will wait until I see how it goes for the first one or two groups before I go myself," he said.