My Day: Remembering Baghdad

We saw Fiona Murphy’s new film, “Remember Baghdad” at the Jewish Film Festival last night, sitting with a friend who left Baghdad in 1970 and who knew most of the people (living in England and Israel) interviewed in the film.  It’s a movie about Jewish Baghdad, a Baghdad that no longer exists today.

What’s the thing that would surprise most people today?  It’s that before the creation of the State of Israel, Baghdad, capital of Iraq, was approximately 50% Jewish, and that Baghdad’s commerce was largely run by Jewish enterprises.

The Baghdad Jewish community was, of course, ancient – after all, this is where the exiles were taken after the destruction of the first temple in the 6th century BCE, and current day Iraq is where the Babylonian Talmud was written some centuries later.

For a long time, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was after the collapse of that empire that the British took virtual control around 1920 and held control, sometime through an English appointed royal dynasty until the monarchy was overturned in 1958 and the Baath party (the party of Sadam Hussein) took control in 1968.

During the early decades of this century, many Baghdadi Jews prospered, and many maintained excellent relationships (social and business) with their Muslim neighbors. It was as tension grew in Palestine under the British Mandate in the 1930s that the Jews began to be identified more as “the other” than as “fellow Iraqis”, and riots began as early as 1941.  But most Iraqi Jews continued to live a pretty good life, until the State of Israel was created, when things began really to deteriorate and most Jews left the city and country, until 1967, when the Israeli victory in the Six Day War constituted the final blow.

The film goes through this history with interesting original footage.  It interviews a half dozen or so Iraqi Jews living in the UK or Israel today about their experiences.  It shows prosperous Jews, westernized in most respects, having parties, playing tennis, living in nice houses, and fraternizing with their fellow countrymen.  Just like in Europe, the early 20th century looked pretty good for Jewish populations.  Then there was Hitler (and the Jerusalem mufti) and the creation of the State of Israel, and everything changed, almost everywhere.  Some Jews left; some said “this too will pass”.  Sound familiar?

“Remember Baghdad” is an important film in that it documents what happened in Iraq, and to the approximately 150,000 Jews who lived there, but live there no longer.  It also takes away some of the exotic thoughts Americans and Europeans might have in thinking about Baghdad and Iraq, and makes it a real place. filled with people that look like us and lived like we do.  And, again as in Europe, today’s Iraqis hardly remember the days when Jews constituted half of the city.  Just like if you go to Berlin, and no one remembers 400,000 Jews there, or almost that many in Warsaw, or Budapest.  “What?  There used to be Jews here?”, people often ask with surprise.  It’s not just that time has passed by, of course.  It’s that the history books have been rewritten to write out the Jewish history of theses cities.  Why is that?  It’s because it’s an inconvenient history, one that does not sit well with today’s nationalistic, populist strains that seem to have strained everyone.  No longer is there a multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, or a multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire, or a multi-ethnic eastern Europe.  The Jews of 100 years ago were not nationalists for the  most part, they were cosmopolitans.  And nothing could be worse, or more out of keeping with the times, in so many places, today.

Will the wheel keep turning?  And when will we see these days of diversity and tolerance return to those places where they seem so far away?


My Day: Brecht and Leviticus

Friday morning, one of the Adas Israel rabbis leads an informal class on the weekly Torah portion.  This week, it was Rabbi Holtzblatt, and the Torah portion was the end of the Book of Leviticus, and it dealt to a great extent with the commandment that the land of Eretz Israel should lie fallow every seven years and that anyone can eat of its remaining produce, and that every 50 years there should be a “jubilee year”, where land reverts to its original owner.  Now, there’s a lot of conversation that can be based on all of this (some of it relevant and interesting, some of it picayune and completely unimportant), but there are several overall questions that are raised.  One is how to define ownership.  Another is what responsibilities an owner has.  A third is how should an owner respond to a need first to keep his/her land idle, and second to give it up and turn it over to someone else.

I am not going to discuss any of these questions here.  Instead, I am going to discuss, once again, the question of coincidence.  Was it a coincidence that, on the very next day, we went to see Bertold Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at Constellation Theatre?

I ask that because Brecht’s play is about ownership.  Yes, it’s about ownership of land – we are dealing with the revolt of the nobility against the grand duke and then of the people against the nobility, and the grand duke’s palace is eventually turned into a public park named not after the grand duke, but after the man chosen by the people to be “the judge”.  So, this may not be the transfer of land that Leviticus was concerned with (and it took place not in the land of Israel but in the Soviet Union, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia), but it does go to the question of ownership – today you have it, tomorrow you don’t.

But this is not the key question Brecht’s judge needs to decide.  He needs to decide who is the rightful mother of the son of the grand duke.  The grand duke has been beheaded, but his wife, the boy’s biological mother, is still alive, returning to the kingdom after fleeing when the revolt occurred.  And when she fled, she took her best clothes, but left her infant son behind.  The boy, Michael, was saved (with a continual flow of crucial sacrifices) by a young woman who was in the employ of the palace.  She is engaged to a soldier off to battle, but needs to provide for her “son”, and to legitimize his birth, etc., etc., so she marries a farmer (but never gives up her love for the soldier, who has not been heard from since he went off to war).  Several years pass.  The war ends.  The people are in control.  The biological mother returns and demands her son.

The judge, Solomon like, says:  draw a circle, put the boy in the middle, the competing women will each take an arm, we will have a tug of war and see who winds up with the boy.  The biological mother wins the tug of war, but loses the other war, as the judge decides, irrespective of the outcome in the circle, that the former servant girl is the more appropriate mother.  She obtains legal “ownership”, based on her stewardship (?) or on politics (?) or on legal niceties (?).  Whatever.  She is now the “owner” of the young boy – but we know her ownership won’t last forever, either.

The play is quite long (almost 3 hours).  In the prologue, when the story is about to be told, a woman asks the teller “Can’t it be shortened”?  His answer is “No”.  But this “classic” play, like most of Brecht and like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, which we saw at Shakespeare a few weeks ago, is very long, and can drag a bit.  But the very imaginative staging and direction and the strong cast at Constellation does keep it going and make it worthwhile to have seen.

Oh yes, one more coincidence.  The night before, we had dinner at the home of friends, and one of the other guests (also a friend) complained about new neighbors in his apartment building, whose apartment adjoins there, and who has music playing too loud, too close to the wall, too late in the evening.  The question  for the group is:  what to do?  But the interesting point is that the new neighbors are from the former Soviet Union.  They are from the Republic of Georgia, the same place where the Brecht play is set.

Everything is connected, it would appear.