The Last Jews of Baghdad
In Post-Saddam Iraq, a Disappearing Cultural Legacy

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photo gallery Photo gallery: Baghdad's Jews and their synagogue

Emad Levy holds a 200-year-old Torah scroll
Emad Levy, the youngest Jewish man known to live in Baghdad, holds a 200-year-old Torah scroll at the city's only synagogue.
Photo: Guy Raz, NPR News

Listen Listen to Emad Levy say the kaddish, an Aramaic prayer often recited by mourners after the death of a close relative

Ezra Levy, the Baghdad Jewish community's lay rabbi
Ezra Levy, 82, is the only one left in Baghdad's Jewish community who can both read and understand the Hebrew prayers.
Photo: Guy Raz, NPR News

Listen Hear Ezra Levy read from a Hebrew text

90-year-old Tawfiq Sofer is the oldest member of the 35-strong Baghdad Jewish community
90-year-old Tawfiq Sofer is the oldest member of the 35-strong Baghdad Jewish community.
Photo: Guy Raz, NPR News

Listen Hear Sofer reciting the shm'aa prayer in Hebrew

82-year-old Youssef Salman also lives on the synagogue grounds
Youssef Salman, 82, also lives on the synagogue grounds.
Photo: Guy Raz, NPR News

May 22, 2003 -- Jews were originally brought to the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers more than 2,500 years ago, shortly after the destruction of the Jewish temple in the Biblical kingdom of Judea.

The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jewish slaves to build his legendary hanging gardens. Chapters of the Old Testament are based on the Jews' exile in ancient Babylonia, and many historians believe that much of the Talmud -- the Jewish interpretation of the Bible -- was written in the region.

By the late 1940s, in what became modern Iraq, Jews numbered more than 250,000. Many were successful merchants, traders and bankers. Today, in Baghdad, just 35 Jews remain -- NPR's Guy Raz profiles their past struggles and uncertain future in post-Saddam Iraq.

The center of Jewish culture in Baghdad is the Meir Taweig Synagogue -- the last working Jewish prayer house in Iraq, founded in 1942. Ninety-year-old Tawfiq Sofer, one of two elderly Jews who live in the small rooms adjacent to the complex, is the oldest living link to an ancient Baghdad community. He never married, and his brother and sisters left Iraq in the early 1950s to live in Iran, Israel and England.

Muhammed Jassim, caretaker of the synagogue and protector of the two men who live there, is a Muslim -- but his family has been close to the synagogue's leaders for generations. "It is my duty, because I am faithful to my job -- and all that matters to me is (to) look after their safety and their health," he tells Raz.

During the 20 nights of aerial bombing in March, Muhammed never left the synagogue, and after the fall of Saddam's forces he fired several warning shots from his pistol to keep looters at bay.

Ezra Levy, now 82, is the only member of the community who can both read and understand the Hebrew prayers. His son Emad, 38, is the youngest Jewish man in Baghdad. He serves as a volunteer lay rabbi and also oversees the ritual slaughter of animals to ensure the meat is kosher. "I love it," Emad Levy tells Raz. "I am very faithful in God."

The interior of the synagogue is simple -- white walls, a balcony for women, three humble chandeliers. At the far end, an arched alcove holds the Torah scrolls. Emad says that when he was a young boy, Friday evening services were almost entirely full. But now, Emad Levy can't put together a minyan -- the quorum of 10 Jewish men required to hold a prayer service.

Most of Baghdad's Jews left in two waves of emigration -- the first in 1948, after the founding of the state of Israel, and in 1970, after several Jewish men were publicly executed, accused by the Baathist government of spying for Israel.

But beginning in 1979, Emad Levy and his father say conditions actually improved for the remaining Jews in Baghdad. "Despite his unrelenting attacks against Zionism, Saddam took a special interest in the Jewish community and made sure those who harmed them were severely punished," Raz says.

Today, however, Emad Levy thinks of just one thing: escape. "Because I have no future here," he says. "I want to (be) married. I want to study my Hebrew."

But it's unlikely Emad Levy will leave without his father -- at 82, Ezra Levy is too old to survive the journey. "I haven't that power to go now," Ezra Levy says. "I am empty."

In Depth

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