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A Baghdadi and Iraqi Jewish Heritage Tour of Israel and Beyond

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3 weeks ago

For over two thousand years, Iraq was home to one of the Middle East’s most ancient and fascinating Jewish communities. From Abraham’s house to Nebuchadnezzar’s Palace in Babylon, visitors to Iraq can trace the steps of Jewish history from the Babylonian Exile of 597 BCE all the way to the twentieth century.

By the 1930s and 40s, Arab and Jewish nationalist sentiments led to an increase in tension between Iraqi Jews and their neighbors. This culminated in the violence of the 1941 Farhud, a range of discriminatory and persecutory laws and the exodus of almost all of Iraq’s Jews.

While I have been taking tour groups to Iraq for many years, I appreciate those interested in Iraqi Jewish heritage tours are often cautious about visiting Iraq. Similarly, I often hear from travelers to Iraq how they would love to learn more about Iraqi Jews. Not as a glass-cased museum relic, but as a living, vibrant culture.

Surprisingly to many, Israel is home to the largest Iraqi diaspora in the world. Approximately 5% of Israelis are of Iraqi Jewish descent. While almost all Iraqi Jews live Israel today, smaller communities exist in the UK, USA and elsewhere. But, in short, if you want to learn about both the history and contemporary culture of Iraqi Jews, you’ll need to visit Israel.

In Israel

1. Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre

When Iraqi Jews fled to Israel, they took with them the unique Jewish culture and traditions which had developed in Iraq and Kurdistan. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre takes you on a journey through the intellectual, cultural and religious development of Jewish life in Iraq.

This small museum contains a large collection of artefacts, music, film and photographs which document the final years of Iraqi Jewry. I love the photo archive, which showcases images from the day-to-day life of Iraqi Jews.

Unquestionably, the best way to experience the collection is through a guided tour. Unless your Hebrew is very good, you’ll want to email in advance to arrange an English tour guide. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre is located in Or Yehuda, a 30-minute bus ride from Tel Aviv.

2. Farhud monument

Drastically changing the course of Iraqi Jewish history, the 1941 Farhud is often seen as the culmination of bubbling nationalist tension in Iraq. The tragic events of the Farhud resulted in nearly 200 Jews killed in the streets of Baghdad.

Today, in Baghdad, there are no monuments, museums or official recognition of this tragic event. If you are interested in understanding how this event has been memorialized, I recommend visiting the only monument to the Farhud in the city of Ramat Gan, Israel.

3. Iraqi Jewish food

Given Jewish dietary laws and restrictions on cooking on the Sabbath, a unique Iraqi Jewish cuisine emerged. Across Iraq today, you will find the popular condiment of amba (pickled mango chutney) in almost all fast-food felafel shops. While many Iraqis are not aware of the Jewish history of this condiment, amba is a reminder of Jewish existence in Iraq.

For other unique Jewish Iraqi recipes, like tebit (chicken baked in rice) and sabich (an eggplant sandwich), you’ll need to visit one of the countless Iraqi Jewish restaurants in Israel.

Some of my favorite Iraqi Jewish restaurants include Sabich Tchernikovski in Tel Aviv and Azura in Jerusalem. If you’re keen to try Kurdish Jewish food, don’t miss the uber-trendy Ishtabach in Jerusalem.

Beyond Israel

4. Baghdadi Jewish Synagogues in Asia

For the complete Iraqi Jewish heritage tour, you’ll need to head to Asia.

From the 1700s, Baghdadi Jewish traders began shuttling throughout the British Empire. Families like the Sassoons and Kadoories became among the richest in the British Empire. These names quickly left their mark on everything from building projects to street names and Jewish community infrastructure. These traders eventually built small Baghdadi Jewish communities across India, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Penang, Shanghai and Singapore.

Many of these Baghdadi Jewish synagogues remain and often house a small museum or surviving community. If you have the opportunity, do visit these synagogues, which are modelled off the great synagogues of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

5. Happy Valley Jewish Cemetery, Hong Kong

In many ways, a Hong Kong Jewish heritage tour will heavily overlap with the history of Baghdadi Jews. Founded in the mid 1800s, the Happy Valley Jewish Cemetery is the final burial place for many of East Asia’s famous Baghdadi Jews. I love this small cemetery, scenically located not far from the Happy Valley racecourse.

jewish grave in hong kong happy valley jewish heritage tour

With countless Sassoons and Kadoories buried here, this cemetery offers insight into the fortunes made by Baghdadi Jews in Hong Kong.

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