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Foreign Journal Iraq’s Oldest Jew Provides Lens Onto a World of Loss and Loneliness

May 14, 2003
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It takes 15 minutes to cajole a grimacing Muhammed Fazi, literally the gatekeeper to Iraq’s dying Jewish community, to let a reporter peek into the small compound that holds Baghdad’s only remaining synagogue.

Finally, Fazi cracks open the synagogue’s steel door. As if on cue, out of an adjacent cement block building, hobbles the 98-year-old Tawfiq Sofer, the oldest living member of Iraq’s Jewish community.

Squinting in the glare of the blaring Iraqi sun, he sizes up his visitors and grins, displaying just a few teeth, almost as thin as needles.

Gaunt and wearing striped pajamas and a loosely fitted knitted cap, the ailing Sofer offers his guest a seat and a glass of water. Haltingly and without irony, Sofer says in fluent English, “I am the youngest of my family.”

He is also the last of it.

Like 90 percent of Iraq’s once thriving Jewish community of 100,000, all of Sofer’s family fled Iraq, either for Israel, the United States or Europe after Israel’s independence in 1948.

Only an estimated 35 Jews are left in the country.

Unmarried and alone, Sofer’s sole company is Fazi, who attends to the ancient man 14 hours a day, and Nidal Sa’ aleh Ezra, a 28-year-old orphan the two “adopted” a few years ago.

Sofer, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or two bent septuagenarians, shuffles into the synagogue on Saturdays to pray, and to peek in at the Sefer Torah.

Like many of the remaining Jewish sites in Baghdad, the synagogue itself, in central Baghdad, is deliberately nondescript.

A dun-colored brick wall, about 10 feet high, conceals another austere yellow brick building inside. Its only decorative element is a set of old pine doors. Above the lintel a single word, written in black Hebrew lettering, reads “Adonai.”

Beneath it, other Hebrew lettering reads: “The Synagogue of Meir Abraham Twigg.”

Asked if he prays on weekdays, the ailing man swallows a glycerin tablet, leans forward on his battered cane and shoots back: “Do I pray! I pray well and properly three times a day. I even put on tefillin.”

“Sure I wear a tallit,” he adds. “One must wear a tallit.”

Sofer speaks fluent English, though his heart disease — which does not prevent him from smoking a cigarette after meals — makes it difficult for him to speak at length.

Fazi, who serves as guard, gatekeeper, groundskeeper, nurse and shopper, says he has dedicated his life “to this Jewish community.”

Fazi, whose own father, he says, is a well-to-do merchant who befriended many Jews in the middle of the century, absently taps the old man’s hand as he speaks.

“I love him,” Fazi says of Sofer. “He is like my father.”

Reflecting on life under Saddam Hussein, Sofer says times were not easy, “but at least we had security.”

After several attacks on Jewish community buildings throughout the 1990s — one Palestinian attack five years ago killed two community members and two Iraqis — the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi Secret Police, which had already kept close tabs on Jews here, began to monitor the synagogue.

“We had a system, by which we would call the Mukhabarat, and they would come if there was any trouble,” says Fazi. But now, with Baghdad submerged in anarchy, there is no one to call in case the little compound is besieged by looters.

While once a prosperous section of Baghdad, Ba’tawin, where the synagogue stands, has become a gang stronghold. The nights crackle with gunfire and the explosion of an occasional grenade, as looters fight each other and American troops over turf.

While poor, the community members look after their own.

According to Sofer, Naji Jebrail Ya’acob, the community’s leader, helps supply the needy with food and clothing when necessary.

Fazi says the greatest nuisance has been journalists. “I almost came to blows with some of them,” he says. “You are the first that I have let in here.

“We don’t want to attract too much attention to this place, don’t want people to notice,” he says.

The Jews here, and their Muslim keepers, many possessed with a dash of Judeophilia, cling to their secrecy as if it were life itself.

The few dozen, aging Jews here live cloistered in neighborhoods scattered around the city. Few of their neighbors know their real identity, and that is the way many want to keep it.

Outside the synagogue compound, a tea vendor, Hussein Riad, 24, says he is aware that Jews and the synagogue live beyond the walls.

He says he has no problem with the Jews living in the area. “They let me stay here,” beside the compound wall, “so what do I have to complain about.”

By and large the fire of anti-Semitism has not singed most Iraqis.

The anti-Semitic chants heard round the Arab world have not marred popular demonstrations here. Only once during this reporter’s three-week stay in Iraq were specifically anti-Jewish chants heard.

After Iraqi demonstrations two weeks ago in the town of Falluja, a former stronghold of Saddam Hussein turned violent, American forces opened fire on what it believed were armed men in the crowd.

The next day a small group of Iraqi demonstrators marched on the U.S. encampment in the area chanting, “We swear by god, we must kill the Jew.”

Once a thriving cultural and mercantile center for Jews, signs of Jewish life are few and far apart in Baghdad these days.

But the Jews’ historical presence is still felt.

The first Jewish presence in Mesopotamia dates back to the 6th century BCE when Babylonian King Nabuchadnezzer took captive thousands of Jews and marched them back to the present-day Iraq.

He treated them well, and until the late 1940s, it was not uncommon for Muslim men to marry Jewish women. Grocers, butchers, merchants and doctors mixed freely with their Jewish countrymen.

But despite the ensuing history of expulsion, several wars pitting Iraqis against Israelis and decades of Jewish life in hiding, flecks of the Jews’ influence on Iraq remain.

Some ancient, crumbling Victorians buildings, all that remain of Britain’s colonial legacy here, are decorated with Stars of David.

In the Shurja mercantile section of Baghdad, which suffered some of the heaviest and most violent looting during the war, the Jewish community continues to manage several buildings that were not expropriated by Saddam Hussein’s government.

For his part, Sofer is lonely but destined to die here.

Asked why he never followed the rest of his family abroad, he pauses, inhales a short breath and says, “I just could never bring myself to leave my home, my country.”

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