Jewish Mosul Revisited
|Jewish heartbreak and hope in
By Carlos C. Huerta
The writer, a Major, is United States Army Battalion Chaplain (Rabbi) 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery 101st Airborne Division (ScreamingEagles).
July 24, 2003
Photos are Courtesy of Iraqnam:
'Climbing over the rotting garbage, I realised I was the first Jew to enter this holy place in over 50 years' I am writing to you from Nineveh, the city of the prophet Jonah. Its present name is Mosul. I have had the privilege of seeing its ancient walls, of touching its stones, of going to the grave Islamic tradition says is the prophet Jonah's. There is a mosque at the site; but hundreds of years ago, the Iraqis we work with tell me, it was a synagogue. They tell me the reason the site is so sacred is because of the sacredness in which the Jews held it. Presently, there are no signs of this ancient synagogue.
I am the rabbi of the 101st Airborne Division, the division Steven Spielberg immortalised in his epic Band of Brothers. We, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne, fought our way up from the south, from Kuwait. The battle took us past Ur, the city where Abraham was born. We maintained contact with the enemy, passed the site of the great Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumpadita, to the city of Babylon, where the prophet Daniel was taken. There we engaged the Nebuchadnezzar Iraqi Armored Division and beat them. We continued the battle to Baghdad, where so many Jews lived and were massacred in the summer of 1941. It was the city of so many of our sages, including the Ben Ish Chai.
Now we are in Mosul. I ask about the Jews who lived here, and very few remember them. Many say Jews never lived here; but my heart tells me different. The old ones tell me there was a Jewish quarter, a synagogue, study halls, and a cemetery. One day, while searching the streets of the ancient city, I came across a building missing half of its roof. The site was a garbage dump and the building's interior was three-quarters full of rotting garbage, feces and sewage. I had to crouch down low to get inside as the doorway was almost completely buried. As I entered light came through the half-open roof and I could just make out writing engraved on the walls. It was Hebrew. It was then that I knew I had stumbled into the ancient synagogue of the city of Mosul-Nineveh.
My heart broke as I climbed over the garbage piles that filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers of Jews had reached the heavens. I realised I was probably the first Jew to enter this holy place in over 50 years. Over three-and-a half meters of garbage filled the main sanctuary and what appeared to be the women's section. I could barely make it out because of the filth, but there was Hebrew writing on the walls.
Many Iraqis congregated around me, wanting to know what I was doing. My translator said that the American army was interested in old archaeological sites of all kinds. I asked them if they knew what this place was, and they all said in an instant: It was the house where the Jews prayed. They told me that the houses in the streets surrounding the synagogue had been filled with Jews. They took me to the children's yeshiva, a marbled edifice that no longer had a roof, only walls and half-rooms. There was a vagrant family living there and when I asked them what this place was, they said it was a Jewish school for children. As I walked through the quarter I was shown the grave of the prophet Jonah, once a synagogue. I saw that many of the doorposts had an engraving of the lion of Judah on the top. I felt the presence of our people, of their daily lives as merchants, teachers, rabbis, doctors, and tailors. I felt their rush to get ready for Shabbat, felt their presence as they walked to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. I could almost hear singing in the courtyards, in the succot, as they invited in the ushpizin. I could hear the Pessah songs echoing through the narrow streets late into the night. And the children, I could see their shadows as they raced down the alleys and around the corners, playing. 1 heard their voices learning the aleph beth in the yeshivot as they prepared for their bar and bat mitzvot.
But I also heard the babies crying, and I could see the young daughters of
Zion clinging to their mother's skirts, asking why the bad people were killing them and making them leave their homes of thousands of years.
Tears came to my eyes, but I had to hold them back lest I put myself and the soldier with me in a dangerous situation. I had to pretend that I was only mildly interested in what they were showing me. How does one absorb this kind of experience? How do I convey the feeling of hearing all those voices reaching out in prayer at the synagogue as I stood on top of all that garbage? How do I recover our history, how do I bring honour to a holy place that has been so desecrated? I have no answers. I only have great sadness, pain, and loneliness.