From The Book of Jewish Food

by Claudia Roden
Penguin Books, 1996

“The Babylonian Jews in the Land of the Two Rivers”


Until not very long ago, most of the Jews of Iraq lived in Baghdad, which had such an enormous Jewish population that it almost seemed like a Jewish city. Other centres were in Mosul, which was a the main centre of Jews in Kurdistan, and in Basra. The communities were closely knit and traditional and at the same time very integrated and rooted in society, their members serving as civil servants, senators and ministers. Iraqi Jews today object to being labeled Sephardi and call themselves Babylonian. Babylonian Jewry age guidance and direction to Jewish life for 800 years, until the eleventh century, and had a powerful influence on Sephardi world, especially in North Africa and Spain, but the Jews of Iraq gained little from Iberian Sephardi culture except the liturgy, which they adopted in the seventeenth century.

Theirs was the oldest community of the Diaspora, and its ties with the Holy Land have always been strong. It was established in 586 BC, after the destruction of the First Temple, when the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judea and deported the population to Babylon. When the Persian King Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to the land of Israel fifty years later, the majority decided to stay. Almost all the Jews of Iraq are descended from those brought as captives 2500 years ago and settled on the banks of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, near the city of Babylon. Their ancestors built what was until the ninth century AD the leading community of the Jewish dispersion. It was a self-governing community, with its own courts and administration, centres of learning and established nobility. Until the tenth century, it was led by exilarchs – Jewish ‘princes’ in exile who traced their ancestry to the House of David. Their spiritual leaders – called geonim (plural of gaon) – were scholars at the head of the great academies where 200 years earlier the Babylonian Talmud, one of the monuments of Jewish learning, was composed.

In AD 227, Babylon came under the rule of the Persian Sassanians, who maintained their hold for four centuries. In the eight century, Baghdad became the capital of the Muslim Empire. It also became the centre of Babylonian Jewish life and learning. Under both Persian and Muslim Arab rule, a new class of wealthy Jewish merchants arose who were involved in international trade, and in particular the silk trade between China and the Mediterranean world.

IMG_2722When Baghdad declined in the tenth century, the Jews became very poor. Their unique position in the Jewish Diaspora and intellectual and religious stand were lost, while their lot fluctuated through centuries of Mongol, Persian and Ottoman rule. At the end of the nineteenth century, although many of the city’s Jews had emigrated to Kurdistan, Persia, Syria, Egypt, India and the Far East, they were still the largest minority in the population. After Salonika, the Baghdad community was the most numerous, important and prosperous in the Ottoman Empire. And when the British occupied Baghdad in 1917, Jews represented over a third of the inhabitants, which also included Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Kurds, Turks, and Persians.

The community was made up of a small number of rich bankers and merchants; a middle class of doctors, lawyers, engineers, small traders, retailers, and government employees; a large poor class which included artisans; and a group of professional beggars. Many Jews were educated through the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools, which taught French and English. Jews literally monopolized the foreign trade, dealing with the network of Baghdadi Jews who had settled in India, England, and the Far East. They traded in sugar, coffee, pharmaceuticals, metals, haberdashery, precious stones, jewelry, wool, skins, guns and carpets. A chief item was cloth from Manchester, which they re-exported to Persia. The main city markets were dominated by Jews, and everything was closed on Saturdays.

The Jews of Baghdad spoke Arabic with a distinctive accent, and among themselves a Judeo-Arabic dialect with Persian words. Half of them did not have surnames and were known by their fathers’ first names, the most popular being Hezkel, Salman, Daniel and Sasson. When when most of the well-to-do had moved away from the Jewish quarter in the old city, they went back to shop for food at the Souk Hannoun, where you could buy live poultry and have it slaughtered by a shohet. The shohet was usually also a Hebrew teacher who taught in people’s homes. He would sometimes be asked to slaughter a chicken when he came, or the occasional sheep, or even a cow in sacrifice if somebody had had a bad dream or was sick. The meat would be given to the poor. There were se veral synagogues and several Jewish schools, including the Alliance, the midrash and one for blind students. Schoolchildren always wore boots, because the sewers overflowed when it rained and it was always muddy. They bought lablabi (boiled chickpeas) from Jewish vendors, and a mixture of sumac and zahtar in paper cones, to eat on their way home.

Iraqi Jews had a fixed weekly menu. Thursday was for kichree (lentils and rice), vegetables and dairy foods. On Friday the fisherman brought the fish in the early from the river, in time for the Jews to prepare fried fish and arook. They also had chicken soup with chicken pieces and rice. On Saturday in winter they went to synagogue early , and when they returned for breakfast ate tabyit – chicken stuffed with and also buried in rice – which had cooked overnight. Then they sat in the sun on the balcony or the roof terrace with their hamine eggs fried aubergines, mango pickle and bread, or they took these to a picnic on an island in the river. In the summer they set out porous water jugs, which sweated and kept the air cool on the terraces. They also left pots of kubba – meat dumplings in a bamia (okra) stew, which had been prepared on Friday – on the roof terrace, for the Saturday lunch. At night they slept on the terrace to catch the breeze.

Because of their strict adherence to Jewish dietary traditions, everything was made at home. Jewish women from the old quarter hired themselves out and went from house to house to do seasonal jobs like preparing large trays of tomato paste, which was left out to dry on rooftops; sheets of dried apricot called qamardine; manna, which they also calked abba kadrassi and a date syrup called halek. They also make sausages with sheep-intestine casings. People had their own  wood-burning ovens (tandoors) in the house. Cooks came aroudn every day to make bread for them and sometimes also breakfast The tandoor was also used for grilling and roasting meat and for stewing. On the Sabbath, Jewish women called out to Muslims passing in the street to turn on their lights.

Though Muslims came to eat in Jews’ homes, Jews could only have tea in Muslim homes. So their dished took shape in their own particular way. Even if they ate lijke the rest of the population, they had many dishes of their own, and also characteristic flavours. They were particularly fond of the sweet and sour in their stews, which they called hamud, meaning sour (when a stew was not sweet and sour it was called helou, which means sweet, although it was not necessarily sweet) and obtained with a mixture of vinegar, tamarind or pomegranate concentrate and sugar. Various characteristics that seem to be a legacy of the old cuisine of the Baghdad Caliphate – which was based on Sassnian Persian styles, such as sweet and sour flavours, little meat dumplings, and stews with meat and fruit – could be found in Jewish dishes more than Muslim.

For reasons of geography, the dishes of the Jews of Basra were very Persian and also Indian. Those of Mosul were more Turkish and Kurdish. There were Kurdish Jews in Persia and Turkey, but the majority were in Iraq, and their centre was Mosul. They lived in villages and small towns in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan. They were craftsmen, pedlars, and merchants, and many lived off the land. They spoke ancient Aramaic, not Arabic. Their cooking, based on cracked wheat and legumes, is rough and rustic. The distinctive characteristics is the great variety of kubba (dumplings) that go into soups and stews.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, under Turkish rule, repressive measures resulted n large numbers of Iraqi Jews emigrating to India, China, Indonesia and the Sudan. They communities they formed in these new countries kept up the old cooking traditions but their dishes acquired new flavours and local touches, and they developed special dishes of their own.

After the creation of the State of Israel, the Jews of Iraq were subjected to harassment, discrimination and extortion. In 1951 there was a mass exodus. In an airlift known as ‘Operation Ezra and Nehemiah’, all but a few left the country, mainly for Israel.