Iraq: Jewish archive’s return sought

Iraq wants its Jewish archive returned. What should be done? And who owns the materials?

Washington Post story, by Glenn Kessler, quotes well-known Jewish genealogist and former Defense Department official Harold Rhode was in Baghdad when the archive was found in a basement “floating in three feet of sewage water” in the Mukhabarat, the secret police headquarters, as a result of bombed pipes.

“They represent part of our history and part of our identity. There was a Jewish community in Iraq for 2,500 years,” said Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. “It is time for our property to be repatriated.”


A high-level Iraqi delegation, led by Deputy Culture Minister Taher al-Humoud, met Thursday with senior State Department officials to press for the return of the artifacts.


But others, including many involved in saving the materials, say that they belong to the Jews who fled, or their descendants — many of whom live in Israel.

The Jewish archive contained Torah scrolls, Haggadas, marriage records, university applications, financial documents – the records of a community taken by the secret police from Jewish homes as the community fled the country under pressure and persecution. Many went to Israel or the US, while thousands also went to Teheran, until Iran’s revolution again forced them to move.

What should be done with these materials?

The soaked documents, some 3,500 tagged items, were taken out of the country with a vague promise of return after restoration. Today, they are stabilized (although with mold) in a Maryland office building, and the Iraqi government wants them back.

“I don’t see any reason for it to go back to Iraq, because if it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq, then wherever they are it’s theirs,” Harold Rhode, a former Defense Department official, told the Jerusalem Post last month. “When they left, they would have taken it with them had they been able to take it with them. You don’t abandon Torahs.”

The State Department doesn’t dispute Iraq’s claim. NARA takes no position on who owns them, but says the items need much more preservation work, and spent less than $1 million on stabilizing the materials.

The agency’s staff members recently completed an item-by-item assessment and are in the final stages of estimating the cost of a full preservation, including digitizing images of the pages. An NARA estimate in 2003 pegged the cost at $1.5 million to $3 million.

Sumaidaie said he thinks the items are stable enough so that no “further damage or decay can take place” and that Iraq can handle additional restoration.

Rhode, in Iraq at the time, received help from Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who provided equipment. At first, the material was placed to dry in the sun, but when Rhode learned that freezing kills mold, they were placed in a refrigerator truck. When Natan Sharansky and Vice President Cheney got involved, things moved quickly.

Eventually, and with the approval of the remnants of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the materials were taken to Texas, freeze-dried and transferred to Maryland for preservation and restoration. According to the State Department, when the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004, it gave the Ministry of Culture the right to demand the documents’ return.

A former senior Pentagon official, during George W. Bush’s term, Dov. S. Zakheim is opposed to returning the items.

Sumaidaie said Iraq would consider individual claims for the documents but that giving them to descendants is “not for us a matter for dispute or discussion.” He also said that the documents would be made available in Iraq to researchers.

If NARA completes preservation and digitization of the items, that means copies of these precious records would be available to Iraqi Jews and their descendants outside of Iraq.

What do you think?
— Return them now although restoration is incomplete?
— Complete the restoration, digitize, keep copies and return them?
— Not return the materials?
— Make sure Jewish Iraqis and their descendants receive their records?

Read the complete story at the link above.

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California: Yosemite’s Jewish past

As regular readers will remember, Tracing the Tribe recently visited the town of Bendigo – north of Melbourne, Australia. It was the center of that area’s Gold Rush, and many Jews arrived there to join in.

In the US, the mid-1800s Gold Rush was centered in the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Country. This was also a magnet for Jews, whether as prospectors or as providers of goods and services for the miners.

Image above left is Yosemite Park.

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has an interesting article on Yosemite’s Jewish past and present by Elyse Glickman.

Yosemite even has a Jewish park ranger, Scott Gediman of North Hollywood, although the nearest synagogues are more than an hour away in Stockton and Fresno. He says he’s always wanted to be a park ranger, that isn’t that difficult to be Jewish there for a young Jewish family.

Back in 1978, the Jewish Sentinel published a historic account written by Norton B. Stern, summarizing Jewish life in the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa County, the epicenters of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s.

Although their numbers were small, Jewish immigrants (mostly from Central Europe, though a few came from France and Bavaria) built their fortunes through dry goods and clothing businesses that in turn provided much-needed supplies, services and necessities for miners and others settling into the West. Many of the Jewish residents were also simultaneously active in politics and civil posts in townships dotting the area — including Bear Valley, Coulterville, Hornitos, Agua Fria and Mariposa.

The short but fact-filled 30-year-old article was sourced in the archives of the Mariposa Museum and History Center, a spot small on space but rich in substance. The prolific collection of Gold Rush-era artifacts is organized thematically and exhaustively catalogued in a way that brings textbook American history into three dimensions.

According to Gediman:

Read the complete story at the link above.

“Today, there is a fairly big Jewish population in Stockton and Modesto, and during the late 1800s, Jewish families served as early concessionaires to miners before settling in those places,” Gediman said. “Before the federal government came to California, Jewish pioneers ran some of the stores, hotels, photography businesses, souvenir stores and things like that. Though many of these businesses are long gone, they made their mark on history.”

Around the world: Looking for Jews

When we traveled much more than we do now, Tracing the Tribe always looked for signs of Judaism.
Many years ago, when we lived in Iran, we visited Isfahan, from where my husband’s family had migrated to Teheran in the mid-1850s. Our itinerary included the various Jewish quarters and old synagogues of Isfahan and I convinced my husband to travel 30km on a gravel road in a mini-bus to the ancient Jewish cemetery at Pir Bakran (below). Unexpectedly, we even met a very distant cousin on the mini-bus that day and were invited to share eggs cooked over a fire, tomatoes and bread.

Some years ago, I wrote about our visit to this cemetery here for the IAJGS Cemetery project. For more outstanding photos of the cemetery, view here. One of these days, I will scan in my own photos of our trip.

In Shiraz, we visited cousins by marriage, walked through the old Jewish quarter, visited synagogues and community institutions.

In Teheran, I accompanied American visitors to the old Mahalleh – the old Jewish neighborhood – when it was really most unfashionable to go there.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, we ran the gauntlet of phone calls to be approved to attend a Shabbat service at the guarded Jewish club.

In Catalunya – Barcelona, Girona (see image right), Besalu, Lleida and elsewhere – we visited the silent stones of once important Jewish communities.

Massachusetts resident Lynn Nadeau does much the same, and detailed her travels in this story in the Jewish Journal Boston North. The story covers Rome, Palermo, Belize and Argentina.

— Split, Croatia: She found a third-floor room in Diocletian’s Palace that the only Jews in the city – six men – used as a synagogue. the nearest rabbi was 300 miles away in Zagreb.

“In Argentina (and wherever I travel), I look for the Jews. I go down streets called “the Jewish quarter,” but often the streets are empty of Jews and contemporary Jewish life. My Jewish tour of Palermo, Sicily, was paltry. Although there was lots of history, I was able to find only one Star of David and one candelabra in a Norman palace.”

— Hania, Crete: Nadeau walked through narrow alleys on Succot to pray with a handful of local Jews.

— Syracusa, Sicily: A closed abandoned mikvah – no sign of a synagogue.
She also finds existing vibrant communities, such as in Rome, in a heavily guarded Munich shul, in a Sephardic synagogue with a sand-covered floor on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, on Barbados, and in the third largest Jewish community in the world, Buenos Aires.

She describes the museum of Temple Libertad, built in 1897, with photographs, wedding gown displays, information on Jewish gauchos, and also covers the 1970s wave of anti-Semitism and the “disappeared,” as well the tragic bombings in 1992 and 1994.

Nadeau sums up her searches:

“But my searches have resulted in a deeper identification with Jews of other nationalities, in a feeling of pride because of the depth and breadth of our Jewish family throughout the world. My searches have added the excitement of a detective novel to my travels, and a deep satisfaction in finding that the spirit of Jewish studies and customs live on, despite all the global obstacles we have faced and overcome.”

What have you discovered on your travels?

Read the complete story at the link above.

May is Jewish Heritage Month

Since 2006, May has been American Jewish Heritage Month, recognizing more than 350 years of Jewish contributions to American culture.

The Library of Congress offers a portal for activities and events surrounding this celebration.

Partners in this collaborative effort are The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Click here for related exhibits and collection links.

Events  include:

May 4-26
First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors
1pm, Tuesdays/Wednesdays, USHMM.

May 5
Keynote Address: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) delivers the keynote address for the LOC’s celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month. LOC.

May 6
Lecture: “American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust” 2010 Monna and Otto Weinman Annual Lecture. USHMM.

May 10
Book Talk: Author Robin Gerber, “Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.” LOC.

May 13
Lecture: “Child’s Play: The Judaization of Adolescence in 20th-Century America,” by Jenna Weissman Joselit (Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies; George Washington University; former Distinguished Visiting Scholar, John W. Kluge Center, LOC), LOC.

May 14
Conversation: with Holocaust survivor Charles Stein, USHMM.

Other exhibits:

A Forgotten Suitcase: The Mantello Rescue Mission (USHMM). The story of George Mandel, a Hungarian Jewish businessman who befriended a Salvadoran diplomat, Colonel José Arturo Castellanos, in the years leading up to World War II. After Castellanos was named El Salvador’s Consul General in Geneva, he appointed Mandel, who had assumed a Spanish-sounding version of his last name, “Mantello,” to serve as the Consulate’s first secretary. Learn about this little-known story.

Jews in America (National Endowment for the Humanities)

Jewish Veterans of World War II

See the websites of the partner organizations for more events.

Israel: Already preparing for 2014!

Every 10 years, the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy is held in Israel and 2014 is the next one.

The Israel Genealogical Society is already preparing a list of documents to convert into databases to be available at the event.

IGS webmaster Rose Feldman says that many families or parts of families immigrated to Eretz Israel. Some remained and built their lives in the country, and some moved on to other places.

Databases available now may be viewed here. Those which have been completely funded are available for viewing by the public.

The Montefiore Censuses are being prepared as a joint project of IGS and London’s Montefiore Endowment.

The IGS is currently considering the following collections:

—  Names changes as published in the official government publication Yalkut Hapirsumim through 1954;

— 1928 Pinchas Habogrim –  which is the equivalent of electoral lists of those over 18 years of age. Currently, they have been located in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

They are already working on some early 20th century Mukhtar Ledgers of Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi population.

Readers who are aware of any other documents dealing with Eretz Israel covering the early 19th-century through 1930, are asked to contact Rose.

Kaifeng: Shi Lei’s US lecture tour begins

Shi Lei, a descendant of one of the original Kaifeng Jewish families, is now on a US speaking tour sponsored by Kulanu..

Tracing the Tribe encourages readers who live in or near the communities where he will speak to attend the program.

Wooden model, Kaifeng Synagogue
Beit Hatefutsot-Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv

He’s already spoken in Maryland and he’ll also be in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, Ontario, California, Georgia and New Jersey.

In his talk, Shi Lei discusses the history of this unique community, presents a slideshow and information on his community’s origins, how they preserved their identity under near-impossible circumstances and centuries of isolation isolated from the mainstream Jewish world.

Above right is the wooden model of the ancient Kaifeng Synagogue at Beit Hatefutsoth-Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv.

He discusses Jewish traditions preserved through the centuries. It’s not all about the past, as he talks about the young people of his community and their desire to learn more about their origins; 18 are now studying in Israel and several have made aliyah.

A graduate of China’s Henan University, Shi Lei studied Jewish history and religion at Israel’s Bar Ilan University (2001-2002) and spent two more years at Jerusalem’s Machon Meir Yeshiva. He now works as a national tour guide, providing private and group tours to Jewish sites in China. The New York Times Travel Section recently called him “licensed, charming and experienced.”

For more information, click here or here or view Kulanu’s slide show on the history of the Kaifeng Jews.

The remainder of Shi Lei’s tour includes:

Visit the links above for more information on Kulanu, its activities and to donate to the organization in support of those activities.

Monday, May 3, 7.30pm
Jewish Community Center of the North Shore, Marblehead, Massachusetts

Tuesday, May 4 8pm
Beth Hillel Cong. Bnai Emunah, Wilmette, Illinois

Wednesday,May 5, 7.30pm
Congregation Agudath Jacob, Waco, Texas

Friday, May 7, 6.15pm
Congregation B’nai Zion, El Paso, Texas

Monday, May 10, 7.30pm
JCC/Ansche Chesed, New York City

Wednesday, May 12, 7pm
Temple Isaiah, Lexington, Massachusetts

Thursday, May 13, afternoon
Taping, Israel Today TV interview, Toronto, Canada

Thursday, May 13, 7pm
Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada

Monday, May 17, 7pm
Temple Adat Shalom, Poway, California

Tuesday, May 18, 3pm
Taping, Jewish Life TV interview, Encino, California

Tuesday, May 18, 8pm
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Pasadena, California

Wednesday, May 19, 6pm
Tustin, California

Friday, May 21, 7pm
Saturday, May 22, 10am
Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia

Sunday, May 23, 10.30am
Temple Beth Tikvah, Wayne, New Jersey

Florida: Share success, May 12

Researchers are often frustrated by brick walls and remaining gaps in family history, but we also love to hear about colleagues who have made considerable progress and to share their success.

Some 15 years ago, Tracing the Tribe was looking for relatives from Mogilev, who had settled in Detroit, Michigan. The strategy included sending out, via snail mail, a stack of letters to those with the same or similar names. The letter explained why I was looking for those family members and included my contact information. I received quite a few answers.

My favorite response: “I’m not a member of that family, but I do know them. Here’s their contact information.” While some may consider this strategy a long shot – only one good response is needed to find those whom you seek.

The Jewish Genealogical Society of Palm Beach County – celebrating its 19th year – will hold its annual SOS (“Share Our Success”) membership meeting on Wednesday, May 12. The day runs from 12.30-3pm at the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach.

The agenda includes a Brick Wall Session, election and installation of officers and the main program starts at 1pm.

Three members will share their successful research stories and explain the methods used to trace their families:

  • Dr. Gary Stone will give a PowerPoint presentation “Barney’s Story,” a moving narrative of a family member who was responsible for bringing most of his family (more than 50 persons) to the USA.
  • Dorothy Bernstein will share her research success finding family members despite the many changes in the spelling of the family name. Her persistence in searching for vital records enabled her to discover the various spellings were actually in the same family.
  • Glenn Segal will discuss how to make successful research contacts through phoning.

The annual program provides a wealth of genealogical research information. It is always one of the most popular events of the year. Q&A follows the presentations; members are invited to discuss their own success stories.

For more information on the program, or to submit questions for the Brick Wall discussion, e-mail program chair Helene Seaman.