The Last Jews of Baghdad Remembering a Lost Homeland by Nissim Rejwan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 268 pages.)

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Sean Monaghan



“It is all but impossible to pinpoint a date or an event with which the position
of the Jews of Iraq began to deteriorate and take the course leading finally, inevitably, to the destruction of community,” writes Nissim Rejwan near the
end of his memoir The Last Jews of Baghdad (p. 188). Yet their centurieslong
presence was such that, as the author notes, for those Jews who were
born and grew up in Baghdad before the mass exodus of 1950-51, the presence
of a mere handful of elderly Jews in the city today is “a state of affairs
[that] is hard to imagine” (p. 1). Rejwan’s endearing memoir traces out a
period of Iraqi history that saw the disappearance of a community that had
been an integral part of the human map and the city’s history. The author’s
youth, from his birth in 1926 to his irrevocable departure in 1952 for Israel,
condemns him to what he refers to as a state of permanent unbelonging.
Rejwan was born in a Baghdad, where Jews were an indigenous, integrated
community that participated fully in the city’s sociocultural life.
Although relations with Muslims and Christians may have been characterized
by a certain aloofness due to the logic of custom and faith, Rejwan’s
portrayal of the Baghdad of his childhood is such that the spatial organization
and interpenetration of the communities in the quotidian illustrate a city
of shared economic struggles, neighborhood vernaculars, and an intermingling
that came to life in “[t]he shouts…the endless disputations and arguments
and the extremely juicy curses…[and] the encounters [that] were in
the nature of veritable revelations” for the young author (p. 31). The paramountcy
of marriage for his siblings, the negotiated dowries, and the interfamilial
politics of social position and responsibility translate a world of
intra-communal mores where life’s rhythms were dictated by that which had
come before ...

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