Next Year, Anywhere But in Grim Baghdad
City's Last Rabbi Observes Yom Kippur

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

BAGHDAD, Oct. 2 -- As the sun set on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar Monday night, the last rabbi in Baghdad sat down for his last Yom Kippur dinner in Iraq: a piece of cake and two glasses of milk.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, begins with fasting and ends with a celebratory feast. But there was, Emad Levy confessed, very little to celebrate this year.

Today, barely a dozen members of the 2,600-year-old Jewish community in Baghdad remain to observe Yom Kippur. Most are afraid to gather for holidays, and besides, they figure, how can one rejoice in a place like this?

Emad Levy sat alone in his home on Monday night picking at a dessert-as-dinner, with vicious sectarian killings serving as the background music to the holiday. He had just finished chanting the hopeful lines at the end of the Yom Kippur service, he recalled in a phone interview.

"May we be sealed," he sang plaintively in his bedroom, "for a good year in the book of life."

Levy knows his prayers for peace will not be fulfilled in Iraq. Although the bloodshed plunging this country into a civil war has mainly claimed the lives of Sunni Arabs and Shiite Muslims, no group is more terrified -- or a more vulnerable target -- than the tiny Jewish community.

The capital's only remaining synagogue, a pink and yellow building with no identifying marks, has been boarded up since it was denounced more than three years ago as "the place of the Zionists." Most Jews barely leave their homes at all for fear of being kidnapped or executed. And even Levy will not directly mention Israel on the telephone, just because he never knows who might be eavesdropping.

"It's like I'm living in a prison all the time," said Levy, who is 41. "I have no future here. I must go out to have a life for myself."

Even for the long-suffering Jewish people, exiled to Babylon in what is now central Iraq 26 centuries ago by Nebuchadnezzar, the current conflict here has become unbearable. Levy's family survived the increasing anti-Semitic attacks after the founding of Israel in 1948; the 1969 execution of about a dozen Jews accused of spying for the Jewish state; and incessant spying by Saddam Hussein's regime.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, though, Levy's father fled to Israel. Levy planned to leave, too, but remained in Iraq to take care of an ailing Jewish octogenarian with diabetes. Now the sick man is staying with friendly Kurds, and Levy plans to leave as soon as he can sell his house. He won't use a regular broker, who might defraud him or worse, so he waits for a friend to return to the country in the next few months to manage his affairs.

"We must be careful, and then God will bless us," Levy said.

In the meantime, he prays.

On Sunday night, the eve of Yom Kippur, Levy prepared to begin his fast by nibbling on some cake and watermelon. After the ritual butcher left a few years ago, Levy purchased lambs himself and slaughtered them according to Jewish law. But now he can't buy the animals, because he fears for his life if the merchants in the market spot him and tell others that he is a Jew. Wine is also unobtainable, so on certain holidays he settles for grapes squeezed into water.

Baghdad's power grid, Levy joked, also decided to fast. The electricity cut out on Sunday afternoon and still hadn't come back on more than 30 hours later. On Monday night, after the holiday ended, he struggled to get his generator back up.

None of the city's problems could spoil his Yom Kippur, though.

"I have my God and I have my prayers," Levy said. "This is all that is important to me."

He cradled an old Hebrew prayer book in his arms, standing in his bedroom and occasionally sitting on the light green sheets covering his bed, he recalled. Ritual white fringes hung from his body, and a 25-year-old yarmulke adorned his head. All the Jewish yarmulke makers have fled Iraq, so there is nowhere for him to buy a new one.

"What should I do?" he shrugged. "Of course this is not the way Yom Kippur should be. When you are alone, it is very different than when you do it in the synagogue or with a lot of people. It is sad."

He paused. "This is why I must leave for the Holy Land."

Not every Iraqi Jew feels that way. Sameer, 40, a construction contractor, said he could not quit his homeland, even though that might mean he never finds a Jewish woman to marry.

"This is my destiny. I am Iraqi. I am part of Iraq," he said. "It is okay for me to stay without a wife."

Sameer spoke on the condition that his last name not be printed because he fears for his life. His 33-year-old brother was kidnapped 10 months ago -- although it was not clear whether his religion played a role in his targeting -- and Sameer spends every day searching for him. He has fled his Baghdad home and lives outside the capital in a location he will not disclose for security reasons.

A tightly wound bundle of nerves, Sameer frantically fiddled with a pencil during a conversation with a reporter as his eyes darted around the room. He sat balanced precariously on the edge of a dusty couch.

"I must go now!" he said every few moments during a 20-minute interview. "It is very dangerous for me."

Sameer refused to discuss life under Saddam's regime, saying the topic itself was dangerous, but interviews with Levy and former Iraqi intelligence officials make clear that life was not particularly easy for Jews before the American-led invasion.

Kawan al-Qaisi, a former member of the state intelligence service, known as the Mukhabarat, said he was assigned to follow Sameer for a month in 2002 to see if he was a spy for Israel or involved in plots against the government.

"There was a file on every Jew in Iraq," Qaisi said. "Every Jew had an intelligence officer assigned to him."

Qaisi said the surveillance meant the Jews were protected, and by some accounts, they were largely spared from torture and execution because Hussein did not consider the tiny community a political threat. But Levy, who said his phone was always tapped and intelligence reports were filed about him every week, did not feel particularly safe. "During the reign of Saddam, I was not free," he said. "They tried to do everything to get me in a trap."

The Jews of Iraq -- whose population was estimated at about 140,000 in 1947 -- had long dominated finance and trade throughout the country. During the early 1940s, for example, thirty-five of Iraq's 38 importers of cotton and silk were Jewish, according to "Jewish and Iranian Schools in Iraq," a 1984 book by Fadhil al-Barrak, the former chief of Iraqi intelligence.

The book reveals the strong anti-Semitic attitudes that prevailed in the country. "The Jews played very menacing roles in Iraq's major problems," Barrak wrote.

As Levy prepared to end his Yom Kippur prayers, he put special emphasis on the closing line of the service. It is supposed to be accompanied by the blow of the shofar, a ram's horn, but Levy didn't have one.

Still, he chanted: "Next year may we be in Jerusalem!"

Levy said he'll settle for London or the Netherlands. Anywhere, really, as long as it's not Iraq.

Special correspondent Salih Dehema contributed to this report.

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