By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
There I stood, first next to the Iraqi ambassador, and then next to the Iraqi foreign minister. A blistery cold wind swept past us and through us last Sunday in a most ironic setting: New Montefiore cemetery in West Babylon, Long Island. We were gathered to bury relics of the past from what once was a bastion of Jewish life, ancient Babylonia.
A crowd of about 200 people showed up, including the Iraqi governmental officials, members of the U.S. State Department, and representatives of the National Archives and antiquities department. But the majority of the attendees were refugees from Iraq now living in New York, and one 95-year-old man who came in from Connecticut to see his past come to life in burnt and charred parchment.
Those proficient in Jewish history know ancient Babylonia as the home of the Babylonian Talmud, source of Jewish law and scholarship, and the site of our early national exile. It was home to prophets, Tannaim, Amoraim, sages, Gaonim, and saintly commentators like the Ben Ish Chai.
In modern times, Jews lived there comfortably—or as comfortably as a Jew can live in exile—until approximately 1963. It was then that a sweeping new set of conduct was instituted, which deprived Jews of their rights and possessions and reminded them clearly what exile really means.
In response to the Israelis’ miraculous victory in the 1967 war, the noose was tightened even more. People in attendance last Sunday remembered the looting of the synagogues and schools and the loss of holy Torah scrolls and manuscripts.
In 2003, American soldiers discovered a treasure trove of Jewish manuscripts, totaling 2,700 pieces or so, in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s compound. Even Saddam Hussein knew these were something to save.
And so the battle began. The refugees of a once proud and vibrant Jewish community recognized those Torahs, megillahs, and original manuscripts of sages as their own. The Iraqi government maintains that the scrolls and manuscripts are the property of the Iraqi government, and so the battle continues.
The artifacts are on display in Washington D.C. now and soon might be headed to New York for public viewing. But what happens afterwards is anyone’s guess. Will the remnants of Jewish Babylonia return to a country that is Judenrein, or will they be turned over to their rightful owners?
The Iraqi government has sent representatives to Washington to be trained in the preservation of these manuscripts and scrolls. Two of those trainees were in attendance on Sunday, young women dressed in traditional Muslim garb, complete with head covering. Could they really perceive the significance of what they were being entrusted to keep and preserve?
And behind them, wiping tears from his face, was the 95-year-old man who fled the persecution and left those scrolls and a way of life behind. Having to lose them a second time was too much for him to bear.
I photographed some of the remnants. A section of the Purim Megillah and a portion of the Ten Commandments, and then a portion of my bar mitzvah reading from the Book of Numbers, the portion of the priestly blessings bestowed upon the Jewish people.
With the cooperation of the United States government and the Iraqi government, one casket full of scrolls that had been too charred and damaged to be repaired were turned over for burial—first from the Iraqi government to the United States government, and then from our government to the representatives of the Iraqi Jews who fled the country and now live here.
I was invited to attend the burial, not of a person, but of a culture. I saw parchment and I saw pain. I saw ashes and I saw tears. I saw years of pain etched into the brows of men and women who, as happy as they were here in America, longed for the traditions they once enjoyed in “Babylonia.”
Their feet were in West Babylon, but their hearts were in Babylonia. They came not to bury their past but to reconnect with their past.
The Iraqi officials, I must admit, were most respectful and stood silently with heads bowed as the entire group—yes, the entire group—said Kaddish for Torah scrolls, Torah scholarship, and Torah traditions lost to the dictates of a ruthless dictator.
I stood next to the Iraqi ambassador as the casket filled with our history was lowered into the ground. I mourned a history robbed from the Iraqi Jews and from Jews in every exile. And I thanked G-d for a land of Israel and understood more than ever why our future is in Israel and only in Israel.
There will come a day when we won’t have to bury Torah scrolls and we won’t have to bury Israeli soldiers because of evil minds that seek to deny us our past and our future. And until that day we will say Kaddish, for lives lost and a way of life lost. v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.