The Director, Center For Global Jewish Studies, Florida International University, Miami, Distinguished Professor Tudor Parfitt usually strongly recommends that Jonathan Symons fellows should attend events at the Jewish Museum, Miami, Florida. I think that this is to enable the fellows to also see and experience some aspects of Judaism, that they ordinarily wouldn’t experience in the classrooms, so that their learning experience will be richer.
So when I received one invitation twice to be at the Museum on the Monday of Dec. 7, 2015, for a talk and an exhibition I was not surprised. But it was with some extra eagerness that I went after receiving a message from Professor Richard J. Wurtman, M.D., of the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology, U.S.A, whom I had become friends with the last time I was at the Museum, inviting me to have coffee with him before the beginning of the event.
My course-mate Patrick Villalonga who is also a Jonathan Symons fellow, and I arrived at the Museum one hour before the event was billed to start, and as we chatted outside, guests continued to arrive. Each guest was made to pass through the elaborate security check. No one, including ladies was exempted. My friend Dick and his wife Judith arrived forty minutes before the event, and suggested that we go inside, get something to eat, and then look for a coffee shop, where we can talk about the Igbo, and have coffee. Dick, and many Jews had taken a serious interest in the subject of the Igbo people as very possibly a part of the Hebrew people after I had answered a question that came up after Professor Parfitt had given a talk about what is known as re-emerging Jewish communities, at the museum in late November.
We were ushered in, after the security check and as we made for the place where the food was, Dick said, ‘Remy, there’s your president!’ I responded, ‘my vice chancellor?’ Dick who is very familiar with British usages, knew that I meant president of my university, so he responded, ‘yes’, and invited me over to greet Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the president of the Florida International University, Miami, who was greeting other guests. As the vice chancellor and I shook hands, Dick introduced me as the Igbo fellow that is researching on the Igbo and Jewish cultures that Professor Parfitt facilitated his joining the Florida International University. The president noted that he had heard something about that: that was amazing to me as the gentleman certainly has his hands full running a university with 54,000 students. Well, as the Museum is a Jewish institution, and we were there to talk about Jews, and see Jewish objects and documents, I whipped out my book, The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of The Largest Jewish Diaspora, which introduces the Igbos far better than I ever could, and showed the president, and Dick told him that I wrote the book. Quite impressed he shook hands with me again and said that he’ll get a copy.
Dick and I had our food, decided to forego the coffee, and listen to the eloquent speeches by Dr. Rosenberg, who talked about the university’s involvement with laudable projects initiated by organizations that are affiliated to the university. And the university’s resolve that such must continue, and intensify. He specifically mentioned Professor Parfitt’s efforts to develop Jewish Studies in the university. The university has many programs that continue to fascinate and amaze me. You can learn the Cuban dialect of Spanish there. You can study about the African Diaspora which to my surprise is significant in Latin America. You can study the Jain religion in FIU, and many other fascinating programs.
When the president took his seat, Maurice Shochet, the president of the Iraqi Jewish Community was the next person to talk. The gentleman gave a stirring speech about the history of the Iraqi Jewish Community, its highs, lows, and eventual decline and demise. Many of them had to leave Iraq with only a little briefcase, abandoning so much, including thousands of years of history and culture. It was quite sad and upsetting. We were at the Museum to hear about how objects of their history and culture were found, neglected, and abandoned in a water-logged basement in a government facility in Baghdad, and to look at some of the recovered objects. Some of the items which the U.S. Government helped to recover and which were on exhibition were: more than 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English, dating from 1524 to the 1970s.
Exhibit highlights include 23 original items, such as a Hebrew Bible with commentaries from 1568 – one of the oldest books found; Babylonian Talmud from 1793; Torah scroll fragment from Genesis — one of the 43 Torah scroll fragments; and lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic from the Jewish year 5732 (1971-1972) – one of the last examples of Hebrew printing in Baghdad.
If I had not been working on the culture, history and migrations of my own people, the Igbo, I would have been shocked to learn that the Jews who are hardly noticed in Iraq today, or remembered to have a history in the location, have a history extending back 2,500 years to Babylonia; which was the name of ancient Iraq. But because I have been involved in excavation of ancient history and have seen the movements of many peoples from one location to the other: hardly noticed by regular history, I was not exactly shocked.
I was to learn that the exhibition was created by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, with generous support from the U.S. Department of State. And that local support was given by Congregation Beth Jacob, Kenneth and Barbara Bloom, Elliot Stone and Bonnie Sockel-Stone, and Nancy G. Pastroff, The efforts of the above-mentioned created the opportunity to preserve, display and learn about the rich cultural heritage of this now-extinct community.
As I moved around and looked at the materials on display and thought, I could not help but think of the following: 2500 years ago, there must have been many towns, cities, streets, etc in Iraq (Babylon) with Hebrew names. There must have been Jewish weddings and other social and religious events. Jewish singing on many a moon-swept night. Now all have been in a way reduced to materials that can only be viewed in a museum or read in books. It also occurred to me that it is very easy to erase facts. I was reminded of Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s main oil city before 1967. The city which is on land owned by a people known as Ikwere, believed to be a sub-group of the Igbos, because they speak a dialect of Igbo, have the same Igbo culture, and have Igbo names, was an Igbo town.
After the Biafran Tragedy, called Nigeria Civil War sometimes, the town Port Harcourt was completely divested of everything Igbo. Properties owned by the Igbos were seized. The Ikwere themselves began to change their identity. Even place names that were Igbo were changed. Children born in the last 30 years may not know that there was a time that Port Harcourt was as much Igbo, as Enugu or Onitsha. Just as modern Iraqis would likely not know that there was an era in which Jews lived openly and thrived in Iraq.
I thought, even though one feels sad that the community that we came to look at part of its history was forced off from Iand that it had lived on for more than two millennia, and its history there nearly erased, yet with the recovery of the materials on exhibition, not everything has been lost, because with what’s available, the history of the community can be studied.
Meanwhile Judith, Dick’s wife was reading ‘The Igbos and Israel…’, voraciously. Thankfully, I was prepared, because as we prepared to leave, the lady accosted me and wanted to know more about the Igbo marriage which I discussed in much detail in the book, and which is quite Hebraic. Interestingly some other ladies gathered and also wanted me to talk about my own marriage. I did! I talked about how my mother made a bid for my wife for me the day she was born! I’ll write a more detailed piece about my marriage soon….smiling!