Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Letter from Baghdad: ROSH HASHANAH.

Hi Folks,

I thought you might enjoy the letter below. Yochi Dreazen is a reporter

for the Wall Street Journal who has done a few stints in Iraq. He sends

periodic notes to his wife (Anat) about life there. Below is his report

on Rosh Hashanah in Baghdad.


From Yochi in Baghdad.....

For obvious reasons, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I

made plans to travel to a military base on the outskirts of Baghdad

for Rosh Hashanah. I didn't know if there would be a minyan, if there

would be Orthodox prayer services or a shorter Reform variant, or if

there would be Kosher food. You can imagine my shock - the best kind

of shock, the type that comes from being pleasantly surprised - when I

found that Rosh Hashanah at Forward Operating Base Striker included

all of those things, and a few more besides.

The services were held in a small meeting room in the base chapel

building, with signs outside listing that week's services, which

ranged from Spanish-language Pentecostal to Latin Mass Catholic to

Muslim jumma prayers. The back of the chapel faces onto a small

yard, which is now almost entirely filled up by a newly constructed

wooden succah. The succah was built by a non-Jewish amateur carpenter

from the Arkansas National Guard, who told me he built it in his spare

time and was glad to have been able to help. In fact, the military,

from the top level on down, went out of its way to help Jewish

soldiers make it to the base for services. The Army issued a pair of

FRAGOs - formal orders - ordering commanders to make arrangements for

their Jewish soldiers to travel to the base f or the services and

giving Jewish soldiers permission to not shower or shave during the

holiday (soldiers usually have to shave every day, and can be punished

if they forget). Of the 40-odd soldiers who ultimately took part in

the Rosh Hashanah services - plus a few civilians, including a

self-described "Jewish grandmother from New York" who is in Iraq,

incongruously, to help interrogate high-value terrorism suspects -

more than half flew in from other bases.

The services were arranged by a jovial chaplain with the wondrous name

of Andrew Shulman, who had lived in Israel for a few years - studying

at Aish Hatorah, in the Old City - and then gone to work for a

synagogue in Massachusetts before volunteering to join the army and

come to Iraq as a military chaplain. He is the only Jewish chaplain

in Iraq full-time, though others occasionally come in from Kuwait and

other bases around the High Holidays. When I email ed him a few weeks

ago to say that I would be coming and would be glad to help lead the

prayers or read the Torah, he said I was a lifesaver and that he would

be glad to put me to work. He kept his word: I ended up leading the

long Mussaf services both days of the holiday, reading both days'

Torah portions (out of a Machzor, because there was no actual Torah

scroll, but still), and doing both days' Haftorah portions. With the

exception of cutting out some of the optional poems in Mussaf, we did

the entire Orthodox liturgy, and even found a young tzizzit-wearing

soldier from Milwaukee named Rafi Karran who was able to blow the

shofar, so we had shofar-blowing, as well.

The people who came to the services were an eclectic bunch. There was

a full-bird colonel named Abramowitz, a bunch of young lieutenants

with names like Frank and Hode, a command sergeant major (the highest

position you can have as an enlisted soldier) named Soriano, and a

sergeant with the "Coming to America"-esque name of Kurt Love. Some

of the soldiers were converts - Soriano, who gave his name as Ami, was

once named Jorge Octavio - and others had a Jewish mother and didn't

discover they were Jewish till they were adults. Virtually all knew

some Hebrew, though, and were as thrilled as I was to be able to take

part in a full, real service. The most fascinating soldier there, in

my opinion, was a female sergeant named McCann, who grew up hunting

and skinning animals in Montana and found out that her mom was Jewish

right after she enlisted at 19. Before leaving for Iraq, she got

herself trained as a shochet, and now buys chickens while out on

mission and ritually slaughters the chickens back at the base so

she can have some kosher meat. She has gotten so religious that she

won't shake hands with male soldiers and instead patiently tells them

that she is "shomeret negiah." To top it off, this blond-haired,

blue-eyed farm girl is planning to marry an older Israeli soldier as

soon as she finishes her tour in Iraq later this year.

No Jewish event, civilian or military, would be complete without food,

and Rosh Hashanah in Baghdad was no exception. Rabbi Shulman had had

an absolutely astounding amount of food sent in for the holiday, and

the group of soldiers did an impressive job of plowing through it. He

had kosher wine for kiddush (alcohol is strictly forbidden in the

military, so for many soldiers this was the first taste of alcohol

they had drunk in more than a year), pomegranates and prickly pears as

the new fruit of the season, honey for the apples, gefilte fish (some

of which splashed on me, which was as disgusting an experience as I

have ever had in my life), hummos and tahini, Israeli olives and

pickles, and fresh Zomick's challah and rolls that had been sent in a

short time earlier. For the main courses, he would prepare couscous,

rice and pasta, and then top the grains with steak, chicken and

beef kosher Meals Ready to Eat. For desert, there was fruit, trail

mix, and honey cakes that his wife, Lori, had sent from the U.S. Of

the many reasons I feel deeply indebted to Rabbi Shulman, the mound of

kosher food he managed to obtain for the holiday is near the top of

the list.

I have talked a lot about the logistics of the holiday, but I want to

take a moment to talk about the feel of the holiday, as well. In

more than four years of living in, covering and visiting Iraq, this is

the first time I have ever done anything Jewish here. When I lived in

Baghdad, I had nothing with me that could identify me as Jewish and

had scrubbed by Palm Pilot and laptop of any file that mentioned

Israel or anything Jewish. When an Iraqi asked me my religion, I

would always lie and say Catholic. It burned me deeply to have to lie

like that; I am proud of being Jewish, and always have been. It was

even more painful to lie about my identity while living in a place

like Iraq, which had for millennia been the absolute pinnacle of the

Diaspora Jewish world, a place that still uses city names - like Ur,

in northern Iraq - that are mentioned in the Torah. But there was no

choice, until now. This holiday was the first time in all of my

years in Iraq that I was able to identify myself as a Jew and live


A final thought: The Iraqi Jewish community is down to barely six

people, the last remnants of the once-proud, vibrant Iraqi Jewish

world (there is a style of architecture in Baghdad that is even now

called "Jewish style"). The final few elderly Jews are largely

waiting to die, so they can be buried in the land of their ancestors.

When they die, the Jewish community of Iraq - once so robust and

important that the Talmud itself was written here - will for all

intents and purposes cease to exist. For a few days, though, Hebrew

was again heard in Iraq, as Jews sat down to eat, pray and celebrate

in a country now populated mainly of Jewish ghosts. For a few days,

there was again a Jewish community of Baghdad.

I hope that this next year is one of peace, joy, and health for each

of you - and for the Jewish soldiers of the U.S. military, with whom I

had the distinct honor of sharing Rosh Hashanah in Baghdad.

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