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May 16, 2003 - Image 24

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-05-16

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

1\1\014M.
June 23.st
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The Patriarch

Iraq's oldest Jew _provides lens onto
a world of loss and loneliness.

MATTHEW GUTMAN
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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24

Deadline:
ay 28, 2003

issue Date:
ne 13, 2003

Baghdad, Iraq
t takes 15 minutes to cajole a gri-
macing Muhammed Fazi, literal-
ly the gatekeeper to Iraq's dying
Jewish community, to let a
reporter peek into the small -compound
that holds Baghdad's only remaining
synagogue.
Finally, Fazi cracks open the syna-
gogue's steel door. As if on cue, out of
an adjacent cement block building,
hobbles the 98-year-old Tawfiq Sofer,
the oldest living member of Iraq's Jewish
community.
Squinting in the glare of the blaring
Iraqi sun, he sizes up his visitors and
grins, displaying just a few teeth, almost
as thin as needles. Gaunt and wearing
striped pajamas and a loosely fitted
knitted cap, the ailing Sofer offers his
guest a seat and a glass of water.
Haltingly and without-irony, Sofer
says in fluent English, "I am the
youngest of my family." He is also the
last of it.
Like 90 percent of Iraq's once thriving
Jewish community of 100,000, all of
Sofer's family fled Iraq, either for Israel,
the United States or Europe after Israel's
independence in 1948. Only an esti-
mated 35 Jews are left in the country.
Unmarried and alone, Sofer's sole
company is Fazi, who attends to the
ancient man 14 hours a day, and Nidal
Sa' aleh Ezra, a 28-year-old orphan the
two "adopted" a few years ago.
Sofer, sometimes alone, sometimes
with one or two bent 70-year-olds,
shuffles into the synagogue on
Saturdays to pray and to peek in at the
Sefer Torah.
Like many of the remaining Jewish
sites in Baghdad; the synagogue itself, in
central Baghdad, is deliberately non-
descript. A dun-colored brick wall,
about 10 feet high, conceals an austere
yellow brick building. Its only decora-
tive element is a set of old pine doors.
Above the lintel a single word, written
in black Hebrew lettering, reads Adonai,
the Lord. Beneath it, other Hebrew let-
tering reads: "The Synagogue of Meir
Abraham Twigg."
Asked if he prays on weekdays, the
ailing man swallows a glycerin tablet,
leans forward on his battered cane and

shoots back: "Do I pray? I pray well and
properly three times a day. I even put
on tefillin."
"Sure I wear a tallit," he adds. "One
must wear a tallit."
Sofer speaks fluent English, though
his heart disease — which does not pre-
vent him from smoking a cigarette after
meals — makes it difficult for him to
speak at length.
Fazi, who serves as guard, gatekeeper,
groundskeeper, nurse and shopper, says
he has dedicated his life "to this Jewish
community." Fazi, whose own father, he
says, is a well-to-do merchant who
befriended many Jews in the middle of
the last century, absently taps the old
man's hand as he speaks.
"I love him," Fazi says of Sofer. "He is
like my father."
Reflecting on life under Saddam
Hussein, Sofer says times were not easy,
"but at least we had security." After sev-
eral attacks on Jewish community build-
ings throughout the 1990s — one
Palestinian attack in 2000 killed three
community members and two Iraqis —
the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police,
which had already kept close tabs on
Jews, began to monitor the synagogue.
"We had a system, by which we
would call the Mukhabarat; and they
would come if there was any trouble,"
says Fazi. But now, with Baghdad sub-
merged in anarchy, there is no one to
call in case the little compound is
besieged by looters.
While once a prosperous section of
Baghdad, Bkawin, where the syna-
gogue stands, has become a gang
stronghold. The nights crackle with
gunfire and the explosion of an occa-
sional grenade, as looters fight each
other and American troops over turf.
While poor, the Jewish community
members look after their own.
According to Sofer, Naji Jebrail Ya'acob,
the community's leader, helps supply
the needy with food and clothing when
necessary.
Fazi says the greatest nuisance has
been journalists. "I almost came to
blows with some of them," he says.
"You are the first that I have let in here.
"We don't want to attract too much
attention to this place, don't want peo-
ple to notice," he says. The Jews of
Baghdad, and their Muslim keepers,
many possessed with a dash of

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