Preserving History

“Get a scroll an write upon it all the words that I have spoken…”

Jeremiah 36:2


In the book of Jeremiah, as the political situation of the Jews crumbles in Judah, word came to the prophet to write down what was happening and exhort the Jews to change lest they suffer exile. Jeremiah was in prison at the time and requested a scribe who took dictation and then read the scroll to the public. A member of the listening audience took these words and brought them to officials who brought them to the king, whose rule was maligned in the scroll.


The king asked for the scroll, and when it was delivered, the king cut it into pieces and threw it in the fire. His ministers begged him not to destroy it, but to no avail.


In May of 2003, 16 American soldiers entered the Mukhabarat, Sadam Hussein’s intelligence service headquarters, looking for weapons of mass destruction. Instead, they found “weapons” of mass instruction: 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents related to the Iraqi Jewish community. There were also 48 Torah scroll fragments but no whole Torahs. Most of them were damaged – water-logged, dirty or ripped. What were these documents doing there?


If we back up more than a half-century, to 1949, there were 130,000 Jews living in Iraq. But the political situation for Jews living in Iraq had begun heating up more than a decade earlier; many senior Iraqi officials were Nazi sympathizers and supporters. As tensions increased, 120,000 Jews took advantage of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in 1950-51 and were airlifted to Israel. In 1967, nine Jews were publically hanged, and the last Jewish school closed its doors in 1973. In the 1960s, the Baath party confiscated Jewish documents as an act of scrutiny and anti-Semitism, disabling the Iraqi Jewish community from preserving its documentary history.


Enter the Americans. When these soldiers discovered this treasury, they contacted America’s National Archives for recommendations on how to salvage the mess. They recommended freezer trucks to stabilize the documents from water damage. In the middle of a hot summer, they managed to locate a freezer truck and later sent 26 trunk-loads to Texas for drying and cleaning that then went to the National Archives. Today, you can see some of these finds on exhibit there, documenting not only the community but also the remarkable, painstaking process of salvaging, preserving and digitalizing the documents before sending the collection back to Iraq.


Naturally, there are people questioning whether a return to Iraq is advisable given the investment the US government has made in saving a collection that could have easily gone to ruin under Iraqi government hands. Who will ultimately hold the keys to this important piece of our history?


Walking through the exhibit, I saw a page of Talmud, published in Venice in 1793 open to Tractate Yoma, the very tractate currently being studied today in daf yomi, our daily Talmud study project. The Torah fragment contained the Torah reading of Lekh Lekha, Abraham’s journey in ancient Mesopotamia to Canaan. The Talmud itself was developed in study halls and academies originally located in an around Iraq. But almost all that rich and celebrated history is gone now.


Returning to the book of Jeremiah, word got to Jeremiah in his prison cell that the king destroyed his scroll. And then he got his next order: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah after the king had burned the scroll…Get yourself another scroll, and write upon it the same words…”


We are deeply grateful – at this time of Thanksgiving – for the intervention of the United States government in preserving our history. We also know from the ancient days of Jeremiah, that you can destroy our books, but they are so much a part of who we are, we will write them down again. “Get yourself another scroll and write upon it the same words…” Parchment may be destroyed, but our words live on and on.


Shabbat Shalom