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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Look Back to Remember What We Lost

By Shelomo Alfassa

July 1, 2005

Geopolitics of the early twentieth century twisted and tore at the fabric of world Jewry. The generation of Jews that had been living with their feet in the sands of North Africa and the Levant during the inflammation Europe experienced in the 1930's, would live to see the end of their communities. If they themselves weren't directly touched by the hand of the German war machine that sought to destroy world Jewry, then they lived to see the end of their ancient communities as a result of the Nazi-Arab partnership. The conclusion would be the total dispossession of their way of life, their property, their belongings, and their tranquility. Nine hundred thousands Jews were affected, but the silence about their plight continues to be deafening.

Nine hundred thousand is more than a large faceless number, it represents families, old and young folks, children, and entire communities uprooted under duress. In an effort to present the reader with a look back at the living and then-thriving communities, below are a selection of statements compiled from the 1923 Jewish Encyclopedia, editing them only slightly for clarity. Six decades after the Holocaust and all that was associated and linked to it-we can only look back and remember.

Alexandria: The Jewish community of Alexandria, numbering (in 1900) 10,000 persons, is governed by an elective body of prominent men called the 'Communità.' This body numbers sixteen members, four being elected annually to serve for four years; only those contributing to the congregational treasury have the right to elect...Many of them are bankers and capitalists; while merchants, commercial travelers, scribes, and artisans are numerous among them. They are also represented among the lawyers and officials of the courts. The languages spoken by the Jews of Alexandria represent many tongues…A most important Jewish schools has been established by Baron J. L. de Menasce at a cost of more than $25,000, this is pleasantly situated in ample grounds. In 1900 it had 160 pupils, who received free education in the Torah and secular subjects. French Arabic (the language of the country), and, of course, Hebrew were taught... There also exists a Home for the Aged, devoted in part also to the reception of convalescents from the Menasce Hospital, who frequently need more care and nourishment than their own homes afford.

Algiers: Out of a total population of about 97,000, the Jewish residents of Algiers numbered in 1900 nearly 10,000, of whom 1,200 are of foreign birth. Large numbers of Jews are engaged in commerce and petty traffic; but since the charge has recently been made that they have unfairly monopolized all the trade in Algiers, it may be well to present some figures showing the proportion among them that follow handicrafts. At the head of the community are a consistory and a grand rabbi, the latter being appointed by decree of the president of the French Republic on the recommendation of the Central Consistory of Paris. There are, in addition, a considerable number of native rabbis and of minor officials, appointed by the consistory and paid by the community, and six honorary officials called gizbarim. Algiers has nineteen synagogues, of which six are official and thirteen private. The oldest of the former was founded in 1866; of the latter, nine existed before the conquest, the remainder being of comparatively recent establishment…There are 250 shoemakers; 155 tinners and blacksmiths; 200 tailors; 40 joiners and cabinet-makers; 70 house-painters; and 100 watchmakers and jewelers.

Beirut: In 1889 the Jews of Beirut numbered 1,500 in a population of 20,000. In 1901, numbering 5,000 in a population of 180,000, they had for their spiritual leader Moses Aaron Yedid Levi, and for their official representative hayyim Murad Yusuf Dana. They have a large synagogue and twelve midrashim, named generally after their founders...There are two benevolent societies at Beirut: the Bikur-holim, founded in 1890 for assisting the sick poor; and the Misgab-Laddak, founded in 1896 for placing youths in apprenticeship. Although not far from Damascus, where Jewish studies are still pursued, Beirut has neither a body of rabbis nor any Jewish writer of importance. Yet in the Midrash Stambuli there is a room set apart for study, the yeshibah, where old men and pious Jews meet daily to read from the Zohar, the Talmud, etc.

Fez: There are nineteen synagogues, many of which possess very old scrolls of the Law. They are mostly named after their founders, as Keneset Jonathan Severo, or Keneset Rabbi Judah Attar. Fez possesses a Talmud Torah attended by about 500 pupils, and two schools founded by the Alliance in 1883 and 1899, attended respectively by 103 boys and 80 girls. A synod of six rabbis whose salaries are paid from the meat-tax takes charge of the spiritual interests of the Jews. There are no Jewish government officials. The Jews of Fez are by preference shoemakers and grocers. The richer are money lenders…Early marriages are the rule.

Mosul: In 1903 there were 1,100 Jews in a total population of 45,000. The affairs of the community are directed by the chief rabbi, hakam Jacob, assisted by a court composed of three members. The community is not organized as such, levying no taxes; nor are there any benevolent societies…There are two synagogues: the Large Synagogue, which is very ancient, and the Bet ha-Midrash, founded in 1875, which serves also as a school (250 pupils). Benjamin of Tudela says that in his time the tombs of the prophets Obadiah, Nahum, and Jonah existed at Mosul; and the natives say that beside the tomb of the last-named a bush springs up every year, recalling the 'kikayon' (the fast growing protective desert bush) of Jonah. Thirty hours by horse to the north of Mosul is the village of Bar Tanura, inhabited exclusively by Jews, who claim that their ancestors have lived there since the return from Babylon, and who support themselves by manual labor.

Tunis: The Tunisians preserve many peculiar religious customs which are not followed elsewhere. Their ritual, especially for the divine service on festivals, differs from the Sephardic as well as from the Ashkenazic. Some of the prayers are in Arabic. The first of every month the Yom Kippur Katan is celebrated with great pomp, and the rabbis proclaim publicly full absolution from all sins. Passover cakes, as made in other countries, are wholly unknown to the Tunisians, but they use a peculiar method of their own in fashioning the unleavened dough into sticks, by joining the ends of which the cakes are made in the form of rings…Brides of twelve or thirteen are not uncommon among the Tunisians. The marriage ceremony is performed by a rabbi, and usually takes place in the synagogue. The bride and bridegroom are seated on chairs placed on a table, and a tallit covers the heads of both. Two witnesses stand one on each side, while the officiating rabbi takes his position in front of the table, with the prayer-book in one hand and the cup of blessing in the other. It is customary among the Tunisian women to appear every Friday in the cemetery with a small earthen jar containing slaked lime, and a brush, with which they clean and whitewash the tombstones of their relatives and friends.

The communities briefly mentioned here are only six out of hundreds of Jewish communities, now extinct. They had existed from the North Atlantic seaboard to the Fertile Crescent and all places in between. When the various communities were destroyed-either directly, or otherwise-along with the souls that became refugees or perished, were many irreplaceable traditions that faded into the murky memory of history. One way to shake the foundations of the Jewish educational and Holocaust academic communities, is to educate the public and remind them of the many countries where Jews once walked. Remind them, that these people deserve to have their saga told, that they too are refugees, forgotten ones at that.