Ancient Baghdadi list offers clues to Jewish roots
(JTA) In the late 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was seeking to conscript men into its army, including the several thousand young Jewish ones who were living in the city of Baghdad.
The Jewish community didn’t like the idea of the imperial forces taking away its young men, so it arranged to pay authorities for exemptions. Rabbi Shlomo Bekhor Husin of Baghdad documented the exemptions, carefully jotting each down name in medieval Rashi script.
In the following decades, many of those names vanished or morphed as the Jews living there dispersed across the globe. But the lists survived, and now are housed at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem – if you’re willing to deal with the microfilm format on which they are preserved.
Retired Israeli diplomat and independent researcher Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch has squinted to read and translate every single one of the nearly 3 500 names on Husin’s lists. And the lists are just one of the dozens of idiosyncratic sources that Rosen-Koenigsbuch has consulted in his years-long hunt for lost Jewish family names.
Rosen-Koenigsbuch, 73, has published the world’s most complete lists of Jewish surnames from the cities of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and — as of this week — Alexandria. (Next up are probably Basra, Mosul, and Erbil, he said.) The four lists have been combined by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency into this searchable database. (If you know your name belongs but isn’t there, email Rosen-Koenigsbuch, who’s always making additions and corrections.)
Before I spotted Rosen-Koenigsbuch’s research on the internet, I had only once ever seen a written reference to my family’s original Baghdadi last name. The generically Israeli sounding “Shalev” was “Shaloo” until my grandfather changed it upon moving from Iraq to Israel in 1951. An act of assimilation, the switch was easy because “Shalev” and “Shaloo” are spelled the same in Hebrew script: shin-lamed-vav. The letter “vav” is capable of making both an “oo” sound and a “v” sound.
I searched and found no “Shaloo” on Rosen-Koenigsbuch’s list. But I did find a “Shellu”, and it felt close enough. Maybe, I thought, that was just how he had transliterated a name that could be spelled out any number of ways.
“One of the biggest problems in this work is transliteration,” Rosen-Koenigsbuch said on the phone from Jerusalem as he began to confirm my inkling. “There are different ways to pronounce the names and different ways to spell them.”
I asked him where he had found “Shellu”. He pulled up his sources and quickly told me that the name appeared three times. First, he told me about Husin’s Ottoman exemptions, and among them was a young lad with the name spelled “shin-lamed-vav”. Shellu. Shaloo. Shalev. Bingo! This could be a forgotten ancestor.
Then, he said the name appeared twice in a 1950 registry from Iraq. This was a list of people whose citizenship was revoked during the Iraqi Jewish exodus – definitely my ancestors. After years of curiosity and some research, I had finally made a genealogical breakthrough.
Rosen-Koenigsbuch started on the surnames project while doing his own genealogical research. But his family isn’t from the Middle East; they’re from Poland.
“My parents were Holocaust survivors,” he said. “And they didn’t speak. My father was completely silent.”
To learn anything about his family’s past, he had to dig.
He discovered elaborate family connections, and eventually gave lectures on his findings. Audience members with Mizrahi heritage would approach him, and they tended to have a certain reaction.
“I would hear this mantra,” he said. “We don’t know anything about our families because we left Egypt or Syria or Iraq in a hurry. We left everything behind, and the archives are closed. We came out alive from those countries, but the documents aren’t with us. In Europe, most of the Jews were annihilated but the archives are open.’”
Rosen-Koenigsbuch, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Jordan from 2006 to 2009, had the geographic interest and some of the linguistic knowledge to find out what kind of information might still exist in spite of the lacunae.
He decided to focus on surnames, and found thousands of them in historic newspapers, business directories, a circumcision registry, court records, previously published research, and through the help of social-media groups dedicated to the various Jewish diasporas.
None of these sources are comprehensive. Your family was more likely to be mentioned somewhere, for example, if you donated money or if you sent your kids to Jewish schools.
“There are many limitations, but we have to try to gather the history because we still have among us people in their 70s, early 80s, and in 10 years, there will be no one to talk to,” Rosen-Koenigsbuch said. “If we don’t hurry, they will be gone. It’s a very important message to encourage people to start thinking about this.”
Zaka honoured for bravery in Bank of Lisbon inferno
Jewish rescue and recovery organisation Zaka SA has been awarded a medal of bravery by the Gauteng province for its assistance with the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD more than two years ago.
Zaka SA was honoured on International Firefighters Day on 4 May, a day in which the City of Joburg remembered all firefighters who had “courageously put others’ lives before their own, saluting them for their selfless dedication and bravery”.
Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze, one plunging to his death on the pavement below, after trying to put out the fire near the top of the high-rise building. The building was subsequently found to be only minimally compliant with health and safety regulations, and firefighters faced a lack of water and oxygen. It has since been demolished.
Zaka SA “rescued the rescuers” by offering psychological support to devastated and exhausted city firefighters, and food for 100 firefighters, with the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
However, when they reached the scene, Zaka and the SAJBD discovered that 700 students housed in a building next door needed to be evacuated for fear of smoke inhalation, and more food was urgently required to feed them. Zaka was honoured for assisting with the evacuation of these students, and for providing necessary relief.
“Bank of Lisbon was a complicated story,” said Daniel Forman, the head of Zaka SA. “There was a vacuum of resources including water availability, and we encountered a challenging scene as the three firefighters lost their lives soon into the crisis but firefighters had to continue to fight the fire. The biggest challenge was that the fire was so high up in the building, so firefighters had to preserve their oxygen supplies going up.”
Zaka SA was set up in 2015 to assist the community with emergency search and rescue, body identification and recovery, and fire-containment services. Like Zaka around the world, it’s entirely staffed by volunteers, and relies on communal support to keep going.
It has two trailers which each hold 600 litres of water, and is often the first responder in suburban fires, where early detection and response can eliminate the need to call city firefighters. However, Forman cautions that 600 litres is used up in just seven minutes, and a house can burn down in minutes, making additional resources mandatory.
Zaka is sometimes called on to fight more than six fires a month, he said, particularly in the winter months when people rely on heating devices in their homes, and fires are lit by the homeless and security guards to keep warm.
“Zaka’s fire-containment unit came about through challenges which exist in the system,” Forman said, “including the long wait for firefighters.” Another of these challenges is theft of brass parts from neighbourhood fire hydrants, rendering them ineffective.
However, he stressed that the City of Joburg had been involved in a major upgrade of these hydrants, and was amazingly supportive of Zaka generally. He praised the Gauteng government for exposing the organisation’s communal efforts.
“Not once have they not responded to our call or thanked us for our help,” he said of Joburg’s firefighters. “They do an amazing job.”
Yummy Shavuot from Yaddies
Seven hundred families in financial difficulty in the community can now enjoy Shavuot treats including cheesecake, mac n cheese, and pizza thanks to generous monetary and food donations from the community, Jewish schools, and the Rabbi Kraines Chessed Challenge (RKCC).
Their generosity made it possible for Yad Aharon to distribute these special treats, as well as healthy, nutritious food, to community members to make sure that they also have a joyful chag.
RKCC is an initiative which has challenged the community to maximise acts of good deeds and loving kindness during the 49 days of the Omer.
The initiative was formed in honour of Rabbi Kraines (zt”l), whose untimely passing left a void in the Johannesburg community. It celebrates the legacy of a man who was known to be a champion of the mitzvah of chessed.
In addition to the RKCC, Yad Aharon’s Shavuot drive has involved more than 20 Jewish schools as well as local and international donors who realise the importance it plays in alleviating nutritional insecurity in the community.
- To contribute towards the Shavuot drive, visit www.yadaharon.co.za
A portrait of PE through a life of service
As Port Elizabeth community stalwart Isaac Rubin reflects on his 90th year, his life story emerges as a portrait of this once thriving, now diminishing, but always impactful, Jewish centre of life.
Having offered decades of service as head of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Benevolent Society, as well as a vice-chairperson and member of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation Council and serving as its choirmaster, Rubin has lived a life firmly entrenched in service. His has been a contribution that has helped ensure that Jewish tradition continues to be fulfilled in this small seaside town.
“My best saying is, ‘Zeh hayom asah adonai, nagila v’nismicha bo.’ (This is the day that G-d created; let us be happy and rejoice in it.) To rejoice and be happy, you have to have your health, financial resources, a partner, a family.”
He hopes that he has been able to assist in making this a little more of a reality for those around him.
“It’s a blessing that Hashem has given me, to have the strength to do mitzvot,” he says.
The history of Port Elizabeth can be traced back to a group of at least 16 Jewish families that came with the 1820 British settlers. Later, a wave of German immigrants also arrived. Rubin’s family, from the town of Ludza in Latvia, were part of a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in the latter part of the century into the 1900s. His uncle came first, followed by his father. Later, his mother and oldest brother, Solly, arrived – both speaking only Yiddish.
Rubin, born in 1931, was one of four siblings born in Port Elizabeth itself. Building a life in this foreign country was difficult for the family especially as they hit the Depression years; yet his parents, both tailors, persisted throughout.
When it came to Rubin’s first day of school, he remembers how his father couldn’t come because of work and his mother because she didn’t speak English. A friend came with to help settle him in.
During the war years, he recalls having bomb drills at school where “we had to duck under our desk and put a cork between our teeth in order to prevent our jaw breaking in the event of an explosion”.
Rubin also attended cheder from the age of eight until matric. He was inspired by his studies there to complete Hebrew as a matric subject at school.
His family, in spite of financial struggles, persisted in maintaining cultural traditions. “Hard as it was, every Rosh Hashanah, we would get a new suit of short pants and a jacket. My father would close the shop on all major Jewish holidays, and we would go to shul. We kept a kosher home.”
Community life flourished in these years, with a Jewish population of about 5 000 people. “I was a troop leader in the Jewish Boy Scouts in the 1940s,” Rubin says. Always a keen sportsman, he established a Maccabi Jewish cricket club in the city which eventually had so many members, it played across three leagues. He also played in Port Elizabeth’s Jewish rugby team.
Rubin remembers some antisemitism at one school he attended – where the Jewish children were called “porkers”. Yet, he recalls proudly how when his own grandson attended the same school decades later, the outcome of such provocation was very different.
“My grandson’s teacher made a remark about how ‘you must look after your money, and be like the Jews’, and my grandson went straight to the teacher and said, ‘You aren’t allowed to say that.’” A meeting was held with the principal and family, and the teacher had to make a formal apology.
Meanwhile, after his own schooling, Rubin went on to become a pharmacist and travelled around the world, working at one time at a catering facility for the American army in the Arctic Circle. “I had a contract as a dish washer, and graduated to become a waiter,” he laughs.
Later, he married and settled back in Port Elizabeth with his wife, Shirley. They had a daughter who sadly died at age 37, as well as two sons and four grandchildren. Rubin opened his own pharmacy and his one son has followed in his career. Although Rubin retired at 67, he went back to work part-time 12 years ago.
Once a keen runner who completed 11 Comrades and 11 Two Oceans marathons, Rubin swims in the sea, does yoga, and walks. Both he and his wife are keen bridge players. Over the years, he also volunteered for Lifeline and Hospice. Yet, even this wasn’t enough for Rubin – at the age of 72, he decided to improve his musicality, and learnt to play the piano.
Always a committed member of the synagogue, over the years, he became increasingly active in communal leadership. Twenty years ago he became a member of the council of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation and then adopted his roles in the Chevrah Kadisha, Benevolent Society, and shul choir.
His love of liturgical singing stems from his father who also loved Jewish and Yiddish songs, and would “sing softly”.
Rubin decided to join the Chevrah Kadisha “when I saw what it had done for my mother, father, and daughter” on their passing. In his role, Rubin would respond to calls night and day, going to the homes of the deceased, comforting the mourners, and organising all the logistics of burials. It was only at the age of 80 that he stopped even helping to dig the graves.
Earlier this year, Rubin stepped down as chairperson, although the organisation then elected to appoint him honorary chair for life.
Gidon La Grange, his successor to the position, recounts once being with Rubin when a call came through from a family who had tragically lost a loved one. “He couldn’t speak. For at least three minutes, he just sat. Silent. He took out his hanky, and wiped tears.” They then began discussing the practical arrangements.
“I remember thinking, this is the quality you should have in responding to people’s loss. This compassion is the way he deals with everybody. The whole community loves him because he carries everything close to his heart.”
Rubin stills heads up the shul choir and the Port Elizabeth Jewish Benevolent Society, whose role is to ensure that the basic needs of all members of the community are met. Although the community has shrunk drastically, its needs have increased.
While Rubin laments the diminishing numbers in the community – the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation now has 182 members – he says the community can hold its head up high. “We have a community that we can be proud of – we’ve upheld our yiddishkeit throughout.”
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