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Iraq's only rabbi the glue that keeps tiny Jewish community together

BAGHDAD—Emad Levy, the last recognized rabbi in Saddam Hussein's police state, became a rabbi almost by default: when the last ordained rabbi fled the country in 1999, Levy was pressed to assume the title because he knew enough Hebrew to lead Baghdad's Jewish community of 35 men and women in prayer.

Now, at 37, Levy is the man who must chart a new course for what is left of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. With Saddam gone, Levy is finding that his world has changed, in ways both big and small, thanks to the American military invasion.

Even hosting an American reporter inside his home, for the first time in his life, is an unexpected freedom.

"I'm free now. If you came before the war, I couldn't open the door. The regime pushed us not to talk to anyone, and I was afraid," he said. He fires up a generator to light up the drawing room, revealing ancient Hebrew writings on the walls of the old, Arab-style house where his mother's extended family of 12 once lived.

But freedom has not meant security. He declines a visit to the synagogue, built in 1952 and untouched in an epic wave of looting, saying it isn't wise. "Now we are afraid because of the condition of the country," he added, a reference to the gunmen who roam Baghdad's streets and fire off blasts into the air, when convoys of U.S. soldiers are out of sight.

As if to underscore their sense of vulnerability in the new post-Saddam era, Levy canceled the annual Passover seder last month—celebrating the Jews' freedom from slavery in Egypt—because of all the violence that came when the Americans arrived in the city. His community has not stepped inside its synagogue or prayed together since before the war began, he said.

Levy, a bachelor by circumstance because there are no eligible Jewish women left in the community, proclaims that Jews are as Iraqi as anybody else. "We have been here since Nebuchadnezzar," who ruled here in the sixth century B.C., he said proudly.

In fact, through the early 1900s, Iraq had a huge, thriving Jewish community—hundreds of thousands of citizens whose ancestors were brought here by King Nebuchadnezzar and served as everything from doctors and lawyers to merchants and teachers from Basra to Baghdad and Mosul.

The establishment of the state of Israel and accompanying rise of Arab nationalism changed all that. Hundreds of thousands streamed out through Iran in the 1950s, mostly to Israel but also to the United States, England and other parts of Europe.

Then in 1970, before Saddam seized power, six Jewish men from Basra were arrested and charged with spying for Israel, Levy recalled. They were brought to Baghdad, tried and hanged, spurring a flight of all but a few hundred in the Jewish community.

The Levys stayed behind, apparently out of a sense of duty. His father, Ezra, now 82, was the community's accountant for years, and they lived here as a family until his mother died in 1991 of complications from diabetes and his brother left for Amsterdam.

Levy, a car salesman by trade, has taken on chore after chore to serve the local elderly Jewish men and women.

Not only is he the prayer leader, he is also the community's shochet, or ritual slaughterer, using ceremonial knives to butcher sheep for his community's kosher meat.

He also for years buried their dead with the Jewish traditions—then updated the Baath Party officials who, he said, allowed them to pray together anytime, especially on holidays, but tracked the Jews as a special category in the Iraqi census.

And when visiting delegations or journalists would inquire about the once-fabled Jews of Iraq, he would open Baghdad's last synagogue specially to squire them around, curator-style—while an Iraqi official was listening, because ordinary Iraqis were not allowed to speak alone to outsiders.

He looks like any other Baghdadi, only donning a skullcap inside his home for a photograph, and sporting the sort of mustache and trousers that are fashionable with all sorts of Iraqis. An introduction last week came at the urging of a Muslim Iraqi chemist who thought an American reporter might be interested in talking to a "Jewish priest," because, although fluent in English, he had never learned the word "rabbi."

Still unsettled by the post-regime violence, Levy is cautious in making plans but says he hopes the city will stabilize enough to allow his community to gather for the next big Jewish festival, Shavout, in about six weeks.

He expects telephone service will be restored soon enough to speak with extended family now scattered around the world, from Amsterdam to Israel and from England to the United States, including a cousin who lives in Miami.

Does he have a message for the cousin, Eli, whose father left Baghdad 52 years ago and who now works as a psychologist?

"Tell him we are all right," Levy said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+RABBI