By Tien-Shun Lee
Like many Iraqi Jews who fled Iraq after the Ba'ath party came to power in 1968, Maurice Shohet, 54, remembers a comfortable life in Baghdad that turned sour when the government began banning Jews from jobs and universities, freezing Jewish bank accounts and arresting Jews for no reason.
Now the president of the Congregation Bene Naharayim, the only Iraqi-Jewish synagogue in the city at 85-34 Midland Parkway in Jamaica Estates, Shohet recalls congregating with other Jews on the bank of the Tigris River during the summer of 1970. Between early morning swims, the Iraqi Jews talked about how family after family of Jews had escaped the country, many through an exit route operated by Kurdish smugglers.
“All of a sudden someone would disappear and everyone else knew he had left Iraq,” Shohet wrote in a two-page memoir. “The number of my friends decreased from day to day. It became too much to bear.”
A 21-year-old at the time, Shohet had been barred from attending university and laid off from his job at a transportation firm after Jews were banned from working for most companies. After spending some time looking for another job, he began working as a life insurance agent.
As the government stepped up arrests of Jews, cut off access to their bank accounts, prevented them from selling their homes and conducted public hangings of about 20 Jews, fear engulfed the Jewish community in Iraq. They had previously existed comfortably among the country's upper class, operating their own schools and hospitals.
In September 1970, Shohet left Baghdad with his parents, two brothers and uncle's family. Traveling by car, jeep and bus, he and his family headed for the town of Shaqlawa in the northern Kurdish district of Iraq. Upon reaching the border of Iran and Iraq, Shohet's party of 13 was instructed to cross the mountainous border territory by foot at night.
“At night you don't know which way to go, and with mud and water you fall down,” Shohet recalled.
From Iran, Shohet traveled with his family to Israel, where he lived for 10 1/2 years before immigrating to the United States, where he settled in Great Neck, working as a computer systems manager for many years.
In 1985, Shohet helped establish the Congregation Bene Naharayim in a converted ranch house, becoming the first secretary of the synagogue, which now serves about 300 active members, all of whom are Iraqi or of Iraqi descent.
“There was a need for services according to the Iraqi tradition and culture,” Shohet said. “The Iraqis have their own pronunciation of the Hebrew letters that is similar to the way the Jews have been praying in Iraq for 2,500 years. Their pronunciation is a little different.”
Shohet estimated that there are about 15,000 Iraqi Jews in the United States, 10,000 of whom live in the tri-state area.
According to www.us-israel.org, in 2000 there were some 100 Jews in Iraq. Today there are only 37 Jews and one synagogue remaining in that country, Shohet said. About 124,000 Iraqi Jews left the country after the establishment of Israel in 1948, and most of the remaining 12,000 Jews escaped like Shohet after the Six-Day War in 1967.
There are about 60,000 Iraqis of many faiths in the United States, many of whom live in the Detroit area, Shohet said. Within the city, Iraqis are scattered throughout the five boroughs, he said. No Iraqi neighborhoods or social clubs exist.
After Saturday's morning service at the Congregation Bene Naharayim, about 30 Iraqi Jews talked over a lunch of smoked fish, potatoes and boiled eggs, with their conversation turning frequently to the war and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“They should hang him from the tallest tree with his head down,” said Yitzhak Dori of Fresh Meadows, referring to Hussein. Dori spent his childhood in Israel after leaving Iraq as an infant in 1950 with his parents. His father was a well-known tailor in Baghdad.
Hussein “was a terrorist and the worst dictator ever. He uses 9- and 10-year-olds to fight,” Dori added.
“You hear about [the Iraqi regime's] brutality today, but the Jews are not shocked that they could be so inhuman,” said Dori's wife, Judith Dori.
A 62-year-old congregation member from Forest Hills who left Iraq for Israel when she was 9 said the severely oppressed Iraqi people are hoping for things to move faster so that change will occur quickly.
“Somebody was in a coffee shop in Baghdad and they were saying 'Bring America in faster,'” she said.
The congregation's vice president, David Shohet, who is not related to Maurice Shohet, said many young people who have lived all of their lives under Saddam Hussein's regime have never known basic freedoms such as the freedom to talk on the phone.
“He enjoyed seeing people suffer,” he said. “We want the war to be over as quickly as possible, and we hope that there will be a good government elected by the people.”
Several congregation members who reminisced about their life in Iraq said they would like to return to the country to visit after the war is over and things have calmed down.
“After all, it is my country of birth,” Maurice Shohet said. “All my personality and culture were built and molded there.”
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.