Photo of synagogue in Fez courtesy Inter-American Institute.
B’nai B’rith’s History in Arab Lands: 1940s to 1970s
By Dara Kahn
The mid-20th century was a tumultuous time for Jews in North Africa and the Middle East. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and ongoing wars of independence from British and French colonial rule, the situation in the area was quickly changing, mostly to Jews’ detriment. Many left for Israel, Western Europe or the United States.
Extracted from B’nai B’rith’s archives, the following are but brief highlights of the organization’s extensive role in helping Jews in three of these countries.
AlgeriaFor nearly 2,000 years, a sizable Jewish community lived peacefully in the North African country—until the brutal uprising against French rule, stretching from 1954 to 1962.
In 1961, the B’nai B’rith International Council prepared a background study on the Algerian Jewish community, at the time 130,000 strong. The council asserted: “To Algerian Jewry, guarantees of minority rights for Europeans is a crucial matter. Equally so, at the moment, a definition of their own status: Is the Algerian Jew European or Algerian?”
Though both French and Algerian leaders assured Jews that their rights would be protected, Arab nationalism and hostility often turned to violence, leaving the longevity and safety of the Jewish community in question.
On May 9, 1962, French Ambassador to the United States Herve Alphand addressed the B’nai B’rith International Council at a diplomatic dinner at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., reaffirming that “all through the negotiations in Evian with [Algeria’s National Liberation Front], it was the French government’s concern to protect the fate of the Jewish population of Algeria,” according to the Washington Evening Star. He also noted that since the French issued a decree in 1870 granting French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria, they would also have automatic immigration rights to France.
But as Algerian independence loomed and Jews’ rights slowly disintegrated, they began to leave by the thousands, most immigrating to France, others to Israel and North America. Today, fewer than 100 Jews remain.
EgyptBy the early 1900s, B’nai B’rith had established two lodges in Egypt—District Grand Lodge Egypt and Lodge Port Said—as part of District No. 16. By 1948, about 100,000 Jews, mostly stateless residents, lived in Egypt.
In 1956, after Israel, France and the United Kingdom invaded Egypt over ownership of the Suez Canal, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser authorized the confiscation of Jewish property and the incarceration of innocent Jews. Egypt also deported nearly 25,000 Jews with little notice, breaking apart families and allowing them to bring only one suitcase and $56.
In response, B’nai B’rith participated in an emergency conference of major Jewish groups in New York, where they asked President Eisenhower to express shock to the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt to express the United States’ shock at these atrocities. Simultaneously, B’nai B’rith urged its lodges to join with other groups in local protest meetings.
IraqPrior to Iraq’s independence from Great Britain in 1932, the country’s Jewish population was prosperous. Though Iraq’s declaration of independence pledged full equality and cultural autonomy to all citizens and minority groups, the promise was short-lived.
A “Memorandum on the Situation of the Jews in Iraq,” signed and presented to the U.S. State Department on Nov. 3, 1949 by B’nai B’rith and six other major American Jewish organizations, stated: “From the day of its independence, Iraq has followed a militant anti-Jewish policy. Under a swift succession of Iraqi governments, anti-Jewish discrimination spread to government service, education, and economic fields. Anti-Jewish propaganda was indulged in by the Government.” Jews were arrested and killed, their businesses were looted, hundreds of Jewish homes were destroyed and other properties were confiscated. Their emigration rights were also severely restricted.
Evoking anti-Semitic stereotyping similar to what Jews in many countries face today, the memorandum asserted that, “All Jews of Iraq, of whatever political creed, fall under the shadow; a so-called ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign is used as camouflage for the persecution of an entire ethnic and religious minority in violation of the United Nations Charter and common human rights.”
Two decades later, in January 1969, B’nai B’rith President Dr. William A. Wexler wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations urging “consideration and action” to look into “the condition of Jews in Iraq,” following the execution of 14 Iraqis, nine of whom were Jewish, on charges of espionage. B’nai B’rith held a memorial service for those Jews in Washington, D.C., and sent letters to the Pope, U.S. President, Secretary of State, congressmen and others thanking them for condemning the hangings.
As of 2008, fewer than 10 Iraqi Jews remained in the country.
Hearing the Great American Songbook’s Jewish Roots
The Great American Songbook is steeped in Jewish liturgical tunes and songs from Yiddish theater, music that was an integral part of the lives of many Jewish songwriters and composers in the early 20th century. Click below to hear some of this music.
Di grine kuzine (The Greenhorn Cousin) Click here to listenBy Abe Schwartz
This theatrical song from 1921, written by Abe Schwartz, was a major boost to his career and helped him gain access to some of New York’s major Yiddish theaters.
The piece reflects many immigrants’ feelings of disillusionment about their lives in the “promised land” of America. Other such “disillusionment” songs of the era became folksongs, some lighthearted, some not so much. These songs all spoke of the unexpected economic hardships and difficult, sweatshop conditions they found where they had heard that the streets were paved with gold.
This piece also initiated a genre of songs about “greenhorns”—a reference to newly arrived, un-Americanized immigrants.
Courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Experience. For more information visit http://www.milkenarchive.org/works/view/582
Sheyyibbaneh beit hammikdash (Song for When the Temple is Rebuilt)Click here to listenBy Israel Schorr
This prayer’s structure is one example of the type of Jewish liturgy that many argue has seeped into the American Songbook.
“Sheyyibane beit hammikdash
” is Israel Schorr’s best-known composition, one that expresses hope that the messiah will come, that the ancient Temple will be rebuilt and the Jewish people’s spiritual and sovereignty in its biblical homeland will be restored.
Schorr (1886-1935), born in what is now Poland, began his cantorial career as a child soprano to the Hasidic courts of two rabbis. In 1904, he became the official cantor for the rebbe in Rymanover, succeeding his relative Boruch Schorr. After serving in the Imperial army during World War I, he had cantorial pulpits in Brunn, Krakow, Piestany, west Slovakia and Zurich. When he immigrated to the United States in 1924, he was cantor at synagogues in Chicago and New York, during which time he began to compose his own pieces. Many of these became well known and were expanded by other virtuoso cantors to concert versions and recordings. In this case, Schorr’s composition became famous through performances and recordings by Moshe Koussevitzky (1899–1966), a renowned chazzan first in Poland, then New York.
For more information visit The Milken Archive
Small-Town Charm: An Ingredient for Successful Seders
By Dara Kahn
“Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish/ You're never alone when you say you're a Jew/ So when you're not home and you're somewhere kind of 'newish'/ The odds are--don't look far, 'cause they're Jewish, too.”—song lyrics by Rabbi Larry Milder, of Westborough, Mass.
While Milder’s verse may be something of an overstatement, it is true that in most corners of small-town America, any Jew can find a welcome mat for a Passover Seder. Of course, obtaining the necessary ingredients for the Seder table can be a challenge. While local groceries may carry basics such as matzah and gefilte fish, many of these communities compile a list of other items to order for Passover. Sometimes, it takes a drive to the nearest large city to buy what’s needed. Or Passover products are shipped in from across the country or from Israel.
Rabbi Gordon Fuller of Congregation Agudath Jacob in Waco, Texas, has convinced local grocery chain H-E-B to carry certain kosher-for-Passover products and some kosher meat. For everything else, the rabbi and community members drive two hours to Austin or Dallas. Since 2004, he has kashered the synagogue’s kitchen in preparation for the community Seder that draws about 60 participants. His wife, Sharon, and volunteers cook the food.
“There’s a lot of respect for religion [here]. It’s not unusual to see people hold hands and pray in a public restaurant. I hadn’t seen it anywhere else,” said Fuller, who is originally from Detroit and lived in Dallas for many years. “While I never would have imagined myself in a place like Waco, [my wife and I] really like it here. There’s something nice about being in a smaller community.”
Many of these communities contain the only Jewish presence for miles. In Pocatello, home to Idaho State University, non-denominational Temple Emanuel is the lone Jewish institution in the eastern part of the state. There are maybe 100 Jews in the area, and only 15 to 20 regularly attend synagogue. “[But] during Passover when we have our community Seder, it’s a full house at the synagogue,” said Debra Shein, who leads the service.
The Pocatello community always holds its Seder on the Saturday that falls during Passover, the most convenient time, especially for those from outlying areas. For nearly 15 years, it has been catered, with salmon pate substituting for gefilte fish.
In Woodstock, Vt., only 40 of the town’s 3,000 residents are Jewish, though the synagogue’s mailing roster includes 400 people from all over central Vermont.
“I’ve lived in Woodstock most of my life, and when I first moved here you could not have put a minyan together. That’s how much things have changed…it’s pretty amazing,” said Jeff Kahn, the current president of Congregation Shir Shalom, the only reform temple in central Vermont. Because everything is volunteer-run and funded by donations, members do not pay dues. In the late 1990s, the community bought a farmhouse built around 1850. They tore it down and in its place built a sanctuary mimicking the original barn, where they now hold the annual community Seder.
“It’s always been a really wonderful experience. People love to have home Seders but this one feels like home,” Kahn said. The potluck banquet table stretches down a long hallway that connects the sanctuary and a farmhouse, where the religious school meets.
“Potluck is kind of our way of doing things in general. Sharing the [Passover] story with the community is such an important part of the fabric of being Jewish—doing the whole Seder, reading about the passage of our people to their home and the whole message it brings. [Our community Seder] feels like a much bigger home celebration,” Kahn said. In some cases, congregants drive 30 minutes to an hour or more for Passover and other services.
In all of these places, dedicated volunteers keep the Seders going. As Fuller said, “Because we’re so small we depend on each other to have that community.”