Arkansas Menorah in the Baghdad Palace
Soldiers deployed in Iraq celebrate the eighth night of Chanukah 2007
Celebrating Chanukah 2007 in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, who would think? Yet tonight inside a marble encrusted hall in Baghdad, we lit the eighth light of a hand-made, 6-foot tall menorah. We prayed in Hebrew, joyfully sang a medley of Chanukah songs, ate latkes, and best of all, we were Jews together in the land of our earliest forefathers.
The Jewish community at the US Embassy in Baghdad is growing and thriving to such an extent that we now reliably form a minyan. We call ourselves B’nai Baghdad — a diverse group of US and Coalition uniformed service members and civilians stationed in the International Zone (IZ), known colloquially as the “green zone,” an enclave in central Baghdad that houses Iraqi government officials, various embassies, military headquarters, and international aid organizations
The Republican Palace, now the temporary home of the US Embassy, is nestled in a scenic bend of the Tigris River, the view unfortunately hidden behind tall blast barriers. It is the largest of the palaces in the IZ and formerly housed the family of Saddam Hussein. But this year it houses our menorah!
Soon after I arrived in Baghdad this past May, I earned the position of Jewish lay leader — a volunteer authorized to meet the needs when military chaplains are not available. In addition to my military job, with the help of new friends in the congregation, I began organizing services, coordinating with military chaplains, ordering supplies, and managing the community’s storage locker of prayer books, candles, leftover Passover foods, and even a few Purim groggers. This responsibility might seem a burden, but is truly a blessing; it anchors not only my week but my being.
We meet in the multi-purpose chapel which is a large trailer near the Embassy surrounded by concrete blast walls. A sailor and I arrive early each Friday evening to drape tallits over the two podiums in the chapel. We set up Shabbat candles sent by loved ones, and break out bottles of Kedem wine and grape juice. We place a lovely wooden ark, hand-made by a congregant, on the bima.
My favorite part is the blessing over the candles. At home I love welcoming Shabbat on behalf of my husband and children, so it is wonderful to think of them as I perform this mitzvah on behalf of my Baghdad family. The English meditation in the prayer book always moves me: “Almighty God, on the Shabbat day, we seek your blessing and pray for peace of mind and tranquility of spirit in the midst of all our loved ones.” I feel connected to my husband who will light seven hours later in Virginia with our kids, and with my mother who will light about ten hours later in California. I also pull together a parsha overview each week — many thanks to Aish.com for all the help!
Iraqi Jews in Baghdad
It is challenging to be a practicing Jew in the military or the Foreign Service. But those of who have volunteered know that vibrant Jewish life and government service can coexist, albeit with challenges. The biggest problem is in the numbers, for on a remote post or installation it can be difficult to create a community. When I was briefly deployed to Kosovo, I was the only Jew to show up at services each week.
But such challenges pale in comparison to those faced by our Jewish brethren in Iraq. In August of this year, a shy woman began occasionally to attend services, escorted into our secured area by a member of our congregation. She told us that she was one of the eight remaining Jews in Baghdad. Since she did not live in the International Zone, she calmly accepted the mortal risks entailed in joining us as conditions permitted. Even more sobering was her deep appreciation of our fellowship and the few things we could give her — a siddur, a book of psalms, and a Chanukah menorah. In return she shared with us her experiences and pictures of her beautiful synagogue, now mostly empty.
Following services, we all eat together in the dining facility at long tables — for Rosh Hashanah we had 26 people along with a great visiting Army chaplain, Lt. Col. Sachs. It is wonderful to spend time with people who celebrate and support each other, and who have new and different viewpoints to share.
Over the past six months, our numbers have grown from three to over 40, and we can rely on about a dozen each Shabbat. We are a mix of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Foreign Service officers, State Department personnel, and contractors. All are welcome. Some are better educated in Judaism than others. Some are Jewish but new to Judaism. And a few are friends of Jews — Christians who appreciate our services and sense of community.
Which brings us to Colonel Doug House, a Christian with a rich Arkansas accent, who asked if there was anything we needed.
“Yes,” I said. “This is just a dream, but we need a community menorah — a really big electric one to display in the Embassy and represent the Jewish community during the winter holidays.”
To my surprise, Col. House said, “Done! I’ll write Daddy.”
It happens that Col. House’s father, Grover, now retired, is one of the premiere steel fabricators in the United States. His work in steel provides the support for hundreds of structures throughout the country. Grover and his wife Mary Alice have no Jewish connections, but they enthusiastically spent numerous hours and their personal funds to fulfill their son’s request for a Baghdad menorah. After consultation about the structural requirements (eight arms and a shamash), Grover and Mary Alice hand-crafted a beautiful 6-foot-tall brushed aluminum menorah, and shipped it to Col. House in November. It is a work of art and on display in the Palace for all to appreciate.
So tonight, the last night of Chanukah, we sang and partied together near our glowing menorah in one of the palace halls. Chaplain (Rabbi) Shlomo Shulman, visiting tonight from Camp Striker, infused us all with his contagious enthusiasm. Nearby, non-Jews watched with interest and some wandered over to join in. We dined on wonderful kosher foods sent by private citizens, youth groups, congregations and troop support organizations. And we thanked God that we are healthy and unharmed, and our efforts in support of a stable and secure Iraq are bearing fruit.
I’m sure we will never forget Chanukah 2007 in Baghdad; it was a singular experience. But next year, may conditions permit us to enjoy the illumined faces of our families living in peace and security back home.
Elizabeth Robbins, an Army major, deployed in May in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A native of San Diego, she is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Her family resides in Virginia.