Mem­o­ries of Eden: A Jour­ney Through Jew­ish Baghdad

Vio­lette Shamash; Mira and Tony Roca, eds.
  • Review
By – September 7, 2011

For thou­sands of years Jews flour­ished in Iraq, liv­ing in rel­a­tive peace and har­mo­ny with their neigh­bors. In Mem­o­ries of Eden, Vio­lette Shamash (1912 – 2006) recalls the home she regard­ed as a par­adise. The book is com­posed of a series of heart­warm­ing writ­ings dis­patched to and lat­er edit­ed by her daugh­ter Mira and her son-in-law, the jour­nal­ist Tony Roca (who, in an after­word, pro­vides an his­tor­i­cal con­text). Shamash describes her school days, her rites of pas­sage and the cel­e­bra­tion of the Jew­ish hol­i­days. She remem­bers their food, the com­merce and street life of the city, and the pleas­ant rela­tion­ships they enjoyed with the Moslems. 

Sad­ly, the con­di­tions which Shamash con­sid­ered so idyl­lic were not to pre­vail, and the lat­ter por­tion of the book describes the clash between cul­tures that reached its zenith in the Farhud” of 1941. At first, as ten­sions between Moslems and Jews mount­ed, Shamash felt lit­tle pres­sure, view­ing such things as the don­ning of the abaaya as lit­tle more than an incon­ve­nience. Then as heck­ling, cur­fews, and vio­lence made life unbear­able for Jews, she and her fam­i­ly fled — first to India, then to Pales­tine, and final­ly to Eng­land. They became one more fam­i­ly among the one mil­lion for­got­ten refugees” of Arab coun­tries. This emi­nent­ly read­able fam­i­ly his­to­ry por­trays how Jews and Moslems can live togeth­er and the dynam­ic that tears them apart.

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

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