Kubbah, an Iraqi Jewish dish for the Sabbath

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Today’s piece was written by Maddee Sommers Kepes, who lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and dubs herself a “writer for all reasons.” Her articles have appeared in business periodicals, and her play, “Mean Girls,” has been seen by thousands of area middle schoolers.

Rimona Lieberman thinks of her grandmother whenever she makes kubbah, a Jewish Iraqi dish traditionally eaten on the Sabbath.

Rimona, who now lives in suburban Detroit, was born in Israel. But her mother’s family came from Iraq, a country they fled from in 1950 after the government instituted anti-Jewish policies.

A thriving community

The 2,700-year history of the Jews in the area now known as Iraq began when ancient Israelites were brought there as slaves by Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors.

By 500 C.E. the region had become a center of Jewish learning and home to the preeminent scholars who produced the Babylonian Talmud. During the Middle Ages the fate of the Jewish community bobbed on uncertain tides of tolerance and tyranny under the rule of a succession of conquerors: Persians, Mongols, Turks.

The British mandate over Iraq after World War I ushered in an era of modern nation building. Jews helped form the new nation’s judicial and postal systems and held government prominent positions. The first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew.

By 1932, when Iraq became an independent state, the “Israelite community” numbered upwards of 120,000, and Jews made up nearly one-third of Baghdad’s population.

It was about this time that Rimona’s maternal grandparents, Margalit and Jacob Abraham, left their family in Tehran and headed to Baghdad. Margalit had learned Hebrew at an early age and long dreamt of living in the Holy Land.

Hopeful that a Zionist organization in Baghdad would help them get to the Jewish homeland in what was then still called Palestine, they made the 430-mile journey through the mountains on foot. They narrowly survived kidnapping and the threat of death by forfeiting all their money and jewelry. They arrived in Baghdad broke and had to put their dream on hold.

One room, six children

They lived in the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad, in a single room with a dirt floor. There they raised their six children. Though poor, Margalit and Jacob both worked and saved for their journey to Palestine. The Jewish Quarter was a hive of communal life with Jewish schools, synagogues, kosher butchers and restaurants. Everyone knew each other. Business came to a halt every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as the entire community celebrated together.

Most Jewish families ate the same meals every week: kichree (lentils and rice) on Thursday, fried fish on Friday, kubbah on Saturday.

Kubbah are farina dough dumplings filled with meat. Rimona cooks them in a sweet and sour sauce made with beets and serves the dish over rice.

Kubbah can be made with fish, but  it was traditionally the once-a-week meat dish in the Iraqi Jewish diet.

The forgotten refugees

Life for Iraqi Jews deteriorated after the pro-Nazi coup of Rashid Ali, which sparked a pogrom in June 1941 during the Feast of Shavuot. Over two days armed mobs attacked Baghdad’s Jews, destroying homes, murdering hundreds and wounding nearly 1,000. Fortunately, Margalit’s family was not harmed.

A few years after the pogrom Jacob died leaving Margalit pregnant with their sixth child and alone to provide for her family.

The drive for a Jewish state triggered other incidents of anti-Jewish rioting. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime. Jews were imprisoned, tortured, dismissed from their jobs and stripped of their property. Some Iraqi Jews were evacuated and the rest fled. Today, fewer than 10 Jews remain in Iraq.

Margalit left Iraq with her six children in 1950 and made her way to Israel. She’s living there today at the age of 103.

She is just one of the 850,000 Jews who were expelled or forced to flee from Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa since 1948. Most of the rest of the world is unaware of their story.

The state of Israel has designated November 30 as an annual, national day of commemoration for these forgotten refugees. Learn more about Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry.

The photo with the recipe is by Sarah Melamed, who writes a blog called Food Bridge: Bridging Cultures through Food.

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