Thumbing through the pages
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Thumbing through the pages

A book's character comes alive...

It is not often that one gets to meet the characters in a beloved story, but on Dec. 17, hundreds of Bergen County readers will have that opportunity.

Cantor Shlomo Bar-Nissim – who not only appears in Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s Paradise,” but whose stories and memories are reflected throughout its pages – will visit Temple Avodat Shalom to share stories about his early experiences in Iraq and Jerusalem.

“My Father’s Paradise” tells the story of Sabar’s father, Yona, who emigrated with his family from the Kurdish region of Iraq in the late 1940s, during the waning years of Jewish life in that region. Now cantor emeritus of Temple Beth-El in Closter, Bar-Nissim, a resident of Demarest, was a longtime friend of Yona Sabar.

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Cantor Shlomo Bar-Nissim

The December program is part of the One Book, One Community project, launched by the Synagogue Leadership Initiative (SLI) of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. As part of this project, synagogue groups throughout the area have been reading the Sabar book.

Nickie Falk, program coordinator, noted that SLI asked participating congregations – and other communal organizations, such as Ys, Jewish Educational Services, and UJA’s Women’s Philanthropy – to offer programs between September 2011 and March 2012 on any aspect of the book they chose.

“It’s going great,” said Falk, noting that not only has the response to this year’s program been extremely positive but that people are already signing up to be on the planning committee that will choose next year’s book.

Bar-Nissim said that after emigrating to Israel, a group of Iraqi Jews banded together – both in the ma’abara, or transit camp, and later in a Jerusalem apartment – determined to get both jobs and an education. From this group, which included both himself and Sabar, several later came to the United States.

“Ariel Sabar came to my house to interview me and I told him some stories about that period, which he included in his book,” said Bar-Nissim, reflecting on life in Jerusalem in the 1950s.

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“I was excited to read it. I was in the hospital when it came out, and someone from Chicago called my brother and told him about it. I called my wife and told her to go and get the book before she came to see me.”

On returning home, he found in his mailbox a copy of the book with a special inscription expressing the author’s gratitude.

Recalling his life in the ma’abara, Bar-Nissim said conditions there were “very difficult.” His life improved somewhat when, through his brother’s connections, the family was able to get a house in an area from which the Arab residents had fled.

“There were a few empty houses, 20 feet from the border between Jordan and Israel, surrounded by barbed wire,” he said. He remained there for some four years, then moved to the center of Jerusalem, joining a group of young men eager to obtain an education.

“We had to work in the daytime and go to school in the evening,” he said, noting that he worked as a messenger for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sabar, he said, worked for the Kupat Cholim, or health department.

“We lived together in Jerusalem when we worked,” he said, adding that all those in his group of friends went on to carve out successful careers.

“They made it to a very high level,” he said. “It was a miracle. Thank God we weren’t treated like the Arab refugees, who were used as pawns for political gain. We lived in a democracy and we used it well.”

The cantor, who studied at Jerusalem’s Academy of Music, came to the United States in 1964.

“I discovered Reform Judaism,” he said, and enrolled in Hebrew Union College, graduating in 1972. “Then I came to Closter for 27 years.”

Bar-Nissim said Sephardic Jews had a hard time in the early years of the Jewish State. “It was probably easier for European immigrants who spoke Yiddish,” he said, noting that he personally was the brunt of some negative comments while working at the ministry.

Iraqi youth had an even harder time, he said. “Most of the Iraqi youth leaned toward the Communist party since in Iraq they had [suffered] discrimination and saw the party as a redeemer. They came [to Israel] with radical ideas.”

The cantor noted that individuals who did not belong to the biggest party, then called the Ben Gurion party, had difficulty getting jobs.

Bar-Nissim, who has spoken often about the history of Iraqi Jews and their emigration to Israel, said there are no Jews remaining in Iraq.

“They vanished into the Jewish diaspora,” he said, pointing out that during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah, the country had been the center of Jewish life, “equivalent to the American Jewish community. To ask a she’elah, question, about halachah, you referred it to Iraq,” he said. “It’s where the Babylonian Talmud grew up.”

Rabbis and cantors who were trained in Iraq went all over the world, he said, setting up communities in Bombay, Rangoon, Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

“The Sassoons were called the Rothschilds of Eastern Jewry,” he said.

Bar-Nissim pointed out that while the Sabar family hailed from Zakho, he was born in Basra, “an Arab Jew.” All his brothers were active in the underground Zionist movement.

“After a 1941 pogrom in Baghdad, the Jewish Agency sent sh’lichim [emissaries] to help organize the underground, [providing] weapons so that in case something happened, the Jews could defend themselves,” he said.

“My house was a center of Zionist activity. After the establishment of Israel, people wanted to go, but the only way was to smuggle them through Iran. Our house was like an inn,” he remembered. “People would stay, then be smuggled out.”

He himself left for Israel in December 1949 – age 11, and on his own.

“I spent two weeks walking through the desert at night, then by car, canoe, and a train for 36 hours to Teheran, where I got phony papers saying I was the child of an Iranian couple.”

He remembers a “background of bullets,” as the police tried to catch smugglers. He also remembers coyotes and wolves. “After two weeks I came to Lod,” he said. “I kneeled and kissed the ground.”

The cantor recalls that in May 1948, he sat with other Jews in an Iraqi basement listening to David Ben Gurion announce the creation of the State of Israel.

“Few understood Hebrew, but we were all crying,” he said. “Later, when I learned Hebrew and listened to the speech again, it hit me again.”

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