In his third dispatch from the Middle East, Judeo-Arabic American Joseph Braude reports on the travails of the Arabian peninsula's only Jewish community.
Manama, Bahrain — The Jewish community in this micro-kingdom of 35 islands in the Arabian Gulf was never more than a few hundred strong. Now there are 30 left. One is an advisor to the king, a second is in line for an important diplomatic post, and a third runs the largest electronics dealership in the country. Let’s just say that the rest don’t struggle to earn a living. Wealth, however, does not a vibrant community make.
“When our sons go looking for wives,” says community leader Ibrahim Nunu, “they can offer them many things in Bahrain—but a synagogue isn’t one of them.”
For all their affluence, the Jews of Manama lack the most basic feature of Jewish communal life—a functioning house of worship. The absence is unusual among today’s Middle Eastern Jewish communities, and it bespeaks a poverty not just in the life of Bahrain’s Jews but in Bahraini society as a whole.
Over the past few years I’ve dropped in on lantsmen in Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern nations where dwindling Jewish communities face problems that make Bahrain look like Tel Aviv. But from Saddam’s Iraq to revolutionary Iran, there was always a functioning synagogue.
The scene in Isfahan on Rosh Hashanah in 1998 was hopping—thanks to a crew of local carpet merchants devoted to the sanctuary’s upkeep. At a more modest house of worship in the Iranian town of Hamadan, the custodian of a shrine purported to be the burial place of Esther and Mordechai welcomed occasional visitors, passing out prayer books and skullcaps.
In Baghdad, after a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Jewish worshippers in the mid-’90s killing two, Saddam gave firearms to members of the minyan so they could protect themselves from intruders.
During the lootings that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a young Muslim friend of the community stood on the roof of the synagogue in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood and fired shots in the air to warn bandit gangs to keep their distance. Ninety-three-year-old Tawfiq Sofer had camped out in silent vigil inside, on a cot beside the rostrum. “We had God to protect us, and young Muhammad” Sofer told me, patting his devoted gunman friend on the head.
So if these struggling and besieged Jewish communities maintain houses of worship, why can’t the successful and well-connected Jews of Bahrain do so?
I meet Nunu, the Bahraini king’s Jewish advisor, and he tells me about the old synagogue. Built a century or so ago by Iraqi and Iranian immigrants, it was torched in the ’50s by rabble—as were so many Arab Jewish installations in the aftermath of Israel’s 1948 war. A Torah scroll and other valuables were stolen, and most never resurfaced.
“Years later, in the late ’70s,” Nunu says, “someone in town came by the house of a member of our community with a large thing wrapped in cloth. It was the Torah scroll. He said there had been so many deaths, accidents, and misfortunes in his family over the past 20 years that they knew they couldn’t afford to hold onto it any longer.”
The scroll was sent to London for safekeeping in an Iraqi synagogue.
“Why not restore it to its historic place?” I ask. “Rebuild the thing. Start again.”
Nunu sighs. He did, in fact, rebuild the charred house of worship a few years ago on the very spot in old Manama where it used to stand. “But it’s just an empty, locked building now,” he explains. “If we put anything in it, it’ll be stolen again. And look at the graffiti on the wall. It’s a warning of sorts.”
I hail a cab to the part of Manama where the synagogue stands. The driver knows only that there’s “one empty building on that street—my parents always told me there was something scary about it, like ghosts.” When I reach the neighborhood, I find the locals are less spooked. Every person knows precisely where the old synagogue is.
“That’s it, that’s the Jewish synagogue,” says the owner of an Islamic bookshop across the street from the synagogue. “We torched it in the ’50s but Nunu built it again.”
“So it was a Jewish synagogue.”
“Was and still is.”
The building has “Death to Israel and Sharon” spray-painted in Arabic on the front wall. A bumper sticker urging support for the Palestinian Intifada is plastered on the padlocked front door.
Among liberal Bahraini Muslims I’ve visited all week, there’s a shared wish, stridently expressed, that Jews come back to Bahrain and help restore the spirit of pluralism and tolerance that once reigned in the island kingdom. But so long as the thought of a synagogue invokes fear in some Bahraini Muslims and hostility in others, cosmopolitan Bahrain will remain only a fond memory.