Students at Leeds University in England glimpsed life in one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities last weekend through the recollections of Edwin Shuker, an expatriate Iraqi who fled his Arabian homeland as a boy.

More than 75 people attended the Friday evening lecture, which was sponsored by the university town’s Chabad-Lubavitch Student Centre and accompanied its weekly Shabbat dinner and services.

Shuker – who at the age of 12, joined a mass emigration of Jews fleeing through the mountains of Kurdistan and over the border into Turkey – offered two contrasting images in his talk: of an ancient and far-flung community that prior to Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, was upwardly mobile and respected, and of an all-but decimated remnant ravaged by the oppressions of Saddam Hussein and the hazards of war.

Born in 1959 in Baghdad, Shuker lived in a community that numbered more than 200,000 people in the1940’s, but had been reduced to just 10,000 after years of persecution and flight. By 1970, most of those 10,000 were gone. Shuker’s family managed to escape in 1971, and was among the very last Jews to leave until after the fall of Hussein.

He also told of his work on behalf of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a non-governmental organization dedicated to raising international awareness of the “forced exodus” of some 850,000 Jews in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He first returned to his birthplace in 2003 as part of a delegation of 12 refugees who chartered a flight to the newly American-controlled territory.

“His stories were entirely unique,” related Rabbi Michoel Danow, who directs the Student Centre together with his wife, Chana Sara Danow. “His first visit to Iraq was while there was still a lot of bombing, and he had an interesting landing. That was the beginning of many miracle stories from his visits.”

Shuker has since made several trips back to Iraq, visiting the sites of the Jewish school, his family’s synagogue, and his family’s former home. In 2006, he accompanied an American congressman on an official tour, acting as his interpreter and meeting with government officials.

Shuker addresses the Herzilya Conference of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries in February 2009.
Shuker addresses the Herzilya Conference of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries in February 2009.

As the American delegation met with Masoud Barzani, the then newly-elected president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Shuker mentioned that the two had met before, when Barzani had smuggled Shuker and his family to safety. As Shuker tells it, when the two embraced, even the American officials had tears in their eyes.

During that same trip, Shuker was invited to dinner with the Iraqi Prime Minister. He attended, he told the Leeds crowd, but did not eat because the food wasn’t kosher.

“He gave a very powerful example of how you have to be proud of who you are, no matter the circumstances,” said Danow. “The students enjoyed it very much.”

Familiar Territory

In honor of Shuker’s stay, the Danows prepared Iraqi-style Shabbat dishes for the dinner.

“It was very special, because you don’t get much by way of Sephardi things around here,” related David Attias, a second year student from Gibraltar. “It was nice to be in familiar territory.

“I always feel at home with the Danows, but this event was extra special,” Attias added, “because everything from the food to the speaker and the discussion topic, it all related to our experiences as Sephardic Jews.”

For students of Iraqi descent, Shuker’s recollections of life in Baghdad and the story of his escape had a special poignancy.

“My grandfather was Iraqi, so I was very interested to hear about what happened in Baghdad,” said Judith Attar. “He’s an amazing speaker, and the whole event was something I felt very connected to.”