Jewish heartbreak and hope in Nineveh, By Carlos C. Huerta
'Climbing over the rotting garbage, I realized I was the first Jew to
enter this holy place in over 50 years'
I am writing to you from Nineveh, the city of the prophet Jonah. Its
present name is Mosul. I have had the privilege of seeing its ancient
walls, of touching its stones, of going to the grave Islamic
tradition says is the prophet Jonah's.
There is a mosque at the site; but hundreds of years ago, the Iraqis
we work with tell me, it was a synagogue. They tell me the reason the
site is so sacred is because of the sacredness in which the Jews held
it. Presently, there are no signs of this ancient synagogue.
I am the rabbi of the 101st Airborne Division, the division Steven
Spielberg immortalized in his epic Band of Brothers. We, the soldiers
of the 101st Airborne, fought our way up from the south, from Kuwait.
The battle took us past Ur, the city where Abraham was born. We
maintained contact with the enemy, passed the site of the great
talmudic academies of Sura and Pumpaditya, to the city of Babylon,
where the prophet Daniel was taken.
There we engaged the Nebuchadnezzar Iraqi Armored Division and beat
them. We continued the battle to Baghdad, where so many Jews lived
and were massacred in the summer of 1948. It was the city of so many
of our sages, including the Ben Ish Chai.
Now we are in Mosul. I ask about the Jews who lived here, and very
few remember them. Many say Jews never lived here; but my heart tells
me different. The old ones tell me there was a Jewish quarter, a
synagogue, study halls, and a cemetery.
One day, while searching the streets of the ancient city, I came
across a building missing half of its roof. The site was a garbage
dump and the building's interior was three-quarters full of rotting
garbage, feces and sewage. I had to crouch down low to get inside as
the doorway was almost completely buried.
As I entered light came through the half-open roof and I could just
make out writing engraved on the walls. It was Hebrew. It was then
that I knew I had stumbled into the ancient synagogue of the city of
Mosul-Nineveh. My heart broke as I climbed over the garbage piles
that filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers of
Jews had reached the heavens. I realized I was probably the first Jew
to enter this holy place in over 50 years.
Over three-and-a half meters of garbage filled the main sanctuary and
what appeared to be the women's section. I could barely make it out
because of the filth, but there was Hebrew writing on the walls.
Many Iraqis congregated around me, wanting to know what I was doing.
My translator said that the American army was interested in old
archeological sites of all kinds. I asked them if they knew what this
place was, and they all said in an instant: It was the house where
the Jews prayed.
THEY TOLD me that the houses in the streets surrounding the synagogue
had been filled with Jews. They took me to the children's yeshiva, a
marbled edifice that no longer had a roof, only walls and half-rooms.
There was a vagrant family living there and when I asked them what
this place was, they said it was a Jewish school for children.
As I walked through the quarter I was shown the grave of the prophet
Daniel, once a synagogue. I saw that many of the doorposts had an
engraving of the lion of Judah on the top.
I felt the presence of our people, of their daily lives as merchants,
teachers, rabbis, doctors, and tailors. I felt their rush to get
ready for Shabbat, felt their presence as they walked to the
synagogue on Yom Kippur. I could almost hear singing in the
courtyards, in the succot, as they invited in the ushpizin. I could
hear the Pessah songs echoing through the narrow streets late into
And the children, I could see their shadows as they raced down the
alleys and around the corners, playing. I heard their voices learning
the aleph beth in the yeshivot as they prepared for their bar and bat
But I also heard the babies crying, and I could see the young
daughters of Zion clinging to their mother's skirts, asking why the
bad people were killing them and making them leave their homes of
thousands of years.
Tears came to my eyes, but I had to hold them back lest I put myself
and the soldier with me in a dangerous situation. I had to pretend
that I was only mildly interested in what they were showing me.
How does one absorb this kind of experience? How do I convey the
feeling of hearing all those voices reaching out in prayer at the
synagogue as I stood on top of all that garbage? How do I recover our
history, how do I bring honor to a holy place that has been so
I have no answers. I only have great sadness, pain, and loneliness.
Since then I have gone back to the Jewish quarter of old Mosul with
members of my congregation, Jewish soldiers of the 101st:
infantrymen, artillerymen, medics, pilots, lawyers, doctors, all
proud to be Jewish and serving their country. Together we have found
five more synagogues, more yeshivot and many Jewish homes. They have
all come away profoundly affected by what they saw. They are
saddened, but yet proud to be connected to such an ancient and rich
tradition in this historic city of Nineveh.
I SEARCHED the ancient city near cemeteries in hope of finding the
Jewish cemetery. I found a Christian cemetery and a British War
cemetery situated next to each other. The British War cemetery is now
used as a soccer field. The cemetery was marked as a war memorial
cemetery and the dates were for World War I and World War II.
There was a marker in the cemetery written in English and Sanskrit,
dedicated to the Hindu and Sikh soldiers of Her Majesty's army who
died while serving. Another one, written in English and Arabic, was
dedicated to the Muhammadan soldiers in Her Majesty's army who died
while serving, and a third marker had nothing on it. These markers
were over seven meters high.
The third marker could have had a dedication, but if so it had been
destroyed or removed. Scattered all through the cemetery were
fragments of tombstones, some with a few words of English, some with
a cross on them. Outside these three markers there were no standing
tombstones anywhere, only broken fragments scattered in corners. The
cemetery was surrounded by a 1.5-meter wall and an entrance gate.
About half a meter inside the cemetery, barely showing through the
surface, was a fragment my assistant, Specialist William Rodriguez,
discovered. By working with me over these last few months he has
learned to recognize Hebrew letters. As we dug it out we noticed it
had both Hebrew and English on it .
I was so excited to see it, yet so sad. There are many possible
explanations, but the one I think most plausible is that it was the
grave marker of a British soldier, a young man by the name of Zev.
The British Army had contacted the local Jewish community to have a
stone engraver put Hebrew on the stone along with the English. It was
their way of honoring and respecting their fallen comrade.
If this explanation is true then this cemetery contains those of the
Hindu, Sikh, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faiths, all soldiers who
died in the service of their country. The obvious question: Is death
the only way these great faiths can coexist in peace? We would hope
I have not yet discovered the ancient Jewish cemetery of the Jews of
Mosul-Nineveh. My instincts tell me it is nearby, but in the last 60
years it has probably been desecrated and obliterated. One native I
talked to told me that a major highway had been built through it.
I will continue to search as my military mission allows me. I have
taken Zev's marker and reburied it in the cemetery. I have said
kaddish for him and for all the other Jewish souls that may be buried
THERE IS a great history to be written here, a great opportunity to
recover the lost narrative of our people, the Sephardim of Iraq. My
prayer and hope is that when the gates finally open for scholars the
remnants of our people will still be here for historians to recover.
I have taken many pictures in case those who have no vision destroy
the few remnants that remain. I hope there are yet some Jews from
this important and holy community still alive in Israel. If so they
will be able to add to the oral history of what will, God willing, be
If this chapter of history is erased, it will never be recovered
again. I pray that those with more resources, more connections, and
more wisdom than I will be able to add to these pages of our great
history. I am only thankful that God has given me a small part in it.
May the memories of our brothers and sisters - hakahal hakadosh
d'Nineveh - the holy community of Nineveh - never be forgotten.
The writer, a major, is United States Army Battalion Chaplain (rabbi)
1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery 101st Airborne Division