From Our Beginning to Present Day
Book Review by Jay Levinson
Author: Nancy Elly Khedouri
Manama, Bahrain, 2007; ISBN 978-99901-26-04-4
As the years pass, the Jewish community of Bahrain has dwindled from several hundred to a mere thirty-six. The synagogue no longer functions. There are no community services per se. Only fading memories remain.
The Kingdom of Bahrain, comprising only 620 square kilometers and fewer than 700,000 residents, is in the midst of change. It is undergoing transformation from a mercantile society based upon regional manufacture and local businesses protected by prejudicial licenses to international trade led by oil and off-shore banking.
Nancy Khedouri, one of the few Jews remaining in the country, has made a concerted effort to capture the stories and recollections of Bahraini Jews so that all is not forgotten as Bahrain is being thrust into a new economy and life style. Her book is not an academic accounting of history gleamed from archives. It is her personal search for her roots. It is oral history. It is the summation of interviewing families in Bahrain and abroad, and culling photographs from their personal collections with the aim of capturing as much as possible of the once-flourishing Jewish Community.
Although some Jews settled in Bahrain as early as the 1880s, most arrived in the 1920s from Iran and Iraq. They endeavored to make their modest fortunes by serving as a commercial link between their new country and what had been home. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the Persian Gulf country was a British protectorate, until full independence was achieved in 1971.
Naji Haron Cohen, born in Iraq and now deceased, is a typical example of a Jew living in Bahrain. He came to the country from Basra in the early 1920s, then established a trading business with his native Iraq. Following a pattern common in many countries, the business expanded into other areas from the textile trade and moved into to Finance & Exchange.
Although Haron's daughters all married within the Jewish Community, their Jewish education was lacking, apart from the very basic Jewish instruction given to them by their parents about the sanctity of the High Holidays and the importance of lighting Shabbath candles. Even in its heyday, the Jewish Community did not maintain a school. Education was either secular or in missionary schools.
As Khedouri relates, during Israel's War of Independence the synagogue on Sa'sa'ah Street in Manama, the country's capital, was desecrated and the sifrei torah stolen. (They were returned in 1985 and are now in the Genaiden Synagogue in London's Stamford Hill.) Many of the Jews fled Bahrain, and yet others emigrated after the Six Day War. Today all that is left are 36 Jews, a cemetery, and memories of the past.
One wonders why Jews remain in Bahrain, other than trepidation to make a drastic change in life style, which for many would be at an advanced age. Although, as is noted in the book, the Bahraini government is absolutely tolerant of Jews and does not accept any discrimination, there is no real future. Jewish education does not exist. There is no real community --- just 36 people remaining from a common historical background. For the few younger people there is no real change to marry another Bahraini Jew and establish a Jewish home. Even if a local Jew would find a Jewish spouse abroad, it is doubtful that the couple could raise a family in Bahrain.
Even if a local Jew would find a Jewish spouse abroad, it is doubtful that the newly wed couple could raise a family in Bahrain, if only due to the reluctance of the spouse to settle in the country and leave his lifestyle of interaction within a larger Jewish community. It would mean moving to a country that does not have a synagogue or Jewish education for children.
This book was published in Bahrain. The author, who considers herself a "Jewish Arab," proudly points to the religious freedom that is exercised in her country. Her glimpses into the lives of the Jewish families from Bahrain clearly show that Jews became important citizens, even after independence from Britain in 1971. But, as interesting as the book is, and as comfortable life is in Bahrain, these are glimpses into the history of a community without any future of growth
The book is privately printed. It is available from Divrei Kodesh, 13 Edgwarebury Lane, Middlesex HA8 8LH, England. Telephone: +44 20 8958 1133. Sales@DivreiKodesh.co.uk
from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine