Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage

When an unexploded U.S. bomb in Baghdad caused a flood in the intelligence headquarters of Saddam Hussein, army troops discovered a treasure trove of tens of thousands of ancient objects and manuscripts, historic photos, books, and documents telling the story of Iraq’s once thriving Jewish community. I originally heard about this story in this piece from WBUR’s Here and Now, in December 2013, which includes an interview of two childhood friends who were among the last Iraqi Jews finally allowed to flee Iraq in the 1970s.

Books Drying From the Flood

Books Drying From the Flood

More good news is that we now have access to this collection that is still undergoing preservation efforts this year. The Iraqi Jewish Archive currently provides visual access to many of these items, stating that the entire collection will be available to access in June 2014.

To search the collection, first enter your general search terms, in this case “torah.” On the subsequent page, you may filter results along the left side by Record Type, Language, Dates, and Subject Matter. Keep in mind a search for “torah” brings back results about synagogue leases, Arabic prayerbooks, and other types of material that mention “torah.”

'Torah' Search Screenshot

‘Torah’ Search Results and Filter Options


Enjoy looking through this material as I have been… the items, stolen and confiscated from Iraqi Jews, are slated to be returned to the Iraqi government after the loan period is up. Jewish and other organizations around the world, however, have been fighting to have the artifacts protected within the United States or returned to their previous owners. There is currently a push in Congress to format a new plan for the fate of these Jewish treasures.


Dead Sea Scrolls in Boston

The library’s recent trip to view the Dead Sea Scrolls at Boston’s Museum of Science was a great success! We had more than 40 community members come together to explore our heritage and history, looking at artifacts ranging from 408 BCE to 318 CE. The low humidity and low light in caves in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, helped preserve these works of psalms, manuscripts, and biblical text for us to view thousands of years later.

The exhibit provided the original documents, with a blown-up copy to view more closely, along with a translation and contextual explanation. I highly recommend visiting– some of the items have never before come to North America!

Congregation members viewing artifacts

Congregation members viewing artifacts

To continue our Jewish heritage exploration, we then stopped over in Brookline to eat and shop at Jewish establishments along Harvard Street. Many of us visited Zaftigs Delicatessen, the Israel Book Shop, and Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery, where we browsed for treasures and looked for inspiration. It was amazing to walk down a street with my son, seeing Hebrew on each awning, Stars of David in each window, and religious men straightening up after kids on the school playground.

African Burying Ground

I recently attended a gathering at Temple Israel, where African American and Jewish community leaders spoke, celebrating the fundraising project that will support the Portsmouth African Burying Ground. The Chestnut Street memorial park will honor the 200 unnamed African slaves buried on that site, whose remains were discovered in 2003.

Akan Sankofa

Akan Sankofa

African American speakers included Rev. Lauren Smith, who spoke about the projects logo, the sankofa of Akan origin, a people of Ghana. She described the origin of this symbol as a bird reaching to retrieve an egg from its back, representing the phrase, “it is not wrong to go back for which you have forgotten.” This phrase, she explained, exemplifies the burying ground project. She says the people of Portsmouth and New Hampshire have embraced this discovery of people long forgotten. Governor Hassan signed a bill posthumously freeing of the former slaves, a gesture that represents New Hampshire’s sorrow in this aspect of its history.
Plan for Memorial Park

Plan for Memorial Park

Dr. Hilson, pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Portsmouth, also spoke, focusing on the image of a bridge connecting the past and the present, as well as connecting different members of the Portsmouth community.

Vernis Jackson, chair of the African Burying Ground committee, spoke of the fundraising efforts, stating that the organization is on its way to raising the $1.2 million it needs to move forward with the ground breaking.

Artist Jerome Meadows designed a sculpture for the memorial parkway. Pictured is the half that represents Mother Africa, reaching around trying to touch the hand of the young slave on the opposite side. Please visit the organization’s website for more information about his art and to make a donation to help this project along.

Model of Meadows' sculpture

Model of Mother Africa– One Side of Meadows’ sculpture

Digital Public Library is Live!

A wondrous thing happened this past week in the Digital Public Library of America going live. This portal provides the public with free, open access to endless cultural and historical materials that have been digitized at countless institutions.

A valuable support to all modern and traditional libraries, the DPLA brings “different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together in a single platform and portal, providing open and coherent access to our society’s digitized cultural heritage.” (Quoting the DPLA history page)

One may use the search bar (pictured below) to find this Yiddish sheet music in its entirety, historic photos of synagogues around the world, or even this sound recording of broadcaster Claude Sullivan’s 1958 journey to the new State of Israel.

DPLA Search bar and Browse Features

DPLA Screenshot: Search Bar and Browse Features

Although you may browse and access these items for free, please be aware that many of them are copyrighted by their creators or by the institution that houses them. Some you may use without asking permission– please check the “rights” section on the finding aid, as pictured below. This is the page that comes up when you click on the item’s title in the list of search results.

Screenshot Illustrating Reproduction Rights

Screenshot Illustrating Reproduction Rights

I hope you enjoy this precious resource as much as I do! It represents the new age of open information in libraries that can help us learn more about our cultural heritage and that of those with whom we share this earth. See you there!

Hedy Lamarr’s on the Line!

Hedy Lamarr fled Nazi-occupied Austria and invented cell phone technology in the 1940s?? Sort of, yes!

As with many amazing things I discover, I heard this story on PRX Remix and couldn’t stop thinking about it all night.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr Publicity Photo

The story in short: Thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world, acclaimed Hollywood actress and brilliant inventor Lamarr was first the wife of Fritz Mandl, an arms manufacturer and socialite in Vienna. Mandl lived a life of greed, wheeling and dealing weapons and entertaining bigwigs like Mussolini and Hitler despite his Jewish heritage.

Lamarr escaped from this life, eventually making it to California, where she began to show clear patriotism, enraged by Nazi violence against innocent children and perhaps spurred by a desire to make up for her ex-husband’s disregard for humanity. Consumed by the idea of new communication methods between U.S. naval ships and their torpedoes, she devised a method of frequency switching that was undetectable by enemy ships.

When she finally partnered with composer George Antheil (who used a similar technology to synch 9 player pianos for live performance), Lamarr was able to put her thoughts into action. Together, they patented frequency-switching, a technology that was WAY ahead of its time.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that modern military equipment could harness this technology, and the U.S. Military made good use of it. Was this the culmination of Hedy Lamarr’s brainchild? You didn’t forget about the cell phone, did you?

CDMA Diagram


The technology described in the patent filed by Lamarr and Antheil in the 1940s forms the basis of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), the technology on which modern day cell phones were developed. Sure, some will tell you it was the Russians who first harnessed this phenomenon… but me? I’m proud of the heart and accomplishments of my Jewish American sister.

Remembering Artist Elliot Offner

ARPhotographs: Smith College &emdash; Lyman In winter, Heron

Great Blue Heron at Lymon Conservatory, Smith College

I was delighted this week to learn about the life and work of Elliot Offner, a Jewish American sculptor who taught at Smith College while I attended there. Although I never had the pleasure of knowing him personally, I befriended the great blue heron he created– for the 18-year-old me there was no more peaceful a place on Earth than in that botanical garden.

Since Offner passed in 2010, his family set up a website to showcase his work. There I learned that my feathered friend has a sister who has become a local legend in the courtyard outside the Darien Public Library in Connecticut.

Auschwitz Study 4

Auschwitz Study 4

Also, the Holocaust memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York and the Hirschhorn Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington each house a piece from Offner’s work on Holocaust studies and Auschwitz. The sculpture pictured above is featured on his website.

Time for a road trip I believe…