Hebrew books from the 19th century. A fraying scroll of Esther and a silver Kiddush cup used at weddings. These and other objects tell the story of how Jews in Baghdad lived 150 years ago. They also tell the story of Maurice Shohet’s family.
The Iraqi Jewish community “goes back thousands of years,” Shohet says. “Since the Babylonian exile.”
Shohet’s artifacts are part of a revolving exhibit of heirlooms belonging to Adas Israel Congregation’s families and displayed in the Conservative congregation’s Avraham Biran Beit Midrash, its study hall.
The exhibit began about five years ago after the Washington congregation renovated. Herlene Nagler, a board member, decided to turn part of the beit midrash into a gallery showcasing the family history of congregants.
“Because we’re such a big synagogue, we realized we needed more personal connections, and one way to do that is for members to share something personal about them,” she says.
Shohet’s Iraqi roots date back 250 years. His grandparents left Iraq for Israel in the 1950s. In 1970, Shohet was one of 13 family members to flee Iraq for Iran. They later moved to Israel and, in 1981, the United States.
Shohet says he wanted to share his family items with the congregation because they help tell the larger story of the Iraqi Jewish community to the largely Ashkenazi synagogue.
He loaned some of his items to the National Archives in 2013 as an addition to a collection of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that U.S. forces found in leader Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters during the conquest of Iraq.
Shohet says he preserves his family’s fraying books in a cabinet with a light-blocking screen. It was worth the trouble to save them, he said.
“The fact that these are religious books used by my grandfather, I found unique,” he says.
Also in the Adas Israel exhibit are a silverware set and a Kiddush cup from Shohet’s parents’ wedding in the 1940s. Shohet used the cup in his own wedding. There are also several family photos, including ones of his great-grandparents, grandparents and brothers, as well as one from his bar mitzvah in the 1960s.
“I wanted to reflect the history of the [Iraqi Jewish] community through items and pictures,” he says.