Returning to “Our Homes”
Jason Guberman-Pfeffer is the project coordinator of Diarna and executive director of Digital Heritage Mapping, Inc., its parent 501(c)(3) non-profit. To begin your free trip — no passport or airfare required — explore Diarna’s website (http://www.diarna.org). Email inquiries may be sent to Jason at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Why is a nice Ashkenazi boy leading a Mizrahi heritage project?” I have often fielded this question since August 2008 when I helped launch Diarna, which means “Our Homes” in Judeo-Arabic. Many people understandably wonder why someone without the requisite roots would be interested in virtually preserving endangered Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa.
But I have always felt right at home immersed in the region’s vibrant Jewish history and culture. To understand why, we might consider last week’s Parsha (“Vayeitzei”), in which Jacob heads east, to re-connect with his family. While en route, he receives a prophetic message by way of a reverie at Beth-El: “[Y]our offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and thou shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
Jacob’s vision established Beth-El as a divinely historic place in the formation of the Children of Israel, a reminder that Jewish identity is grounded in physical location. Yet Jacob’s journey away from Beth-El and flights thereafter — including to Egypt, where he died — foreshadow the dispersions his descendants would experience over the coming centuries. “I am weary of roaming about the world, measuring its expanse; and I am not yet done,” lamented Moses Ibn Ezra. This nomadism belies Judaism’s ideas-based identity, transportable at a moment’s notice from one place to another — often because it had to be. While there are distinctions with differences to be made between Jewish sub-cultures (e.g., Litvak/Galitzianer, Baladi/Shami, M’Gorashim/Toshavim), parochial attitudes, born of the Diaspora, frequently occlude the harmonizing third verse of the Parasha’s prophecy: “I will return you to this soil.”
Regardless of chance of birth, Jews have a shared heritage, grown of a common soil in the Middle East. Shiraz, Constantine, Taiz, or any of a hundred cities and over a thousand towns and villages across the region, were the milieus of Biblical prophets, medieval philosophers, travelers and traders. The foundational ideas of Jewish civilization that they forged and which to this day are associated with specific places, retain their universal relevance.
Some sites that shaped Jewish identity are fairly well known. The “Great Synagogue” in Aleppo, Syria, for centuries housed the eponymous Codex. While the Synagogue was pillaged during riots in 1947, significant parts of the Codex escaped destruction and are now stored in the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book beneath the Dead Sea Scrolls. The ramshackle physical state of the “Maimonides Synagogue” in Cairo’s Harat el-Yahud (Old Jewish Quarter) conceals an illustrious past, as the place where its namesake purportedly prayed, taught, and wrote the Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed). According to various accounts, Maimonides was initially buried in the Synagogue’s catacomb, which through the 1960s was visited by Jews and Muslims alike seeking healing from ailments.
Legend also shrouds the origins of traditional shrines of Biblical figures, including the tombs of Ezekiel (in al-Kifl, Iraq), Nahum (in al-Qosh, a village in Iraqi-Kurdistan), and Zevulon (in Sidon, Lebanon). In the 1970s, Iranian Jews remodeled the small shrine believed to contain the tombs of Esther and Mordechai, located just outside what is now Imam Khomeini Square in downtown Hamadan. The architect refurbished the structure and built alongside it a subterranean chapel with a skylight in the shape of a Magen David. This symbol can be seen in Google Earth, quite possibly making Iran home to the only Jewish Star visible from space.
Other sites are scarcely remembered by our generation, though many have enduring stories to tell. The network of Alliance Israélite Universelle schools gave thousands of children, from remote Moroccan villages to bustling cities like Baghdad and Tehran, a rigorous Jewish and worldly education. The Holocaust’s long reach extended into the Sahara Desert, as the remains of a series of Vichy forced labor camps in eastern Morocco and Algeria’s western expanse attest. Remote synagogues in Djerba, Tunisia, and Yifrin, Libya, supposedly contain stones from the Temple in Jerusalem, carried by Jews fleeing the Roman destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
Perhaps the most remarkable forgotten site is Khaybar (Khaibar), a striking oasis north of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Prior to being the scene of a pivotal battle in early Islamic history, this “Masada of Arabia” was an ancient centre of Jewish life. Today, its elevated fortresses and other ruins are startlingly well preserved by the Saudi regime. The site’s significance is further recalled in the names of armaments produced by the theocracy in Iran, and in a chant heard in cities around the world during the recent Gaza fighting: “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya Yahud, jaish Muhammad saufa ya’ud” (“Khaybar, Khaybar, oh, Jews! The army of Muhammad will return”). There is some irony that this site remains neglected by our community yet is invoked by Islamists in Manhattan.
Beyond this charged example, there are hundreds of crumbling cemeteries, synagogues, and schools. The diminution of future generations’ tangible connections to this heritage — as sites physically decay and people with knowledge of them pass on — is an immeasurable loss both to Jewish and to world culture. The vast majority of Jewish communities outside the land of Israel have completely disbanded (as in Libya), or exist as atrophied and cowed versions of their former selves (as in Iran). Due to political and inter-religious strife, it is often difficult to visit and physically preserve heritage sites. A number are now recognizable only by remnants of abandoned property, Hebrew-etched shards of gravestones lain about fields where cemeteries once stood, and school yards bereft of children.
“Return,” however, in a very real sense, is still possible through Diarna’s efforts. Our project is pioneering the use of new global image mapping technology (particularly Google Earth) to enable untrammeled access to even the most inhospitable locales, with terrain, zoomable perspective, tiltable views, and 360-degree rotation. Anyone with an Internet connection can travel across the region as if on eagles’ wings. I have, in this way, investigated Khaybar (if the Saudis ever need a tour guide…), strolled down al-Rashid Street in Baghdad, ambled around the Sarechal (Jewish Quarter) of Tehran, and made pilgrimages in the Atlas Mountains to the shrines of storied rabbis.
To provide compelling entry points to this heritage, Diarna synthesizes satellite imagery, photographs, videos, oral histories, and even three-dimensional models. Diarna is at once a unique digital window into countless sites and communities that are disappearing before our very eyes, as well as a virtual bridge that connects past and future generations to the heartland of Jewish history. In addition to generational bridge-building, the project offers an opportunity for enhancing inter-communal relations by eschewing politics to focus on collecting factual and scholarly information. Diarna is driven by a team with diverse backgrounds and outlooks, including scholars and students from Wellesley College, Google Earth developers in Europe, and young Middle Eastern researchers eager to map virtual common ground.
One of Diarna’s the most rewarding aspects has been working across ethnic and religious divides. Arabs, “Berbers,” Kurds, and Persians growing-up today walk past Jewish heritage sites hidden in plain sight. Discovering this reality for the first time through Diarna’s YouTube channel or website, inspired Middle East youth (Muslims and Christians) have interviewed elderly Jews in Southern Morocco, photographed the Mellah (Jewish Quarter) of Fez, helped locate the Jewish cemetery in Kuwait City, and launched Diarna’s Arabic-language group on Facebook.
One project researcher, Ali, was excited by the adventure of tracking down Jewish heritage sites in Tunis, a city that once boasted upwards of 80 synagogues, dozens of Jewish schools, Kosher restaurants, and a Jewish hospital. While walking down a dusty side-street strewn with garbage, he discovered a small, faded Hebrew plaque above a doorway, all that remains of the tomb of 18th-Century Chief Rabbi Messaoud Raphael el Fassi.
It may be that memory, contrary to the age-old reality, is no longer a place where only those who have been before can go. And so I invite the Wexner community to join us in capturing essential data now — contributing travel photos, conducting research, interviewing friends and relatives — before it is forever lost. Put in another way, Diarna welcomes you back home.