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From Baghdad to Boston…to Springfield

Jacob Shammash’s memoir of his Iraqi-Jewish roots

By Stacey Dresner

Dr. Jacob Shammash

SPRINGFIELD – When Amy Dane was growing up in Springfield, she and her siblings were not told much about their father Dr. Jacob Shammash’s childhood in Iraq and the hardships that some of his family members had endured in their native country.

But when her father began writing his memoir, Dane assisted him and in turn learned a lot about his life and about the long rich history of Jews in Iraq.

Dane will discuss the book From Baghdad to Boston and Beyond: Memoir of an Iraqi Jew on Sunday April 7 at Temple Beth El as part of Literatour: The Community-wide Celebration of Jewish Books. (Dr. Shammash is not able to be there: he will be appearing at his daughter Cantor Elizabeth Shammash’s temple in Philadelphia that day).

“I’m going to give the background and some of the history, along with weaving some of my father’s story into that,” she explains. “My talk will prepare people before they read the book, because it should really be new to a lot of people. The story of the Iraqi Jews is not a well-known story.”

A retired cardio-thoracic and vascular surgeon, Jacob Shammash, now 91, began writing this story about two years ago at the urging of his wife, Estelle.

“My mother told him, ‘You really have to write your story,’” Dane said. “Nobody knew this stuff. She said, ‘It’s now or never.’”

Dane concedes that her father the surgeon is not a writer, so “sitting down and having the discipline to start something like that was pretty daunting. But he did and over time, a couple of years, he organized himself, fairly chronologically, and thought of it from his point of view – his story. And when he got sick and tired of it, I took it from there.”

Dr. Shammash’s book begins with memories of his childhood living in the old city of Baghdad. Born in 1927, he was the third of nine children born to a wealthy family. 

Dr. Jacob Shammash, third from the left, with family & friends right before he departed Baghdad for the U.S.

He recalls watching both camels and Model T Fords travelling on the streets outside his house; visiting the shouk (market) with his father and buying food from Bedouin women in long black abayas; going to services at “The Great Synagogue” in Baghdad; and his “wonderful” experiences attending excellent primary and secondary schools run by the Jewish community. He also discusses his loving parents, Aliza and Baruch, his eight siblings, and how the Iraqi Jewish community lived and thrived for many years.

“He has beautiful memories of an idyllic childhood,” Dane says.

In 1947, Shammash left his home to attend college and medical school in the United States. 

In the book, Dr. Shammash shares the story of meeting his future wife, Estelle, and their early years of marriage first in Boston and later in Springfield where they eventually settled and raised their children.

While Dr. Shammash was working hard as a surgeon in several local hospitals, his family in Baghdad was going through turmoil. 

In 1948, when Iraqi armed forces returned home after their unsuccessful battles with the new Jewish state of Israel, they began to turn their negative attention to the Jews. Shammash’s book details some of the anti-Semitism his relatives experienced, their difficulties escaping the repressive Iraqi government, and the tragic disappearance of one family member.

“That was something that I had never really heard about, play-by-play,” Dane said. “None of this was ever talked about. We were considered to be kids in the 70’s. We heard a lot of ‘hush hush’ and we knew some things weren’t right. But this wasn’t something discussed. It was painful for them.”

Dane said that as she read her father’s manuscript, she became curious to learn more about the Jews of Iraq.

“I wanted to really understand the history behind the story, so I had to do a fair amount of research,” she said.

Dane added a “Historical Perspective” and timeline at the beginning of the book detailing the Ottoman rule of Iraq in 1534 to the present when only around five Jews are estimated to still live in Baghdad.

She also set out to include input from her aunts and uncles.

Dr. Shammash and his wife, Estelle, standing far left, with their children & grandchildren at their home on Cape Cod.

“I realized that I needed to talk to his siblings…He was one of nine and he couldn’t tell his story without me understanding more from the others,” she said. “So my sister and I got on the phone with a few of them and hear their stories. All of their scenarios were different because of their ages and the different stages of when they were in Iraq… it’s actually interesting because aside from the way these people were treated [in Iraq] — and they had a rotten time when they got to Israel too; they were discriminated against there too — but there were people who still remembered their homeland as such a beautiful and wonderful place.”

Dane also “fleshed out” some sections and helped to rework some of her father’s prose.

“He was born in a foreign country, so his writing is very formal,” she explained.

The whole process inspired her to go through old family photos. She discovered that her father had a big box of old photographs of  his family in Iraq.

“In those days people wrote letters and sent pictures; there was none of this texting and stuff,” Dane said. “So he had a box of black and white pictures his brothers and sisters and cousins would send him from all over the place. I got ahold of the box of pictures and lo and behold all of the writing on the back of the pictures was in Arabic.”

She ended up taking pictures of the pictures, sending them to her father and then getting his translations of the names and dates on the back. Several of those photos of family and friends in Baghdad can be seen in the book.

Dane says she considers the book a gift to the entire family.

“I’m really glad that he put this down. My comment to anybody getting older, who thinks their stuff isn’t all that important or that nobody would be interested is scribble things down or let someone else write it down because it gets lost. Everybody has a story to tell. If you don’t put it down nobody will know.

“I learned so much through this book, and if I learn so much, I think a lot of people are going to learn a lot.”

Literatour: From Baghdad to Boston and Beyond: Memoir of an Iraqi Jew with Amy S. Dane, will be held on Sunday, April 7 at 4 p.m. at Temple Beth El, 979 Dickinson St. To register, email arts@springfieldjcc.org or call (413) 739-4715, ext. 308.

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