Center of Iraqi insurgence may have ancient Jewish ties

Fred Astren was reviewing notes for a class he teaches on ancient and medieval Jewish history when he stumbled across something interesting: The city of Fallujah, which has been the center of heavy fighting between American forces and insurgents in Iraq, may have been an ancient center of Jewish scholarship.

Fallujah could very well have been Pumbeditha, the center of the Babylonian Talmud, said Astren, the head of the Jewish studies department at San Francisco State University.

In doing further research, Astren found that the possibility was actually suggested in Moment magazine last August, by editor emeritus Hershel Shanks. He cited 19th-century scholar Jacob Obermeyer, who’d suggested that the two names are linguistic equivalents.

“When Jews refer to Babylonia, that is Mesopotamia, what was named later by the Arabs as Iraq,” said Astren. “This was the site of the largest and oldest Jewish community outside of the land of Israel.”

Astren said the issue raises an intriguing question about Jewish geography.

“What is so interesting, is that we have our own memory and our own tradition with its places and locations and they often live only in a Jewish context,” he said. “We lose connection to other historical contexts whether they are ancient, Christian or Muslim.”

When Astren shared his musings with a colleague, she noted that Chassidim from Chernobyl are often referred to as “Radioactive Chassidim” in Israel, because they hail from the same part of Ukraine that later, in 1986, was the site of the nuclear reactor disaster.

Astren also posted a query on a Jewish studies listserv, where Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, picked it up and used the city’s Jewish importance as an argument to rail against American policy in Iraq.

Astren was doing nothing of the sort, however. He was merely pointing out the connection.

“Iraq is the birthplace of the Talmud, where the great academies were,” he said. “There was an enormous creative impulse that led to the Babylonian Talmud and midrashic literature there. Now there are virtually no Jews left.

“Now, as we are watching the movement of American troops, these are places that used to be homes of Jews and places that Jews were familiar with.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."