2016-04-13 / Local News

Teen’s family story of expulsion from Iraq featured in contest


FAMILY: Parents, Jerry Abrams and Eilat Gubbay; siblings: Daniella, 11, Judianna, 8 and Judah, 4



FAVORITE IRAQI FOOD: Polow (rice with shredded carrots, meat and herbs)

FAVORITE INDIAN FOOD: Mahasha (stuffed cabbage)

Until recently, Cherry Hill teenager Naomi Gubbay Abrams knew little about her savta’s (grandmother’s) exodus story beyond the basic facts: Forced to flea her native Iraq in 1950, the family resettled in Israel before her maternal grandmother made her way to India.

That history, however, has become an all-consuming passion ever since Naomi and four other hard-working Rosa Middle School eighth-grade girls decided to make the mid- 20th century expulsion of Iraqi’s Jewish population the focus of their National History Day (NHD) project.

Having spent countless hours researching archives, interviewing dozens of sources worldwide—including her own grandmother— and collaborating on a play based on the findings, Naomi, 13, has become the family’s authority on a period of history little known to the outside world. The project also earned her group advancement from the regional competition to the state level NHD event on May 7 at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ. If successful there, they will move on as finalists among the more than half million contestants in the ultimate NHD competition in mid-June in College Park, MD.

As it turned out, her savta and other relatives were invaluable eyewitnesses to history. Naomi’s maternal grandmother, Tamar Marge Gubbay, is known in the Jewish community of India for her research and writings about the time period.

“I knew very little other than that she had to leave Iraq when she was around my age,” said Naomi. “When I told her about our project, she and my other relatives were so excited.”

Naomi and Gubbay spent hours together talking about the past when her savta visited over winter recess. One of seven children of well-off merchants in Baghdad, Gubay recalled her happy childhood. There were servants, numerous pets in their huge backyard, and rich Sephardic traditions for the holidays.

But around the time Israel achieved statehood, conditions changed for Iraqi Jews, comprising 20 percent of the population. Based on interviews with family members in India and Italy as well as other sources, Naomi learned that Jews were cast as scapegoats for the downward spiraling economy. As time went on, conditions grew increasingly more dangerous for them as riots, bombings and beatings became common. Drawing parallels to the Holocaust, gentile friends turned their backs on their Jewish neighbors. Walking home from school one day, her grandmother and other relatives witnessed the public hanging of a Jewish man accused of being a Zionist leader.

In the early days, Kurds helped smuggle Jews out of the country. But in 1950, there was mass migration when the Jews were officially permitted to leave.

“They were not allowed to bring anything with them except one suitcase and 10 Iraqi dinars, about $40,” Naomi explained.

While some of the refugees ended up in overcrowded refugee camps, her extended family faired better. Although split up, they were sent to various kibbutzim where the adults could work and the kids resumed their education, gaining acceptance as part of the communal experience. At 19, Gubbay left the country to marry her fourth cousin, a merchant in India. Her mother, Eilat, born in India, moved to the United States to attend Brandeis University, where she met Naomi’s father Jerry.

Christy Marrella, an eighth grade history teacher who oversees Rosa’s NHD program, said it’s unusual but not unheard of for students to base projects on family history, particularly if someone famous is a distant relative.

“I’m so proud to write that I am their teacher, as they are setting forth such a beautiful legacy,” stated Marrella. “Naomi’s family history now lives in the heart and minds of all that view their performance. In particular, telling such an unknown story allows for individuals to know and ensure that it never happens again.” .

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