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Beirut's lost Jewish past

February 9, 2010 |  9:56 am

Jewsofbeirut Lebanon and Israel have had a tense relationship in recent years, but there was once a significant Jewish community in Beirut. It's the subject of the book "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Beirut" by BBC journalist Nada Abdelsamad.

Published in Arabic, the book was initially met with skepticism by publishing houses -- some saying it might be banned -- but has been selling out of Beirut bookstores. Our Middle East blog Babylon & Beyond reports:

All in all, Abdelsamad collected 21 stories about Jewish life in Wadi Abu Jamil -- accounts that show how much its residents were part of Lebanon's spectrum of communities, mingling with Christian and Muslim inhabitants while keeping their religious traditions.

Lebanon was once home to thousands of Jews but only a small number remain today. Most of them have changed their names and even their official religious status....

"It was a chain of interviews," [Abdelsamad] said, adding that she was met with a bit of skepticism at first by some of the people she interviewed. "People asked me, 'Will it be harmful for us to talk?’ They were skeptical because this is a topic that has been sleeping for all these years."

Soon, however, the memories of Wadi Abu Jamil started to come alive and Abdelsamad was able to reconstruct some of the neighborhood's long-lost Jewish characters, as remembered by their friends and old neighbors.

Much of Beirut's Jewish community has now emigrated. "As for a Lebanese Jew who lives in New York since 1967," one commenter wrote about the book, "I am thrilled to know that somebody somewhere had decided to revive our story."

There are plans for "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Beirut" to be published in French and English.  

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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