Passover in Baghdad 2007

When forty people show up at your Passover Seder (literally Order), it is anything but orderly. But it is a blessing – especially when you are fighting a war in Iraq where duty schedules are heavy and Jews are not only scarce but also scattered across what we in the military dub the ITO – or Iraqi Theater of Operations. But arrive we did – some even by helicopter or HMMWV convoy from remote FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). We arrived in healthy numbers and in safety, a condition never taken for granted over here, where nightly explosions and busts of machine gun fire serve as prescient reinforcements of the Haggadah’s warning that “in every generation” there truly are those who would rise “against us to annihilate us.” We recite the shehchiyanu with unparalleled sincerity, praising God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this joyous season. Amen.

Major General Ronald Silverman, Commanding Officer of Third Medical Command, hosted both the first and second night Seders in his quarters, opening his heart and home; spoiling us with his hospitality; and sparing us what would otherwise have of necessity been a very impersonal and institutional dinner. The General lives in what used to be the house of one of Saddam Hussein’s domestic staff – a gardener perhaps or a butler. It’s a small building with a tiny living room that brimmed to capacity with forty of us packed intimately around three long tables, boxes overflowing with Kosher for Passover foods stacked against the walls, crock pots of matzah ball soup burbling in the background. It wasn’t exactly home – least of all for the General, I’m sure – but it sure felt like home that night, particularly to a crowd more accustomed these days to living in tents (or trailers if we’re lucky). Seders have always been special occasions for me, but this one was down right magical. Ma nishtana ha-layla hazeh me-kol ha laylot? Why is this night different from all other nights?

But it takes more than a house to make a Seder – it takes family. And you might be surprised again – but we had no shortage of family either, even here in Baghdad. General Silverman was joined by his son, 1LT Matthew Silverman, a paratrooper and gourmet chef, who flew in to celebrate Passover with us from an outlying FOB. Two of our colonels – themselves classmates once-upon-a-time at the US Air Force Academy – discovered that their sons are classmates today at West Point. And one of our majors pointed out one of our sergeants, reminiscing to me of how he knew her when she was just a little girl growing up in his home town. How’s that for Jewish geography?

Finally, central to any Jewish holiday or gathering is of course the food. And thanks to the generosity of friends and family back home – including the Herculean efforts of such organizations as Linda & Phil Bleich’s Operation Far From Home; the Jewish Welfare Board / Jewish Chaplain’s Council; and the Rockland-Orange District Jewish War Veterans of the United States- we wanted for nothing, absolutely nothing! Moreover, 1LT Silverman and our visiting rabbi, Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Jeremy Steinberg, insisted on cooking us all a homemade dinner. The Kosher for Passover boxed military rations – Meals Ready to Eat or MREs – simply would not do. So there we all were, in the midst of war-torn Baghdad, enjoying real, gourmet matzah ball soup; tangy charoset made with granny smith apples; sinus-clearing horseradish salad, freshly grated and prepared from scratch; and countless other goodies that would have astounded us at home and simply floored us here! Whoever is hungry – let him come and eat!

One item alone eluded our Seder plate: not a single hard-boiled egg was to be had throughout the base due to a medical ban prompted by a regional bird flu epidemic. I half-jokingly consoled the Rabbi, telling him that it left more room on the Seder plate for my orange. Orange?! For years now, Susannah Heschel’s orange has proudly adorned my Seder plate. But for our visiting Orthodox rabbi, this feminist emblem of equality was a first-seen (as was the Miriam’s cup ritual that, to his credit, he also indulged with grace). It is no secret to those who know me that as a Reform Jew I am constantly seeking new and fresh symbols in our religion. It would be difficult to miss the robust symbolism of celebrating our people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt while fighting along side Iraqi’s for their freedom in a land afflicted with its own set of modern-day plagues. Similarly, I now attach new meaning based on personal experiences to many of the traditional symbols and rituals of the Passover Seder, some of which I’ve listed below.

–Maror (bitter herbs, usually horseradish). Every year we are instructed to celebrate Passover as though we personally had suffered the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. But prior to my deployment to Baghdad, the concept of bitterness was never much more than anecdotal for me – just a condiment in a Hillel sandwich. But bitterness in Iraq is real and tangible. It is the suffering of the Iraqi populace struggling daily just to survive. It is the loss of friends and colleagues to enemy fire, helicopter crashes, and improvised explosive device attacks. It is the heartache of the families whose loved ones have made the ultimate sacrifice. Maror makes my eyes water; the bitterness of this war brings them to tears.

–Z’roa (roasted bone) and Beitzah (roasted egg). These traditional symbols of sacrifice and mourning are not unlike Maror. Sacrifice is a way of life for members of the armed forces and their families. The separation from our families is long and arduous. A year away from home means missed anniversaries, missed birthdays, and even missed births. The circumstances of daily life here are difficult and demanding and often just plain dangerous. The workday lasts 15 hours or longer, often seven days a week. Showers are limited, sleep elusive. Many service members are here on their second, third, or fourth deployments! Even as I write, many here on the ground have had their current deployments extended an additional three months. But it is this very sacrifice that enables us to appreciate the freedom we enjoy in the West and strive to bring the same to the people of Iraq. The Talmud teaches us that “it is only when someone recalls how bad things were that he can realize how good things are.” Now we are slaves; next year may we be free!

–Charoset. A mixture of apples, nuts, and cinnamon, this sweet, chunky spread represents the mortar used by the Israelite slaves to build Pharaoh’s pyramids and I can think of no better symbol for the sweetness of reconstruction that is taking place across Iraq today and the promise it holds for a better future here. It is this sweetness alone – the taste of progress – that can dull the sting of maror. It is also the very sweetness for which we have all sacrificed so much and which ultimately will make those sacrifices all worthwhile. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for those of us here in Iraq, sweet charoset provides us an opportunity to use the word “mortar” in the context of something other than a rocket attack!

Lieutenant Risa Simon is a Naval Intelligence Officer, currently serving in Baghdad with the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. She also serves as a Jewish Lay Leader for Camp Victory.


  • Fascinating read! The details included in this article transported me from NYC to Iraq!

    I’d love to see more pictures from the Seder!

    As the Jewish Supplier, we have sent close to 1000 Seder kits throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar. Many were sent to Camp Victory–did any end up at your place? We got quite a bit of positive feedback-but are always hungry for more!

    Ours was under the auspices of the DLA/DSCP and packed in white corrugated boxes. They contained a Haggadah, grape juice, kiddush cup, Seder plate with symbolic food, Matzoh and cover, 2 Mres, 2 fish, 2 orange segment cans, white yarmulke, gum and candy.


    Jewish Prime Vendor

  • Dee,

    Your Seder Kits were amazing and constituted the building blocks not only of our Seders but also the whole Passover holiday and beyond! I know of at least one officer who still subsists nearly entirely on the kits’ kipper snacks for lunch!

    You probably recognize some of the kits’ contents on the Seder table in the photo. If you’d like to see more holiday pictures, please visit my website:

    Thanks so much for all your assistance.



  • Kathe Turiel

    Dear Lt Tiffen, we were sorry not have had the opportunity to have you speak in Columbus, Ohio at our lawyers event. You know we’ve taken a rain check on your speaking engagement upon your return. Don’t worry, we will take great care of you when you come. Loved the photos . I am passing along to our Cardozo Society members. We are thinking of you

    take care. Keep writing

    P.S. if you happen to run into a Colonel Jack Guy, also from Columbus- please give him our regards.

  • Neal A. Illinois USA

    Baruch HaShem for you terrific guys and gals in our fighting forces…may HaShem watch over you all and bring back safely to us….

  • Marv Sibulkin

    As a retired US Army Sergeant Major who has served in Vietnam and in other parts of the globe, I am aware of the occasional difficulties that can crop up if you want to celebrate the Jewish holidays. (or Jewish traditions, like the Bris and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs)

    Thank you to the men and women now serving in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe as well as to those (including the US Military and the US government) who banded together to provide for the Jews now serving.

  • Risa–

    I went to your website–your pictures are awesome!

    I was so excited to see our Passover stuff in use! I recognized our boxes and hot pink labels, the kiddush cups and more!

    It’s a pity these pictures aren’t publicized!

    Can I download a few to sent to the ‘brass’ at the DLA showing our items in use?


    Jewish Prime Vendor

  • Dee,

    Please feel free to use whichever pictures you’d like.



  • Jon Green MAJOR ADF

    I spent a couple of months in Iraq in 2005. At that time, I thought I was the only Jew there, until I saw an American servicemen complete with kippa and tin of tuna sitting down to eat.

    I asked about Shul services and found that there wasn’t one. Even in Kuwait, it was infrequent. The fact that so many Jews are there now is wonderful for “yiddishkeit” and so sad that foreign forces are still needed there.

    The fact that you were able to get together for Seder truly shows that “If you will it, it is not a dream”. I remember my father telling me similar stories of Seder during WWII.

    What a shame Aussie (and other) Jewish servicemen and women can’t access the same provisions. It would help those who wanted to keep Shomer Kashrut – or what passes for it in a war zone.

    To all yiddische servicemen and women – whatever the colour of their uniform – from whichever country – “The Lord Bless you and keep you….”

  • This is most intriguing: I am a Sephardic Jew born in Baghdad in 1938. I escaped to Israel at

    age 10,through Iran. I have retired in 1963 in the United States. My story is on the website. I have authored 2 books:

    “Full Circle: Escape from Baghdad and the return”

    (ISBN# 0-9777117-2-2) And

    “History of the Jews and Israel”

    (ISBN# 0-9777117-3-0)

    I have served honorably in the U.S. Army in Korea

    with the 1st Cavalry Division, 15th Aviation Co.

    Contact me at 631-232-1638