The hamantaschen tasted good in Dubai

How a Jewish community emerged in the Gulf State


When seven years ago we said we were moving to Dubai for work, our north-west London family and friends had reservations. Why would we choose to be strangers in a strangers land? The reality was quite different. Sharon, whose parents came from the Middle East, felt an immediate affinity. We were drawn into the "tent culture", enjoying warm hospitality and genuine acceptance.

We never experienced antisemitism and the occasional hostility towards Israel was in marked contrast to the personal interest and respect we received from our Arab friends with whom we were openly Jewish. While the Arab Spring raged in the region, Dubai remained a haven, adhering to its founding principles of tolerance and co-existence akin to 12th century Cordoba. The current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, actually welcomed prominent Jewish businessmen to set up both the diamond exchange and the city's International Financial Centre.

Nevertheless, we were still careful. Rather like Esther in the Purim story, we often opted for a public mask that concealed our true identity. Sometimes we were forced into this position. There was no option on our identity cards to choose "Jewish" on the drop-down menu for selecting one's religion.

We knew of one other Jewish family with whom we regularly joined for Friday nights. We wondered whether there were others like us, also marking Shabbat alone. We had been in Dubai for a year and were awaiting the birth of our first child. We both felt a deep need to fill that absence of community. Following a visit to Sri Lanka, the Chabad rabbi we met there put us in touch with an American Jewish academic living in neighbouring Abu Dhabi. He in turn was able to connect us to some 20 other "members of the tribe", the code term that we would use to refer to ourselves. With New Year fast approaching, we arranged a first gathering with two rabbis. Overlooking Dubai's iconic Palm Jumeriah and on the 32nd floor of an apartment block, from there a community was born.

Over the years, without the presence of any formal religious authority, what emerged was an eclectic mix of traditions and practices. The community that established itself perhaps uniquely bridged a number of divides, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Reform and Orthodox. We even developed a number of our own traditions as the Bnei Mifratz, "Children of the Gulf", such as a formal prayer for the ruling family. We lit Chanucah candles in the desert and built succot from palms.

We developed a number of our own traditions as bnei mifratz, the children of the gulf

Most of the community were expats based in the region for a short time, but there were a number who had lived in the Emirate for several decades and a few whose discovery of the community sparked a Jewish awakening. Everyone played a role, whether opening their homes to celebrations, bringing in matzah from overseas for Pesach or providing a Sefer Torah, which we borrowed from Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London. Symbols of significance we would have taken for granted in our home countries became of immense value. When had we ever walked into a synagogue at home amazed at the sight of a Torah scroll?

Each new member brought with them a surprising story at how they had found out about the community - a name discovered on a school register, a business meeting, a contact from Chabad in a far-flung part of the world connecting us with someone living round the corner. Conscious not to widely publicise gatherings, we developed a sixth sense for finding each other.

Within two years we had marked all the festivals and several rites of passage including the brit milah of our second child, two batmitzvahs, a barmitzvah and shivahs. None of us had ventured to Dubai to experience a Jewish life and yet it was here that, in an alien environment, the values of Judaism and our sense of peoplehood became so treasured.

Almost in parallel, we also noted a growth of unique events of Jewish cultural significance organised by Muslim Arabs: the Iraqi Jewish Kitchen - a sell-out, two-week series of dinners paying homage to delicacies and traditions of Jewish Baghdad - Arab-Israeli films partly in Hebrew and the Iranian Jewish artist, Dana Nehdaran, who exhibited his "Children of Esther" exhibition in the heart of the financial district. We remained guests and our communal gatherings were always private and yet such public events were somehow a source of comfort.

Purim proved of particular significance. With Dubai's appetite for extravagant parties and its shiny veneer, one could even think that the city bears something of a resemblance to the description of Shushan, the setting of Purim. Also rather like Purim, a story that hinges on multiple unforeseen chances , we too, the Dubai Jewish community had been formed through some extraordinary chance meetings.

At our final communal gathering on Purim, before our return to London last year, we were surrounded by more than 120 fellow Jews hailing from the four corners of the globe. Sat, as we were, in our fancy dress for the occasion of the Megillah reading, we could acknowledge that here we were, well over 2,000 years since the first Purim and continuing the incredible legacy of our people's ability to adapt and thrive.

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