It’s a little after 1:00 a.m. and I’m in Baghdad, riding in the car from the airport to my hotel. Sitting to my left is chasidic music superstar Lipa Schmeltzer. Our peaceful journey is suddenly interrupted by the sight of missiles flying overhead, lighting up the sky. I grip my seat in fear, waiting to hear the deafening sound of explosions, but it never comes. Have the rockets landed? Or are we still in danger? Welcome to Baghdad, where you never know if you’re safe until you’ve left the country.
There’s a lot that had to happen before we could even reach this point. Let’s
go back about half a year, when the idea for our trip first began to form.
Shloime: My bloodied fingers scroll through my WhatsApp chats, trying to find Lipa. I’m in Alqosh, Iraqi Kurdistan, with some clients, and we’re at the kever of Nachum Hanavi. To get inside the site, I may or may not have hopped over, under or through a hole in the fence, cutting my hand in the process, hence the bloody fingers. Inside, we daven Shacharis and say some Tehillim. Before leaving, we sing a few slow-moving songs, including Lipa’s Avinu Malkeinu. I film myself singing Lipa’s song at the kever and I WhatsApp it to him.
His response surprises me. “I want to go there one day,” he says. “Can you take me?” Lipa then proceeds to tell me about a secret project of his, an upcoming musical album based on Talmud Bavli. Lipa explains that traveling to Bavel, which is where the Gemara was written, would be a big inspiration and help fuel the project. But a few months pass, and I’m not sure how serious Lipa is about this.
Lipa: The entire idea for the trip starts when I talk to Shloime and give away the fact that I am working on a record connected to Bavel. It’s a mega project about Gemara stories and songs. Shloime embarks on dangerous journeys to bring people together, so I ask if he thinks he and I can go back to where our great Tanna’im and Amora’im studied and wrote our Gemara. Sounds simple, right? When you ask Shloime, it does, but things change when you ask my life insurance company. Or perhaps when you read the American government’s warnings about any citizen going to Iraq, let alone a Jew. However, with an artistic mind, you first say yes, and if you are Lipa, you buy the plane ticket before you start realizing what you are about to undertake.
I ask Shloime: If we go to Iraq, are you confident that people won’t recognize us as Jews? Shloime tells me the people of Baghdad do not know how Jews are supposed to look. “Anyway, you’ll change your look and dress code, and it will all be good,” he says. It sounds so smooth, but would that really be the case?
Shloime: Throughout the next few months, Lipa and I talk from time to time, and each time he stresses that he wants to visit Bavel, but with his nightly schedule singing at weddings and concerts, finding the time isn’t easy. Then we realize the Three Weeks and Tishha B’Av are approaching, which means no weddings or concerts. This is the best time for us to travel. Now you’re probably asking yourself how we could travel to a place like Iraq during the Three Weeks, including the beginning of the Nine Days. I’ll explain.
My posek told me there is a common misconception when it comes to travel during these periods. “People think that we don’t travel during the Three Weeks because it’s dangerous, but it’s actually not the case,” he said. “The reason is because many (if not most) people travel for leisure, and during the Three Weeks, we’re supposed to refrain from leisure. But you are traveling for business. Also, supporting your family is a mitzvah. You should go ahead with the trip. Even if you’ll end up enjoying it, it’s still a mitzvah and ‘shluchei mitzvah einan nizakin.’”
And so it happened.
Shloime: Upon checking the weather conditions in Iraq, I realize that it will be somewhere between 120 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of our trip. When I send Lipa a screenshot of the weather report, he laughs it off, saying that we’ll figure it out. But when I reach out to my guide in Iraq, he recommends that we not come until September due to the heat. We are adamant about traveling during the Three Weeks, though, and we decide to go ahead with it. We’ll just need to spend the hottest hours of the day indoors to make it work.
Arrangements are made: we book tickets for a six-day trip, departing from New York on a Sunday night and staying through Shabbos. Lipa and I discuss everything we’ll need, from camera and audio recording equipment to kosher food.
Lipa: To change my look, I go to a barber who doesn’t do the most excellent job. I won’t use him again, but for Baghdad, it will suffice.
Shloime: Going into the Shabbos before the trip, we are both excited, but that changes drastically for one of us.