The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews

"The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews" was a recipient of the Jewish Book Council’s Best of 2015 Commendation, named one of the Jewish Book Council’s most in-demand books in 2015, received 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon and rave reviews from an academic expert on Iraq, a fellow author and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, the Jewish Book CouncilThe Jerusalem Post and readers simply inspired by Cynthia’s moving memoir.


Powerful and moving...

Powerful and moving, Cynthia’s book is a fascinating odyssey, as well as a treasure trove for anthropologists in its riveting testimony of the last days of Jewish society in Iraq and its re-planting in the strange soil of the West. Communicated with surprising humor and jest, her descriptions of the puzzlement and confusion she felt, but also her defiance, are a masterpiece. 

- Amatzia Baram, Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa

Deeply moving memoir of exile and longing...

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash has produced a deeply moving memoir of exile and longing centered around her Iraqi Jewish family as they navigate an increasingly perilous world marked by cruel, often deadly anti-Jewish attacks. Wondrous and poetic, but also searing and terrifying, this is a stirring and important contribution to the literature exploring what became of the Jews of Arab lands.

Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal

“Gripping yet light-hearted, this memoir tells the story of Cynthia Kaplan Shamash’s journey from childhood in Iraq to adulthood as a practicing dentist in New York. Shamash infuses her tale with emotion but never loses the facts of her experience in the whirlwind of her flight to Turkey, reunion with family in Israel, isolation in the Netherlands, education in England, and finally the possibility of a new beginning in New York. 

The anecdotes from Shamash’s Iraqi childhood are unique and touching, but the good cannot outweigh the discrimination and hostility toward Jews that eventually touch her family through her father’s forced resignation from his job with a major accounting firm and the family’s struggle to leave Iraq that at one point lands them all in jail. Finally free, outside Iraq, such nostalgia is insufficient to sustain them as a family, and—as the title suggests—they become strangers in a new land. Shamash struggles with isolation and confusion in school; her parents contend with caseworkers who help yet judge their differences and language barriers that block possibilities for advancement in a culturally liberated Western society.

Shamash’s writing beautifully communicates the confusion, imagination, and resilience that she experienced as a child from the trauma, displacement, and possibility of immigration, all caused by anti-Semitism. She weaves her story so well that the reader truly feels what the author has lived. It is only at the end of her tale that one must reckon with the impacts of poverty and instability on Shamash and her family and acknowledge the courage they all have shown in building new lives in unfamiliar places. The story moves quickly, so that there is much for a reader to absorb—perhaps too much—but then Shamash holds the events and the emotion so expertly in sync that the power of the story is enhanced rather than lessened by the fast pace.

For its writing, its coherence, and its energy, this memoir is worth reading. Shamash achieves the right balance in tone, so serious topics and optimism coexist. There are moments of gravity but also entertainment in this universal tale of immigration and redemption. Readers will enjoy this exceedingly well-written story, and might also begin to empathize with immigrants among us, who have, like Shamash and her family, become strangers in their new homes.” 

- Rachel Sara Rosenthal, reviewer for the Jewish Book Council

“Coming-of-age memoir...

The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews’ is Cynthia’s charming coming-of-age memoir … This is a vivid, witty, exhilarating and at times disarmingly frank, read … These are the lessons of exile: strive to do well, make your family proud, be optimistic, resilient, and don’t look back.

Lyn Julius, reviewer for The Jerusalem Post

Five Star Reviews from

“A must read...”

A fascinating account of an Iraqi Jew as a stranger in her own life. Through her intimate account of persecution and displacement Cynthia Kaplan Shamash invites the reader to share in her personal journey reminding us that we are all searching on some level to find and define ourselves. A must read for all to learn about the middle eastern persecution of the Jews which is often not spoken about and for a large part remains an unknown to the masses.”

Paula A. on April 13, 2016

“Greater perspective for the plight of refugees...

A thoroughly enjoyable read. An amazing story that explores the personal growth of a woman whose path in life was influenced by religious persecution, early trauma and cultural struggle. The reader learns the history of Jewish people in Iraq and about a group of refugees little known to most who suffered at the hands of their own people. It gave me a greater perspective for the plight of refugees and was so eloquently written that it brought me to tears. This book is a must read!

- Stephanie D. on Jan. 16, 2016

“4 thumbs way up from my 2 sons!”

A delightful memoir of the author’s life as a Jew living in Iraq where anti Semitism is rampant and vile. The story is masterfully written placing the reader directly in the throes of the hardships experienced by Dr. Kaplan Shamash. It describes her puzzlement as a young girl as to why she and her family are treated as spies and forced to leave the country of her birth. And yet, despite these conditions, it is written with honesty and humor. More importantly, the book is an inspiration to anyone living under a government that persecutes individuals for their religious beliefs 

Diane FHWD on Dec. 26, 2015


The Strangers We Became is told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl who escaped Iraq with her family at the age of 9. She describes her feelings and confusion at having to leave a home that she loved despite the many dangers Jews faced. Her home was along the Tigris River in the cradle of civilization, a home that was prosperous and comfortable, where Jews had lived for the last 2,700 years.

She shares her crystal clear recollections of the warm embrace of her home, family and friends, to being brutally interrogated alone with her doll at 9 years old, her mother’s bravery of speaking out to officers in prison, of the family’s desperate escape to Turkey, her father’s humiliation, and her own fears and confusion with each new country in which they arrived, at having, each time, to find her place – to fit in.

As a westerner and non-Jew I am astounded at how little I have read or heard in the media of what is actually happening in Iraq, and the story of the Iraqi Jews, (I believe there are currently only 7 Jews left living in Baghdad) especially at a time when the US government has been involved militarily in Iraq for the last 15 years.

As a refugee, Ms. Shamash’s journey takes her from Baghdad to Turkey, then to Israel, Holland, and England, back to Holland and finally to the United States looking for a “home”. I am struck by how seamlessly she weaves together the parallel stories of her outer life as a young refugee struggling to find her place and her inner journey at ultimately finding a home within herself.

I was drawn in by the warm and protective family ties in each place they landed, the evocative smells and embracing hospitality of her native Iraqi culture and the love that held them all together in the darkest moments. Ms. Shamash has opened herself with honesty, clarity and vulnerability and given us a glimpse into the formative years of a young Jewish woman and an important part of the history of Iraq and Iraqi Jews

- Arco Iris Azul on May 1, 2016