Obituary: Renee Dallal, 91, who led the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario and became a late-blooming passionate painter

Renee Dallal was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1933, left at age 17, living in London and then Israel before moving to Toronto in 1959. She passed away on April 15, 2024, at the age of 91. (supplied)

Renee Dallal, who was born in Baghdad and went on to establish and lead the Iraqi Jewish community in Ontario—and later graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) at the age of 71—died on April 15. She was 91.

Born on New Year’s Day, 1933, Renee Dallal looked up to her older brother, Maurice. They would hang out on the back porch to swim in the Tigris River. The “swim test” that each one had to pass involved diving into the Tigris fully clothed and swimming across the current and back.

The family owned a textile factory in Iraq, where they made rugs and carpets. Renee learned about colours and palettes at a young age. This later informed her passion for painting and the arts.

Her oldest son, Joseph Dallal, says from the stories they heard, Renee was somewhat unique in the community.

“There’s a sense of a bit of a tomboy, uncharacteristically from what one would expect from a Jewish girl in Iraq” at the time, he said.

Laura Dallal says her father, Naim, knew her mother since she was a child in Baghdad, where a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community developed over centuries.

When Renee became aware of Naim and they began courting, he had a job riding horses to exercise them. But that wasn’t the only fast-moving way to get around in their love story.

“He’d take her for rides on his motorcycle, revving it up, going faster… to get her to hug him tighter,” said Laura Dallal.

Their early dates required chaperones, usually Naim and Renee’s brothers. It was a monitoring system Naim found ways around. In one story, Naim disconnected something on the brothers’ motorcycle to prevent it from starting. The brothers, who were meant to join on the date, were left behind while Naim rode away with Renee.

They were married when she was 15 and he was 25.

“He often bragged it was one of the first romantic marriages of its time,” said Laura Dallal. “A love story from when they started off until 72 years later.”

Many Iraqi Jewish families held senior positions in government, judiciary, and business, and Renee’s prominent family was among those who left during the years following the pogrom of Shavuot in 1941, known as Farhud.

“She talks about hearing the noises and being scared, and then there was that mass exodus of Jews from Baghdad [in 1950-51], because they sensed that the times were not going to get any better,” said Laura Dallal.  

The family left Baghdad in 1950, when their first child, Joseph, was one year old. They first moved to London, where they spent two years. They then moved, in 1952, to Israel, where Naim established a dental practice and Ida, their second child, was born. It was a family affair: the dental practice was located in the family’s apartment.

In 1959, after seven years in Israel, the family moved to Toronto to live with Renee’s parents, her older brother Maurice, and his wife, Betty Young, who by that time were all under a single roof, in a house near Holy Blossom Temple on Bathurst Street. She was 26 years old.

It didn’t matter which children were Renee’s own or her brother’s when she and Betty were taking care of them, Joseph Dallal said. They raised the children “all in one house… [with] sort of unique sense of a tribe, a family, all together, without a sense of separation,” he said.

Renee’s biggest pride was in her children, making even an ordinary child’s drawing something worthy of the highest praise.

Her youngest son, Stephen Dallal, recalled their mother’s phrase during his eulogy.

“’You can hang it in a museum!’” Renee would say.

Renee gave everything to her family, while Naim went back to school to obtain Ontario credentials in order to re-establish his dental practice in Toronto. Laura and Stephen Dallal, Renee and Naim’s third and fourth children, respectively, were born after the family arrived in the city.

In March 1977, Naim and others established the Iraqi Jewish Association of Ontario (IJAO).  Before it was established, the association was just Renee’s house, according to one of Renee’s oldest friends from the Toronto Iraqi Jewish community, Assad Muallim. She would invite everyone over and make a festive occasion, he said.

“A lot of those families that lived in the neighbourhood in Baghdad ended up in Toronto,” along with Montreal and New York, said Laura Dallal.  “Here they all were.”

The idea was to strengthen the Toronto community by holding traditional Iraqi Jewish holiday celebrations and services for the chagim.

When Renee became president, she did things a little differently than the men who’d held the role until then.

“It was quite a unique thing for a woman to be doing,” said Laura Dallal. “This was a woman who married at 15, taking care of the house and family, and became a leader of the community.”

“In her managerial style, she turned the community into a family,” during her presidency of the association, said Laura Dallal.

“The way she did things is different than the way a man would have done things. The men delegated… delegation was not her strong suit,” said Laura Dallal.

Renee was never afraid to get to work, and she and others ensured the Iraqi traditions continued within their community Laura said. Renee would organize groups of women to cook the traditional foods for parties; type, print and mail out newsletters; coordinate High Holiday services; and program speaking events for the community.

“Both my mother and father, they weren’t so much religious as they were traditional, and really wanting all the traditions passed on to their children and grandchildren and the generations to come so that they would all know what the Iraqi Jews were,” said Laura Dallal.

The IJAO grew from the idea that as Jews no longer living in Iraq they might need to speak with a unified voice, when the Iraqi government in 1976 called for Jews to return. The association was formed, in part, to voice the community’s disagreement to the Iraqi administration, as well as to maintain traditions.

Soon after Dallal became president in 1986, parties nearly every month became the standard including specially made Iraqi food.

“She brought [the association] back to life,” Muallim said.

In 1968, Muallim himself arrived in Canada, having known Renee’s father from Iraq but never having met her.

“It was like I found another home away from my home,” he said of meeting Renee.

Zion Sasson, the current IJAO president, whose father worked closely with Renee, recalled how at her High Holidays speeches, standing between the men’s and women’s sections to speak, she would highlight everyone else’s work.

“She had this characteristic of inviting people to join in for the greater good… and she would not take the credit herself. She never did. She was very inclusive… naturally, people gravitated to her to join her in her efforts.”

Together with Eliyahu Sasson, Renee was responsible for major accomplishments like securing space for Beit Eliahou, the IJAO’s shul, in the Sephardic Kehila Centre in Thornhill in 1999; it has remained there since.

In 1999 and 2000, Renee Dallal and Eliyahu Sasson secured another keystone for the IJAO community’s future, fundraising to buy 30 plots at Pardes Shalom cemetery. They then organized sales of the plots to buy more for the community, which now number between 130 and 150 plots.

The rabbi who began coming from Israel each year for the High Holidays was 17 years old in 1984, when Renee helped bring him to Toronto for the first time. Rabbi Oren Eliyahu will be coming again in fall 2024, says Muallim, for what amounts to nearly forty consecutive years visiting Toronto from Israel (less COVID pandemic years) since the time Renee was involved.

Unfortunately, Muallim mentions, fewer members of that older generation remain to continue the association’s vitality.

In the family, Laura Dallal says, education was an important marker of a person’s standing, as was the designation of someone as “a professional.”

Renee’s own formal education halted when she was 15, when she married and started a family, but she’d always had a passion for art, and even decades later came back to pursue that passion.

“She married and ended her studies at age 15, but her love of colours, and her eye for hues and textures, continued as she raised her family,” said Laura Dallal.

Renee was not only involved with the Iraqi Jewish community but with that of Holy Blossom Temple, and she worked tirelessly on its fine arts committee, convening events and weaving artistic appreciation into her Jewish community.

Renee’s longtime interest in art led her to take art classes at the local public library, where she developed her love of painting.

Once Renee’s children were grown, “she was able to take it to a completely different level,” said Laura Dallal.

Renee enrolled at OCAD when she was 65.

“I’ve always thought it remarkable for anyone go back to school at 65 and do a full diploma, let alone someone that stopped school at 15,” Laura Dallal said of her mother’s 50-year gap in formal education.

In 2004, at the age of 71, Renee graduated from OCAD, surrounded by friends and family. The dean spoke at the exhibition event at Todmorden Mills in Toronto.

Dallal is predeceased by her parents, Khatoon and Aziz Yacoob, and by her brother Maurice, and her husband of 72 years, Dr. Naim Dallal. 

She is survived by her children, Joseph, Ida, Laura, and Stephen, and by nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.