Jews of Kurdistan

Diwaniyya guest blogger Süleyman Şanlı is a Visiting Scholar at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Kurdistan is an area in the Middle East composed mainly of parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. It is inhabited by the Kurds, an ethnolinguistic group of Indo-European descent that has retained its own distinct culture and a strong national identity despite its stateless situation.

The Jews lived in about two hundred villages and towns throughout Kurdistan. Their total number in 1950, just before they left for Israel, was estimated to be about twenty-five thousand. One might say that the entire narrative of the traditional history of Kurdish Jewry is encapsulated between two biblical verses, 2 Kings 17:6, which recounts their exile from Israel, and Isaiah 27:13, which prophesies their return. Kurdish Jews believe themselves to be descendants of the exiles of Samaria, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Israel. This tradition was mentioned as early as the twelfth century by Benjamin of Tudela and perhaps reinforced by proximity to the river Habor (Ḥavor), which is still known by that name today (Ar. Khabur, Aram. Ḥavora). Historians date the exile to 722/21 B.C.E.

With the beginnings of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel in modern times, Jews from Kurdistan were among the first Near Eastern Jews to move there.  Between 1920 and 1926, Kurdish Jews emigrated in larger numbers. With the establishment of the state in 1948, practically all of Kurdish Jewry emigrated to Israel. Many insisted on living in Jerusalem in their own neighborhoods, the best-known of these being Maḥane Yehuda, which includes the famous open market. Others settled in rural areas in the hills around Jerusalem or in villages such as Alroy (near Haifa) and Shetula (near Lebanon), where they continued to farm as in Kurdistan. Of those who settled in cities, most were at first manual laborers, but some eventually prospered as the owners of their own businesses in various branches of the construction industry.

'Ena Kurdi', a Kurdish-Jewish magazine published in Aramaic.

Kurdish Jews began to publish a new magazine in Aramaic called “Ena Kurdi.” Amazingly, given its strict traditionalism, Kurdistan once had a female rabbi, Asenath Barazani (Barzani), who headed a yeshiva (ca. 1680). By her own explanation, this came about because her father had no sons, only daughters, and therefore taught her no other skills except to study and teach Torah, and when he married her off, he adjured her husband not to make her do housework. Asenath’s father and forefathers were prominent rabbis, and many of their descendants served as rabbis in Kurdistan and beyond.

Kurdish Jews in Israel follow closely the struggle of the Kurds for independence. The late legendary Kurdish leader Mullah  Muṣṭafā Barazani, the father of the current leader Masʿūd Barazani, visited old family friends in Israel. Since 1992, when it became possible to journey to Iraq, many Kurdish Jews have returned to visit former homes and old friends. 
Kurdish Jews in Israel celebrate a Kurdish festival, Sehrāne, once a year during the festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot). They sing Kurdish songs at weddings and other festive events. All this is in harmony with Israel’s policy of encouraging political friendships in the region.

Shimon Peres with Kurdish Jewish folk dancers.

In sum, the Israelite-Jewish life that began in ancient Israel and ancient Assyria continued in Kurdistan and lasted about twenty-seven hundred years, ending in modern Israel. Memories of that life will continue for a while among people who are still alive today. However, that life, its unique Judaic traditions, its Neo-Aramaic dialects, its religious and folk literature, are now being studied and preserved for future generations. Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy, “They shall come [home] that were lost in the land of Assyria . . .  and they shall worship God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem” (27:13), has been fulfilled. These very words are on the logo and website of the Organization of Kurdish Jews in Israel.

-Süleyman Şanlı

Brauer, Erich, 1993 The Jews of Kurdistan, completed and ed. Raphael Patai, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.
Sabar, Yona, 1982 The Folk Literature of Kurdistani Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Sabar, Yona,  2011 " Kurdistan." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman . Brill, Brill Online.


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