Jews of Kurdistan

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Jews of Kurdistan

ETHNONYMS: In Kurdistan: Hōzāyē (by the Jews themselves), Hūdāyē (by the Christians), Juhū (by the Kurds); in Israel: Kurdim.


Identification. Kurdish Jews, a largely rural people, have lived in the mountains and plains of Kurdistan since time immemorial. They have been geographically isolated throughout much of their history and are thought to have retained some old Jewish traditions. Their Neo-Aramaic language is a survival of old Aramaic, which was the dominant language in the Middle East before being gradually superseded by Arabic after the Islamic conquest of the area during the seventh century a.d. Most of the Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel during 1950-1951.

Location. Kurdistan is a geographic-ethnic term referring to a large territory (about 960 kilometers long and 190 to 240 kilometers wide) in central Southwest Asia, divided at present among Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The Kurds are a nation without a politically recognized homeland (in spite of their continuous struggle for centuries to have one). Kurdistan consists mostly of a rugged chain of mountains, with the exception of some lowland areas on the fringes. The climate is characterized by heavy snows during the winter, followed by spring rains and heavy runoff down the slopes, creating rapid torrents and swollen rivers. This combination of rugged terrain and harsh weather makes the region an inaccessible and almost impregnable fortress. Hence, day-to-day control by remote governments has always been tenuous at best. Kurdistan has consequently served as a refuge for various religiously and politically dissident groups throughout the ages.

Demography. At present there are about 2,400,000 Kurds in Turkey, 2,200,000 in Iraq, 2,000,000 in Iran, and smaller numbers in Syria and Russia. The total number of Jews in Kurdistan, before the mass emigration to Israel, was about 25,000, sparsely scattered in about 200 villages and little towns. Their number in Israel (including those born there) today is estimated at 100,000. Because of their strong sentiment for Jerusalem, many live there or in the nearby villages. Others have settled in rural areas near Haifa, the Jordan Valley, and the Lakhish region.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Muslim Kurds speak Kurdish, an Indo-Iranian language that has several regional dialects. Most Christians and Jews speak various Aramaic dialects containing many Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, and Arabic loanwords. The Jewish dialects also include many Hebrew loanwords. Because the topography and climate make travel and communication very difficult, almost every village and town had its own dialect. Wherever there was a Jewish community, there was usually a distinctive Jewish dialect, as well as a Christian one, which were, however, mutually intelligible. The farther two places were from each other, the less mutually intelligible their dialects would be. Practically all the Jewish men and many women also spoke Kurdish, which they used when talking with Kurds at the marketplace and during other social and commercial encounters. Kurdish was also the language of folk songs and other types of folklore traditions. Hebrew was the language of recitation for religious rituals, blessings, and prayers. The learned men also used Hebrew for their traditional forms of writing, including personal correspondence. Hebrew expressions were used by Jews engaged in commerce as a secret in-group language when they did not want the Gentiles to understand. Arabic was used only for official purposes or when talking with nomadic Arabs. Many Jews in the larger towns, however, have shifted from Aramaic to Arabic (in Iraq), Persian (in Iran), and Turkish (in Turkey).

History and Cultural Relations

According to their oral tradition, Kurdish Jews are the descendants of the Jews exiled from Israel and Judea by the Assyrian kings (2 Kings 17:6). Several scholars who have studied the Jews of Kurdistan tend to consider this tradition at least partly valid, and one may safely assume that the Kurdish Jews include, among others, some descendants of the ancient Jewish exiles, the so-called Lost Ten Tribes. Christianity was successful in this area, partly because it was inhabited by Jews. Christianity, which usually spread in existing Jewish communities, was accepted in this region without difficulty. The first substantial evidence of Jewish settlements in Kurdistan is found in the reports of two Jewish travelers to Kurdistan in the twelfth century. Their accounts indicate the existence of a large, well-established, and prosperous Jewish community in the area. It seems that, as a result of persecutions and the fear of approaching Crusaders, many Jews from Syria-Palestine had fled to Babylonia and Kurdistan. The Jews of Mosul, the largest town, with a Jewish population of about 7,000, enjoyed some degree of autonomy, and the local exilarch (community leader) had his own jail. Of the taxes paid by the Jews, half were given to him and half to the (non-Jewish) governor. One account concerns David Alroy, the messianic leader from Kurdistan who rebelled, albeit unsuccessfully, against the king of Persia and planned to redeem the Jews from exile and lead them to Jerusalem.

Stability and prosperity, however, did not last long. The reports of later travelers, as well as local documents and manuscripts, indicate that Kurdistan, except for some short periods, suffered grievously from armed conflicts between the central government in Turkey and the local tribal chieftains. As a result, the Muslim, as well as Jewish and Christian populations declined. Many localities that had earlier been reported to have large Jewish populations were reduced to a few families, or none at all. The U.S. missionary Asahel Grant visited the once important town of Amadiya in 1839. He found hardly any inhabitants: only 250 of 1,000 houses were occupied; the rest were demolished or uninhabitable. In more recent times, Amadiya has had only about 400 Jews. Nerwa, once an important Jewish center, was set on fire by an irate chieftain just before the outbreak of World War I, destroying, among other things, the synagogues and all the Torah scrolls therein. As a result, with the exception of three families, all the Jews fled the town and wandered off to other places, such as Mosul and Zakho. In modern times, the latter has been one of the few places in Kurdistan proper with a substantial Jewish population (about 5,000 in 1945).

Kurdistan is a unique synthesis of several cultures and ethnic groups. In the past, it bordered the great Assyrian-Babylonian and Hittite empires; later it adjoined Persian, Arabic, and Turkish civilizations. Kurdistan embraces a great variety of sects, ethnic groups, and nationalities. Apart from the Kurdish tribes (mostly Sunni Muslims, and the rest Shiites) that form most of the population, there are various Muslim Arab and Turkish tribes, Christians of various denominations (Assyrians, Armenians, Nestorians, Jacobites), as well as Yazidis (followers of an ancient Kurdistani religion), Mandeans (a Gnostic sect), and Jews. The Jews hadalbeit at times quite limitedcultural ties with the Jews of the larger urban centers of Iraq (Mosul, Baghdad), Iran, and Turkey, and especially with the Land of Israel (Palestine). Many Kurdish Jews had relatives who sought employment in the larger urban centers. Individuals, families, and sometimes all the residents of a village had been emigrating to the Land of Israel since the beginning of the twentieth century. These trickles culminated in the mass emigration of the entire Jewish community of Iraqi Kurdistan to Israel during 19501951.


In general, living conditions were quite meager and unstable. Many of the Kurdish Jews were farmers, shepherds, rafters, and loggersoccupations almost unknown in other Jewish communities in the East or West. In past centuries, there were more villages populated entirely by Jews than there were later; some villages remained entirely Jewish until the mass emigration to Israel. In larger centers, Jews traded in grain, cotton, wool, furs, cattle, gum, gullnuts (from which ink was made), sesame, dried fruits, and tobacco. Many had vineyards and orchards. Jewish artisans included weavers, dyers, shoemakers, tailors, and a few silversmiths and goldsmiths. In the twentieth century, for security reasons and owing to improvements of transportation (e.g., the use of motorized vehicles), many Jews (as well as others) gradually left the villages and the hardships of farming. Moving to urban centers, they looked for an easier life as shopkeepers, merchants, and butchers. The towns, with their large synagogues and numerous religious functionaries, were more suited to Jewish life and provided greater security against attacks by nomadic tribes and brigands, as well as relief from the natural calamities of the rugged areas. A common sight in the larger towns, such as Zakho, were poor peddlers traveling in companies of two or more, riding donkeys and mules and selling certain groceries (e.g., tea and sugar) and notions (e.g., needles, buttons, and thread). This occupation was extremely dangerous because their routes were often infested with robbers; many lives were lost at the hands of Kurdish brigands. Another dangerous occupation among the poor was rafting and logging. About seventy families in Zakho made a meager living from transporting logs, used for construction and carpentry, on the torrential rivers. Other common skills were spinning (done mostly by women), weaving of light rugs and clothing, and dyeing of woolens. Weaving was common in the urban centers as well as the rural areas. In general, the occupations of the Kurdish Jews were typical of a rural or small-town society, and, therefore, few wealthy merchants were found among them. Money in general was scarce in Kurdistan, and so were items of luxury. Much of the trading was by way of barterfor example, shoes could be exchanged for chickens, notions for farm produce. Some Kurdish Jews, after their emigration to Israel, continued to work as farmers in rural areas around Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Of those who settled in the cities, principally Jerusalem, many women worked as maids, and most men worked first at hard manual labor, as porters, masons, and stonecutters. A few who started as common laborers in the building trade are now among the wealthiest people in Israel; they own luxurious hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets. Much of the construction business in Jerusalem wasand still isdominated by Kurdish Jews. Some have become prominent in the Israeli army or have become high government officials or members of city councils.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The Kurds are a distinct, non-Arab ethnic group, mostly Sunni Muslims, with their own language, customs, dress, and ways of life. Originally the Kurds formed a mostly rural society. Traditional tribal villages included nomadic or seminomadic groups, but an increasing number of Kurds now live also in towns and work at various urban trades. Yet most Kurds, urban and rural alike, still associate themselves with specific tribal groupings. Throughout Kurdistan, marriage between cousins, or at least within the tribal clan, is preferred, and marriage with the father's brother's daughter is regarded as ideal. Such marriages are, nevertheless, accompanied by the payment of a bride-price (a substantial sum of money) to the father of the bride. These customs were prevalent among the Kurdish Jews as well. Such marriages assured the strengthening of kinship ties and the obedience of the bride to her husband and her mother-in-law, who was the "boss" in the extended family, in which all lived under the same roof. In the case of rich families, it kept the family's wealth within the family. It was usually beneficial for the bride as well: she did not have to wander to another tribe or village, and, as a relative, she was treated kindly and favorably. She stayed close to her parents and her previous home, which was an important moral support for young brides, who were often married at the age of 15 to 16, sometimes to much older husbands. Monogamy was the common norm, although some practiced polygamy. Soon after the wedding, the new bride had to be quickly "incorporated" into a very busy joint-family household, succumbing to endless chores and hard work. She was expected to bear a child, preferably a son, during each of her fertile years. There was a high rate of child mortality, however, and the chances of survival for the newborn were about fifty-fifty. Even though Kurdish society is patriarchal and patrilineal ties are very important, Kurdish women enjoy more freedom and a wider participation in public life than do rural Arab, Persian, and Turkish women. Kurdish women are also freer in their behavior toward males and rarely wear the veil, which is commonly worn by women in the Muslim world.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The level of spiritual life in any society depends largely upon its physical security, economic conditions, population size, and communication, as well as contact with other societies. In the case of the Jews of Kurdistan, all these factors are mostly negative. Life in the area was often precarious. It was common for population remnants to migrate from place to place because of natural disasters (floods, plagues) and destruction or devastation by tribal chieftains. The Jewish population in any one locality would often dwindle from several hundred or several thousand to a few families. Yet, during some short, less troubled periods of relative security, a few centers of learning did flourish. The Kurdish Jews, as in any traditional rural society, were deeply religious, observing what they knew of Jewish law quite strictly. Although many could not read Hebrew prayers, almost everyone attended services in the synagogue, not only on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, but also on weekdays. All Jewish holidays were observed and celebrated with great joy. In spite of the general preoccupation with daily routine practices, the moral principles and customs of Judaism were learned as well, being transmitted orally from generation to generation, often through the sermons in the synagogue. The sermon played a most important role in the religious and national edification of isolated communities such as Kurdistan, where books were rare and the rate of illiteracy was high. The sermon included tales and legends of the life and deeds of the patriarchs, ancient kings and heroes, prophets and rabbis, mystics, and ordinary pious men and women, all carefully selected to fit the particular audience. The legends were not only fascinating in themselves but also taught ethical principles, repentance for misconduct, and steadfast devotion to the faith of the fathers. The miracles and salvations so often mentioned in these sermons gave the Jewish community much comfort, as well as strength to endure the hardships of daily life in exile and to maintain hope of redemption and the coming of the Messiah. The ties to the Land of Israel, the land of their roots, were indicated in religious literature and in various customs, for example, the attributing of biblical names to localities in Kurdistan (e.g., Ekron, for the local town of Aqra and calling Zakho "the Jerusalem of Kurdistan"). All Jewish dead were placed in their graves with their feet facing in the direction of Jerusalem, probably to hasten their arrival there on the Day of Resurrection. The religious practices of the Kurdish Jews included, in common with other Middle Eastern and North African Jewish and non-Jewish communities, the visitation and veneration of local shrines or tombs assumed to be the burial grounds of holy persons.

Medicine. The shrines were visited in groups or by individuals, such as barren women or parents of paralyzed children, who beseeched the holy men to intercede on their behalf and cure their illnesses. A variety of amulets prepared by living mystics were used for healing all sorts of psychological-physical aliments or for restoring love relations, such as in the case of a wife who was no longer loved by her husband. Popular folk medicine included bloodletting by razor cuts on the back, the application of leeches, and the preparation of herbal drinks and homemade creams.

Handicrafts and Oral Arts. Like those of other rural societies, the arts of the Kurdish Jews were mostly practical crafts: weaving various types of carpets, producing woolen textiles, and knitting items such as socks, gloves and hats, silk-embroidered scarfs, and handkerchiefs. People who could not afford to buy new clothes would simply dye the old ones in strong, bright colors such as indigo and crimson, to give them a new look. A few people were gold- and silversmiths. During weddings and others festivities, women wore gold or silver jewelry, such as nose- and earrings, necklaces, and hand and foot bracelets with little bells. Small children wore various types of silver pendants, some with Hebrew inscriptions, as well as little gold and silver bells, to protect them from the evil eye and evil spirits. At celebration times, men would wear fine woolen baggy suits, a very elaborate headdress, and belts with daggers in silver-decorated sheaths. Some old men had very fancy smoking pipe with long tubes.

A few men and women excelled in the oral arts of storytelling and singing. The rich oral folk literature provided the most popular pastime for Kurdish Jews. Some of the best narrators of these Kurdish tales were Jewish, and they were sought after by Jews and Muslims alike. The general content of the stories was often well known to the audience, but an artistic narrator could captivate his listeners again and again. The storyteller made the story come to life by gesticulating and making facial expressions, by changing voices, and by producing sound effects, such as the fast running of a gazelle or the galloping of a horse. The stories varied in length and in subject matterfrom serious heroic adventures or misfortunes, tragic love stories, and imaginative moralistic tales to humorous, erotic, supernatural, and entertaining anecdotes. Sometimes the narration would extend over several long winter nightsthe narrator always stopping at a critical point to leave the audience in suspense until the next evening. Singing was common during work (especially during group work such as wheat grinding), at celebrations, and during mourning periods. Women excelled as chanters at funerals, moving mourners to loud weeping. Those with pleasant "professional" voices sang for an audience, but almost everyone sang anywherewalking down a street or when alone in the countryside. Singing was usually unaccompanied by musical instruments, except during wedding celebrations and other occasions for dancing, in which cases a wooden flute and a large kettle drum were played.


Ben-Jacob, Abraham (1972). "Kurdistan." In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 10, 1295-1301. Jerusalem: Keter.

Bois, Th. (1981). "Kurds, Kurdistan." In Encyclopedia of Islam. New ed. Vol. 5, 438-486.

Sabar, Yona (1982). The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews: An Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press.