views updated May 08 2018


KURDISTAN , region in the Middle East, divided among three countries: *Turkey, *Iraq, and *Iran. The majority of the Muslim population of Kurdistan lives in Turkey, another part in Iran, and the smallest part in Iraq. In contrast, the Jews of Kurdistan – until their great exodus in 1950–51 – lived mainly in the Iraqi region (146 communities), some in the Iranian region (19 communities), and only a few in Turkey (11 communities). There were also a few Jews in the Syrian region and other places (11 communities). There are no accurate statistics on the Jews of Kurdistan. It has been estimated that before the establishment of the State of Israel there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews living there. Kurdish Jews also lived in the Diyala province of Iraq, especially in the town of *Khanaqin, the number of Jews varying between 1,689 in 1920; 2,252, 1932; and 2,851, 1947. The Jews of Mosul speak Arabic and some also understand Turkish and Kurdish. For this reason, some scholars do not reckon them among the Kurdish Jews, even though they resemble them somewhat in their way of life. They form a separate unit known by the name Miṣlawim.

In Iraq


An ancient tradition relates that the Jews of Kurdistan are the descendants of the Ten Tribes from the time of the Assyrian exile. The first to mention this was R. *Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th-century traveler who visited Kurdistan in about 1170 and found more than 100 Jewish communities. In the town of *Amadiya alone, there were 25,000 Jews who spoke the language of the Targum (Aramaic) and whose numbers included scholars. The traveler *Benjamin the Second, who visited Kurdistan in 1848, also mentioned this tradition and added that the Nestorian (Assyrian) tribes were also descendants of the Ten Tribes and that they practiced Jewish customs. According to his assumption, they were descendants of Dan and Naphtali. There is no doubt that Halah and Ḥabor (modern Khabur), the river of Gozan (ii Kings 17:6) – the places to which Shalmaneser, the king of Assyria, exiled the tribes – are in the vicinity of Kurdistan. During the Second Temple era the kingdom of *Adiabene was situated in this region; its inhabitants, together with their king, Monobaz, and his mother Helena, converted to Judaism in the middle of the first century. It may be presumed that there are descendants of these proselytes among the Jews of Kurdistan. *Onkelos translated Harei Ararat as "the mountains of Kardu" (Gen. 8:4); he also translated Mamlekhot Ararat as "the Kingdom of the land of Kardu" (Jer. 51:27). Josephus mentions the "mountains of Kurdukhim" (Ant. 1:93). In the Talmud it is related that "one accepts proselytes from the Kardus" (Yev. 16a).

An ancient popular tradition states that among the Assyrians of northern Iraq there were many families of Jewish origin and these were forcibly converted to Christianity more than 500 years ago. They still observe special Jewish customs, have not assimilated among the Christians, marry among themselves, and are afraid of revealing their origin in front of the Christians. Another popular tradition states that many of the descendants of the Ten Tribes who were exiled to this region by the kings of Assyria converted to Christianity. In 38 villages of Iraqi Kurdistan there were hundreds of Jews who claimed descent from the tribe of Benjamin and who possessed a holy book in Kurdish. They lived in the provinces of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Khanaqin. Some of them emigrated to *Afghanistan and the Caucasus. During the middle of the seventh century – at the time of the Arab conquest – the treaty of conquest was signed in the town of Dabil, on the Armenian border, with the "Magians [Zoroastrians] and the Jews" (according to al-Balādhurī, Futūḥ al-Buldān (1318 a.h.), 280; Yāqūt, Muʿjam, s.v. Dabīl). From this it is ascertained that there was another Jewish community in addition to that of Mosul and possibly that of Irbil.

During the 12th century two messianic movements arose in the neighborhood of the town of Amadiya: that of Menahem b. Solomon ibn Ruḥi (or Dugi) and that of David *Alroy. Some scholars regard these as one movement. There is no clear information available on the situation of the Jews during the 13th–15th centuries. From the beginning of the 16th century, however, information gradually becomes more available. The statistics provided by various travelers of different periods indicate great fluctuations over short periods of time in the Jewish population of every town and village. At times, the Jewish population increased or decreased by several hundred within four or five years. The cause for this was the instability of their economic and security situation; consequently, they often migrated from the smaller villages to the larger ones and from there to the large towns. Every pogrom caused the local Jews to flee to neighboring communities – for long or short periods – until the danger was past. In the 20th century the use of motor vehicles was an important reason for the removal of commerce from the smaller centers to the larger ones. Since there were no official statistics, the travelers relied solely on estimates.

economic conditions

The economic situation of the Jews was difficult; many of them lived in poverty and distress. The urban Jews were essentially engaged in commerce and crafts. Several of them owned estates with peasants and agricultural laborers. In eastern Kurdistan the number of merchants was greater than that of craftsmen. These tradesmen could be divided into wholesalers, shopkeepers, and peddlers. The craftsmen were weavers, gold- and silversmiths, dyers, carpenters, tanners, cobblers, and unskilled workers. There were no bankers among the Jews, this occupation being in the hands of the feudal lords. The Jewish farmers cultivated mainly wheat, barley, rice, sesame, lentils, and tobacco. They owned orchards, vineyards, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle. There were also agricultural villages, all of whose inhabitants were Jews (e.g., Sindur). Jewish peasants were found mainly in *Ruwandiz, Tel-Kabar, Barazan, *Dehok, Aqrah, Shandukha, Bitanura, Bashkala, Koi-Sanjaq, Mirawa, Karada, and Girzengal. As a result of droughts, famines broke out in several places (1880, 1888, 1889, etc.) and their inhabitants were compelled to migrate to other places. Many fled to Baghdad, where they found employment in various occupations. The Jews of Kurdistan are known for their strength and sturdiness.

instability of living conditions

The lives of the Jews of Kurdistan were subject to anarchy. Political and economic factors determined their places of residence and their migrations from one place to another. They were scattered in many villages and lived among various Muslim and Christian sects. Robbery and murder were common occurrences. Because of their isolation from the outside world, no concern was shown for them; their persons and belongings were enslaved to feudal rulers. In order to safeguard their lives, they were compelled to seek the protection of the powerful Agha, to whom they paid a special tax. He was a kind of tribal chief who traveled about accompanied by groups of armed servants. The Jews subordinated themselves to him and fulfilled his orders. Some of the Aghas sold Jews or gave them away as presents; this servitude continued until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1912, 12 Jews were murdered in Kurdistan. For them this was the sign to liquidate their affairs and sell their fields and houses at a low price in order to emigrate to Palestine. The anti-Zionist propaganda which began in Iraq in 1925 adversely affected the position of the Jews of Kurdistan. The persecutions gained in intensity from day to day and reached their height at the time of the revolt of Rashīd ʿĀlī (1941). With establishment of the State of Israel, most of them traveled to Baghdad and from there flew to Israel in the "Operation Ezra and Nehemiah." In 1970 a small number of Kurdish Jews remained in the regions of Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

the organization of the communities and their spiritual foundation

Prior to the 19th century the large communities were headed by nesi'im who imposed their authority on the public and collected special taxes. The nasi was also called shoter ("officer of the law") or sar ("minister"). The ḥakhamim were also subordinated to them. This position was abolished during the 19th century. From the beginning of the 16th century, there were several rabbis of the Adoni (or *Barazani), Mizraḥi, Duga, and Ḥariri families. Some of them practiced practical Kabbalah and various legends were woven around them. About 30 Kurdish paytanim are known from among the inhabitants of Barazan, Mosul, Amadiya, Ḥarīr, Naṣībīn, *Zākho, and other places. They wrote religious and secular poems in Hebrew and in Aramaic; 54 of them were published by Abraham Ben-Jacob in his book Kehillot Yehudei Kurdistan (1961). The most important of these poets were R. Samuel b. Nethanel ha-Levi *Barazani, who was also a rosh yeshivah in Mosul during the 17th century, and his daughter Asenath; R. Phineas b. R. Isaac Ḥariri and his son R. Ḥayyim; R. Simeon b. Jonah Mizraḥi; R. Gershon b. Raḥamim; R. Simeon b. Benjamin Abidani; R. Moses b. Isaac Bajulnaya; R. Samuel b. Simeon ʿAjamiya; R. Baruch b. Samuel Mizraḥi, the author of Shirei Zimrah; and others.

Each community was headed by the ḥakham, who was also a ḥazzan, mohel, shoḥet, and bodek ("examiner of slaughtered animals"), treasurer, teacher, scribe, and writer of amulets. The smaller communities were subordinated to the larger ones; in all religious and legal matters they turned to the rabbis of Baghdad. Religious and spiritual life was centered around the synagogue and the talmud torah. In the large communities there were several synagogues, some of which were very old. One was built in 1210 (in Mosul) and a second in 1228 (in Amadiya). The Alliance Israélite Universelle opened schools only in the towns of Mosul (1900 and 1906) and Kirkuk (in 1912).

kurdish language

The Jews of Kurdistan spoke an Aramaic with insertions of Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic, and Hebrew words. They called it the "language of the Targum" or Lishna Yehudiyya ("language of the Jews"), as well as Lashon ha-Galut. The Arabs called it jabalī, i.e., "of the mountains," because it was essentially spoken by the inhabitants of the mountains. They called themselves Anshei Targum ("People of [the language of] the Targum"). A.J. Maclean found four dialects in the language; J.J. *Rivlin found only three dialects. The Nestorian Christians who live in this region also speak Aramaic, which they refer to as "Syrian." This language is also spoken by the Sabeans, who live along the banks of the Lower Euphrates, around the town of Nāṣiriyya, and along the banks of the Lower Tigris in the region of Amadiya. In about 1930 it was estimated that 9,837 persons spoke *Aramaic in Iraqi Kurdistan; they were to be found in the following provinces (qaḍāʾ): Zakho (1,471), Amadiya (1,821), Zibar (100), Ruwandiz (250), Dehok (843), ʿAqrah (1,000), Irbil (250), Matuk (1,900), Koi-Sanjaq (302), Sulaimaniya (900), Halabja (400), and in others (500). In addition to the above, Aramaic was also spoken in Persian and Turkish Kurdistan and in Israel. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people speak Aramaic.

aliyyot to palestine

Dozens of emissaries from Palestine visited Kurdistan; they noted the Jews' sympathy for and contributions to the Holy Land. The aliyah to Palestine already began during the 16th century. The first immigrants lived in Safed. Between 1920 and 1926, 1,900 Kurdish Jews emigrated to Palestine. In 1935, 2,500 Jews emigrated. With the establishment of the State of Israel almost all the Jews of Iraqi Kurdistan (see *Iraq, Kurdish Jews), and many from other places, emigrated there. In Israel they formed committees, according to the provinces and towns where they had lived in Kurdistan, and are scattered in many towns and settlements, with a large proportion living in and around Jerusalem.

[Abraham Ben-Yaacob]

In Iran

The Jewish Kurds of Iran have traditionally been living in Iran since 722 b.c., when according to ii Kings (17:6; 18: 9–12) they were deported from Samaria and brought to the cities of the Medes, which roughly correspond to the present provinces of *Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and the western part of *Gilān. Jewish Kurds are mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela. The Jewish Kurds of Iran speak their own language, which linguistically is classified as a Neo-Judeo-Aramaic language. They have produced their own literature in this language. It is close to the present language of the Assyrians (Ashuri). If their language is an indication of their ethnic identity, one may say they do not live only in the province of Kurdistan but also in the cities and villages of Azerbaijan and territories adjacent to Gilān, *Hamadan, *Kermanshah, and their vicinity. As such, it is safe to say that in the 20th century they lived in more than 45 towns and villages in north and northwest Iran.

There are no coherent historical records of their past except some scattered information gathered from Jewish and non-Jewish travelogues. Rabbi David d'Beth Hillel visited the following settlements of the Iranian Jewish Kurds around 1827/28: Bāneh, where ten Jewish families lived together with 1,000 Muslim families; they were poor and possessed one synagogue. Fifteen Jewish families lived in Saqqez which had 1,000 Muslim families. They had one synagogue and some of them were wealthy. Sāvoj-Bulāgh (today called Mahābād) was a large city, having 25 Jewish families and a fine synagogue. They were generally rich and lived among 15,000 Muslim families. R. David mentions a village where 10 Jewish families lived but he does not give its name (most probably the village was Tāzeh-Qal`eh). In Urmiah (name changed to Rezāiyeh) 200 Jewish families lived among 60,000 Muslims who, according to the traveler, were "wicked" and spoke Persian, Turkish, and Kurdish. Jews had three synagogues and most of them lived comfortably. The rabbi of the Jewish community was a rich man. The Christians there were more mistreated than the Jews. The "beautiful city" of Salmās (changed to Shāhpur) had 100 Jewish and 400 Christian families and 10,000 Muslim inhabitants. Most of the Jews were rich. They had one fine synagogue. In the city of Bāsh-Qal'eh there lived 20 Jewish, 100 Christian, and 2,000 Muslim families. Most of the Jews were rich and they had one small synagogue. In the small town of Miyāndoab there were 15 Jewish families among 4,000 Muslims. The town had no Christians. In 1801 a violent pogrom befell the Jews of the city as a result of a blood libel. The town of Garus had 25 Jewish families living among 3,000 Muslim families. Some of the Jews were rich. There were no Christians in the town. In the big city of Seneh (name changed to Sanandaj) there were 300 Jewish families among 50,000 Muslim families. They had two synagogues and some were rich merchants. In the small town of Qoslān five Jewish families lived among 1,000 Muslims. No Christians lived there.

There is no doubt that there were several dozen towns and villages where Jewish Kurds lived. Reports about some of them came before their immigration to the State of Israel. In addition to what has been mentioned above, we hear of towns and villages such as Bijār, Bukān, Gahvāreh, Marivān, Naqdeh, Oshnoviyeh, Qorveh, Sardasht, Shāhin-Dez, Soldoz, Takāb, and others. In 1948, the Jewish Agency in Teheran estimated the total number of Jewish Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey at about 50,000, of which about 15,000 lived in Iran. It is possible that the real figures were higher. Almost all of them were preparing themselves for aliyah to the Jewish State. In general, relative to other Jewish communities across Iran, Jewish Kurds had correct relations with the Muslims, particularly with the Sunnis. The Israel-Arab conflict aggravated their fragile relations, however. By the end of the 20th century a small number of Jews were reported to have been living in large cities of Kurdistan such as Sanandaj and Mahābād. In Israel, the Jewish Kurds of Iran separated themselves from those of other countries. They have their separate organizations and even plan their feast on the last day of Passover on different days and under different names: Seyrānah for the Kurds of Iran and Sahrānah for other Jewish Kurds. Their common periodical in Israel is called Hitḥadshut.

[Amnon Netzer (2nd ed.)]

Musical Tradition

The style of Jewish music in Kurdistan is conditioned by the multinational and multilingual character of the country which in its long history scarcely ever aimed at a cultural centralization and thus helped to preserve the musical dialects of the Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish regions of the area. The foremost feature of Jewish song in Kurdistan is the unique melodic style of the renditions of Aramaic texts (which is distinct from the general "Oriental Sephardi" style used for Hebrew texts). Connected with liturgical or spiritual texts, this melodic style is basically determined by the speech-melody of the Aramaic language, with a tendency to proceed over long stretches in a litany or parlando style, especially if the text is of a narrative nature (as in the chanting of the biblical books in the local Aramaic version, or the Zohar). If the contents are of a poetical or meditative-kabbalistic nature, the words may be interrupted by long and drawn-out melismatic insertions produced in a slow and deep vibrato, often with a curious change of voice timbre.

A further factor for the formation of Jewish song in Kurdistan is the contact with Arab music, which since the early days of Islam had gradually replaced the older musical idiom of the Mesopotamian area, especially in the sphere of artistic urban music. Equally important for the formation of the Jewish-Kurdish style of synagogue song were the bonds with the major tradition of Jewish music, foremost – cantillation and ḥazzanut styles. These were brought in and taught by emissaries from the spiritual centers of Near-Eastern Judaism, in the "Oriental Sephardi" idiom which was in itself already a synthesis, and which is different from the indigenous "mountain" (jabalī) idiom. The Kurdish cantors thus tended to be musically bilingual. However, time works against the continuation of the indigenous tradition.

Still another factor is the Kurdish folk song proper, in the Kurmanji language, with its epics, ballads, and dances, which has been widely accepted by the Jews, and synthesized with their other singing styles. The fact that Kurdish Jews lived as free peasants side by side with their Muslim neighbors is a rare instance in the history of Diaspora life, and has doubtlessly contributed to the acceptance of the host culture's lore and song.

Summarizing the distribution of languages and musical structures, which exists even within the boundaries of the one (and main) region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the following divisions become apparent in which the distinction of language is congruent with the distinctiveness of musical style: (1) Hebrew, for the liturgical music of the synagogue; (2) "Targum," i.e., Aramaic, for the religious and paraliturgical music of the ḥeder, yeshivah, and some rituals, serving for the study, vernacularization, and paraphrasing of the sacred texts; (3) Arabic, for the secular songs taken over from popular and artistic urban music, serving for purely social gatherings; and (4) Kurdish (Kurmanji), for the folk tradition of heroic epics, ballads, and dances of the rural milieu. The Hebrew and Aramaic idioms belong to the cycle of the liturgical year and the religious life cycle, and the Arabic and Kurdish idioms belong to the social folk level functions.

In this abundance of structures some main classes of music deserve particular attention. First is the chanting of the Bible, which has always been the nucleus of all creative imagination in Jewish music and its main contribution to the world's music culture. One of its basic forms is the chanting of the Psalms in a kind of speech-melody oscillating around an (imaginary) tone axis, which closely follows the poetical structure of the two half-verses, marking the main divisive points with definite and distinct melodic turns. The elaborate system of the masoretic accents is not utilized, and it is likely that an earlier version has been preserved here. Similar archaic trends can be observed in the melodic patterns of the cantillation of the biblical prose books, which suggest a pre- or extra-masoretic jabalī tradition for the "mode of the Prophets." The most ingenious part of Kurdish-Jewish song tradition is the paraphrasing of biblical stories in epic form, in the Aramaic vernacular. Its melodic frame reveals many common traits with the cantillation of the Pentateuch.

[Edith Gerson-Kiwi]


in iraq: E. Brauer, Yehudei Kurdistan (1947); A. Ben-Jacob, Kehillot Yehudei Kurdistan (1961); idem, Yehudei Bavel (1965), passim; idem, in: Maḥanayim, 119 (1968), 30–35; S. Assaf, in: Zion Me'assef, 6 (1934), 85–112; A.J. Brawer, in: Minḥah le-David Yellin (1935), 245–51; S. Assaf, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 116–44; J.J. Rivlin, Shirat Yehudei ha-Targum (1959); M. Benayahu, in: Sefunot, 9 (1964), 21–125; P.J. Magnarella, in: jjso, 11:1 (1969), 51–58; I. Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed (1958), 40–49. in iran: add. bibliography: M.D. Adler (ed.), The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907); J. Blau, Le problème kurde, essai sociologique et historique (1963); E. Brauer, The Jews of Kurdistan, completed and edited by R. Patai (1993); R.W. Cottam, Nationalism in Iran (1978); David d'Beth Hillel, Unknown Jews in Unknown Lands (18241832), ed. by W.J. Fischel (1973); A.R. Ghassemlou et al., People Without a Country (1980); S. Landshut, Jewish Communities in the Muslim Countries of the Middle East (1950), 61–66; H. Levy, History of the Jews of Iran, vol. 3 (1960), 804ff.; E.E. Lytle, A Biography of the Kurds, Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Question (1977); Sh. Marcus, Yehudei Kurdistan (1964); Y. Sabar, The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews, An Anthology (1982). musical tradition: E. Gerson-Kiwi, in Studia Musicologica, 7 (1965), 61–70; Idelsohn, Melodien, 2 (1922), 31, 128–9.


views updated May 29 2018


The land of the Kurds.

Kurdistan does not have boundaries on any map, but it extends over five Middle Eastern states: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and parts of the former Soviet Armenia. It is a 620-mile (1,000 km) strip of land that, stretching from the southeast to the northwest, extends from Kermanshah (Iran) to the Gulf of Iskenderun (or Alexandretta, Turkey). Its width varies from about 150 miles (250 km) to 250 miles (400 km) between Mosul and Mount Ararat. The heart of Kurdistan is two long chains of mountains, the Taurus and the Zagros, which have many summits towering over 9,800 feet (3,000 m), while Mount Ararat reaches 16,900 feet (5,157 m).

Two long rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, have their sources in Kurdistan, which is also watered by two huge lakesVan in Turkey and Urmia in Iran. Despite its harsh climate, Kurdistan is very fertile and rich in natural resources, particularly petroleum (especially in Kirkuk). Sulaymaniya, Diyarbakir, and Sanandaj have long been considered the "capitals" of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish Kurdistan, and Iranian Kurdistan, respectively. Iran is the only country where the word Kurdistan officially appears on the map, as a province.

There are no official statistics, but it is estimated that the Kurds number more than 25 million. Sharing a common culture (although they speak three different Kurdish dialectsKurmanji, Sorani, and Zaza) and artifically divided by international borders that were imposed on them after World War I, the Kurds have not been able to develop a single and unified Kurdish national movement. They have fought separately in Turkey (Öcalan's Kurdistan Workers Party), in Iraq (KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), and in Iran (KDPI, Iran), sometimes even allowing the neighboring countries to play upon their divisions. Long considered an obscure minority problem, the Kurdish issue has become an international question since the invasion of Kuwait (1990), the Gulf War (1991), and the creation in northern Iraq of a Kurdish Autonomous Zone, which is now shown on all maps of the Middle East.

see also diyarbakir; gulf crisis (19901991); kurdish autonomous zone; kurdish revolt; kurds; sulaymaniya.


McDowall, David. A Modern History of Kurds, 2d revised and updated edition. New York; London: I. B. Taruis, 2000.

Randal, Jonathan C. After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters with Kurdistan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Van Bruinessen, Martin. Aghas, Shaikhs, and State. London: Zed Books, 1992.

chris kutschera


views updated May 09 2018

Kurdistan Extensive mountainous and plateau region in sw Asia, inhabited by the Kurds and including parts of e Turkey, ne Iran, n Iraq, ne Syria, s Armenia and e Azerbaijan. Plans for the creation of a separate Kurdish state were put forward after World War I but subsequently abandoned. Area: c.192,000sq km (74,000sq mi).