Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Kurds should research their Jewish roots

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Judit Neurink pleads for Kurds to preserve their links with Jews and Kurdistan's Jewish heritage, such as Nahum's shrine at al Qosh. (An astonishing number of Kurds have Jewish grandmothers ). But beyond admiration for Israel, Jewish heritage and stories are almost all forgotten.


The partially ruined remains of the tomb of Nahum at al Qosh (Photo: Seth J Frantzman)

 Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan – where Al Qosh is situated from a geographic point of view, although politically it is part of the Iraqi government of Baghdad – were very much part of the fabric of the society. They were mainly farmers and craftsmen, living side by side with the Kurds, and in the process taking over many of their habits. Although intermarriage was not common, friendships were.

When I did the research for my novel The Jewish Bride, trying to understand how closely knit the society was before the ‘50s, and why almost all Jews had left Kurdistan by the end of that same decade, I was impressed by those friendships.

An old judge remembered his childhood friends, whom he had joined after play at home for dinner. He spoke with almost palpable pain about the moment they left for Israel, and he realized he would never see them again. The head of an influential Kurdish family told me about the life at the centuries-old citadel of Erbil, where the star of David above the door of the old hammam (Turkish bath) still tells us about the mix of people living there.

The society was so close-knit that many Jews did not want to leave it. They preferred to stay in Kurdistan instead of leaving for a country they did not know, a difficult environment where they would have to start from scratch – as they had been told by those idealists who had already made the journey. That’s why probably thousands chose to convert to Islam – if even only for the eyes of the outside world – to be able to stay.

I found families that still hold lively memories of their Jewish grandmother.

When I make presentations on the subject for Kurdish groups, young people come to me and tell me privately about their Jewish roots. Some of them would ask me for details, as most of the knowledge of this important chapter of the history of Kurdistan has been lost.

I even found a family that still spoke the old Aramean language, the local Targum, between themselves. When the last group of converted Jews left for Israel in the Nineties, they were somehow passed over.

And once I got myself really started on the subject, I found out that even some of my Kurdish friends had Jewish roots, about which they never talked in public.

Some had children who left for Europe to try to catch up with these roots, yet never discussing it with other Kurds for fear of reprisals.

Kurdistan is still part of Iraq, and sandwiched between Arab countries that have no love for Israel. Local radical Islamic groups have fed on years of poverty and neglect, and are adamantly anti-Jewish.

Yet at the same time, the ruling Barzani family is known to have strong personal links to Israel, with both president Massoud Barzani and his father Malla Mustafa visiting old friends that had left their Barzan village in Israel.

And it is known that when the Jews left in the ‘50s, many Kurds looked at them in admiration: they were setting up their own state, and thus fulfilling a dream that many Kurds shared.

In present-day Kurdistan, the Jewish heritage and its stories are almost forgotten.

Many Kurds still look at Israel as an example for their dreamed-of statehood, and whisper about military training received from Israelis in the Eighties and Nineties. And they absolutely love it when American Jews visit their lands, showering them in attention.

But Islam has left its mark, and until recently many did not wish to be confronted with the Jewish heritage of Iraqi Kurdistan. When I beg Kurdish youth to research their past to find out more about for instance the Jewish house of Adiabene that ruled the area some 2,000 years ago and had its capital in Erbil, they shy away from it, thinking the subject could get them into nothing but trouble.

Yet with the violence of Islamic State (IS) having put off many, change is slowly on the way. On the one hand it has resulted in Kurds turning away from Islam and opening up their minds to the modern world, on the other it has driven the more radical groups and parties into the defensive, vowing that IS is misusing Islam. The gap between the religious and secular Kurdish worlds has never been so big before.

My friends with Jewish roots show fear of the radical elements in the society, yet at the same time the opening up of the rest is offering opportunities.

It could allow young people to admit to their roots, and more importantly it could open up the possibility of the Jewish heritage of Kurdistan becoming a subject of research. The latter is badly needed, as 3,000 years of history is about to be lost.

Not only the Kurdish government, that is too busy surviving the military attacks by IS and the political ones by Baghdad, should work on this. It needs a push, a gentle hand to stimulate it to get started.

For instance by helping with the reconstruction of the Al Qosh synagogue, and the old Jewish quarters in Erbil and elsewhere in the region, that will crumble soon if nothing gets done. Or by offering students scholarships if they focus on researching the Jewish past.

Read article in full

Of Kurdish barbers and Jewish converts

4 comments:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Indeed, some of the northern Ten Tribes of Israel were resettled in Kurdistan by the Assyrians some 2700 years ago.

So this article is not essentially new.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Indeed, some of the northern Ten Tribes of Israel were resettled in Kurdistan by the Assyrians some 2700 years ago.

So this article is not essentially new.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Indeed, some of the northern Ten Tribes of Israel were resettled in Kurdistan by the Assyrians some 2700 years ago.

So this article is not essentially new.

Anonymous said...

I heard a programme about this on an Israeli radio station recently. The man who was being interviewed said that it was only ONE group that had Jewish Kurdith grandmothers & it was in the 1920s. Those marriages were FORCED! When the USA invaded Iraq, those descendants of those grandmothers were free to move to Israel. I believe he said that there were 2,000 such people. In Israel, though, they apparently thought there were be more economic help. That group RETURNED to Kurdistan & live in one city or town where they speak ALSO Hebrew & observe some Jewish holidays & get along quite well w/their Muslims neighbours. I remember someone complaining in the early 1990s about Kurdi 'olim who were praying like Benai Yshma'el.