Longing for Zion, dreaming of Kurdistan

More than 80 years after first immigrating to Israel, Kurdish Jews still maintain ties to their traditions and culture, as well as to their non-Jewish ethnic kin. The Israeli government has ignored efforts to preserve their language and music; but now, the younger generation is taking matters into its own hands. 

By Hagar Shezaf

All liberty-deprived nations share one common feeling: a longing for home. The Kurdish nation, which lives primarily in the region situated between northwest Iran, northern Iraq, southeast Turkey and the northern corner of eastern Syria, is one of those same nations striving for independence and waging a lengthy war for the right to self-determination in its historical homeland. Their struggle comes in many forms – from hip hop songs which describe the longing for freedom to armed struggle, which has taken the lives of countless Kurds and others.

The Kurdish struggle began at the end of the First World War, when the Kurds were promised that they would be able to establish an independent state on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. But because the areas populated by Kurds were rich in oil, they were quickly conquered by the new Turkish ruler, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, and the land was divided between the new Turkish state, Iraq and Syria. The promise to grant the Kurds self-determination was forgotten among the thicket of political and economic interests.

Today, most Kurds are Muslim and live in the Kurdistan region. In the past, however, there were approximately 150,000 Jewish Kurds who lived in the area. They were considered the oldest diaspora community. According to several holy Jewish literary sources, the first Jews arrived in the mountains of Kurdistan during the days of the First Temple.

The majority of the Kurdish community in Kurdistan lived in Iraq and Iran and spoke various dialects of Aramaic. The synagogues were the center of the community’s spiritual life. The Kurdish piyutim (ancient Jewish liturgical poems) – which were cornerstones of Kurdish-Jewish culture – are mostly based on well-known Jewish texts, but their music melodies are based on maqams (Arabic musical scale) and often on popular Kurdish music. The saz and the baglama (stringed instruments), the zonra (from the oboe family) and the dahol (bass drum) are the main instruments found in Kurdish music. It is the singer, however, who gets to shine – as he/she is traditionally in charge of writing the music while singing.

My mother and teacher

“There is no doubt that the maqam most closely associated with Kurdish music is the ‘Husseini‘,” says Yaniv Ovadia, a Jewish-Kurdish musician who recently took part in a performance dedicated to Kurdish piyutim in Jerusalem. “It is often said that if you want to please the Kurds, you must play them a Husseini maqam, which are used in most Kurdish songs.”

Although most of the Jewish communities lived from away from one another, they were linked both by traditions and a common longing for Zion, which was an inseparable part of the Jewish-Kuridsh culture, as is the case with other Jewish traditions across the diaspora.

Aside from the beauty of Kurdish piyutim, they also describe the uniqueness of the Kurdish-Jewish community, and the special place it held for women. Asenath Barzani, one of the key female figures in Jewish-Kurdish culture — and who was known in other Jewish cultures as well — penned one of the most beautiful Kurdish piyutim, “Ga’agua L’Zion” (Longing for Zion). The daughter of Born in 159 to Rabbi Shmuel Barzani, Jewish traditions tells of her propensity for and exceptional abilities in studying the Torah. Both of these led her father to make Asenath’s husband – Rabbi Yaakov Mizrahi – promise to allow her to continue studying and not force her to work at home like the other women.

After the death of her father and husband, Asenath led the yeshiva established by her father in the city of Mosul (present-day Iraq),writing a great number of piyutim and even an interpretation of the Book of Proverbs. The respect given to her is evident in letters sent to her by rabbis, who referred to her as, “our respected reacher and rabbi” and “our mother and teacher.”

“The Jewish community in Kurdistan was unequivocally traditional, but its history shows that it was also liberal toward women,” says Ilana Eliya, a singer of Kurdish descent. “Many researchers emphasize that this was a society that did not discriminate against women – if men sat and sang, women did so too. Both men and women even participated in traditional Kurdish dancing, hand in hand or shoulder to shoulder. They remained true to every word of the Torah, and because they maintained the tradition in its original form, they were actually more liberal.”

The first wave of Jewish-Kurdish immigration to the holy land began in 1929. A second round took place between 1948-1951, including from the Zakho (Iraq), Urmia (Iran) and Amadiya (Iraq), among others. This period ushered in a new era for the community; they fulfilled the dream of coming to the land of their forefathers and the beginning of their journey to preserve their identity and culture and Israel, along with an inevitable longing for Kurdistan. The Kurdish community mostly settled in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot and the Qastal neighborhood in Mevaseret Zion.

Nahlaot’s Kurdish identity was very prominent, Yaniv Ovadia recalls. “At age 13, when we all lived in Jerusalem we would go to the city with our instruments, since playing at home was too noisy.”

The Kurdish piyutim and music were mostly preserved in the synagogues located in the Kurdish neighborhoods. Seldom did the government make any efforts to preserve the culture. Today, several figures (most of them third generation Israeli Kurds) are attempting to preserve Jewish-Kurdish culture. “Over the last few years we have been attempting to record as many paytanim (piyut reciters) in order to preserve the tradition,” says Ovadia, “but the songs that were sung at home are disappearing; they were not treated as a cultural asset and as time goes on, we are losing knowledge of them.”

The lack of recognition of the rich Kurdish cultural tradition is manifested in the disappearance of the Aramaic language, the Jewish-Kurdish community’s mother tongue. Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken by the people of the Middle East since the 1st century B.C., is disappearing. In 2009, four Israelis of Kurdish descent – Daniel Avrahami, Moshe Twekoli, Herzl Korori and Dalia Azizi – decided to begin broadcasting a radio show in Aramaic in a studio in Holon. Moreover, the four established a non-profit whose purpose was to preserve the Aramaic language and the Kurdish culture.

“One can hear Yiddish in schools, plays, Torah teaching – it’s a common language in Israel,” Dalia Azizi told the Ma’ariv daily in 2010. “But Aramaic isn’t common, and if it’s also a language that was spoken by Jews, then why won’t government institutions recognize it as well?”

Whether by celebrating the Saharna holiday, which celebrates the coming of spring or through devotion to Aramaic, the Jewish-Kurdish community never entirely severed ties from Kurdistan. As opposed to other communities that immigrated to Israel, the Jewish-Kurdish community’s ties to non-Jewish Kurds continues through Kurdish delegations that come to Israel, Jewish-Kurdish performances abroad, invitations to Kurdish communities and political involvement on the part of Kurdish Jews in support of Kurdish independence.

“The Kurds feel connected to us because we lived like them – once upon a time we didn’t have our own state, and now we do; that is their dream. Every time that something happens with the Kurds abroad, the local community protests – we share a connection and feel like we have a common destiny,” says Ilana Eliya. “A few years ago I was performing for the Kurdish community in London and I sang the “Mi Yiteneni Uf” (Who Will Let Me Fly?). I explained that the song describes the Jew as if he were a bird that flies from country to country, since it does not have a home. When I finished explaining, and before I could even begin singing, the crowd began applauding loudly – I was shocked by how much they identify with us.”

No budget

Three years ago, at the annual Oud Festival, a performance by the name of “Aram Naharaim” attempted to collect Kurdish piyutim from across the region and perform them in one concert. Another recent performance at a Jerusalem piyut festival was full of a variety of Kurdish piyutim were sung while popular Kurdish songs were played in the background.

“It is important for us to show the connection between popular Kurdish music and the Jewish tradition,” said Yochai Barak in the run up to the show (Barak, along with Yaniv Ovadia, were in charge of the show’s music). “The performance will include the piyut ‘Ve’Amartem Kol Ahi,” whose melody is based on a popular Kurdish song. We will also sing the original in Kurmanji (one of several national languages) as well as the piyut.”

The richness of the Kurdish culture, with its many dialects and songs, as well as the many years that Jews lived in Kurdistan, was difficult to pack into one evening. But those who make it their duty to preserve the culture are determined.

“We record the Kurdish melodies and attempt to make the public aware of the music through concerts, since today no one treats the music as an asset,” concludes Eliya with sadness. “We don’t have budgets, everyone does the best he/she can, but this our mission and our culture. We won’t give up on it.”

Read more:
Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim: A guide to Passover piyutim