History of Jews in Kurdistan

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Kurdish Jews
MosheBarazani.jpg Tsvi Bar.jpg Yosef Shiloach.jpg
Yitzhak Mordechai (cropped).jpg Ilana Eliya.JPG
Moshe Barazani • Zvi Bar • Yosef Shiloach
Yitzhak Mordechai • Ilana Eliya
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Jewish and local dialects of Northeastern Neo-Aramaic were their native tongues in Kurdistan and are the native tongues of older generation today. Younger generations today speak the languages of their countries of residence, plus Mizrahi Hebrew (liturgical use) and traditional Kurdish, and Azeri (in Iran)[5] dialects.
Related ethnic groups
Other Jewish groups
(Mizrahi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, etc.)
Rabbi Moshe Gabai, chief rabbi of Maoz Zion, with President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi
Illuminated plaque on paper with calligraphy and decorative elements. Includes four liturgical poems for Purim customary among Kurdish Jews; mid-19th century, Kurdistan.

Jews of Kurdistan (Hebrew: יהודי כורדיסטן‎, Yehudei Kurdistan, lit. Jews of Kurdistan; Aramaic: אנשא דידן‎, Nashi Didan, lit. our people; Kurdish: Kurdên cihû‎) are the ancient Eastern Jewish communities, inhabiting the region known as Kurdistan in northern Mesopotamia, roughly covering parts of Iran, northern Iraq, Syria and eastern Turkey. Their clothing and culture is similar to neighbouring Kurdish Muslims and Christian Assyrians. Until their immigration to Israel in the 1940s and early 1950s, the Jews of Kurdistan lived as closed ethnic communities. Kurdish Jews largely spoke Aramaic, as a lingua franca, with some addtionally speaking Kurdish dialects, in particular the Kurmanji dialect in Iraqi Kurdistan. Today, the large majority of Kurdish Jews and their descendants live in Israel.


Ancient times and classic antiquity[edit]

Kurdish Jews in Rawanduz, northern Iraq, 1905

Tradition holds that Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin first arrived in the area of modern Kurdistan after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BC; they were subsequently relocated to the Assyrian capital.[6] During the first century BC, the royal house of Adiabene, whose capital was Arbil (Aramaic: Arbala; Kurdish: Hewlêr‎), was converted to Judaism.[7] King Monobazes, his queen Helena, and his son and successor Izates are recorded as the first proselytes.[8]

Middle Ages[edit]

According to the memoirs of Benjamin of Tudela and Pethahiah of Regensburg, there were about 100 Jewish settlements and substantial Jewish population in Kurdistan in 12th century. Benjamin of Tudela also gives the account of David Alroi, the messianic leader from central Kurdistan, who rebelled against the king of Persia and had plans to lead the Jews back to Jerusalem. These travellers also report of well-established and wealthy Jewish communities in Mosul, which was the commercial and spiritual center of Kurdistan. Many Jews fearful of approaching crusaders, had fled from Syria and Palestine to Babylonia and Kurdistan. The Jews of Mosul enjoyed some degree of autonomy over managing their own community.[9]

Ottoman era[edit]

Tanna'it Asenath Barzani, who lived in Mosul from 1590 to 1670, was the daughter of Rabbi Samuel Barzani of Kurdistan. She later married Jacob Mizrahi Rabbi of Amadiyah (in Iraqi Kurdistan) who lectured at a yeshiva.[10] She was famous for her knowledge of the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish law. After the early death of her husband, she became the head of the yeshiva at Amadiyah, and eventually was recognized as the chief instructor of Torah in Kurdistan. She was called tanna'it (female Talmudic scholar), practiced mysticism, and was reputed to have known the secret names of God.[11] Asenath is also well known for her poetry and excellent command of the Hebrew language. She wrote a long poem of lament and petition in the traditional rhymed metrical form. Her poems are among the few examples of the early modern Hebrew texts written by women.[12]

Immigration of Kurdish Jews to the Land of Israel initiated during late 16th century, with a community of rabbinic scholars arriving to Safed, Galilee, and a Kurdish quarter had been established there as a result. The thriving period of Safed however ended in 1660, with Druze power struggles in the region and an economic decline.

Modern times[edit]

Since the early 20th century some Kurdish Jews had been active in the Zionist movement. One of the most famous members of Lehi (Freedom Fighters of Israel) was Moshe Barazani, whose family immigrated from Iraqi Kurdistan and settled in Jerusalem in the late 1920s.

The vast majority of Kurdish Jews were forced out of Iraq and evacuated to Israel in the early 1950s, together with the Iraqi Jewish community. The vast majority of the Kurdish Jews of Iranian Kurdistan relocated mostly to Israel as well, in the 1950s.

The Times of Israel reported on September 30, 2013: "Today, there are almost 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel, about half of whom live in Jerusalem. There are also over 30 agricultural villages throughout the country that were founded by Kurds."[13]

Genetic analysis of Kurdish Jews[edit]

An extremely close genetic proximity of Jewish communities and non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations has been observed in several DNA studies.[14] In 2001, a team of German, Indian and Israeli specialists published the results of their research on Y-chromosome polymorphism, that showed that Jews and Kurds are close ethnic relatives.[15] The Jews and Kurds, according to the research, have common ancestors who resided in northern Mesopotamia about 4,000 years ago. The Kurdish Jews, though found genetically close to their Muslim Kurdish neighbours, were still closer related to Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish groups, supporting the hypothesis of a distant common ancestry, rather than a recent contribution of Judaism converts to this Jewish community (documented conversion to Judaism occurred in the area during the classic period, among the ruling class of the Parthian client Kingdom of Adiabene).[15] Among the Jewish communities, the closest genetic bond to Muslim Kurds was found among the Ashkenazi Jews, though the sequences were still distinguishable.


One of the main problems in the history and historiography of the Jews of Kurdistan was the lack of written history and the lack of documents and historical records. During the 1930s, a German-Jewish Ethnographer, Erich Brauer, began interviewing members of the community. His assistant, Raphael Patai, published the results of his research in Hebrew. The book, Yehude Kurditan: mehqar ethnographi (Jerusalem, 1940), was translated into English in the 1990s. Israeli scholar Mordechai Zaken wrote an important book using written, archival and oral sources that traces the relations between the Jews and the Kurdish masters or chieftains (Aghas). He interviewed 56 Kurdish Jews from six towns (Zahko, Aqrah, Amadiya, Dohuk, Sulaimaniya and Shinno/Ushno/Ushnoviyya), as well as dozens of villages, mostly in the region of Bahdinan.[16] Zaken's Book, Jewish Subjects and their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan, is based strongly on oral history sources, and it unveils the personal experience of urban and rural Jews during the first half of the 20th century.[17]

See also[edit]

  • History of the Jews in Iraq
  • Israeli–Kurdish relations
  • Jewish ethnic divisions
  • Kurdish people
  • Mizrahi Jews
  • Northeastern Neo-Aramaic
  • Seharane


  1. Zivotofsky, Ari Z. (2002). "What's the Truth about...Aramaic?" (PDF). Orthodox Union. Retrieved 2007-01-14.
  2. (p.2)[dead link]
  3. "Kurdish Jewish Community in Israel". Jcjcr.org. Retrieved 2013-04-11.
  4. Cultural pride, and unlikely guests, at Kurdish Jewish festival By Lazar Berman September 30, 2013
  5. "курдские евреи. Электронная еврейская энциклопедия". Eleven.co.il. 2006-12-27. Retrieved 2013-04-11.
  6. Roth C in the Encyclopedia Judaica, p. 1296-1299 (Keter: Jerusalem 1972).
  7. "Irbil/Arbil" entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica
  8. Brauer E., The Jews of Kurdistan, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1993; Ginzberg, Louis, "The Legends of the Jews, 5th CD." in The Jewish Publication Society of America, VI.412 (Philadelphia: 1968); and http://www.eretzyisroel.org/~jkatz/kurds.html.
  9. Ora Schwartz-Be'eri, The Jews of Kurdistan: Daily Life, Customs, Arts and Crafts, UPNE publishers, 2000, ISBN 965-278-238-6, p.26.
  10. Sylvia Barack Fishman, A breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community, UPNE Publishers, 1995, ISBN 0-87451-706-0, p. 186
  11. Sally Berkovic, Straight Talk: My Dilemma As an Orthodox Jewish Woman, KTAV Publishing House, 1999, ISBN 0-88125-661-7, p.226.
  12. Shirley Kaufamn, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Tamar Hess, Hebrew Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present: A Bilingual Anthology, Feminist Press, 1999, ISBN 1-55861-224-6, pp.7,9
  13. Ancient pride, and unlikely guests, at Kurdish Jewish festival
  14. Hammer et al. Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes. (2000) "The extremely close affinity of Jewish and non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations observed here (Tables 2 and 3) supports the hypothesis of a common Middle Eastern origin."
  15. 15.0 15.1 Nebel A., Filon D, Brinkmann B., Majumder P.P., Faerman M. and Oppenheim A. The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 2001. 69: pp.1095-1112
  16. Joyce Blau, one of the world's leading scholars in the Kurdish languages, culture and history, suggested that "This part of Mr. Zaken’s thesis, concerning Jewish life in Bahdinan, well complements the impressive work of the pioneer ethnologist Erich Brauer."[Erich Brauer, The Jews of Kurdistan, First edition 1940, revised edition 1993, completed and edited par Raphael Patai, Wayne State University Press, Detroit])
  17. Jewish Subjects and their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan A Study in Survival By Mordechai Zaken Published by Brill: August 2007 ISBN 978-90-04-16190-0 Hardback (xxii, 364 pp.), Jewish Identities in a Changing World, 9.


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