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Jews in Kurdistan

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Just a few dozen original Jewish families remain in Kurdistan from their violent, centuries-long vassalage and ethnic cleansing by Kurdish Muslims and the Ottoman and Iraqi governments.

There are very few places where Jewish monuments and sacred spaces have not been completely obliterated or re-consecrated as Muslim, but some historic connections are still detectable.

Notable exceptions to this include the creation of a political leadership office for the remaining Jews, and two synagogues: that of Nahum, and one in Shush.

Jews in Kurdistan were distinct in language, tradition, and status — and perhaps even ethnically — from the Christian and the Kurdish Muslim populations.

On week days the men only wear a shirt with a girdle round their waist, short trousers, which only reach to the knee, and a little cap, round which is rolled a thin piece of black stuff; they likewise go barefoot. I inquired why they wore such a dress, to which I received the answer, that it was more convenient for work.

On the Sabbath they lay aside this dress, and wear a long dark robe of wooden cloth. This robe is buttoned from the neck down to the girdle, from which it falls in two large flaps down to the knees; the sleeves reach down to the wrist and are quite tight. Only the richest wear shoes, the others generally leathern sandals.

The women wear a coloured vest; round the head they fold a cloth or a piece of stuff, from beneath which their black hair falls down to the shoulders. They go barefooted, but ornament their hands, arms and feet with gold and silver rings; sometimes they wear through the nose a ring, which hangs down to the mouth. Benjamin II (1859), p 99

The different woolen stuffs, which are manufactured by the Jews in Kurdistan, are likewise exported into foreign parts. This is a branch of trade, which any of them cultivate most industriously. They likewise manufacture carpets. Their looms are extremely simple: on two pieces of wood, which are placed in the ground, at a certain distance from each other, they make good and even beautiful stuffs. Benjamin II (1859), p 99-100

The houses constructed of wicker work, have a very bare appearance; they are tolerably high, have one story, and inside and outside are plastered with a kind of mortar. In summer they sleep upon the terraces, in order to escape the bites of scorpions, which, during this period of the year, are frequently to be found in the houses at night. Benjamin II (1859), p 100

Food is so badly prepared, that it would excite the disgust of the poorest European. Benjamin II (1859), p 100

The use of fat in general in this climate is productive of disagreeable and serious illnesses; and I have known Jews, who from the constant use of olive oil, have been covered with boils over the whole of the body; and sometimes the skin of the head is coated with a kind of scab, with which this disease has similarity. Benjamin II (1859), p 101-102

Religious practice

Their religious knowledge was notoriously scant.

In the afternoon, six Jews with their flocks, came from the mountains; they were dark, shrewd looking men, and in their speech, dress, and arms, differed little from the pastoral Kurds. I offered them some tracts, but they replied, "our occupation is with the sheep, and we leave the rabbies to ponder over books." Stern (1848), p 114; in Sindur

Their ignorance with regard to religion excites commiseration. ... The Jews who inhabit the places round Kurdistan scarcely know even the name of the Mosaic law ... Few among them can read or write, and in this they are far behind all our other brethren in the faith whom I have met on my travels. ... their only religious knowledge consists of Kriath Schema (Schema Israel) [Deuteronomy 6:4], of which however they only know the first verse. ... For some time past bibles and prayer books have been sent to them from Bagdad. ... but few understand the use of them, and fewer still how to perform their devotions. The elementary notions, and the knowledge of the grand ideas of their forefathers and brethren, are completely wanting in them; and in many places they have never even seen a Pentateuch. ... Their Mailum possess Shoulchan Aruch Beth Joseph (the collection): everything else is unknown to them, and the whole of their divine service is comprised in some performance of ancient ceremonies which are mechanically and superstitiously gone through.Benjamin II (1859), p 97, 102

The rabbies had evidently been preparing themselves to test the truth of our holy religion by the fallacious standard of rabbinism. They quoted and cited several passages from the Talmud, which, however, after a little deliberation, they discovered tended rather to intricate and perplex them, so that they were obliged to avow that all the rabbies had written was dark and uncertain. Stern (1848), p 114; in Sindur

However, core holidays were conserved.

Tradition only has preserved the celebration of the Sabbath and biblical festivals, as well as circumcision and the slaughtering of animals; but these sacred customs are performed so imperfectly and mechanically, that it can be distinctly seen that they neither know the purpose or the reason of them, and are utterly ignorant of what they are doing. Benjamin II (1859), p 102

Agricultural practices were kept by non-Jews too.

Wherever I went during vintage and harvest time, I found a custom strictly observed the Jews and Kurds, which reminded me of the precepts of the Bible. [Leviticus 19:9-10] Neither the ears of corn, nor the grapes nor fruits are wholly collected; but the portion of the widows and orphans is always left: it is even allowed to go into a ripe cornfield, to break the sheaves, and on the spot to boil the corn in water; but the ears of corn must not be cut, neither may they be taken away. [Deuteronomy 23:25] In the same way the grapes are allowed to be gathered in the vineyards, and to be eaten there. Benjamin II (1859), p 100-101

The first fruits of all kinds, which the Jews present to their Mailum, and the Turks to their Cadi, are placed in baskets made of date and other leaves, and according to my view remind one of the offerings, which in olden times the Jews made to their priests. Benjamin II (1859), p 101

If a dead body is found in a field between two districts, the authorities of the different places around go to the spot, in order to ascertain by accurate measurement, to which city or to which village it was found nearest, and that place must pay the price of blood to the family of the deceased. If in this measurement they are not able to agree, a quarrel and fight ensues, and the place itself is often sprinkled afresh with blood. [Deutereonomy 21:1,2,9] The Jews, who are obliged to take part in these combats, behave with much bravery; and when one of their own people fall, and there is no family to demand the price of blood, they carry him away, and bury him in the Jewish burial ground. Benjamin II (1859), p 101

It is usual to bury the bodies found in an open field, on the spot where they are found; and this pious custom accounts for the great number of graves one meets with on the roads. They are the resting-places of those who have been struck by sudden death, among whom are many travellers and missionaries. Benjamin II (1859), p 101

A custom observed throughout the whole of the East by the followers of every religious sect is, to take off the shoes on entering the house of God. This also reminds one of the precepts of the Bible. Any one who refuses to render this mark of respect is forbidden to enter the Sanctuary. [Exodus 3:5; Talmud Messechet Berachot For 9] Benjamin II (1859), p 101

However, they adored to learn and adored well-learned religious men.

When a Chacham from Jerusalem comes into these parts, which occurs but very seldom, they go out solemnly to meet him, kiss his shoulders, his beard, and even his feet, according to the rank of him by whom he is saluted; they then carry him in triumph to the house of the Nassi, bare his feet and wash them, and the water used for that purpose is collected for drinking. I do not exaggerate anything in this account. The highest people of the place have the first right to partake of this water; the rest is divided among the women and children; and this unclean beverage is considered to be a preventive of all illnesses. Notwithstanding my opposition, I was obliged to submit myself to this extraordinary mark of respect. Benjamin II (1859), p 98-99

I have here to mention an old traditional custom, which is observed in Kurdistan, as well as in the whole of the East. When a woman approaches the time of her confinement, sweet smelling herbs are strewn on a pan of burning coals, with which first the Synagogue and then the chamber, in which the mother expectant is lying, are fumigated. The Kurdish Israelites say that thus they present to the Lord a well pleasing sacrifice, and that the offering itself, the perfume, ascends as in the Temple at Jerusalem. True it is that the Talmudists speak of it, and mention a mill at Burne, in which different sweet smelling ingredients were ground. In the Messechet Sanhedrin chap. 4, fol. 29, p. 2, Raschi explains the text, adding that sweet smelling herbs were used to cure the wound caused by circumcision. Thus in the same Messechet is to be found the expression Schewua habben (week of the son); and this expression may well be the same as that which is at this time used, and the pronunciation only of which differs somewhat from the above mentioned. For during the space of a whole week, form the birth to the circumcision of the son, the father is called Avi habben (father of the son), and is received in the Israelitish families, as well as in the Synagogue, with marks of honour. In our time the use of the herbs is different; but they are still used as incense. This proves that a very ancient custom has been observed among the Israelites in the East up to the present day. Benjamin II (1859), p 98

Origins and Christianity

There is a general theory that the Jews of Kurdistan descend from the Israelite tribes exiled by the ancient Neo-Assyrian kingdom.

In the history of the Kings ... it is related that in the days of Pekah, king of Israel, the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser took possession of a portion of the kingdom of Israel, and carried away its inhabitants as captives into Assyria. [2 Kings 15:29] ... To the authority of the Bible is annexed the testimonies of later writers and the corroborative traditions which have been handed down for centuries. ... ... Benjamin de Teluda [p 77] says the same. ... The book Derech Emed [Fol 15, p 1] translates the word Touri Kardu by "dark mountains"; from which perhaps originates the tradition of the Jews, that the banished ten tribes lived in the dark mountains. Benjamin II (1859), p 94-95

It is possible that the Christians and Jews, who both speak Aramaic, are descended from the same people. It is also possible that when the Jews were transplanted to Assyria, some of their community voluntarily entered the broader Neo-Assyrian and post-Neo-Assyrian population which later converted to Christianity.

The Nestorians of the places which I visited live mostly in friendly relations with the Jews; whilst with the nomadic Kurds they have no intercourse. ... Many Nestorians themselves maintain that they descend from the captive Jews, without however being able to determine either the period at which they settled or the tribe from which they spring, as all written evidence is wanting, and they themselves are too ignorant to rely on any other proofs than their own traditions. ... If one gives credence to the Jews and Nestorians, their settlement in these countries took place before the destruction of the first Temple. The same traditions are everywhere preserved, and they assert that the ancestors of our brethren, banished to these lands, remained there after the Assyrian captivity, and did not again return to Palestine. Benjamin II (1859), p 94-95

Indeed, their social status was at least similar,

They [Nestorians] are oppressed by the Kurds in the same way as are the Jews, which appears to be the result of the long captivity; a fall, which all banished nations carried into slavery share alike. The Nestorians assemble together for the performance of divine service in the same manner as do our brethren. They have no symbol, no cross, no bells; and their principles in this respect resemble those of the Jews. They celebrate the Sabbath. It is an historical fact that the ten tribes possessed but few learned men, and that they easily gave themselves up to strange worship, and adopted foreign customs and usages ... . Benjamin II (1859), p 95-96

Oppression by Kurdish Muslims

Jews were generally the property of Kurdish Muslims, a relationship at best sweetened by a loose chain, and at worst filled with the stinking abuses typical of any slavery.

The greater number live in a state of most oppressed slavery. ... I have visited hundreds of families living scattered in these mountains, and did not find one, which could escape from this unendurable existence. ... I cannot express what I felt at the sight of all this misery, for their low condition and their afflictions are indescribable. ... The Jews scattered here and there, and compelled to remain at the places assigned to them, are in the true sense of the word, surrounded by tribes of savages. One often finds five, ten, or even twenty Jewish families the property of one Kurd, by whom they are laden with imposts, and subjected to illtreatment. Heavy taxes are imposed upon them, which for the poorest amount annually to 500 piastres. Finally they are compelled at different periods of the year to perform serf-service, to cultivate their master's field, without receiving or being able to demand the smallest compensation for their labour. ... The poll tax, an unbearable burden, is not enough. Any trifling circumstance, any and every excuse is sufficient to alarm and disturb the existence of these unfortunate beings. ... From attacks without they are sometimes powerfully protected; but this does not arise from generosity or from love of justice; but is solely attributable to the advantage and personal interest of their selfish Kurdish masters. ... The Kurd owns no master; and in his stupidity and brutality assumes to himself the most overbearing rights, which no one can dispute with him. He acts as uncontrolled master over the property, life, and even the feelings of his Jewish slaves. ... The master has the absolute power of life and death over his slaves; at his will he can sell them to another master, either in whole families or individually. ... They are illused, sold, and murdered, just as the master pleases. They eat the bitter bread of exile, and moisten it with their tears and with their blood. Benjamin II (1859), p 96-97, 102-103

Benjamin II adds, "The Nestorians are quite in the same condition as the Jews." (Benjamin II 1859, p 102) They were ostracised and dehumanised,

If a gentleman on horseback meets a Jew or a Nestorian on the road, he makes him run before him to the stable door, without even once allowing him stop to take breath. This barbarous custom is practised almost daily. Benjamin II (1859), p 96-97

A custom, which reminds one of the old feudal barbarism of the middle ages, is the so called master's claims. When a young Israelite or Nestorian wishes to marry, he must purchase his bride from the master to whom she belongs; for by the marriage contract the young wife comes under the control of another master, and through that, the former master suffers the loss of the yearly poll tax, for which a sum is always demanded as compensation. Besides this, the bridge, before she enters the house of her husband, must place herself at the disposal of her master, which appears to have been an old custom introduced by the Orientalists; for even the Talmudists speak of it. [Messechet Ketubot For 3 p 2]

Only within the last few years has this odious abuse been reformed, and changed into a money payment. A sanguinary event was the cause of this. A young girl, after a desperate resistance having killed her master. One abuse has therefore taken place of another: for now the master's claims must be bought off. Benjamin II (1859), p 97

There was a calamity which Benjamin II said typified the sort of abuses the Jews were subjected to,

In the village, a man had assumed the title of Mailum, and without any authority or right officiated as slaughterer. At my suggestion he was deprived of his office. This appointment he had purchased for a yearly sum from a Kurdish chief, who now perceiving the injury done to his pecuniary interest, came to me himself, and asked me who I was, and what right I had to discharge an officer appointed by him. My companions explained to him that I was a Chacham of Bet-el-Mikdass, sent out to watch over the proper administration of the religious laws among the Jews. I myself made him attentive to the fact that a Marabut, who ventured to assume this title and these functions among the Mahomedans, would certainly be immediately deprived of his office. To this the Kurd had no reply to make, further than the exclamation: "That is true, but you have deprived me of my revenue, and you shall pay for it with your head." He then went out in a rage.

My companions, and the of my people who had also heard this threat, were deeply grieved; for they knew that such threats were never spoken in vain. We were immediately afterwards told by some Jews that several armed men were lying in wait for us, for the purpose of delivering up my head to their master. During the whole evening I reflected on our difficult position and the way in which we could escape the danger which threatened us. At last the following idea struck me. "Remain together," I said to my brethren, "sing and make a noise, but bring in no light. The Kurds will have no suspicion, and my companions will escape with me." My proposal was approved of; but we were not to go out all together, but two or three at a time, and then meet at an appointed spot.

Our flight happily succeeded, as we took another road through the desert and over the well wooded mountains, but what fate befell those who remained behind, whether their joyful songs were changed into songs of lamentation, I dare not think.

My escape soon became known; and armed men were sent after us in all directions. Some of them met us, but being few in number they were unable to prevent our return to Birsani, at which place we arrived at the end of three days, safe but exhausted.

Benjamin II (1859), p 83-85

Ottoman control was a moderating influence on the oppression.

In the districts of Kurdistan, which is now under the dominion of the Sublime Port, the condition of the Jews is somewhat more bearable. The Muslem appointed by the government has abolished slavery; the poll tax goes direct into the hands of the Pacha. Benjamin II (1859), p 103

Connected communities

The Jewish communities were connected to one another.

Jewish peddlers went from village to village and town to town, a dangerous occupation but one which doubtlessly allowed the Jews to communicate. Also, they united for the annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Nahum, and within a scale of days were able to communicate to one another when a 19th century traveler had come to a village near Akre and emissaries from communities near Urmia came to request his help. Describing the route from Nahla valley to Urmia and finding a village for which he does not provide a name,

In the early part of July 1848 I set off accompanied by several Jews and by some Kurds, who had hired mules for us. The difficulties and dangers of the road are indescribable. During two days we could only advance one at a time on a small narrow path, on which no ray of the sun ever shines, while the thorns tore our clothes and lacerated our feet. Hardly had we left this difficult path, when we were assailed by about 50 Kurds with whom we had a desperate skirmish; after a long and firm resistance our assailants fled, taking their wounded with them.

On the third day we came to a river, which flows at the foot of a mountain; there we wished to rest ourselves, when we perceived eight Jews, who came to meet us as emissaries; their Nassi Mailum Jehuda was among them. They lifted me on their shoulders, and thus we reached the summit of the mountain, where they set me down near a Kurdistan village. Here four Jewish families live, to whose Mailum Benjamin they conducted me. Towards evening six more emissaries arrived, under the guidance of Mailum Asunah, and the next morning several came from other villages. On my enquiries respecting divine service I found that many of their customs did not agree with the precepts of the Law, and I pointed them out to the chief Elder from whom I obtained a promise to follow out the improvements and arrangements I had suggested in this respect. Benjamin II (1859), p 83

This included connection to Baghdad, evidenced by the spread of evangelical leaflets.

In the morning I visited the rabbies, and was agreeably surprised to find they were in possession of the Gospel, and Old Paths. I inquired where they obtained these books; and they replied, "our friends in Bagdad sent them to us." It was gratifying to me to see the Gospel disseminated by Jews themselves, beyond the sphere of our activity. Stern (1848), p 116; in Zakho

Studies

Benjamin II, 1859Google Books
Google BooksReverend H A Stern, 1848. Jewish Missionary Intelligence, Volume 14, Journal of the Reverend H A Stern.