From right to left: Abraham Iny Ben-David,
Abraham (Sa'at) Shafir Yitzhaq Sa'at
and sitting Saleh Sabha.Arbil 1935.
History of Judaism in Kurdistan
Much, if not most, of this information has been passed to me via Mizgin, whose blog about Kurdish and current events in the middle east is highly recommended. Be prepared to have your comfortable theses challenged there!
Read more at Kurdistanica
The history of Judaism in Kurdistan is ancient. The Talmud holds that Jewish deportees were settled in Kurdistan 2800 years ago by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser Ill (r. 858-824 BC). As indicated in the Talmud, the Jews eventually were given permission by the rabbinic authorities to convert local Kurds. They were exceptionally successful in their endeavor.
Jews remained a populous group in Kurdistan until the middle of the present century and the creation of the state of Israel. At home and in the synagogues, Kurdish Jews speak a form of ancient Aramaic ... and in commerce and the larger society they speak Kurdish. Many aspects of Kurdish and Jewish life and culture have become so intertwined that some of the most popular folk stories accounting for Kurdish ethnic origins connect them with the Jews. Some maintain that the Kurds sprang from one of the lost tribes of Israel, while others assert that the Kurds emerged through an episode involving King Solomon and the genies under his command (see Folklore & Folk Tales).
The relative freedom of Kurdish women among the Kurdish Jews led in the 17th century to the ordination of the first woman rabbi, Rabbi Asenath Bârzâni, the daughter of the illustrious Rabbi Samuel Bârzâni (d. ca. 1630), who founded many Judaic schools and seminaries in Kurdistan. For her was coined the term tanna'ith, the feminine form for a Talmudic scholar. Eventually, MAMA ("Lady") Asenath became the head of the prestigious Judaic academy at Mosul (Mann 1932).
Those of you into contemporary Iraqi events will note the name "Bârzâni", an old and illustrious name in the area even today!
The following excerpt of an article by Josh Goodman of Yale provides more background in relation to Kurdish Jews and also investigates the relationship between Israel and Kurdistan today:
A Fading Generation: The Jews of Kurdistan
By the early 1950s, virtually the entire Jewish community of Kurdistan—a rugged, mostly mountainous region comprising parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Caucasus, where Jews had lived since antiquity—had been completely relocated to Israel. The vast majority of Kurdish Jews, who were primarily concentrated in northern Iraq, left Kurdistan in the mass aliyah (immigration to Israel) of 1950-51, which brought almost all Iraqi Jews to Israel and signaled the end of thousands of years of Jewish history in the lands once known as Assyria and Babylon.Copyright 2005, Yale Israel Journal
In general, the native language of the Jews of Kurdistan was neither Arabic—like most Iraqi Jews—nor Kurdish. Instead, the Jews (and Christians) of Kurdistan spoke dialects of Aramaic—a Semitic language, similar to Hebrew. Aramaic, the language of the Talmud and parts of the Bible, was the international language of trade and commerce in the ancient Middle East with a status similar to that of English in the modern world. The Kurdish Jews spoke their own unique dialects of the language, however, which possessed many words borrowed from Kurdish.3 The Kurdish Jews in Israel, along with a small number of Assyrian Christians, are among the last remaining Aramaic speakers in the world; many scholars believe the language will disappear as a spoken language within a generation.4
Be sure to check out The Jews of Kurdistan --virtually everything you ever wanted to know about Kurdish Jews, including the articles about the proven genetic closeness between Jews and Kurds. Further articles on the gene connection, and also here .
Click here to see some old photos of Jewish Kurds including the great one at the top of the page.