On Friday, July 13th, my organization Sephardic Jews in DC, in partnership with OneTable and JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), will be hosting a traditional Shabbat dinner featuring delicious homemade kosher Kurdish food and a panel of phenomenal speakers.
This panel is composed of those who have lived and worked in Kurdistan, and a Jew whose family lived in Iranian Kurdistan for many generations. Together, they will discuss the Jewish history of the Kurdish land, their struggle for independence, and why we as American Jews should care about the future of the Kurdish people.
My first experience with the Kurdish Jewish people happened very serendipitously. Many years ago, a friend of mine suggested going to the Azura restaurant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market to try their delicious Turkish food. As a Sephardic Jew of Turkish and Greek descent, I was excited to try out the food and practice my Ladino. Upon entering the homey restaurant, I spotted several very unique dishes. Some of these foods looked familiar to me, but other dishes looked like nothing I had ever seen before. My friend introduced me to the owner of the restaurant and told him I was a fellow Turkish Jew. I said hello to the owner with a Ladino greeting, and he replied back in a Kurdish dialect, which is a version of Judeo-Aramaic. My intrigue at the language he spoke led to a captivating conversation about his Kurdish heritage. From that moment on, I became deeply fascinated with the history of the Kurdish Jews.
Who are the Kurds? How did Jews get to Kurdistan? Where are they now? I had so many questions, and turned to the internet to help me get the answers I craved.
I learned that the Kurds are recognized as the largest stateless national group in the world. Although the vast majority of the 30 million Kurds in the world are Sunni Muslims, the Kurdish people also include many other faiths and religions due to the large area they inhabit.
According to The Kurdish Project,
“After losing the opportunity for statehood post-WWI, the Kurds now exist as an ethnic minority spread out between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and strive to maintain a culture that has been rapidly absorbed by their host countries. Borne from a long history of strife, Kurdish culture places value on individual freedoms. Whether it be overt religious tolerance, strides towards equality in the status of women, or democratic government, Kurdish culture values individual life and has fiercely defended its ability to live free from external rule.”
The Kurdish Project goes on to explain that over the years, Kurds have been targeted by various governments, for reasons ranging from lack of religiosity, to living on land with natural resources, and other border disputes.
Does this story and history sound familiar? Parallels between the Jews and Kurds have been drawn as early as the Ottoman Empire. Their struggle for independence mirrors one another in many ways.
The history of the Kurdish Jews can be traced back to the Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin. This tribe first arrived in the area of modern Kurdistan after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BC. During this time, many Jews settled in rural and remote mountainous areas. Unlike the Jews in Europe and parts of the Middle East, many Kurdish Jews worked in agrarian occupations such as farming and trading. Kurdish Jewish society was mostly traditional and observant, but occasionally communicated with outside Jewish populations, such as Israel.
In many cases, Kurdish Jews merged Jewish customs with local tradition. This can be seen in Kurdish food, which reflects local food of their region that is cooked in accordance with the laws of kashrut. The majority of Kurdish Jews, who were concentrated in northern Iraq, left Kurdistan during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (a mass emigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel) of 1950-52. This brought almost all Iraqi Jews to Israel, and meant the end of a long Jewish history in places once known as Assyria and Babylon.
Despite facing many challenges after arriving in Israel, the Kurdish immigrants started assimilating into mainstream Israeli culture within a single generation. Israel, in turn, began to absorb some of the Kurdish culture and cuisine. For example, the popular Kurdish dumpling soup called Kubbeh, is now a national Israeli dish. Today, Kurdish Jewry is deeply zionist and settled mainly in Jerusalem.
However, The Yale Israeli Journal explains that even after living much of their lives in Israel, many Israeli Kurds deeply connect with their native Kurdistan, and strive for an independent Kurdish state.
Next Friday, we will come together for a Shabbat dinner to learn more about the Kurds’ compelling history and enjoy their traditional foods. This dinner is open to everyone!
Please register here ASAP as space is limited.