A treasured link to the old world of Kurdish Jews

Rabbi Yeshurun holds a prized tefillin (photo: courtesy)

The Jerusalem Post’s remarkable profile(by Ari Greenspan and Ari Z Zivotofsky) of the 90-year old Rabbi Haim Yeshurun casts light on the little-known history and traditions of the Jews of Kurdistan. Rabbi Yeshurun, who arrived in Israel in 1950 with the aliyah from Iraq, has no desire to go back to his homeland. There the Jews were oppressed, were shunned as ‘impure’ by the Shi’a Kurds, and even suffered from blood libels which wiped out whole communities in the 19th century. (With thanks: Lily)

“This is the tale of our encounter with an anachronism, a living treasure from the past, and the touching relationship we have developed with 89-year-old Rabbi Haim Yeshurun. As part of our ongoing project to locate living links in the vital chain of Jewish tradition we first met Rabbi Yeshurun six years ago and have relished his friendship ever since.

“On Tisha Be’av in 1950, together with his children and pregnant wife, he arrived at a tent camp in Binyamina. They had escaped from Kurdistan to join fleeing Iraqis in Iran at a transit camp known as “the gate of aliya,” from whence they would be flown to Israel. With deep sadness and lingering resentment, he relates that as he was boarding the plane he was forced to surrender a cherished signed family tree to a representative of the Jewish Agency, and it was never returned. He is the 12th generation of Jewish functionaries including scribes, ritual slaughterers, ‘mohalim’ and community leaders, and the document had the signatures of ancestors from each of those previous generations.

“Haim was born in Turkey in 1919 and originally named Hanukka, for the date of his birth. His parents and their five children fled through the mountains to Kurdistan, making stops in more than a dozen villages, and eventually “settling” in a small village of 23 Jewish families. Because Jews were not permitted to own land, they were peddlers rather than farmers and often wandered about in pursuit of a livelihood.

“On one of those treks through the mountain footpaths when Haim was about two years old, his father thought the boy had died and, although it was Shabbat, dug a shallow grave in which to bury him. While his mother wailed and the customary dust from the Land of Israel was being placed on his eyelids, she thought she saw them flutter and refused to abandon him. His father grew angry and hushed his wife lest the entire family be discovered and killed. The mother in her grief took her baby from his grave and carried him on her back through the mountains. At a cold spring, she dunked him in the water and he started crying, whereupon his name was changed from Hanukka to Haim, “life.”

“The Jews of Kurdistan were only weakly connected with the rest of the Jewish world for many centuries. This remarkable community has its roots in parts of northern Syria, Azerbaijan, Armenia, parts of Iran, northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. The harsh topography and the oppressive rulers made contact with them difficult. Many felt their ancestry was part of the Ten Tribes, exiled to Assyria after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. It is commonly held that they settled there at the time of Ezra the scribe and did not return to Israel with the returnees of Babylon.

“Writing in about 1170, the traveler Benjamin of Tudela records that about 20,000 Jews existed in hundreds of small communities. One of the more unusual personas in their history was Tanna’it Asenath Barzani, who lived in Mosul from 1590 to 1670 and was famous for her knowledge of the Torah, Talmud, Kabbala and Jewish law. After her husband’s death, she was the head of yeshiva at Amadiyah, and eventually was recognized as the chief instructor of Torah in Kurdistan.

“In recent times, the first Kurdish Jews made their way to Jerusalem in 1812 and by 1896 there were a number of families from Urfa, Ur Kasdim of the Bible, living in the Holy City. Rabbi Yisrael Benjamin wrote that in the 1800s when word would spread in Kurdistan that a messenger had arrived from Jerusalem they would place him on their shoulders and take him to the house of the head of the community where they washed his feet, and then drank the water which contained the dust of Jerusalem. Their situation was one of terrible oppression and attacks. Blood libels wiped out entire communities and some even became Muslim to save themselves. The local Muslims held that wet items “are impure and make impure those who touch or carry them” so they would not touch the Jews or their wet items, because the Jews were considered to be vile and impure.

“By 1948 there were 25,000-50,000 souls and almost all of them came to Israel, where there are today an estimated 100,000-150,000 “Kurdim.” Owing to the terrible conditions in which they lived and the oppressive treatment they received at the hands of the locals, Rabbi Yeshurun, a bright, well-read man, told us that he has no longing to ever return to the land of his origins and does not express any goodwill to the locals.(…)

“Hebrew is not the only language he has mastered. The Kurdish Jews spoke what many consider a dead language, Aramaic. Not quite the Aramaic of the Talmud, but sort of a pidgin Aramaic. Speaking Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew and the two dialects of Aramaic spoken by the Kurdish Jews, Rabbi Yeshurun has translated the Bible into their Aramaic. In 1950, Aramaic speakers were rare among the staff at the transit camp and nobody else on the flight spoke Hebrew, so he quickly became the translator and representative of the group. His Hebrew was of course not modern, but biblical. While describing audio tapes that had been made years ago he referred to them as “the taking of his voice,” and while they had seen things occasionally flying high in the sky while in Kurdistan, they did not know what an airplane was until the Israelis appeared to bring them here.

“Among his many skills, he is a ritual scribe. He told us with pride of the seven Torahs he has written, as well as the dozens of megillot and mezuzot. When we visited him most recently, in January, we were amazed to find him seated in a wheelchair, dressed in a robe, an oxygen tank
against the wall by his hospital bed and visitors still requesting that he check their mezuzot or adjust the knots on their tefillin. He unrolled one of the mezuzot, peered for a second and smiled at us proudly “This is one of mine; I wrote it about seven years ago.”

When we asked him about who made the parchment on which to write the Torahs in Kurdistan, he was genuinely offended as he responded that he did of course. He would ritually slaughter the animal, remove the skin, work it into ‘klaf’, prepare the ink and quill and write the Torah. He similarly took offense when we asked about who performed marriages, and he responded that he would then and there write out for us by heart a ketuba.

Because Rabbi Yeshurun and we share interests in many Jewish skills and arts, we tried to debrief him on all of their traditional techniques from ink making to matza baking, from parchment manufacture to how he removed the forbidden fats from animals he slaughtered. “They rarely had etrogim in Kurdistan. Once in a while, one might appear from Iraq and the word would go out and all would hurry to make the blessing on the four species. They were unable to manufacture tefillin and the ones they had came from Baghdad. Smuggling them across the border was a risky business and thus tefillin were a rare and treasured commodity. When he became bar mitzva, he did not have his own pair but had to use his father’s.

“As a testament to the tenacity with which the Kurdish Jewish community preserved our laws, he related how he was an expert in ‘halitza’, the rare ritual in which a childless widow is released from marrying her deceased husband’s brother.

When we discussed his circumcision technique, he paused, smiled and asked if we would like to hear a good story. Knowing this was going to be a keeper, we sat back and waited. His father, the local ‘mohel’, was out of town and a man came and told him that his son needed a ‘brit’ that day. The baby’s father was insistent that the boy would have it done that day despite the protestations of the young Haim Yeshurun. Having trained under his father, and observed circumcisions, he had no choice but to do his first brit. He had everything he needed except for the protective shield used by mohalim to avoid cutting too much. Smiling at us, he related how he went to a vine and cut down a gourd. From the gourd he whittled a piece into the proper shape and with that he went on to do the first of many circumcisions.

“In Kurdistan everything was homemade. The matzot, from the cutting of the grain, were supervised by him. The construction of the mikve, which he insisted was used by all in the observance of family purity laws despite the fact that most of the townsfolk were uneducated, was constructed by him, and the shofar was fashioned by his father. In fact when he arrived in Binyamina, one of his first acts was to build a mikve. (…)

“His desk is piled high with filled notebooks and he continues to write, by hand of course, during all his free time. When queried as to their content, he would only smile and say, “Things I want my family to know when I am gone.”

“We asked him about the day he arrived in Israel. Starting to get emotional 57 years after the fact, he told us that they disembarked from the plane and immediately got down on their knees and kissed the ground. He started to cry as he related this story and again relived the emotions of that moment.

“As we parted, we clutched his hand and wished him many more years of health, happiness and the ability to continue serving his community. Not to be outdone, he put his hand on our heads and with tears in his eyes, blessed us with all that and much more.”

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  • Yes there are some shia kurds in Diyala provence but the Kurds where the Aramic-speaking communities used to reside are Sunnis. The majority of Kurds are sunnis anyway! also to make it clear the population of Sadr city is predominantly shia Arab not kurd! Im a differnt person by the way as i am interested in the Iraqi jewery and Iraqi society in general.

  • I wondered about that too, but according to professsor Vali Nasr, there are lots of Shi’a Kurds, especially in the province of Viyala north of Baghdad and south of Kurdistan. He says there are a million Sh’i’a Kurds in Sadr city, but they vote Sh’ia not Kurd.


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