Jews of Kurdistan - Economy

In general, living conditions were quite meager and unstable. Many of the Kurdish Jews were farmers, shepherds, rafters, and loggers—occupations almost unknown in other Jewish communities in the East or West. In past centuries, there were more villages populated entirely by Jews than there were later; some villages remained entirely Jewish until the mass emigration to Israel. In larger centers, Jews traded in grain, cotton, wool, furs, cattle, gum, gullnuts (from which ink was made), sesame, dried fruits, and tobacco. Many had vineyards and orchards. Jewish artisans included weavers, dyers, shoemakers, tailors, and a few silversmiths and goldsmiths. In the twentieth century, for security reasons and owing to improvements of transportation (e.g., the use of motorized vehicles), many Jews (as well as others) gradually left the villages and the hardships of farming. Moving to urban centers, they looked for an easier life as shopkeepers, merchants, and butchers. The towns, with their large synagogues and numerous religious functionaries, were more suited to Jewish life and provided greater security against attacks by nomadic tribes and brigands, as well as relief from the natural calamities of the rugged areas. A common sight in the larger towns, such as Zakho, were poor peddlers traveling in companies of two or more, riding donkeys and mules and selling certain groceries (e.g., tea and sugar) and notions (e.g., needles, buttons, and thread). This occupation was extremely dangerous because their routes were often infested with robbers; many lives were lost at the hands of Kurdish brigands. Another dangerous occupation among the poor was rafting and logging. About seventy families in Zakho made a meager living from transporting logs, used for construction and carpentry, on the torrential rivers. Other common skills were spinning (done mostly by women), weaving of light rugs and clothing, and dyeing of woolens. Weaving was common in the urban centers as well as the rural areas. In general, the occupations of the Kurdish Jews were typical of a rural or small-town society, and, therefore, few wealthy merchants were found among them. Money in general was scarce in Kurdistan, and so were items of luxury. Much of the trading was by way of barter—for example, shoes could be exchanged for chickens, notions for farm produce. Some Kurdish Jews, after their emigration to Israel, continued to work as farmers in rural areas around Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Of those who settled in the cities, principally Jerusalem, many women worked as maids, and most men worked first at hard manual labor, as porters, masons, and stonecutters. A few who started as common laborers in the building trade are now among the wealthiest people in Israel; they own luxurious hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets. Much of the construction business in Jerusalem was—and still is—dominated by Kurdish Jews. Some have become prominent in the Israeli army or have become high government officials or members of city councils.

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