Jews of Kurdistan - Orientation

Identification. Kurdish Jews, a largely rural people, have lived in the mountains and plains of Kurdistan since time immemorial. They have been geographically isolated throughout much of their history and are thought to have retained some old Jewish traditions. Their Neo-Aramaic language is a survival of old Aramaic, which was the dominant language in the Middle East before being gradually superseded by Arabic after the Islamic conquest of the area during the seventh century A . D . Most of the Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel during 1950-1951.

Location. Kurdistan is a geographic-ethnic term referring to a large territory (about 960 kilometers long and 190 to 240 kilometers wide) in central Southwest Asia, divided at present among Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The Kurds are a nation without a politically recognized homeland (in spite of their continuous struggle for centuries to have one). Kurdistan consists mostly of a rugged chain of mountains, with the exception of some lowland areas on the fringes. The climate is characterized by heavy snows during the winter, followed by spring rains and heavy runoff down the slopes, creating rapid torrents and swollen rivers. This combination of rugged terrain and harsh weather makes the region an inaccessible and almost impregnable fortress. Hence, day-to-day control by remote governments has always been tenuous at best. Kurdistan has consequently served as a refuge for various religiously and politically dissident groups throughout the ages.

Demography. At present there are about 2,400,000 Kurds in Turkey, 2,200,000 in Iraq, 2,000,000 in Iran, and smaller numbers in Syria and Russia. The total number of Jews in Kurdistan, before the mass emigration to Israel, was about 25,000, sparsely scattered in about 200 villages and little towns. Their number in Israel (including those born there) today is estimated at 100,000. Because of their strong sentiment for Jerusalem, many live there or in the nearby villages. Others have settled in rural areas near Haifa, the Jordan Valley, and the Lakhish region.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Muslim Kurds speak Kurdish, an Indo-Iranian language that has several regional dialects. Most Christians and Jews speak various Aramaic dialects containing many Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, and Arabic loanwords. The Jewish dialects also include many Hebrew loanwords. Because the topography and climate make travel and communication very difficult, almost every village and town had its own dialect. Wherever there was a Jewish community, there was usually a distinctive Jewish dialect, as well as a Christian one, which were, however, mutually intelligible. The farther two places were from each other, the less mutually intelligible their dialects would be. Practically all the Jewish men and many women also spoke Kurdish, which they used when talking with Kurds at the marketplace and during other social and commercial encounters. Kurdish was also the language of folk songs and other types of folklore traditions. Hebrew was the language of recitation for religious rituals, blessings, and prayers. The learned men also used Hebrew for their traditional forms of writing, including personal correspondence. Hebrew expressions were used by Jews engaged in commerce as a secret in-group language when they did not want the Gentiles to understand. Arabic was used only for official purposes or when talking with nomadic Arabs. Many Jews in the larger towns, however, have shifted from Aramaic to Arabic (in Iraq), Persian (in Iran), and Turkish (in Turkey).

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