Jews of Kurdistan - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The level of spiritual life in any society depends largely upon its physical security, economic conditions, population size, and communication, as well as contact with other societies. In the case of the Jews of Kurdistan, all these factors are mostly negative. Life in the area was often precarious. It was common for population remnants to migrate from place to place because of natural disasters (floods, plagues) and destruction or devastation by tribal chieftains. The Jewish population in any one locality would often dwindle from several hundred or several thousand to a few families. Yet, during some short, less troubled periods of relative security, a few centers of learning did flourish. The Kurdish Jews, as in any traditional rural society, were deeply religious, observing what they knew of Jewish law quite strictly. Although many could not read Hebrew prayers, almost everyone attended services in the synagogue, not only on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, but also on weekdays. All Jewish holidays were observed and celebrated with great joy. In spite of the general preoccupation with daily routine practices, the moral principles and customs of Judaism were learned as well, being transmitted orally from generation to generation, often through the sermons in the synagogue. The sermon played a most important role in the religious and national edification of isolated communities such as Kurdistan, where books were rare and the rate of illiteracy was high. The sermon included tales and legends of the life and deeds of the patriarchs, ancient kings and heroes, prophets and rabbis, mystics, and ordinary pious men and women, all carefully selected to fit the particular audience. The legends were not only fascinating in themselves but also taught ethical principles, repentance for misconduct, and steadfast devotion to the faith of the fathers. The miracles and salvations so often mentioned in these sermons gave the Jewish community much comfort, as well as strength to endure the hardships of daily life in exile and to maintain hope of redemption and the coming of the Messiah. The ties to the Land of Israel, the land of their roots, were indicated in religious literature and in various customs, for example, the attributing of biblical names to localities in Kurdistan (e.g., Ekron, for the local town of Aqra and calling Zakho "the Jerusalem of Kurdistan"). All Jewish dead were placed in their graves with their feet facing in the direction of Jerusalem, probably to hasten their arrival there on the Day of Resurrection. The religious practices of the Kurdish Jews included, in common with other Middle Eastern and North African Jewish and non-Jewish communities, the visitation and veneration of local shrines or tombs assumed to be the burial grounds of holy persons.

Medicine. The shrines were visited in groups or by individuals, such as barren women or parents of paralyzed children, who beseeched the holy men to intercede on their behalf and cure their illnesses. A variety of amulets prepared by living mystics were used for healing all sorts of psychological-physical aliments or for restoring love relations, such as in the case of a wife who was no longer loved by her husband. Popular folk medicine included bloodletting by razor cuts on the back, the application of leeches, and the preparation of herbal drinks and homemade creams.

Handicrafts and Oral Arts. Like those of other rural societies, the arts of the Kurdish Jews were mostly practical crafts: weaving various types of carpets, producing woolen textiles, and knitting items such as socks, gloves and hats, silk-embroidered scarfs, and handkerchiefs. People who could not afford to buy new clothes would simply dye the old ones in strong, bright colors such as indigo and crimson, to give them a new look. A few people were gold- and silversmiths. During weddings and others festivities, women wore gold or silver jewelry, such as nose- and earrings, necklaces, and hand and foot bracelets with little bells. Small children wore various types of silver pendants, some with Hebrew inscriptions, as well as little gold and silver bells, to protect them from the evil eye and evil spirits. At celebration times, men would wear fine woolen baggy suits, a very elaborate headdress, and belts with daggers in silver-decorated sheaths. Some old men had very fancy smoking pipe with long tubes.

A few men and women excelled in the oral arts of storytelling and singing. The rich oral folk literature provided the most popular pastime for Kurdish Jews. Some of the best narrators of these Kurdish tales were Jewish, and they were sought after by Jews and Muslims alike. The general content of the stories was often well known to the audience, but an artistic narrator could captivate his listeners again and again. The storyteller made the story come to life by gesticulating and making facial expressions, by changing voices, and by producing sound effects, such as the fast running of a gazelle or the galloping of a horse. The stories varied in length and in subject matter—from serious heroic adventures or misfortunes, tragic love stories, and imaginative moralistic tales to humorous, erotic, supernatural, and entertaining anecdotes. Sometimes the narration would extend over several long winter nights—the narrator always stopping at a critical point to leave the audience in suspense until the next evening. Singing was common during work (especially during group work such as wheat grinding), at celebrations, and during mourning periods. Women excelled as chanters at funerals, moving mourners to loud weeping. Those with pleasant "professional" voices sang for an audience, but almost everyone sang anywhere—walking down a street or when alone in the countryside. Singing was usually unaccompanied by musical instruments, except during wedding celebrations and other occasions for dancing, in which cases a wooden flute and a large kettle drum were played.

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