Concern for brethren in Syria marks Kurdish Jews’ celebration
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Concern for brethren in Syria marks Kurdish Jews’ celebration

At annual Saharana festival, ancient community denounces Islamic State and Turkey

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

  • A dance troupe made up of Syrian Kurdish Jews, at Saharana celebrations in 2014 (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)
    A dance troupe made up of Syrian Kurdish Jews, at Saharana celebrations in 2014 (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)
  • Sima Levy, originally from the Kurdish city of Qamishli, Syria (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)
    Sima Levy, originally from the Kurdish city of Qamishli, Syria (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)
  • Kurdish Jews dance at the Saharana celebration during the Sukkot holiday, 2014. (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
    Kurdish Jews dance at the Saharana celebration during the Sukkot holiday, 2014. (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

As they do every year, Kurdish Jews in Israel gathered over the Sukkot holiday for their annual Saharana festival. The ancient community came together to sing, dance, eat, and trade stories from the old country in their traditional Aramaic tongue.

But this year, amid the music and revelry in the northern town of Yokne’am, an unshakable sense of worry permeated the atmosphere and conversations. In speeches and in private chats around bowls of steaming Kubbeh soup, Israel’s Kurds expressed anger and concern over the plight of their Kurdish brethren fighting against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

“If you send me, I’ll go to the Kurds to fight Daesh,” said old-timer Yossi Mizrahi with a smile, using the Arabic name for IS. “I’d go tomorrow,” promised Mizrahi, born in the town of Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan.

Sitting with his wife and other Kurdish friends, Mizrahi, well beyond fighting age, said he follows closely the developments in Kurdistan. IS are “animals,” he said. “Garbage. And they won’t last long.”

Yossi Mizrahi (R) and a friend from Iraq at the Saharane celebration during the Sukkot holiday, 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/ Times of Israel)
Yossi Mizrahi (right) and a friend from Iraq at the Saharana celebration during the Sukkot holiday, 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

He didn’t have much kinder words for Turkey, a long-time opponent of Kurdish national aspirations, and currently unwilling to help the Kurds battling IS fighters in the town of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. “The Turks want them to destroy the Kurds. Turkey is disgusting.”

Turkey sees the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD — and its military wing, which is fighting IS militants — as an extension of the PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terror group by the US and NATO.

Aharon (who asked that his last name be withheld), born in Mosul, Iraq, more than 80 years ago, travels to Kurdistan regularly for business. He speaks with his contacts there every two days, and recently helped arrange a Kurdish agricultural delegation to Israel.

When the fighting reached his childhood city, he was especially concerned. “As someone who was born in Mosul, I was very afraid that they would blow up the Mosul Dam. But America helped them, and the Kurds took control over the dam.”

He takes great pride in his efforts to help the Kurdish medical and agricultural sectors grow. “We were in the same situation that they are in today. They are hated all around. They don’t want them. They don’t want to give them a state. We were in the same situation….[Legendary Kurdish leader] Mustafa Barzani was here many times. And during the 60s and 70s, we sent many military services there. Officers in civilian dress, who trained their army to fight against Saddam. So they say to us, you helped us in wars, help us to be independent economically.”

Israel should help too, Aharon urged, but quietly, “without the name. We don’t want to arouse Arab states against them, and not Turkey either.”

Haviv Saidoff from Karkur, a former Bank Leumi clerk, came to Jerusalem from the city of Duhok in 1939. He is in touch with an Armenian woman back in Kurdistan, who sends him regular updates on the fighting in the area.

Haviv Saidoff during the Saharane celebration during the Sukkot holiday, 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/ Times of Israel)
Haviv Saidoff at the Saharana, Sukkot 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

They communicate in Aramaic, but she writes the language in Arabic script, while he writes in Hebrew.  “So we write Aramaic in English letters. We wrote about three days ago…. She sends us pictures, all sorts of things.

“All the world needs to attack IS. As for the Kurds, from the way they run their affairs, they deserve help.”

Some attending the festival even have family in the eye of the storm in Syria. Sima Levy, dressed in traditional Kurdish garb, came to Israel from Qamishli in 1962 at the age of 18. But she left an older sister behind. She stayed in touch with her sister, who moved with her family to Aleppo, meeting with her in Jordan and Turkey, and sending her money.

But her sister was never willing to move to Israel. “They said they want to,” said Levy. “But she won’t leave her family and come here.”

Levy was able to remain in touch with her sister for the first two years of the civil war in Syria, but worryingly, contact between the two was lost a year ago and has not been renewed.

Levy made sure to pass on customs, and her Qamishli dialect, of Kurdish Jews from Syria to her 11 children. Her son Danny, also decked out in traditional garb, dances in a troupe composed entirely of Israelis whose families hail from the Kurdish regions of Syria.

“The dances came primarily from her,” he explained. “Then with the years, we added our own dances.”

Jews in Kurdistan historically marked the beginning of spring with the Saharana festival, while at the same time their Muslim neighbors celebrated the Newroz holiday. They would head to the river banks and host mass picnics, complete with traditional garb and music competitions.

Kurdish Jews play the traditional Zurna during the Saharane celebration during the Sukkot holiday, 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/ Times of Israel)
Kurdish Jews play the traditional Zurna at the Saharana celebration, on Sukkot 2014 (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

When the community emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, they continued to celebrate Saharana during the intermediate days of Passover. However, the relatively small community felt their holiday was in danger of being swallowed up by Mimouna, the post-Passover holiday of the much larger Moroccan community.

Aviv Shimoni, the leader of the community at the time, decided in 1975 to move the celebration to Sukkot. Unfortunately, this disconnected Saharana from its roots as a celebration of the blossoming of nature after a cold winter.

But even amid the fighting in Kurdistan, there was ample laughter as families swapped stories. Yehuda Khalili, born in a village in Iranian Kurdistan, came to Israel in 1950 with his father, who held a senior position in the Iranian government. He said that the grandson of the shah visited Israel in the mid-1970s, and stopped by the family home, thinking Khalili’s father was still alive. When the family told the prince the news, he felt it would be rude to leave, and ended up spending Shabbat with them in Ramatayim.

The memories and stories are part of what the celebration is about, said Yehuda ben Yosef, chairman of the National Organization of Kurdish Jews.

“The festival focuses on two central things. First, the members of the community, who don’t all live in the same place. Second, it preserves the folklore, the connection to and love of the land, the country, and also the homeland in Kurdistan. During the holiday, we are remembering everything we brought from Kurdistan. The songs, the music, the costumes, the customs, and the foods.”

But the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria were clearly on his mind as well.

“This year, we focused an important part of the celebrations to call on the Israeli government, to call on the US, to denounce the two-faced Turkey, which doesn’t allow aid to reach the Kurdish army fighting there, and genocide is being carried out on its borders, which are NATO borders. This is unbelievable. It’s as if the Holocaust is starting to return, and the world stands there silently.”

AP contributed to this report. 

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