It started with the sound of drums. Lorin Darwish, a Syrian Kurd born in Qamishli, stepped out of the parking garage. She could feel the percussion in her stomach as she started walking down the hill. The whine of the familiar shawm instrument swirled around her ears as she stepped onto the valley’s green lawn. Moments later, she was walking through a crowd of mustachioed men, some decked out in flowing pants and turbans, chatting excitedly in Aramaic and Kurdish as women tended to meat on the grills set up around the park.

But Lorin wasn’t heading through Qamishli, or any other part of historic Kurdistan, divided today between Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. She was in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, below the ridge on which the Knesset and Supreme Court sit, attending her first Saharane festival.

Saharane is the annual Kurdish Jewish holiday, now celebrated during Sukkot, when the ancient community gathers to sing, dance, eat, and trade stories from the old country in their traditional Aramaic tongue.

Last Sunday, Israel’s Kurds marked Saharane in Israel’s capital. Over 13,000 Israeli Kurds attended this year, according to Yehuda Ben Yosef, leader of the community in Israel. Smaller Saharane events were also subsequently held in Yokneam, Mevasseret Zion, and Yardena.

Jews in Kurdistan historically marked the beginning of spring with the Saharane 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.

When the community emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, they continued to celebrate Saharane 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. Ben Yosef’s uncle, Aviv Shimoni, the leader of the community at the time, decided to move the celebration to Sukkot in 1975. Unfortunately, this disconnected Saharane from its roots as a celebration of the blossoming of nature after a cold winter.

‘We feel we are part of Israel’

As ties deepen between Kurds in Israel and those in the Kurdish heartland, more Muslim Kurds are making their way to Israel to visit their former neighbors.

Darwish, whose extended family is still in war-torn Syria, came to Israel from the Netherlands especially for the festival. She found Ben-Yosef online, and contacted him before her trip.

“Yehuda is a special person,” she said. “I don’t feel that I was a guest. I feel directly that I was home. This feeling is not easy to get from everywhere. Because I know he’s a Kurd, I’m a Kurd — I cannot explain it.”

It was Darwish’s second visit to Israel. She also came in July with three Kurdish friends living in Sweden, but seeing the Israeli community gather left a powerful impression on her.

“I was walking from the parking garage to the park, I heard the music and I said, ‘Wow, it is so beautiful to hear the Kurdish music,'” she recalled.

“The Kurdish people you know are in four lands, and you go to Israel, a country like Israel — a powerful country, a big country — and you see Kurdish people there, and they are powerful, it makes you very very happy. I thought I will go and see old people, but I saw young people dancing, singing, it was really great.”

Seeing an immigrant Kurdish community thrive was especially exciting for Darwish.

“Before I came to Israel, I thought, no, nobody helps us, no one gives us anything. But now that I was there, and I saw the people, I say why not, these people are Kurdish, and they are strong, and they get help from Israel. And I think that between Kurdistan and Israel the relation is very good.

“We Kurds, we love each other, we want to help each other…If I see somebody needs help, then we help,” she added.

Several Iraqi Kurdish families were also in the crowd, tentatively pushing baby strollers as they looked for Israelis who could still speak Kurdish. They were in Israel for their young children, who are receiving life-saving heart surgery at Israeli hospitals. Two Israeli women noticed their Muslim headdress, and walked right up to strike up a conversation in Kurdish.

Jewish Kurdish women from Israel and Muslim Kurdish women from Iraq converse in Sorani Kurdish after meeting each other at the 2013 Saharane festival in Jerusalem (photo credit: Times of Israel/ Lazar Berman)

Jewish Kurdish women from Israel and Muslim Kurdish women from Iraq converse in Sorani Kurdish after meeting each other at the 2013 Saharane festival in Jerusalem (photo credit: Times of Israel/ Lazar Berman)

Bakhteyar Ibrahim, an Iraqi Kurd living in Germany, was in Israel for the first time. But Israel and the Jewish people have been on his mind for years.

Ibrahim is the president of the Kurdistan Israel Friendship Association, which he founded in Germany three years ago. Since then, KIFA chapters have emerged in Australia, German, England, and Benelux. There are even chapters in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, according to Ibrahim. Surprisingly, he has not been able to get one going in Israel itself.

Israel began as an academic interest for Ibrahim, but he soon found an emotional attachment. “My heart was bitten for Israel,” was his colorful description. “Judaism was a focus of my dissertation. I decided to learn the language. After that I feel that I am very relative to this people and this religion.”

“I knew there were a lot of Kurdish people living here,” Ibrahim continued. “A part of Kurdistan. They long for Kurdistan. I thought we had to found this organization to be a bridge between Kurdistan and Israel. At first I thought, let our focus only be on the Kurdish Jews, but after that we thought that there are Jews in every country we should work with.”

KIFA is working with Israeli NGOs on a variety of projects. Ibrahim’s dream is to open a school in Israel for Jewish Kurds, complete with Kurdish language courses. He also hopes his organization will serve as a bridge between Israel and the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, helping the two sides open trade bureaus and even embassies if Kurdistan gains independence from Baghdad.

“Kurds think Israel are friends… even cousins, even blood,” Ibrahim stressed. “We feel we are part of Israel, and they are part of our nation. These people,” he said, pointing at the crowd, “represent the Kurdish people in Kurdistan.”

Prophets, false messiahs and a female Talmud scholar

Today, there are almost 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel, about half of whom live in Jerusalem. There are also over 30 agricultural villages throughout the country that were founded by Kurds.

At the festival’s temporary exhibit displaying the history of Kurdistan’s Jews, Mordechai Yona directed volunteers as they hung pictures from his research trip to Iraqi Kurdistan more than a decade ago. Yona, who grew up in the city of Zakho on the Iraq-Turkey border until the age of 11, is regarded as a leading expert on his community. He authored a three-volume encyclopedia on Kurdish Jews, as well as a Hebrew- Aramaic-Kurdish dictionary.

According to Yona, his hometown had a community of 1,800 Jews, 10 percent of all of Kurdistan’s Jews.

The Jews of Kurdistan have a long and storied past. According to tradition, Jews first arrived in the region, in the heart of the Assyrian Empire, after the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the 10 “lost” tribes into captivity. In the first century BCE, the royal family of the kingdom of Adiabene, whose capital is in the current Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, converted to Judaism. Queen Helene of Adiabene moved to Jerusalem and donated significant funds to the Second Temple, built palaces near the City of David, and became famous in Jewish lore as Heleni HaMalka.

The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela found a sizable and vibrant community in Kurdistan in the 12th century, with communities in over 100 villages and cities. In the same century, the self-proclaimed messiah David Alroy of Amadiya led an uprising of Kurdistan’s Jews against their Seljuk rulers, telling his followers that he would take them to Jerusalem.

Kurdistan’s conservative Jewish community even had a renowned female religious leader. After her husband passed away, Asenath Barzani headed the Amadiya yeshiva in the 17th century, and was widely recognized as Kurdistan’s premier Torah scholar.

“Every big city had two to four synagogues,” Yona explained. “Most were made of bricks, but Zakho’s great synagogue was made of hewn stone. That synagogue was mostly destroyed, but when I visited in 2000, one of the walls still had the menorah hanging from it.”

Kurdish Jews regularly visited and cared for the graves of biblical prophets believed to have been buried in the region. Ezekiel’s tomb is situated in al-Kifl in southern Iraq; Daniel is said to be buried in Kirkuk; and Nahum, whom Kurdish Jews see as their patron prophet, lived and was buried in the Assyrian town of Alqosh, according to local tradition.

Jews used to visit Nahum’s grave on the Shavuot holiday, renting rooms from the Aramaic-speaking Christians and staying for up to a month, K., an Assyrian shopkeeper in Alqosh, told The Times of Israel. A Jewish family lived next to the grave and took care of the site. Extensive Hebrew writing can still be seen in the crumbling building around the grave, and traces of mezuzot are visible on the doorposts of homes in the courtyard facing the grave.

Kurds began moving to Israel, primarily settling in the northern town of Safed, in the late 1500s. The vast majority, however, left shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel. With the exception of a few families who stayed behind in Iran, the entire community flew to Israel during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah between 1950 and 1952. Their arrival was anything but smooth, with families walking off the planes only to be sprayed by the Israeli government with pesticides then sent to squalid tent camps.

Hebrew writing at the grave of the prophet Nahum, Kurdistan Region, Iraq (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)

Hebrew writing at the grave of the prophet Nahum, Kurdistan Region, Iraq (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)

Yona visited Kurdistan in 2000, entering Saddam Hussein-ruled Iraq through Turkey. “The Kurds knew I was from Israel, and they gave me great honor,” he said.

Yona regularly receives Kurdish visitors in Israel. In August, a group of Syrian Kurds from Qamishli visited Israel. He believes that such  interactions are indicative of the potential political relationship between Kurds and Israel. “We will be the first to recognize an independent Kurdistan,” he said.

‘I want to see my father’s store’

The Saharane festival, in addition to keeping a tradition alive, is an opportunity for the community to take pride in members who have risen to prominence in Israeli society, which initially saw them as illiterate peasants. Itzik Kala, a popular Israeli singer of Kurdish descent, sang songs in both Hebrew and Kurdish after the sun set.

Former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, born in Zakho, and Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy joined Yehuda Ben-Yosef on the stage to recognize Israeli hero Mordechai Rachamim as a community notable. Rachamim, an undercover air marshal, foiled a 1969 attack on an El Al plane in Switzerland by killing the leader of the Palestinian terrorist squad that was trying to take over the craft.

The Kurdish Jews sitting with their extended families at the event, drinking and eating barbecued meat, were eager to share their stories as well. Naim Eliyahu, from Moshav Agur, was born in Koysinjaq in northern Iraq. He learned in the local Jewish study hall as a boy at the feet of a well-known teacher called Muallem Ezra; and Naim claims he had learned all of the Talmud by the age of 6.

His family came to Israel in 1951 and lived in military tents upon arrival. Naim served in the air force and formed a Kurdish band, “Naim and Naima,” with his wife.

Taking me by the arm, Naim regaled me with a Kurdish folk song. He was also visibly excited by the opportunity to speak Kurdish with the families from Iraqi Kurdistan, and handed them meat off his family’s barbecue.

Naim Eliyahu singing a Kurdish song with Bakhteyar Ibrahim (photo credit: Times of Israel/ Lazar Berman)

Naim Eliyahu singing a Kurdish song with Bakhteyar Ibrahim (photo credit: Times of Israel/ Lazar Berman)

Nahum Moshe, from Zakho, and his wife Tzipora, born in the city of Duhok, moved to the heavily Kurdish town of Mevaseret Zion just outside Jerusalem. They remembered good relations between Kurdish Jews and Muslims, but recalled stories of Jewish merchants being murdered by highwaymen as they moved their wares between cities. The couple maintain connection with Kurds still living in Iraq, and host Kurdish visitors to Israel every year. 

The city of Halabja, infamous for Saddam Hussein’s mass murder of Kurds with chemical weapons, still has a neighborhood called the Jewlakan, or Jewish quarter, to this day. Though the Jews all moved to Israel, tailors from the nearby bazaar are happy to point out old Jewish homes, hotels, and the brick synagogue.

Rachel Shalom, sitting with her husband on a small rise overlooking the main stage, fondly remembered her childhood in the city, playing in the streams running down from the mountains on the Iranian border. 

“That was my uncle’s house,” she exclaimed as she scrolled through photographs of my recent trip to Halabja’s Jewish quarter. “And that… that was a flour factory. And this one was the mayor’s house, I remember those two doors. Why didn’t you take pictures of the springs?”

“Wow, I remember it all! ” Shalom said, tears coming to her eyes. “I want to see my father’s store.”