How Kurdish Jews made their way to Jerusalem, shocked Herzl, began to thrive
A chance meeting with British geologists spurred many of Kurdistan's Jews to move to Israel in the early 1900s, where they made an impression on its founders
What kind of rocks do you need for making fire? At the end of the First World War, a group of English geologists thought that they could find the perfect blend of flint and steel in the rocks of Zacho, a town in Kurdistan. Off they went to the East and, while digging in the ground for rocks, they ran into a group of Jews.
Excited, they wondered if the Jews were acquainted with Chaim Weizmann, celebrated in England for having been crucial to the war effort. And they asked what the Jews thought about the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government expressed support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
To the shock of the Brits, the Jews of Zacho had no idea what they were talking about. For like most Jews in Kurdistan, they lived a simple life in a close-knit ethnic community, isolated from the outside world and completely ignorant of world affairs. Each day they woke up, prayed, and worked the land. And the next day they did it all over again.
Nevertheless, the questions asked by the British geologists had piqued their interest. They began writing to Jews in England and in Palestine. And eventually this chance encounter between Kurdish peasants and British geologists would be one of the driving forces behind a mass immigration to the Holy Land.
But even before the Jews of Zacho began pouring into Palestine, there were Kurds in Jerusalem. They had set up temporary lodgings in around 1895, mainly in a minuscule quarter known as Shaarei Rahamim (Gates of Mercy) in a neighborhood known as Nahlaot.
These days among the choicest residential areas in Jerusalem, Nahlaot consists of several dozen tiny quarters clustered together outside the walls of the Old City. Occupants of each little quarter generally belonged to a specific ethnic group with shared geographical connections, similar styles of worship, and common traditions. In those early years and until the middle of the 20th century, it was populated with immigrants from Kurdistan, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Jews from Urfa in southern Turkey known as Urfalim, and a very small number of newcomers from Eastern Europe.
Inhabitants of Shaarei Rahamim, the poorest of them all, lived in tents, or large empty gasoline cans covered with tin. Conditions were terrible, with kitchens in the yard along with outhouses, and sewage running through the streets. Yet the Kurds knew that this was only a matter of time until they would manage to build more permanent housing.
Unusually big and strong, the Kurds were sometimes known for using their fists instead of their words. But they were also hard workers who were in great demand as porters and quarry laborers in those early days.
They were exact opposites of the doctors, lawyers and bureaucrats who usually hung out with Theodor Herzl, the Father of Modern Zionism. Thus his first encounter with Kurds came as somewhat of a shock.
That meeting took place one day in 1898, in Jerusalem. Herzl was in Palestine to connect with Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, in an effort to enlist the German emperor’s support for a Jewish homeland. He stayed with friends in a house just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, a dwelling that in the early 21st century was incorporated into the city’s Mamilla Shopping Mall.
One day Herzl caught sight of an enormously heavy box atop his wardrobe. He asked Aharon Hayut, a merchant who accompanied him while in Jerusalem, who could possibly have lifted it up and placed it there.
Hayut set off immediately for Shaarei Rahamim. Rounding up a few of the men, he told them to put on clean white clothes and to come with him to Herzl’s lodgings.
Herzl was amazed at the sight of Jews more robust than any he had ever seen before, and immediately took a photo of the occasion. He told the men that if enough Jews like themselves immigrated to Palestine they would be able to build a country.
Years later, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, met Kurds in one of the northern settlements and said almost the exact same thing.
After World War I tens of thousands of Kurdish Jews made their way to the Holy Land (today there are at least 100,000 in Jerusalem alone). A large number found their way to Shaarei Rahamim (Gates of Mercy) whose short, super-narrow byways are named for ancient towns like Kfar Baram, Hazor, and Korazin), or geographical areas like the Galilee (HaGalil).
Smallest of them all is Yiron, a biblical town granted to the Israelite tribe of Naphtali. Yiron is quite famous, though, because one of its homes played a part in Israel’s War of Independence: During the Arab siege of Jerusalem, three air traffic controllers were stationed in a white “tower” on its roof. From there they had a great view of a stretch of land across the road (today’s Sacher Park) which held a makeshift landing strip where planes loaded with supplies and soldiers took off and landed. You can still view the tower today.
Kurdish immigrants did not remain porters and quarry workers for long. Some first and second generation Kurds went into politics, like the current Labor and Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, who is the son of a Kurdish mother.
Others became generals, including Kurdistan-born Defense Minister General Itzhak Mordecai. Idan Amedi, a musician, songwriter and actor who is famous all over the world, was born to Kurdistan immigrants. Extremely proud of his heritage, Amedi always ends his concerts with a song in Kurdish.
In fact, the Kurds become so influential that they managed to get the authorities to change some of the street names. HaYarkon, for instance, was renamed Barashi Street for Yitzhak Barashi, a Kurdistani-born rabbi who fought in the War of Independence.
Zalman Barashi Ascent, not far away, was named for the founder of the largest construction company in Jerusalem. It was the Barashi Company that built pre-State Israel’s Burma Road in 1948, bypassing the main highway to Jerusalem which was under siege. Barashi’s company laid a water pipe and electric lines from the coastal regions to the Holy City, and cleared the area in front of the Western Wall to create the large plaza where worshipers congregate today.
A stretch of Agrippas Street bordering Nahlaot was renamed for Rabbi Shmuel Baruch, notable for his successful efforts in bringing immigrants to Jerusalem and unifying the Kurds into one large group for administrative purposes. Yet after crossing Iraq and Syria on his way to the Holy Land in 1925, the rabbi almost didn’t make it: he and his wife had lingered for a few days in a Syrian Jewish community where his beautiful voice and erudite interpretations of the Torah made such a favorable impression that he received a lucrative proposal to guide a Syrian flock in America.
Fortunately, his wife Dvora pressured him into rejecting the offer and continuing on to the Holy City. Anyone can see that the name has been changed: the original street sign sticks out from underneath the new.
Shaarei Rahamim of the early 20th century was always picturesque, and remains so despite the renovations that have taken place in Nahlaot.
Nevertheless, it seems to have been more or less forgotten. It isn’t even listed in an exhaustive catalog of early settlements, and is definitely not part of the regular tourist route.
Also off the track and missing from the list is Zichron Ahim, dating back to the late 1920s and early 1930s and bordering Shaarei Rahamim. Home mainly to Urfalim, this quaint quarter was built around one long flight of steps leading down – and another long flight heading up (or vice versa, depending on where you start).
We are extremely grateful to Tal Chenya, the talented lecturer and tour guide who supplied us with most of our material on Shaarei Rahamim. Chenya offers internet courses on Jerusalem, and features free short videos of the Holy City on his Facebook page.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.