History of Kurdish Jews
Kurdistan is a geo-cultural historical region that refers to parts of modern day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Ancient Israelites were brought to the region by the Assyrian empire in the 8th century BCE. For generations, the Jews in Kurdish areas lived in relative isolation. Many worked as farmers and their insular communities developed distinct customs, including marrying at a very young age and praying at the graves of Jewish prophets. The medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Kurdish areas in 1170 CE and encountered over a hundred Jewish communities in Kurdish lands. One of the largest was Amadiya in current-day Iraq, where he recorded that the Jewish community numbered about 25,000. Though the largest community of non-Jewish Kurds is found in present-day Turkey, Kurdish Jews lived primarily further east, in modern Iraq.
In the early 20th century, Kurdish Jews numbered between 20,000 and 30,000, and lived in towns and villages from Iran to Iraq. The Kurdish Jews were highly regarded throughout Kurdistan. When, in the 1950’s, most Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel, they left behind neighbors and friends who took care of their friend’s synagogues, in some cases for years. Today, almost all the Jewish Kurds live in Israel, numbering around 200,000.
Read more about Kurdish Jewish history here.
Kurdish Jewish Music
The style of Jewish music in Kurdistan is conditioned by the multinational and multilingual character of the country, which in its long history scarcely ever aimed at a cultural centralization and thus helped to preserve the musical dialects of the Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish regions of the area. The main feature of Jewish song in Kurdistan is the unique melodic style of the renditions of Aramaic texts (which is distinct from the general "Oriental Sephardi" style used for Hebrew texts). Connected with liturgical or spiritual texts, this melodic style is basically determined by the speech-melody of the Aramaic language, with a tendency to proceed over long stretches in a litany or parlando style, especially if the text is of a narrative nature (as in the chanting of the biblical books in the local Aramaic version, or the Zohar).
Another factor of Jewish song in Kurdistan is the contact with Arab music, which since the early days of Islam had gradually replaced the older musical idiom of the Mesopotamian area, especially in the sphere of artistic urban music. Equally important for the formation of the Jewish-Kurdish style of synagogue song were the bonds with the major tradition of Jewish music, foremost cantillation and ḥazzanut styles.
Kurdish folk song also uses the Kurmanji language, with its epics, ballads, and dances, which has been widely accepted by the Jews, and synthesized with their other singing styles. The fact that Kurdish Jews lived as free peasants side by side with their Muslim neighbors is a rare instance in the history of Diaspora life, and has doubtlessly contributed to the acceptance of the host culture's lore and song.
Excerpt taken from My Jewish Learning. Read more about Kurdish Jewish history and musical tradition here.
Kurdish Jewish Dance
Kurdish Jews loved to dance especially during life events such as circumcisions and weddings. Their dance is very similar to their non-Jewish neighbors and the grounded footwork connects to their rural and agricultural lifestyles. What makes their music and dance unique is that Kurdish Jews spoke Aramaic and their music had a unique melodic style related to renditions of religious texts. Dancing was also connected to secular events such as a housewarming or completion of seasonal agricultural labors. The Jewish and non-Jewish versions of these dances and the songs that accompanied them are very similar. Kurdish folk dancing is group dancing with no limit to the number of participants. Most of the line or circle dance is at outdoor festivities especially the Sehrane Festival. Hundreds might take part in each dance, even a hundred people in one circle. Men and women of all ages often dance together, although in Kurdistan, it was also customary for each sex to do so separately. In line dances the leader is an outstanding dancer who sometimes waves a handkerchief or brandishes a dagger in his free hand. In some cases individuals dance opposite the line or within the circle of the dances. Despite variations and dance styles of the various regions of Kurdistan two basic ones are common to all. The first is a slow step with emphasis on heavy pounding of the ground as if symbolically demonstrating their work on the land. The other basic step consists of quick springing light movements which express the joie de vivre that is characteristic of the Kurds. All dances include that basic position: leg slightly spread, knees moderately bent, a straight back, various fashions of holding the hands of other dancers and energetic hand waving. Kurdish dancing is based on a single step that is repeated over and over again, which can go on for up to 20 minutes. There’s no break between the dances.
- Taken from Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions
By Raphael Patai