The Demographic Distribution and Languages Spoken by Iraqi Jew
The Jewish community in Iraq consisted of an Arab majority and a Kurdish minority. Geographically, Arab Jews lived in the central and southern area and Kurdish Jews lived in the northern regions. Linguistically, Arab Jews spoke a Jewish-Arabic dialect derived from the old Arabic vernacular combined with Aramaic and Hebrew, while also incorporating some Persian and Turkish words. The Kurds Jews, on the other hand, spoke an unwritten Jewish neo-Aramaic dialect regarded as holy being mainly derived from the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible (targum-תרגום) combined with Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew expressions. However, the Arabic and the neo-Aramaic vernaculars respectively spoken by Arab Jews and Kurdish Jews differed from those spoken by the other speakers of these two languages in vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation. As a result, most Iraqis could easily recognize the ethnic identity and religious affiliation simply by conversing with them. This ethnic and linguistic division within the Jewish community hindered the social and economic communication between the Arab and Kurdish Jews until well into the early 1900s. Although later in the century, many Kurdish Jews began to migrate to Baghdad and Basra, where they found employment in various occupations (1).
As children, we lived in a house owned by a Kurdish family who moved to Baghdad from Kirkuk . The house was located in the “Torat Street” in the old Jewish quarter in Baghdad. The house was built in the typical Iraqi style with an open courtyard surrounded by the two stories and a paved root. As the house had more rooms than the owners needed, they let the vacant rooms, usually to more than one family. In this house my parents rented two bedrooms, where we stayed for a number of years. There was no written contract between the parties apart from a verbal agreement regarding the rent and its duration.
An ancient tradition relate that the Jews of Kurdistan (יהודי קורידסטאן) are the descendants of the Ten Tribes from the time of the Assyrian exile. Jews of Kurdistan are the ancient Eastern Jewish communities, inhabiting the region known as Kurdistan in Northern Mesopotamia, roughly covering parts of Iran, North Iraq, Syria and eastern Turkey. The Jews of Kurdistan lived as closed ethnic communities. Their clothing and culture is similar to neighbouring Kurdish Muslims and Christian Assyrians.
Since the early 20th century, some Kurdish Jews had been active in the Zionist movement. One of the famous members of Lehi לחי -(Freedom Fighters of Israel) was Moshe Barazani (1928-1947), whose family immigrated from Iraqi Kurdistan and settled in Jerusalem in the late 1920s. Moshe Barazani joined Lehi while still very young, first putting up posters as a member of the youth division and then later, as a fighter, as part of the Lehi combat unit. He was arrested during curfew, charged with conspiracy to murder British Brigadier and sentenced to death by hanging, by a British military court on April 21, 1947. However, before the execution, he and his comrade Meir Feinstein committed suicide in their cells in the central prison in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, with improvised grenades which had been smuggled inside oranges.
The vast majority of Kurdish Jews were forced out of Iraq and evacuated to Israel in the early 1950s together with Iraqi Jews community. However, they live in their own neighbourhood in Israel and still celebrate Kurdish life and culture, including Kurdish festivals, customs, and music in some of its most original forms.
(1)Hisham Chreih, American University of Beirut, “Jews in Modern Iraq”, 2010, p. 5-7.