An ancient tradition relates that the Jews of Kurdistan are the descendants of the Ten Tribes from the time of the Assyrian exile (6th century BCE). The first to mention this was Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, the 12the century traveler who visited Kurdistan in about 1170 and found more than 100 Jewish communities who still spoke Aramaic. The traveler Benjamin the Second, who visited Kurdistan in 1848, also mentioned this tradition and added that the Nestorian (Assyrian) tribes were also descendants of the Ten Tribes and that they practiced some Jewish customs. During the Second Temple era, the kingdom of Abiabene was situated in this region; its inhabitants, together with their king, Monobaz, and his mother Helena, converted to Judaism in the middle of the first century, and it is likely that some Kurdish Jews today are descendants of these proselytes.
In recent centuries, the economic situation of Jews in Kurdistan was difficult and their living conditions highly instable. They were largely cut off from the outside world, but were known for their strength and sturdiness. Those living in cities engaged in commerce and crafts, while those dwelling in the mountains engaged in farming. Their religious life was centered around the synagogue and talmud torah (religious school). Like the Nestorians in the area, they spoke an Aramaic spiced with Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic and Hebrew words, which they called “the language of the Targum” (the Aramaic translation of the Bible) and which the Arabs call jabali, or “the language of the mountains.” In the 20th century, the urban Jews of Kurdistan adopted Arabic as their principle language, but those in the mountains continued to use Aramaic.
Immigration to the Land of Israel began as early as the 16th century, with the first immigrants from Kurdistan settling in Safed. In the 20th century, Kurdish immigrants arrived in the 1920s and 30s and by 1948 there were some 8,000 Kurds in the country. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, almost all the Jews of the Iraqi Persian and Turkish parts of historic Kurdistan were airlifted to the new state in 1950-51 in an operation known as “Magic Carpet.” They settled in many towns and villages, with the largest number living in and around Jerusalem. Few had any formal education; many continued to engage in agriculture. Initially they had a rather low public image and there were the brunt of many jokes.
Today, the Kurdish Jewish population in Israel is over 150,000, with the largest concentration in and around Jerusalem. The immigrants in the early days of the state were largely traditional, as there had been no process of secularization in Kurdistan. Today, the majority of young Kurdish Jews are educated and secular, define themselves as “Israeli” rather than Kurdish, and have abandoned many traditional Kurdish customs. Only the elderly still speak Aramaic and/or Arabic, while the younger generations have adopted Hebrew as their principal language. Fifty years ago most of the Kurdish Jews in Israel married within their community; today most young Kurds marry members of other ethnic Jewish communities. In recent years, many Kurdish Jews have achieved high positions in the army and civil service, among them the former Minister of Defense, Yitzhak Mordechai.
One tradition that many Kurds, including many young people, still maintain is the celebration of the Saharana. Although the central focus of this uniquely Kurdish festival is the transition from winter to spring, only the Iranian Kurds hold their Sharana celebrations in the spring during the intermediate week of Passover. All the others celebrate in the intermediate week of Sukkoth, which is in the fall. Kurds from all over the country gather in one village and spend an entire day in nature, dancing, singing, drinking and consuming great quantities of traditional Kurdish dishes, including kubah, chicken stuffed with minced meat, grape leaves and lentils.