“Nash Didan: Our People”, was a documentary film idea I had developed over a few years, before I finally decided to scrap it on the grounds that I just didn’t have enough experience as a filmmaker to really know what I was doing.  Did I quit because I was scared and didn’t have enough confidence in my abilities?  You bet I did!  I decided to quit applying for film grants and just give up trying.  It feels really good to finally confess that!  I had, for a long time, played with the idea of starting my filmmaking career by making a documentary on the subject of Kurdish Jewish folk tales.  I am an absolute folklore junkie.  I have, for a long time, felt that one of my purposes in life was to be a preserver of folklore. I truly believe that if you want to really understand a culture, you should look at its folkloric traditions. Diversity of language, religion, and tradition afford us an opportunity to recognize ourselves in others.

During a visit to Israel in 2004, I was lucky enough to meet Pnina Levi, an elderly Kurdish Jewish woman and the grandmother of a friend of mine.  Pnina told me the story of a Jewish woman her mother had been friends with back in Kurdistan.  A woman who was followed everywhere she went by a fortunetelling demon who had fallen in love with her. Hearing this legend, so rooted in folk beliefs and historic events (the demon kills Golbahar because she wants to immigrate to Israel with the rest of the Kurdish Jews), made me think about the connection folktales portray between reality and whimsy, history and cultural beliefs.

I became incredibly knowledgeable about the Jewish Kurdish community and their cultural heritage and read every single book published on the subject (and wrote to the authors of these books for advice).  The reason I chose to attempt to make a film about the Kurdish Jewish community in Israel, is because they present a cultural anomaly in some ways.  They are one of the smallest and the least known about Jewish communities in the world. Before their mass migration to Israel in 1950 and 51, during “Operation Ezra and Nehemia”, there were 25,000 Jews living in Kurdistan. 
The Nash Didan (Kurdish Jews) speak Targum, a form of Aramaic, one of the oldest languages in existence. The word Nash Didan means “Our People” in Aramaic. Now that they have returned to their Jewish homeland of Israel, both their indigenous language and cultural traditions are in ever increasing danger of being forgotten.

The Nash Didan are the only Jewish group in the Diaspora who spoke Aramaic as a mother tongue.  The Jews of Kurdistan are descendants of a group of Israelites (refered to as Samarians, because Samaria was the name of the northern territory of Israel which the Assyrians captured), who were enslaved and deported by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.   Unlike most Jewish communities within the Diaspora, Kurdish Jews enjoyed relative peace and were not subject to pogroms like neighbouring Jews in Persia, Syria and Iraq (not to mention Europe).  Kurdistan was the only place where Jews were allowed to own their own land, and were not subject to Jew tax.  Although they had good connections with non-Jewish Kurds, the Jews of Kurdistan protected their ethnic identity and traditions by not intermarrying with the non-Jewish population, and through diligent practice of their religion.

Because of their lack of schooling and education, Kurdish Jews were considered primitive, course, and uneducated.  To this day, the word “Kurd” is used in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries as a derogatory word to describe people who act in an indecent, uncivilized manner.  This social sidelining heightened their desire to live amongst themselves and to practice the trade most of them had practiced back in Kurdistan, that of farming.  Many Moshavim (farming settlements) were set up shortly after the establishment of Israel, by Kurdish Jews, most of which still exist today. There are approximately 125,000 Israelis of Kurdish Jewish origin (many of them are of mixed ethnic origin) in Israel today.

Israel could best be described as a blend of Eastern culture with Western values.  The social system in Israel is and has been since its establishment, a melting pot, wherein new immigrants are strongly encouraged to assimilate quickly.  For the Kurdish Jewish population, the identity they gained by becoming Israeli, forced them to shed their previous one.  Now, two or three generations later, it could be said that there are almost no Kurdish Jews left in Israel; there are only Kurdish Israelis.

“In our day the ingathering of several oriental Jewish diasporas in Israel initiated the process of their assimilation to the secular, western culture of the modern Jewish state, with its inevitable concomitant—the disappearance of folk traditions.” 

– Raphael Patai, On Jewish Folklore

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The Mark of a Writer

May 7, 2011

I thoroughly enjoy writing in my bed.  It is the most comfortable and warmest place in my little rented basement suite.

About a week ago I was sitting up in bed, with my sheets pulled up around me, my gel pen in my hand, and my notebook (yes, I still use a non-electronic device to write with) perched on my lap.  I was in the midst of reconstructing a poem I had recently written, when, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed that my right hand was turning black.  Not only was it turning black, but black liquid was also starting to drip down my arm and onto my sheets.  I quickly came to the realization that my pen had mysteriously exploded in my hand.  I immediately jumped out of my bed and scurried, pen in hand, to the wastebasket at the other side of the room, leaving a trail of black ink droplets behind me as I did so.

Once the leaky pen was safely in the wastebasket I immediately started cleaning the ink off the linoleum floor of my room.  I was quite sure that ink stains on the floor would ensure that I would never see the return of my rental damage deposit.  Once the floor was cleaned (with some minor stains left behind, which I really hope will not be noticed by the landlord when I decide to move) I surveyed the bed to see what damage had been done to the sheets.   My bed sheets happen to be extremely old and I really don’t mind if they have a few ink stains on them.  I stripped the bed and threw the bed sheets into the bathtub to soak (there is no washing machine in my basement suite).  It was at this point that I started thinking about writers of the past and their ink spotted sheets.  Surely some of the greatest writers in history must have written in bed and accidently dropped their feather or fountain pens onto their sheets once in a while.

My favorite opera composer, Gioachino Rossini, was famous for writing his operas from the comfort of his bedroom, wearing his bedclothes.  He reportedly composed some of his earlier operas in bed in order to keep warm and to save the expense of keeping a fire lit in his bedroom.   There is a famous anecdote about one particular occasion, when Rossini was composing a duet for his opera “Il Signor Bruschino”.  He was composing in bed when some of the sheets of music for the duet he was working on slipped off the bed and onto the floor.  Rossini got up to collect the sheets, only to discover that they had fallen under the bed and lay out of his reach.  It was bitterly cold, so he climbed back into bed and resolved to rewrite the whole duet over again from memory.  Unfortunately for him, he found that he couldn’t remember what he had written at all, so he decided that he would compose a new duet to take the place of the one he had lost under the bed.  Just as Rossini had finished composing this new duet, a friend of his entered the room, obligingly reached the sheet music lodged under the bed with his cane, and handed it back to Rossini.  Upon comparison it was evident that the two duets were not in the least similar to each other.  The tempo of the first duet better fit the mood of the situation it was written for within the opera, and so it was chosen over the second duet.  But then another idea came to Rossini and he proceeded to rework the second duet into a terzetto (a trio) to be inserted into the same opera.  In the end, both pieces were used and the opera was a great success.

So there you have it, writing in bed can be truly inspirational, especially under certain circumstances.  Now that my bed sheets look like the sheets of a writer, I feel as if I have been initiated into a great historic tradition.  Ink stains must truly be the marks of a writer.