Nash Didan: Our People

May 31, 2011

“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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