Something to See Here

Editor’s note: Benjamin Kweskin, a Charlotte native who has a master’s degree from Georgia State and lives in Decatur, recently spent 10 months living with his wife in Iraqi Kurdistan until the rise of the Islamic State insurgents compelled the couple to return to the United States. This week, for our travel section, Kweskin discusses the reasons to add a visit to Kurdistan to your next trip to Israel. In the coming weeks, Kweskin will share more about his time with the Kurds.

By Benjamin Kweskin

Photo by Benjamin Kweskin – The 2,500-year-old Nabi Nahum synagogue, site of the tomb of the prophet Nahum, is in Al-Qosh.

In addition to the natural beauty and the adventure, what would entice Jewish tourists to visit Kurdistan?

When I traveled to the city of Zakho, highlighted in Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s Paradise,” people came up to me in the former Jewish neighborhood and pointed out the homes of teachers, rabbis and others — more than 60 years after they left.

Many people mourned when the Jews were leaving for Israel in the early 1950s because they knew they would never return. Many Kurds lament that the Jewish community is all but gone and romanticize stories of their parents and grandparents’ Jewish friends and neighbors. Most of our older Kurdish friends and colleagues had personal if not family stories relating to the Jewish community, and all welcomed us and were interested.

One of our colleagues at school, a man roughly my father’s age, asked how he could visit Israel. I replied that he likely had to get a different passport from his Iraqi one. Visibly upset, he answered in broken English: “I don’t want this stupid Iraqi passport!”

When I visited a close friend who grew up in the United States and who visited Israel several years ago, he translated while I spoke to nearly a dozen men who sat glued to every word — I was the first Jew some had seen for decades if ever. They wanted to know why Israel did not help out the Kurds more, what I thought of Benjamin Netanyahu, and what I learned about Kurds growing up (nothing). The older men, my friend’s uncles, were excited to tell me that an old Jewish man came to their city every year to visit his old neighborhood and friends from his youth.

Several biblical figures are buried in Kurdistan, and their tombs and shrines are easily accessible.

In the Assyrian Christian town of Al-Qosh, a 2,500-year-old synagogue and the tomb of the prophet Nahum sit in a residential neighborhood. The synagogue of Nabi Nahum is said to be the last remaining synagogue in Iraqi Kurdistan and is in a derelict state.

Farther south, the prophet Daniel is buried in the oil-rich, contested city of Kirkuk. The site was a synagogue, became a church and now is a mosque. It is believed that the site also holds the tombs of the [prophets Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

Kurdistan was the site of many historic events. Alexander the Great and Darius III fought a major battle on the outskirts of Erbil. Alexander’s victory paved the way for him to extend his short-lived empire all the way to India. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” mentions localities in Kurdistan close to where most of Atlanta’s Kurdish community comes from, in Sulaimaniya province.

For nearly 100 years a Jewish kingdom called Adiabene (Hadyab in Hebrew) existed in Erbil; the queen has a street named after her in Jerusalem (Heleni Ha’Malka), near the famous commercial area of Ben Yehuda Street. The queen and the royal family provided soldiers and food to help the Judaeans fight Roman occupation in the first-century C.E. Great Jewish Revolt, which culminated in the siege at Masada. Adiabene’s rulers also helped decorate the Second Temple and built the “Tomb of the Kings” for the burials of Adiabene royalty. Queen Heleni’s sarcophagus is on display in the Israel Museum.

When Roman troops headed toward Adiabene after conquering Judaea, the royal family fled east to Hamadan (Iranian Kurdistan), a once-thriving Jewish community still visited by local Jews and Muslims to see a beautiful shrine dedicated to Esther and Mordechai. A street called Hadyab is in Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood near the Erbil International Airport. The neighborhood is home to hundreds of expats and thousands of Christians who fled the Islamic State.

We generally think of the modern Reform movement ordaining the first female rabbis, but a woman was considered a rabbi in the 1600s in the Kurdish highlands. Ta’anit Asenath Barzani (1590-1670) was the beautiful daughter of a famous rabbi who lacked sons; he educated his brightest daughter in Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah. She was respected throughout Kurdistan, and when she reached marriageable age, her father demanded that her husband include in the marriage contract that she should “never be troubled by housework” so she could focus on teaching and studying Torah.

When her father and husband died, she became rosh yeshiva (head of school) until her son learned enough to succeed her.