Origins of the Festival
The Seharane is a Kurdish Jewish festival, lasting a few days at the close of Pesach, that traditionally marked the end of winter and the coming of spring.
The precise origin of the word Seharane is not clear: it might mean "sahar" – the crescent moon (the spring moon of Nisan being in its third quarter, or the clear spring nights). Sahar might also be a form of "sayar" or walking, touring; finally, the Kurdish word "sayeran" means to see, and to explore nature. The origins of the festival itself are clearer than its meaning: they are regional - a similar nature festival is observed by Kurdish Muslims and called "sayeran" in Iran, "navruz" in Iraq (also with the meaning of walking in nature). Finally, the correct spelling is Seharane, not Saharane!
The Seharane was celebrated after Pesach by all the families in all the Kurdish Jewish communities and is thus a springtime festival. Each family would prepare provisions, taking these, their musical instruments, tents, and leave the towns or villages for the countryside, to celebrate by the lakes and rivers in the beauty of the natural surroundings. Since the festival lasted for a few days, provisions would include all the religious requirements of the community, with opportunities to replenish food and domestic needs through visiting merchants. The camp would also be guarded by hired men from the tribe under whose protection the community lived.
Families would arrive at the chosen site in the afternoon and set up camp in clusters. In the evening, campfires were lit and each family would begin preparing the meal, cooking their own specialities, or re-heating those prepared in advance. The food was varied and families would offer hospitality to each other, tasting each other's food.
Of necessity, dishes would be created from items that would keep for a day or so in the mild spring weather, or that could be cooked conveniently over a campfire.
Yaprach – stuffed vine leaves with meat and rice, prepared at home and carried in pots.
While there are many Kurdish Jewish dishes based on wheat grain, rice was imported and therefore considered a luxury food, eaten at festivals and celebrations.
Mazza – finger foods of fried or boiled chicken, fish, vegetables (tomatoes, turnip, etc.), to be cut up and cooked at the campsite, and eaten with a sip of Araq, or other kinds of distilled liquor.
Offering hospitality meant that a host would set up a kochke (divan) in the family tent or hut, and invite people in to sit down alongside him and honour him with their company.
Women would be dressed in their best clothes and jewelry and men in their festival attire and this was a joyful, social occasion for the community. In addition, the Seharane was a unique opportunity for the young men and women to meet and find a life partner in a society where women were not allowed to go out unaccompanied and where marriages were otherwise arranged without the knowledge of the young people concerned and announced at betrothal, without the couple ever meeting. At the Seharane, during the preparations and festivities that occupied the heads of families and their household, young people were unsupervised and therefore able to meet discreetly, but freely, in the encampment - and many engagements resulted. Thus, it also became the custom to perform Erusin (betrothal ceremonies) during the Seharane.
In the evening, the music and dancing would begin, to the beat of the Dola and the melodic, reedy call of the Zerna. Kurdish Jewish dances move rhythmically in a line, and often in a circle, the dancers' feet weaving in and out. Solo singers and dancers would perform, and this was also a time when the community's poets and story-tellers would play a major part in the proceedings. Festivities would continue into the night, and possibly throughout the first night, until dawn and morning prayers, and the celebration went on for several days.
Kurdish Jewry came to Eretz Yisrael as early as the 16th century and there was another aliyah in 1830. There was a small aliyah in the early 1920s and again in 1935, with the community numbering between 20-30,000 before the establishment of the State. The major aliyah was during in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (1950-1951), when most of the community came to Israel. The Kurdish Jewish community in Israel is now estimated at over 160,000 strong.
From the time of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, Seharane celebrations effectively ceased for a period of two decades. During Succot 5732 (1972), a decision was made by the newly formed National Council of the Association of Kurdish Jewry to re-instate the festivities, but not after Pesach, which was already traditionally marked in Israel by the Mimouna (not only a Moroccan, but a national event). The idea of celebrating the Seharane at the following Shavuot (1973) was modified to Tu B'Av (15th Av), following appeals by senior members of the community and Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. However, security considerations prevented the first gathering on Tu B'Av that year.
It was not until the intermediate days of Succot in 5735 (1975) that the first Seaharane was celebrated in Israel. Since that first occasion, it has become a public celebration, visited by religious and political dignatories, and marked by picnics, accompanied by traditional music and dancing. It is also an opportunity to join in with, or clap hands along with the musicians and dancers in the traditional dress of wide turbans, loose girdled shirts and loose trousers, as they pipe the zerna, drum the dola, and move gracefully among the crowds.
Once again, the Kurdish Jewish community is able to dance and sing to the sounds of their compelling music, and to offer the hospitality for which they are famed, but now as a mainstream Israeli celebration as the whole country is on holiday to join in. Celebrations this year (2004) will be held at Tzemach on October 4th-5th.
Photographs reproduced from his personal collection, with the kind permission of Mordechai (Motke) Yona.
Bibliography and Useful References
Ben-Yaacov, Abraham. Kurdistan Jewish Communities. Yad Ben Zvi Institute. 1961. 256 pp., out of print
Ben-Yaacov Abraham et al. In Encyclopedia Judaica. Kurdistan (>Targum Jews. >Zakho); Iraq>Kurdish Jews)
Bet Hatefutsoth. Virtual Exhibition. Jews in Arab Lands Today. http://www.bh.org.il/V-Exh/Photos/exhib4.htm
Brauer, Erich/Raphael Patai. The Jews of Kurdistan. WSUP. 1993 http://wsupress.wayne.edu/judaica/folklore/brauerjk.htm
Gavish, Haya. Hayinu Tzionim: Kehilat Zakho Bekurdistan - Sipur Umismach. We Were Zionists: The Zakho Community of Kurdistan - A Story and A Document. Yad Ben Zvi Institute. 2004. Hebrew. (Revised edition from original doctoral thesis c.1999, with English Table of Contents and Abstract.)
PNAS. Evolution of a genetic disease in an ethnic isolate: beta-thalassemia in the Jews of Kurdistan. D Rund, T Cohen, D Filon, C E Dowling, T C Warren, I Barak, E Rachmilewitz, H H Kazazian, Jr, and A Oppenheim. Department of Hematology, Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel. 1991.
* Sabar, Yona. Various. For list of publications, please see: http://www.nelc.ucla.edu/Faculty/Sabar.htm and
Schwartz-Be'eri, Ora. The Jews of Kurdistan: Daily Life, Customs, Arts and Crafts. UPNE. 2003. Introduction by Professor Yona Sabar* http://www.upne.com/965-278-238-6.html Also available from the Israel Museum www.imj.org.il
Yona, Mordechai. Ha-ovdim Be-eretz Ashur: Yehudei Kurdistan Vezakho. Those who Perish in the Land of Assyria: The Jews of Kurdistan and Zakho. Yona Press/Mossad Bialik. Jerusalem. 1989. [Hebrew]
Yona, Mordechai. Entsiklopedia shel Yehudei Kurdistan. Encyclopedia of the Jews of Kurdistan. Yona Press/Mossad Bialik. Jerusalem. 2003. [Hebrew] (3 vols., 1,500pp., with photo plates)
Yona, Mordechai. http://www.kurdishjewry.org.il/ [Hebrew]
Yona, Mordechai. Film in preparation.
Links for Jewish communities of the Caucasus Mountain Region http://learning.lib.vt.edu/slav/relig_jew_caucasus.html
Links do not all work, but some are helpful
Tribes of Israel >Kurds