By Lazar Berman
In a humble apartment in Yerushalayim’s Baka neighborhood, about a mile south of the walls of the Old City, the world’s oldest living Jew goes about his daily ritual. As he has for over a century, the rabbi rises in the morning, puts on his tefillin with the help of one of his students, and says his morning prayers. Then, he sits to learn the Torah, Talmud, or kabbalah, examining it with the same fervor and passion he did when he started learning as a teenager.
In addition to being the world’s oldest Jew, Rabbi Zechariah Barashi, 114, is also the world’s oldest Kurd.
Barashi, still sharp and gregarious in his old age, remembers details from events 80 years ago with surprising clarity. He gives exact dates, names, and even prices of bus rides as he recounts his time growing up in the Badinan region of Kurdistan, and his journey to the British-controlled territory that would soon become Israel.
He was generous with his time to sit with me for three hours to answer questions and tell his story.
Born in Barashi in 1900, Zechariah was the last child born to Rabbi Eliyahu Barashi and his wife Simchah. Six of his siblings died in their childhood, leaving him with two older sisters, Sarah and Reichana.
His parents worked in traditional Jewish trades, including farming vineyards, dates, and nuts. Jews, Barashi told me in his home, also sewed Kurdish clothing, which were seen as especially well-made by their Muslim neighbors.
His family left Barashi six months after he was born, and settled in a small village four hours from Atrush. At the age of eight, Zechariah moved with his grandfather to Atrush itself. His father eventually joined them, becoming the rabbi of the Jewish community there, which only numbered about 100 people.
His family continued to move from village to village as Barashi’s father served the Jews living in the region’s small communities. “He would leave the house on Sunday and return on Friday,” Barashi recounted. “Sometimes he would come home after two weeks.”
Life was not easy for the Barashis. He remembers a difficult three-year famine after the First World War.
“The Turks looted whatever they could after the war,” he recalled, “and whoever survived the war died of hunger.”
It was also difficult for Jews to study Torah and Talmud, as there were no yeshivas, or study halls, in the region. However, the larger communities, like Duhok and Sindor, enjoyed large synagogues with opportunities for study.
But, as opposed to many other Jewish communities across the world, 90 percent of the Jews in Kurdistan could not read or write. Less than one in ten even knew how to pray. “Despite this,” Barashi emphasized, “the Jews kept the Sabbath and the holidays, family purity, a strictly Kosher home, fear of heaven and parents, and respect for their elders.”
Because of the lack of education, the rabbi had to explain the meaning of the Hebrew prayers in Aramaic or Kurmanji at the end of the service so the community would understand.
Despite the challenges, Rabbi Barashi has fond memories of his childhood. When he wasn’t studying the Torah with his father at home, he was out playing with the children of his village, Muslims and Jews together. “We had excellent relations with the Muslim Kurds, like brothers. We almost never fought. If there ever was a fight, they would quickly inform the Agha, who would warn the parents that if their child acted up again, he would expel the entire family.”
He sees no comparison between today’s tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the relationship between Jews and Muslim Kurds in Kurdistan. “It was like the Garden of Eden there,” he said. “Today, everything is madness.”
Last year, a Kurdish journalist came to Barashi’s apartment to film an interview with him for a Kurdish TV. The reporter, stunned by the purity of Barashi’s Kurdish, stayed for hours. He wrote down words that he had never heard before, and looked them up when he got home, discovering that they were old Kurmanji words that had fallen out of use.
Barashi is happy to share a blessing with his visitors, and is always ready to share his secret to a long life. “There are three things,” he says. “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat – always leave the table a little hungry.”
But does he ever wish he could go back to the old villages in Kurdistan?
“No,” he says, smiling. “I have had the fortune of living in Jerusalem for 75 years. I’m in heaven.”
Read a full report at: RUDAW.NET