By Lazar Berman
In a humble apartment in Jerusalem’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, or prayer phylacteries, 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.
We had excellent relations with the Muslim Kurds, like brothers.
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.”
It was like the Garden of Eden there,
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.”
Barashi remembers a man named Mirza as the Agha of Meriba, the town his family was living in. He was as “an important man, one of the greatest governors in the mountains of Kurdistan.”
Mirza’s wife saved Barashi’s life at the age of 11. It was after the Passover holidays, and not one speck of food remained in the house. For two days, the family did not eat, and Zechariah fell sick. His father was away trying to buy meat on the black market. After having lost so many children, his mother was determined to save him. She went to the Agha’s wife, and begged her for food. The wife hesitated at first, saying she was afraid her husband would find out, and be angry that he would now be forced to give to everyone who asked. Barashi’s mother persisted, her only son’s life was at stake, and assured her that she would hide the food under her dress, and no one would know. The Agha’s wife agreed, and the boy recovered.
The Agha was very committed to the Jews in his region, Barashi remembered. His family used to visit the Agha on Friday nights. But when his sons got older, they began to smoke while Barashi’s family visited. Eventually, Barashi’s father told the Agha that his family can no longer come by, as smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath, and they wished not to be around it. The Agha’s decision was swift. “You are forbidden from smoking in this house on the Sabbath,” he told his sons, thus ensuring that his Jewish guests would feel comfortable during their visits.
Having seen how difficult it was to support a family as a rabbi, Zechariah decided he did not want to become one. But his father insisted, and Zechariah began studying as a young man with a rabbi in Akre.
At the age of fifteen, Barashi convinced his father to move the family to Sindor, the only town in all of Iraq that was entirely Jewish. His father became the rabbi in the town.
At the age of 18, Barashi met the woman who would become his wife.
“I met her the same way people meet their wives today,” he said with a smile. “On the dance floor. On Friday night, after the festive meal, all the youths would go to the big plaza in the middle of the village and we would perform Kurdish dances until one o’clock in the morning. The next day, after the meal, we would meet again and dance until the third Sabbath meal. Her older brother was my friend, and her grandfather, Yosef Arbaya, and I asked my father to talk to him and ask for her hand in marriage.”
They got married two years later.
He still speaks of his wife, long since deceased, as if they were both teenagers in love on that dance floor in the middle of Sindor.
“You can’t buy love, and no one except God knows what draws a man to a certain woman and not another one. In the village, there were dozens of beautiful and good girls, but I fell in love with her, and good that it turned out this way. There was no bad in this woman that became my wife. Modest and quiet and determined and pretty.”
They were poor at the beginning, but they partnered in weaving Kurdish suits, and with time, the young couple started to make a name for themselves. And in the meantime, the couple had three children, the youngest of whom, Moshe, died of sickness at a young age.
Changes were underway for the family. Barashi could not get the idea of moving to the Holy Land—making the aliyah—and seeing Jerusalem, out of his head, and when he began receiving letters from relatives in the Jewish town of Zichron Yosef inviting him to come, he decided to start working on acquiring a passport. The British strictly limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine in those years, and it took him two years to get his passport. All his savings went to paying for forms, and of course, bribes.
You can’t buy love, and no one except God knows what draws a man to a certain woman and not another one.
“It was harder than the exodus from Egypt,” he joked, “since dealing with the exodus took only one year, and everyone got out.”
He finally received his passport in 1933, but still awaited the permit that would allow him to move. In 1934, the British halted Jewish youth immigration under Arab pressure, and his relatives in Jerusalem suggested he write that he is a rabbi on his passport, since they were the only ones who the British allowed to enter.
Still, he waited. Finally, he caught a break in 1936 when Dr. Moshe Zamura, a representative of the Jewish Agency, an international organization helping Jews to move to the Holy Land, came to Kurdistan. Barashi was selected as his translator since he knew Hebrew.
Zamura told him he needed to head to Baghdad to receive his permit, which Barashi did immediately, securing his entry papers at long last.
Unfortunately, he was unable to do the same for his parents. Barashi was crushed, and thought of giving up his dream in order to stay with his parents. But his father was insistent. “You are forbidden from delaying the inevitable. You must make Aliyah, and God will forgive you. He will find us worthy, we will come too, and if not, you merited to do so, so go without regret.”
And so, after saying goodbye to friends, and arranging for an exemption from Iraqi military service, Rabbi Barashi, his wife, and children headed out from Mosul toward Damascus, a journey that usually took four days.
“We were five families that left that day,” he recalled. “There was a man named Gedaliah, and I don’t remember his wife’s name, but she was about to give birth. The men got off the bus, and the women, including my wife, helped her give birth. Three hours, in the middle of the desert.”
The rest of the journey to Damascus was full of challenges. Their driver, a Catholic man named Yacoub, abandoned them for days in Deir a Zour, a city without a Jewish community where they could find Kosher food to eat. In Damascus, finally, they spent the Sabbath with the Jewish community, before getting on the train to the Holy Land. “And on Thursday, the 12th day of the month of Cheshvan 1936, we arrived at our destination, the holy city of Jerusalem.”
The early years in Jerusalem were difficult for Barashi, and his family once again fell into poverty. He signed up at the Histadrut, the Jewish labor union, as a worker, but jobs were given out on a points system based on family size and the family’s needs. Barashi was low on the list, and his wife decided, against his will, to go to work as a housekeeper.
Barashi did manage in the end to bring his parents to the country in 1938, three years before they passed away, within five months of each other.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, there was suddenly plenty of work to go around. The British needed laborers to build military bases and airstrips, and paid much better than the local bosses. Throughout World War, and three years later the 1948 War of Independence, Barashi toiled paving roads, laying out runways, and digging trenches.
Eventually in 1950, two years after independence, the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan came to the young state of Israel. “They built beautiful villages across the country,” said Barashi. Dozens of these agricultural communities still exist across the country, maintaining their Kurdish flavor three generations later.
With his community scattered across the country, Barashi began traveling to each town, instructing the Kurdish Jews on religious practice. He would attend weddings, circumcisions, and funerals, and made sure the community continued to use the old customs of Kurdistan’s Jews.
He is an example of rabbis as they once were,
With time, Barashi came to be seen as the spiritual leader of Israel’s Kurdish community, and became well known across the country as chacham, or especially learned rabbi. Pictures of the rabbi with presidents and prime ministers fill his living room.
The two most prominent chief rabbis of Israel’s Sephardic- or Middle Eastern- Jewish community, Eliyahu Bakshi Doron and Ovadia Yosef, both saw him as a senior figure, and wrote prefaces for the books he wrote.
Barashi authored four books on the Torah and mysticism, and was in the middle of a fifth when his failing eyesight forced him to stop at the age of 111. He lives an independent in his apartment, save for the company of his two students during the day, and one of his five remaining children at night.
He has lost two of his children to old age, but continues to enjoy the presence of his four generations of offspring. His great-great-grandchildren are now serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
Mention Chacham Barashi’s name to a Kurdish Jew, and you will hear effusive praise of their beloved long-time religious leader.
“He is an example of rabbis as they once were,” remarked Yehuda Ben Yosef, chairman of the National Organization of Kurdish Jews in Israel, whose grandfather was a teacher of Barashi’s. “Humble, with a smile for every person, sharp memory, a sense of humor.”
“His value to the community is greater than gold,” Ben Yosef continued. “He is an example to all rabbis today. He is above the politics, does not just follow the flock, and is not influenced by money. He says what he thinks.”
I have had the fortune of living in Jerusalem for 75 years. I’m in heaven.
A recent example of Barashi’s independence was his blessing of Nir Barkat, the secular mayor of Jerusalem, during his reelection campaign against the candidate supported by the Sephardic religious community.
“This is where our love and respect for him comes from.”
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.”