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Musician preserves culture of Kurdish Jewry
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Musician preserves culture of Kurdish Jewry

Summit synagogue hosts scholar for talks on melodies, cuisine

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Drory Yehoshua loves the unique trajectory of the Makam Husseini, or Husseini melody, from the country to which he traces his roots, Kurdistan.

A product of interactions between Jews and Muslims, the melodies are heard as Jews from the region sing Psalms, in musical styles unique to their communities.

“Most of this music we can say is very sad, but it has a very interesting shift,” Yehoshua said in a phone interview. “A melody may be very low in the heart and feel very sad, but…in another minute, you can feel like jumping and dancing. Its very low and very high points are connected.”

Yehoshua is neither a Kurdish scholar, nor a hazzan. But he is very much involved with preserving the heritage of Jews in Israel from Kurdistan — a region encompassing parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey — as well as other Muslim countries, and with raising the status of these people within Israel.

As a teacher in Jerusalem, he shares traditional Kurdish liturgical melodies and Torah and haftara tropes, as well as Kurdish customs for life-cycle events.

This month, he will share those traditions at the Summit Jewish Community Center as the Conservative congregation’s artist-in-residence. He will talk about — and perform — Kurdish music as well as Kurdish dance. He will also cook a sampling of Kurdish food, including soup with koubbeh, a Kurdish dumpling.

Bringing him to the congregation was the idea of Hilary Goldberg of Short Hills, who has long been Cantor Janet Roth’s “co-collaborator” in planning the artist-in-residence events. Yehoshua is married to Goldberg’s niece.

She was inspired by seeing him in Israel. “I just remember the passion he brought to reading Torah and the interesting tropes he used,” said Goldberg. “I noticed that many of the artists-in-residence we have brought offer a window into a different culture, and I thought this would be perfect,” she said.

Roth said the artist-in-residence program, funded by a grant from the synagogue’s Charles and Lillian G. Baraff Memorial Fund, enables her to share the music that inspires her with the congregation community.

She said she would attend the Cantors Assembly convention or the North American Jewish Choral Festival and would be “so inspired by the people I’d meet, and I wanted to bring them to the synagogue so my congregants could experience what I had experienced. It’s easier to bring one person here than to bring a synagogue of over 300 families to see them.”

Raising self-esteem

Yehoshua’s Kurdish roots are on both sides of his family. His father emigrated from Kurdistan to Jerusalem in 1952. His mother was born in Jerusalem to parents who emigrated from Kurdistan in 1928. “I was born into a Kurdish neighborhood where all the families are like a tribe,” he said. “Today, this is my Jewish identity — I am Jewish-Kurdish.”

There are about 450,000 people who identify themselves as Kurdish Jews in Israel today, according to Yehoshua, who warns that the number is slippery because it is based on personal perceptions.

He teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute as well as at Memizrach Shemesh, a study and social action center that focuses on the Sephardi and Mizrachi heritage. He also serves as a teacher at a synagogue near Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. All three institutions are in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and their four children.

Yehoshua is wary of people who distinguish between folk or “low” culture as opposed to a literate or “high” culture.

“Some will say these Psalms, melodies, food, and dancing represent a premature culture, and it is not a culture of books and novels,” he said. “But for me, there is no low culture or high culture. The right question to ask is, Where is your soul blooming? If when you hear Kurdish psalms or you are eating Persian food or you are reading a Syrian novel and you feel it in your soul, so that’s where your soul is being moved.

“It’s very good to find different parts of your soul to connect to your Jewish identity.”

Yehoshua said he believes this perceived gap between high and low culture adds to the achievement gap between Israelis from Muslim countries and those from Ashkenazi or Western countries. Part of Yehoshua’s goal is to raise the self-esteem of Jews from Muslim countries.

“The Muslim cultures were criticized a lot at the beginning of the state; my family, for example, had a hard time showing our culture in public. With the help of God, things are changing in Israel.”

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