Nowruz is the traditional Persian New Year and spring celebration observed in countries influenced by Persian culture. There is evidence that Nowruz was celebrated from the time of the ancient Achaemenid Empire (555-330 BC) and became an integral part of Zoroastrianism, the main religion of Persia before the advancement of the Arabs and conversion to Islam. This holiday is customarily celebrated outdoors on the spring equinox, (March 21st) and is a time of rejoicing and renewal. Iran, Kurdistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan all have their own variation of Nowruz with dancing, singing and eating delicious foods being the focus of the festivities.
So how is it that the Kurdish Jews are the only ones that celebrate their version of the Nowruz, called Seharane in the autumn?
Between 1950 and 1951 almost the entire population of Kurdish Jews immigrated to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah as a result political instability which made it unsafe for Jews to continue living there. The majority of Kurds arrived destitute and their fate was completely in the hands of the Israelis who dispersed them throughout the country in hurriedly built shantytown as well as in small villages, such as the village of Agur where my grandmother lived. They did not have the numbers, the organizational framework or the language to create a haven for themselves; in fact, many were illiterate and looked upon as simpletons. It took years for the National Council of the Association of Kurdish Jewry to be established and when they finally got around to organizing the spring festival of Seharane in 1975 they were too late. The Moroccan and national festival of Mimouna already took their preferred date, the day after Passover. So after twenty-five years Seharane found a new home during Succot, the festival of booths combining two wonderful outdoor celebrations. It is interesting to note that Nowruz was celebrated during the autumn equinox by the ancient Parthians, so the date chosen by the Kurdish Jews is not totally incongruous. There is one group of Jews from Iran, known as the Nash-Didan who have continued celebrating Seharane in the spring as they have done for generations.
Every year the Seharane is celebrated in a different location throughout Israel, and this year it was Jerusalem’s turn to host the festivities. Sacher Park in Jerusalem was packed with people doing BBQ’s, milling around and dancing to the beat of the def (bass drum) and the zirne (oboe) in tight, fast circles. The pictures do nothing to convey the amount of speed and energy that go into the dances. A stage was set up where musicians sang traditional Aramaic songs while the younger generation demonstrated Kurdish dances. It is very difficult to join the dancing if you are not first familiar with the steps as my brother Ariel can testify. His offbeat footing ricocheted across the line of dancers producing a quiver of chaos in everyone’s rhythm. The dancers simply left, leaving him alone and a bit bewildered.
I only had a few hours at the Seharane, not enough time to set up a BBQ so I did the next best thing, went to a Kurdish restaurant called Ima right across the street from the park. When Alon, my 11 year, ordered the sour hamousta soup the waitress kept trying to convince him to choose something else because she was sure he would not like the little flecks of green swiss chard floating in it or the large discus shaped kubba. The soup was delicious, especially the dumplings which were made of semolina and Jereesha, a ground wheat product that is not parboiled like bulgar. They also made the filling the traditional way, by frying chunks of meat in oil until completely cooked and then shredding it into small pieces (called Khelia or Kalia in Aramaic). When I make kubba I often use ground meat for the convenience but it lacks the characteristic texture of khelia.
The rice kubba was also delicious and made without any flour, great for Passover and suitable for those on a gluten free diet. We also ordered a plate of lemony hummus and another of eggplants which I enjoyed but my son’s chicken shislik (skewered meat) was under spiced and not grilled long enough for my taste. I would like to go back to the restaurant to try the other kubba variations including fried kibbeh (Nablus style) made with bulgar, tomato dumpling soup as well as vegetarian dumplings. The prices at the restaurant are not low, but I think it is worth going there if only for the kubba dumplings.
We returned to the park and met up with my Aunt Hadassa from Shtula and her girls who are much more talented in Kurdish dancing than I am and did not hesitate to jump right in. Perhaps I should practice my Kurdish half step so next time I go to the Seharane I can join them.
Address: 55 Shmuel Baruch Road, Jerusalem, opposite Sacher Park
Telephone: 02-6255693, 02-6246860
Open: Monday-Thursday 11:00-23:00 Friday 9:00-16:00
Price 60-120 NIS per person
Kurdish Jewish Encyclopedia, Mordechai Yona