Guarding Their Language

Aviad Segal
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Aviad Segal

"If Jesus returned to the Holy Land," wrote journalist Julian Borger in The Guardian in 1998, "probably one of the few places he would be understood in his mother tongue would be a basement beside the central bus station in Tel Aviv."

That basement houses the recording studio of music arranger A.B. Kazes, and often hosts successful musicians and singers. It was here that the Nash Didan band was born. "It all began thanks to my mother," says Arik Mordechai, 57, a soloist and the founder of the band, which has produced eight albums, all of them sung entirely in Aramaic.

"She came to me and asked why I didn't do something for 'our people' [nash didan in Aramaic]." A few weeks later the band recorded its first song, "Nash Didan Idaylu" (Our People Have Arrived). A first album, bearing the same name, was released shortly thereafter, and Mordechai claims that it sold 50,000 copies.

"Audiences attended our performances out of curiosity and were surprised to discover something different, something new," Mordechai continues. "Very soon we started getting phone calls from all over the world, from people who were surprised to find Israelis speaking the language. One day a fax arrived from Syria, informing us of the existence of communities there that spoke Aramaic. Another day a journalist working for a Mormon paper in Utah visited. What we did with Aramaic was like taking an archaeological finding, wrapping it in cotton wool and presenting it to the public."

Nash Didan is also the name by which the community of some 5,000 Aramaic-speaking Jews from Urmia, a city in Persian Azerbaijan (contemporary Iran), refer to themselves. Like the band, which rarely meets these days , the Aramaic spoken by Urmia's Jews has become almost extinct. Community members believe that very soon the general public will only revive the language of the Talmud, the language of Abraham and Jesus, on Passover eve, with the reading of the Haggadah, when Jews recall "ha lahma anya" the "bread of affliction" eaten in Egypt and sing Had Gadya. Aramaic references will also remain in idioms that have become rooted in Hebrew, such as treisar (dozen) and bar mazal (lucky person).

Arriving by boat

The first evidence of ancient Aramaic dates back some 3,000 years, and was found in inscriptions discovered in what is now Syria and Lebanon. When the Babylonian empire spread to the Land of Israel, the Nash Didan were exiled to the region of Urmia. After Babylon fell to the Persians, and Cyrus rose to power and allowed the Jews to return home, in the 6th century B.C.E., a few thousand did return, but most members of the community, which had put down roots in Babylon, decided to stay. Back then, Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean basin and beyond, and was used for official correspondence between neighboring political entities. When the Persian empire disintegrated, different Aramaic dialects began to develop, since Aramaic was spoken throughout the region alongside the local languages.

History books assert that Targum Onkelos, the translation of the Torah into Aramaic, written around the third century C.E., was written in Middle Aramaic. The Aramaic period ended toward the end of the first millennium, after the Muslim conquest and the subsequent ascent of Arabic as the region's main means of communication. Since then, several isolated communities in Syria, Armenia, Kurdistan and the approximately 400 families in Urmia, the Nash Didan, have continued to employ the various Aramaic dialects as their language. Fearing pogroms, most Nash Didan immigrated to Israel, either after World War I or in the early 1950s, following the establishment of Israel and the consequent awakening of Zionist sentiment.

Rachel Jacobi, who immigrated with her family in the 1930s, remembers every detail of the long, tiring journey. "About 10 of us crowded into a taxi, [for the ride] from Urmia to Baghdad," she recalls. "When we arrived, a political storm was sweeping through the city and we were stuck there for a month. From there we traveled via Aleppo, Syria, to Beirut. The taxi driver told us he would be right back, but he disappeared and left us there; none of us knew where we were.

"We tried to sell our belongings. We removed the earrings from the ears of one of the girls and the 12-year-old boys went off to try and sell them. The boys returned, accompanied by police officers, who thought the jewelry was stolen. We explained to the police in Turkish [Urmia is near the Turkish border, so the local people speak Turkish-Azeri] that we had come from Turkey and were heading back there and were waiting for a driver who would take us to Beirut. We were surprised when the policeman told us we were already in Beirut."

An even bigger surprise awaited the Jacobi family at seaside, when they discovered they would be traveling to Israel with other Urmians. "After three nights in a hotel a messenger came, paid the hotel owner and took us to the beach, where a boat was waiting for us. We were 12 people, aside from the crew - Arab smugglers who brought us close to the beach. They would not take us to shore and pressured us [to jump]. They only wanted to get away. We did not know which shore we had arrived at, or where to go in the middle of the night."

In the morning, lacking any other options, they turned themselves in to the British, who took them to a jail in Bethlehem. But Maston, Rachel's mother, knew that according to British mandatory law, Turks who came to Palestine were not subject to expulsion. She ordered her family members to identify themselves as Turks and shouted at them not to speak Aramaic. When the police officers asked what all the ruckus was about, she responded in biblical Hebrew, telling them that she was trying to calm her frightened children.

Like many other Urmians, the Jacobi family settled in Jerusalem, although most of the community settled in Holon.

Literary seder

This story, like large parts of Nash Didan history, is recounted in two books by Ora Jacobi, whose parents are from Syria and Amsterdam and who is married to Rachel's son. Jacobi's project to perpetuate the memory of Urmia's Aramaic speakers began as an attempt to document her family's roots ahead of her eldest son's bar mitzvah.

"When I visited the home of my husband's parents for the first time, I heard them in the kitchen, speaking a language I didn't know," she recalls. "I soon learned it was Aramaic.

"I tried to find articles and documents about my husband's family, but discovered that it was impossible. I asked my mother-in-law, who told me her grandparents had probably come to Urmia from Gabor, Turkey. The community did not keep records, so there were no property deeds or any documentation of weddings and deaths."

Urmia was conquered a dozen times - by the Turks, the Assyrians, the Kurds and the Armenians - and many families had to flee their homes, leaving behind all their property and documents. In her search, Jacobi discovered two articles written by late Israeli presidents Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Zalman Shazar, who had written what they knew about Urmian community life. "The Passover meal was celebrated in large gatherings," wrote Shazar. "On seder night, whoever did not know how to read, even if he was rich, did not hold the seder in his own home, but was invited with his family to the home of a literate person. Thus five or 10 families gathered in a scholar's home for a joint seder."

Jacobi continued researching the language and the community from her home in Ramat Gan. "I started writing down anecdotes from my mother-in-law's life, as a hobby. I never imagined they would grow into a book, but that is exactly what happened, based on her stories and things I learned about the Nash Didan from other people."

"Almos," the novel Jacobi published, follows the lives of two women, one Jewish and the other Assyrian, through the events in Urmia between 1914 and 1950. Musician Arik Mordechai's mother is among the book's other characters. "The things we have done - the band and Ora's book," he says, "made people stand up and feel pride in our Nash Didan identity."

There is no better way to explain the flood of calls Jacobi received after the publication of "Almos," which to date has not appeared in English translation. The positive feedback encouraged her to team up with Avraham Hachami, head of the association of Urmians in Israel, to write "Nash Didan," a historical book.

"People suddenly started coming out of the woodwork, wanting to help," recalls Jacobi, who has been working with the community and its language for a decade. "There was a sense of urgency, that if we didn't do this now, the opportunity would be lost. After all, in addition to this being an interesting community, my children also happen to belong to it."

The Nash Didan lived as a closed community in Urmia, working mainly as textile merchants and jewelers, two occupations that were shunned by the surrounding population. Members also married within their community and many couples were first cousins, including Jacobi's parents and Mordechai's parents. Marriage was not a matter that was discussed directly, but rather through signals in social interaction. If a couple in Urmia wanted to offer their son as a prospective husband, they would go to the bride's family and ask for sugar. If the sugar was put on the table and sweet tea poured for them, this was a sign that the bride's parents were amenable to discussing wedding details.

"My eldest son married a native Israeli, my second son married a Russian immigrant and my daughter married an Ashkenazi," says Nissan Aviv, 76, with a hint of pain in his voice. Aviv is a Nash Didan singer-actor. "I would have preferred them to marry within our community, which would have helped preserve our language."

Aviv began performing plays and recording songs in Aramaic in the 1950s, in a dialect that sounds like a mixture of Farsi and Turkish, influenced by his neighbors from Urmia, which he left at age 17. He proudly displays a book that is a family heirloom, with Bible stories written in Aramaic in Rashi script. He can still read the dedication page, on which his father wrote, "I pass my knowledge on to you."

The old recordings have been digitized and Aviv has a well-designed and very informative Web site ( Now living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood, Aviv still recalls his arrival in the country with the Youth Aliyah in 1950, and his first sight of girls wearing shorts and men smoking cigarettes.

Passover reminds Aviv of the relationship between the Nash Didan and the Muslims in Urmia. "They used to ask us what language we spoke," he relates, "and when we told them, 'Abraham our forefather's language,' they respected us. Still, every Pesach they made trouble for us. If a Muslim child disappeared close to the holiday, they would instigate a blood libel against us, claiming we kidnapped the child to use his blood to make matzot."

Aviv remembers that one year the local imam was invited to oversee the baking of the matzo, to see for himself that the blood libel was a fabrication. "He watched and said, 'Fine, I believe you, but go convince 80,000 illiterates.' That year, too, there was a blood libel," he adds.

Until his first performance as a radio singer, in 1964, Nissan Aviv had not met other Nash Didan in Israel. "Some of the people I met could not even tell me whether they were Kurds, Persians or Iranians," says Aviv. "I started gathering material to teach the community. I have nothing against Kurds and Persians, but I wanted them to learn about us as ourselves. After my songs were played on the radio, people began asking about our language."

Aviv founded the "Kokhav Hamizrah" (Star of the East) band with two of his brothers and began promoting his first Aramaic play, "Hotel Scandal." Over the years, he continued producing albums, plays and variety shows in "lishan didan" (Aramaic for "our language").

"My brothers and I were called the Gashash Hahiver [Israel's most famous comedy trio] of the Nash Didan," he says excitedly.

In the past few months, Aviv has been scouting young actors for his plays, but few youth speak Aramaic. "At first the community's children all wanted Nissan to sing in Aramaic at their bar mitzvah parties," recalls Aviv. "It's a shame this doesn't happen anymore. It makes our community less known. Many nations have come and gone and people who die leave behind their legacy. My plays and recordings in Aramaic are a memorial to this language."

Aramaic researchers figure that in another generation at most, Aramaic will vanish as a spoken language altogether. "Apart from Hebrew, which did not function as a spoken language for 2,000 years, there has been no other language that ceased to function as such but continued to live," explains Rubik Rosenthal, a journalist with a particular interest in language and linguistics. "The rebirth of Hebrew was so complicated, it is probably an exception that cannot be repeated."

Prof. David Talshir, who studied Semitic languages, believes that Aramaic is doomed to extinction. "Aramaic exists in Israel today mainly as a spice for Hebrew. I find myself searching for alternatives to Aramaic idioms, in order not to sound arrogant."

Rosenthal feels that Aramaic speakers should take comfort in the words that have been adopted by Hebrew. "It's a pity so many idioms have been lost, but some words remain - such as assuta [health] and etnahta [pause, rest]. Not many people realize these are Aramaic words. Talmudic Aramaic is an inseparable part of Hebrew and today serves as an important link to that culture. I would not forgo its place in Hebrew."