Telling the Story of Aramaic-speaking Farmers in the Jordan Valley

A center for Kurdish culture will illustrate a missing chapterin the history of agricultural settlement in Israel.

Travelers heading north through the Beit She'an Valley know many of the places linked to the area's fascinating past: Nir David and Gesher, built as tower and stockade settlements in the late 1930s; Beit Alpha, with its ancient synagogue mosaic. But who ever heard of Yardena?

Residents of the moshav, a few kilometers north of the town of Beit She'an, hope to change that, with the establishment of a Center for Kurdistan Cultural Heritage. "It's important to us that along with the story of heroism told at the tower and stockade settlement of Nir David, the story of the Kurdistan Jews who held on to the land in difficult conditions also be heard," says Gadi Yehuda, whose parents were among the founders of Yardena 60 years ago. "It's a story of Zionist settlement that has to be included in the whole," says Yehuda, who was born on the moshav.

Yaron Kaminsky

Yardena was established in late 1952 by immigrants from Kurdistan. They worked in construction in Jerusalem but dreamed of working in agriculture. The Zionist organizations helped them realize their dream in the Jordan Valley, a scorching hot place surrounded by barren soil, near the border with Jordan. During the War of Attrition the moshav was on the front line. Still, according to Yehuda, "for our parents, this was the fulfillment of the yearning to be farmers in the Holy Land." "The place was considered the boondocks," continues Yehuda, "and in today's understanding, it was illogical to settle there, and not, for example, on the mountain ridge. But at that time, a settlement next to the border was seen as a forward post and our parents were proud to fulfill this ideal."

Over the years, immigrants from several villages in Kurdistan settled there. Yehuda says, "three, or four generations ago, Yardena residents all came from one family." It is a homogeneous community that according to Yehuda and his wife, Mali, "is half-Kurdish."They always took pride in their origins," she adds. "They were never embarrassed about their culture, customs, language or cuisine and made sure to preserve them." Yehuda attributes this to the fact "that Kurds are stubborn and sort of warriors."

That is part of the story that the Yehudas, along with other moshav members, want to tell in the Center for Kurdistan Cultural Heritage and for the History of Kurdish Agriculture Settlement in Israel. The center is being established with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Emek Hamaayanot Regional Council and other organizations.

Yehuda acknowledges that over the years the moshav acquired "the image of an underprivileged community compared to the surrounding kibbutzim. There were those who saw us as dumb Kurds, some of whose parents were illiterate, while the parents of the kibbutz children went on missions in service of the state." When in the mid 1970s he began studying in the first class of children from Yardena to study with kibbutz children, he experienced many scuffles before developing warm friendships with those same kibbutzniks.

With the decrease in population - "our parents would have 10 children, while we have only three," notes Yehuda - the school has closed its doors. After some renovation, the same building now houses an exhibit of items depicting the history of the community, a photo collection and a place to hear stories of the early days. Volunteers from the moshav teach visitors a traditional dance, speak in the disappearing Aramaic language and bake Kurdish bread with them. The moshav members are also planning to open a Kurdish restaurant and an art gallery and perhaps bed-and-breakfast accommodation as well.