1929 Photo launches a family connection across the ocean

Jewelry hung from Rosa Zacharia’s ears and neck. Bracelets adorned her wrists and she wore rings on six of her fingers. She and her family were dressed to the nines.

Life appeared to be pretty good for Zacharia and her husband, Naftali, and their three girls: Sara, Rahel and Yoheved.

This was the image of the Zacharia clan captured at a Tel Aviv photo studio on May 29, 1929. Naftali mailed it to Chicago, to his brother Suleim, who went by Simonto, perhaps a diminutive of Siman Tov.

The information on the pre-statehood Israelis was handwritten on the back of the photograph. It constituted nearly all that Suleim Zacharia’s granddaughter, Valerie Chereskin, knew about them. Also known was that Naftali and Rosa had a tea shop in Jerusalem.

Chereskin, who owns an eponymous public-relations firm near San Diego, California, contacted “Seeking Kin” for help in locating the Zacharia daughters and their descendants, hoping to meet them during the visit to Israel she and her husband Jay Hansen were planning.

“Seeking Kin” recently reached Shai Shuhami. Based on the information presented to him, the Jerusalem business owner confirmed that he was Chereskin’s second cousin. Shuhami was unaware that he had relatives in America.

His mother, Yoheved – the littlest girl in the photograph – is 86 and lives in Maale Adumim, a West Bank city near Jerusalem. The same photograph adorns her living room wall.

“This is the greatest feeling in the world,” Shuhami said. “There’s nothing that arouses curiosity more than when searching for one’s roots: from where one comes and to where one is heading.”

Echoing Shuhami’s enthusiasm, Chereskin said, “This is amazing. I’ll be happy all day.”

With little to go on, Chereskin wasn’t optimistic about finding her kin. Had the search been conducted in reverse – the Israelis looking for their American kin – the odds would’ve been infinitesimal because, upon reaching America, Suleim Zacharia changed his name to Harry Marks.

That was 101 years ago, when he sailed from the port of Liepaja, Latvia.

Chereskin and her sister, Gail Jelinek, who lives near Chicago, knew of his difficult background in Urmia, in northwest Iran’s Kurdistan region.

Naftali and Suleim had three other siblings. A brother, Sarteep, traded their 11-year-old sister Maral to someone for the man’s sister, whom Sarteep married.

“My grandfather fought his brother about it,” Jelinek said.

Another sister was Gulbahar. Jelinek and Chereskin do not know what became of Sarteep or Gulbahar. In 1914, Sarteep exhibited an eye disease and was turned back from the ship on which he was supposed to sail with Suleim to America.

Maral was said to have died in the desert en route to Israel.

After Suleim’s father died, his mother’s second husband refused to let Suleim live with them. Suleim worked herding sheep, sleeping among the animals for warmth. He ate grass as they did, sometimes coming to his mother’s back door for food. Through the windows of classrooms, he’d glimpse his friends; Suleim did not attend the school because he couldn’t pay the tuition.

In Chicago, Suleim worked in a metal factory that during World War II manufactured torpedoes. He died of heart failure at 51, in 1946.

The search was among the most challenging since “Seeking Kin” began four years ago.

In researching the Zacharias, “Seeking Kin” followed several sources, including Israeli cemetery records and conversations with Yosi Mizrahi, a Jerusalem retiree who is an authority on the now-extinct Mamila neighborhood, where the tea shop stood just outside the Old City’s walls and where he said many Urmia natives settled. A friend of “Seeking Kin” checked with the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Ohr Yehuda, near Tel Aviv.

Nissan Aviv, a retired singer-actor who had advertised on the website of Nash Didan – Aramaic for “our people” – then suggested posting the request on Nash Didan’s website.

Aviv, 87, recalls 4,000 Jews living in his hometown of Urmia, most observant and many working in the textile industry.

“In Urmia, our synagogue had more than 12 Torah scrolls. It was a big, beautiful synagogue,” said Aviv, of Tel Aviv.

Ultimately the Zacharias were found by Hezi Yitzhaki, a businessman who lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Motza and whose grandmother was from Urmia. Responding to the “Seeking Kin” post, Yitzhaki combed records of the ministries of the interior and foreign affairs, and of the Jewish Agency for Israel, searching for families whose names and dates matched what Chereskin knew.

Yitzhaki settled upon the correct family, but with great difficulty – and after contacting the Shuhamis, he learned why: Two of the girls shown in the photo were not the children of Naftali and Rosa, who was later known as Shoshana. The eldest girl, Sara, was Shoshana’s sister; the girl standing between the two adults, Rahel, was Naftali’s daughter from his first marriage.

In a short conversation with “Seeking Kin,” Yoheved said that she was the eldest of Naftali and Shoshana’s seven children. Four are deceased, including a brother, Ben-Tzion, who was shot to death at 13 in the Old City. One brother, Eli, and one sister, Ruth, are living.

Yoheved demurred from answering further questions, preferring to first meet Chereskin.

“It would bring together a whole circle of the family connection,” Chereskin said of the gathering with the Israelis. “It would bridge that whole gap between the old country and the new country.”

Hillel Kuttler in 2011 launched “Seeking Kin,” his  column on people searching for long-lost relatives and friends.

Iraqi First Lady at Museum of Tolerance: I remember the Jews of Kurdistan

The wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani paid a visit to the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Friday, toured its Museum of Tolerance, and recalled her friendship with the Jews of her Kurdish hometown.

Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the petite first lady of Iraq, briefly recalled the killings and tortures the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein had inflicted on her fellow Kurds.

She added, “In every person’s mind there is a small Saddam. Killing Saddam is nothing, but killing the Saddam in our minds is everything.”

The Journal, the only media outlet admitted to the event, asked whether the Iraqi government had approved her visit to the high-profile Jewish and ardently pro-Israel institution, which plans to build a Center for Human Dignity in Jerusalem.

Ahmed, owner of an Iraqi media group and a strong advocate for children’s rights, answered quickly, “I don’t ask for permission. I go where I want to go.”
residents of the Jewish quarter suddenly started to build and eat in outdoor huts — which the American visitors quickly recognized as the celebration of Sukkot.

When the guests said goodbye, they invited their hostess to tour the Museum of Tolerance, if she were ever in Los Angeles. Two weeks later, she called to say that she was on her way.

Book details journey to a father’s distant land — Kurdish ‘Jerusalem’

“My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books).

There are no more Jews in Zakho. Once the center of Jewish activity in Kurdish Iraq, the isolated town, a dusty vision of biblical landscape, was known as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” Residents spoke the ancient Aramaic language, which they kept alive, along with their faith and distinctive culture, for almost 3,000 years. In the 1950s, after the Iraqi government turned against the Jews, the entire community moved to Israel, as part of Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. More than 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq, including 18,000 Kurdish Jews; other Kurdish Jews arrived from Syria and Iran.

Yona Sabar was born in Zakho, and was the last boy to have his bar mitzvah there. He lived in a mud home, whose roof his family sometimes slept on in the heat, and he enjoyed meeting his grandfather in shul, where the old man sat up every night, conversing with the angels.

In Israel, his once-successful merchant family was impoverished; while the Muslims and Christians in Zakho had respected them, the Kurds were looked down on as the very lowest class in the new State of Israel. Sabar, unlike most of his fellow villagers, graduated from high school in Israel (while working full time to help support his family) and Hebrew University, where he studied language with a special interest in Aramaic. He received his doctorate in Near East Languages and Literature from Yale, and now is a distinguished professor at University of California Los Angeles. His ranch-style house in Los Angeles bears no resemblance to his childhood home, where hens and customers crisscrossed the dirt floor at all hours.

The remarkable arc of Sabar’s life is at the center of his son, Ariel Sabar’s, outstanding book, “My Father’s Paradise.” In telling his father’s story intertwined with the family’s tales, journalist Sabar reconstructs the little-known history of the Kurdish Jews, who lived in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors. In Zakho, Muslims would bring tea to their Jewish neighbors on Shabbat, when the Jews weren’t able to cook. Jewish men wore the same baggy trousers and embroidered shirts as Muslims, “even if a few strands of tzitzit poked out from beneath their shirts.”

“My father had staked his life on the notion that the past mattered more than anything,” the younger Sabar writes, adding, “He sublimated homesickness into a career.”

“My Father’s Paradise” is also a deeply personal story of a distant father and son who were ultimately reconciled. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Ariel Sabar found his father embarrassing, regarding him as the uncoolest person he knew, with his unstylish clothing and beat-up car, and his passion for ancient languages rather than popular culture.

But, after moving across the country to attend college, falling in love with and marrying a non-Jewish woman and working hard in his first reporting jobs, Sabar was drawn to write about his father after the scholar consulted on the television series, “The X-Files,” about the language Jesus might have used. For the first time Sabar asked his father, as he might have questioned any source, about his life in Zakho. His story in the Providence Journal, “Scholar Dad Goes Showbiz: ‘I Am the Walrus’ in Aramaic,” brought him a greater response than all of his previous articles combined. He then thought that he had said everything he had to say about his father.

Several years later, after he and his wife had their first child, a son, Sabar began seriously thinking about “fathers and sons,ALTTEXT and what is it we inherit,” he said in an interview. “Would [his son] feel the way I did about my father? That this guy had nothing to teach me, that I didn’t care where he came from, that I was my own person? It took me back to some long-neglected questions.” Now, looking back, he’s not proud of the way he treated his father.

Aware that his potential sources — Kurdish Jews like his father who remembered life in Iraq — were aging, Sabar felt a sense of duty to preserve their past. And, as a journalist, he sensed he was onto a great story. He quit his newspaper job and moved to Maine, where his wife returned to work as a physician; he began researching and traveling, tracking down relatives and family friends. His father still had the Kurdish sensibility, where people survived by keeping their heads down, so he wasn’t altogether comfortable about being the subject of a book.

Collecting an impressive amount of detail, Sabar created a compelling narrative. The Jews of Zakho had little in common with the Jews of Baghdad, who spoke Arabic, built huge synagogues and yeshivas, ran large businesses and held government jobs. In the 1940s, the remote Jews of Zakho had no idea of what was happening to the Jews of Europe, nor did they know of a deadly pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

Sabar conveys the life of Zakho, with its storytellers, beggars, traders, smugglers, loggers, Arab tribesmen, cheese makers, and the one dyer of fabrics, his great-grandfather the mystic. Girls didn’t go to school, but instead learned to do heavy chores and to cook specialties whose descriptions may send readers in search of a Kurdish kosher cookbook. His grandmother Miryam’s life was full of loss, including having her firstborn, a daughter, never returned by a tribeswoman who agreed to be her nursemaid when Miryam was ill. She had lost her own mother at a young age and was married at 13 to a cousin, who proved to be kind.

In Israel, Miryam was lost, never learning Hebrew, and even though her neighbors would sit around and speak of children, she wouldn’t mention that two of her sons were university professors, her two daughters teachers, another son a vice principal of a school and another a bank officer, for fear that boasting tempts the evil eye. The author knew her as the grandmother who coaxed him in Aramaic, “You didn’t eat anything” and ate only after everyone else finished. He learned the full and vivid story of her life through transcribed and translated interviews he did with her as a student, while studying her language.

In 2005, father and son traveled to Zakho together — a dangerous time for Americans and Jews in Iraq — and were greeted with kindness; many people remembered Sabar’s grandfather and could tick off the names of the Jewish families they did business with, and some spoke of missing the Jewish presence. The Jewish neighborhood was now the poorest section of town, and the shuls had become private homes. The Sabars realized that the generation that recalled Jews fondly, remembering the brotherhood they experienced, wouldn’t be around much longer.

“Journalism can be pretty cynical. But to cross the border and see the sign, ‘Welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq’ — I was euphoric” the author says. Zakho is grittier than he expected, and it’s also fast-growing, with traffic, construction and Internet caf├ęs, not like the sleepy mountain town his father left. While there, they attempted to track down Yona’s long-lost sister.

Ariel Sabar explains that for his father, the idea of paradise is not only Zakho, but also the Israel he had dreamed of, and even California, where he finds much tolerance of difference and is able to preserve his mother tongue. In the unlikely setting of an upscale L.A. mall, drinking iced coffee under the palm trees, he also experiences a kind of paradise, where he’s able to negotiate past and present.

Today, the younger Sabar, 37, is covering the presidential elections for The Christian Science Monitor. He and his wife raise their two children as Jews, playing Kurdish music at home, teaching them the Hebrew alphabet and prayers.

When asked how his father feels about the book, Sabar said, “He saw that I had gone on a journey not unlike his own, to preserve those parts of the past we can take with us. He has a measure of pride that his son, in his own way, would follow in his footsteps.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.