Friday, February 14, 2014

  • Friday, February 14, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
In a humble apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, about a mile south of the walls of the Old City, the world’s oldest living Jew goes about his daily ritual. As he has for over a century, the rabbi rises in the morning, puts on his tefillin, or prayer phylacteries, with the help of one of his students, and says his morning prayers. Then, he sits to learn the Torah, Talmud, or kabbalah, examining it with the same fervor and passion he did when he started learning as a teenager.

In addition to being the world’s oldest Jew, Rabbi Zechariah Barashi, 114, is also the world’s oldest Kurd.

Barashi, still sharp and gregarious in his old age, remembers details from events 80 years ago with surprising clarity. He gives exact dates, names, and even prices of bus rides as he recounts his time growing up in the Badinan region of Kurdistan, and his journey to the British-controlled territory that would soon become Israel.

...Barashi remembers a man named Mirza as the Agha of Meriba, the town his family was living in. He was as “an important man, one of the greatest governors in the mountains of Kurdistan.”

Mirza’s wife saved Barashi’s life at the age of 11. It was after the Passover holidays, and not one speck of food remained in the house. For two days, the family did not eat, and Zechariah fell sick. His father was away trying to buy meat on the black market. After having lost so many children, his mother was determined to save him. She went to the Agha’s wife, and begged her for food. The wife hesitated at first, saying she was afraid her husband would find out, and be angry that he would now be forced to give to everyone who asked. Barashi’s mother persisted, her only son’s life was at stake, and assured her that she would hide the food under her dress, and no one would know. The Agha’s wife agreed, and the boy recovered.

The Agha was very committed to the Jews in his region, Barashi remembered. His family used to visit the Agha on Friday nights. But when his sons got older, they began to smoke while Barashi’s family visited. Eventually, Barashi’s father told the Agha that his family can no longer come by, as smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath, and they wished not to be around it. The Agha’s decision was swift. “You are forbidden from smoking in this house on the Sabbath,” he told his sons, thus ensuring that his Jewish guests would feel comfortable during their visits.

...At the age of 18, Barashi met the woman who would become his wife.

“I met her the same way people meet their wives today,” he said with a smile. “On the dance floor. On Friday night, after the festive meal, all the youths would go to the big plaza in the middle of the village and we would perform Kurdish dances until one o’clock in the morning. The next day, after the meal, we would meet again and dance until the third Sabbath meal. Her older brother was my friend, and her grandfather, Yosef Arbaya, and I asked my father to talk to him and ask for her hand in marriage.”

They got married two years later.

He still speaks of his wife, long since deceased, as if they were both teenagers in love on that dance floor in the middle of Sindor.

“You can’t buy love, and no one except God knows what draws a man to a certain woman and not another one. In the village, there were dozens of beautiful and good girls, but I fell in love with her, and good that it turned out this way. There was no bad in this woman that became my wife. Modest and quiet and determined and pretty.”

...Last year, a Kurdish journalist came to Barashi’s apartment to film an interview with him for a Kurdish TV. The reporter, stunned by the purity of Barashi’s Kurdish, stayed for hours. He wrote down words that he had never heard before, and looked them up when he got home, discovering that they were old Kurmanji words that had fallen out of use.

Barashi is happy to share a blessing with his visitors, and is always ready to share his secret to a long life. “There are three things,” he says. “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat, always leave the table a little hungry.”

But does he ever wish he could go back to the old villages in Kurdistan?

“No,” he says, smiling. “I have had the fortune of living in Jerusalem for 75 years. I’m in heaven.”

(h/t Ellen)

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