Larry Luxner

Aramaic-speaking Jews mark Shmuel Bruchim’s legacy

On a recent summer night at a fancy catered affair just outside Jerusalem, about 450 Jews — ranging from devoutly religious to clearly secular — gathered to honor the memory of an Iranian-born Torah scholar noted for his modesty, wisdom, kindness and practical advice.

Shmuel Bruchim, known throughout his life as “haham” or חָכָם [among Sephardic Jews, the official title for a local rabbi], died in 1979 at the age of 90. The Aug. 1 celebration at Moshav Ora’s Vision banquet hall — which marked the 40th anniversary of Bruchim’s passing — featured a catered dinner, speeches, prayers and the screening of a Hebrew-language documentary about the beloved sage.

“A thousand people wanted to come, but we were limited in space,” said Atara Kalimi, who organized the three-hour dinner and cultural program in honor of her famous grandfather.

The gathering was financed mostly by popular Israeli folk singer Ruhama Raz, with additional contributions from the Jerusalem-based Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers. Guests arrived from as far north as the Golan Heights, and as far south as Beersheva.

Reut Portugal, at left, holds up a certificate during a recent ceremony honoring the memory of Haham Shmuel Bruchim. Next to her is Atara Kalimi; at right is singer Ruhama Raz. All three women are descendants of the famous Torah scholar. (Eliyahu Yanai)

Besides Raz, dignitaries included Knesset member Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin; Adis Urieta, Panama’s ambassador to Israel; and well-known radio personality Dan Kanner, the master of ceremonies.

Kalimi, 65, has fond memories of Bruchim — both from stories she was told and from what she observed with her own eyes growing up in Jerusalem.

“Even 50 years ago, the community was mixed, with religious and non-religious people, but all accepted his leadership,” she said. “He had a really clear ideology. Since we were babies, he taught respect for non-Jews. We were educated, for example, to bring flour and cooking oil to the poor. He used to ask us, ‘how many people did you help this week?’ He gave children the basis of Torah.”

Preparing for life in Israel

Bruchim was the undisputed Jewish spiritual leader of Saqqez, a city in Kurdish-speaking northwestern Iran, about 200 kilometers southeast of the point where the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish borders converge.

Haham Shmuel Bruchim, spiritual leader of the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Iranian Kurdistan. (Photo courtesy of Atara Kalimi)

Yet the lingua franca of the Jews living in Saqqez and 18 surrounding towns was Aramaic — a Semitic language written with Hebrew characters that’s still spoken by a handful of Jews and Christians around the world.

“In Saqqez, our connections with the Muslims were very good, because whenever there were problems, he always found solutions,” Kalimi said. “Once they built a mosque but didn’t have enough wood to finish the roof. The lumber merchants were Jews, so Haham Shmuel told them to bring the Muslims wood as a gift from the Jewish community.”

She added: “There was some anti-Semitism, but even the Muslims used to ask him for advice. Whenever he walked in the market, the Muslims would stand up because he was a holy man.”

In 1945, David Ben-Gurion sent a delegation to Saqqez, urging Bruchim and his followers to leave Iran and help build the future state of Israel. He immediately launched an effort to teach the entire community spoken Hebrew.

Aramaic-speaking Jews of Saqqez in a 1947 photo taken at their local yeshiva in Iranian Kurdistan. (Photo courtesy of Atara Kalimi)

Sasson Naim was 14 when the exodus of the Jews of Saqqez and nearby cities commenced in 1948, as Israel was locked in its bitter War of Independence against its Arab neighbors.

“All of us left within a few days. The Muslims surrounded us, but it was a miracle they didn’t stone us,” recalled Naim, 85, a resident of Jerusalem. “We danced and played guitar and drums. They didn’t say a word. They watched us leaving, and that was it.”

A connection to the past

By the time Bruchim and his flock arrived in Israel, they were already integrated, thanks to the fact they already knew Hebrew. Even though they came with virtually nothing, the new immigrants eventually became CEOs, bank managers, doctors, accountants and heads of regional councils.

While most of these Iranian Kurdish Jews ended up in Jerusalem, a number of them established moshavim including Patish, near the Gaza border; Maslul, in the Negev, and Shtula, near the border with Lebanon. More than 10,000 Israelis today can trace their origins to the Saqqez community.

Former Knesset member Eliezer Abtabi, whose family came from Iranian Kurdistan, speaks at a recent event honoring Haham Shmuel Bruchim. (Larry Luxner)

Kalimi, who had been planning the event for nearly a year, said she was overjoyed to see familiar faces at the banquet, but that she was particularly surprised to see so many kids.

“By doing this, we want to expose our young people to the vision of my grandfather,” she said, “so they will keep our Jewish traditions and his heritage of respect.”

Reut Portugal, who handled public relations for the big extravaganza, said that growing up she was much more familiar with her father’s side of the family — Ashkenazim from present-day Lithuania and Moldova — than with that of her mother, Hannah, one of Haham Bruchim’s many grandchildren.

“I’m far from the ultra-religious world, but learning about him — and hearing how deeply his former students they admired him — has helped me connect to my roots,” said Portugal, 35, who was born five years after the tzaddik’s death. “Even though I know of him just through stories, somehow I feel I got to know him doing this project.”

Jerusalem street sign honors Haham Shmuel Bruchim, spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Iranian Kurdistan. (Larry Luxner)

Haham Bruchim’s enduring legacy

Portugal, the Jerusalem representative of the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel, was one of 10 people who received special certificates at the event. Another was Ruhama Raz, whose grandfather was one of Bruchim’s brothers.

“I remember him very well,” the singer recalled in an interview. “Whenever he came to visit our house, my mother would tell us to dress modestly and behave well.”

Even her very name bears the legacy of the great teacher. “When I was born, my mother asked him to suggest a name for me. My parents were religious and they wanted a boy. So he said, ‘Name her Ruhama, and everything will be OK.’ After me, they got a boy.”

Raz, who’s done concerts throughout Europe and the United States, began performing at the age of 12; she said Bruchim encouraged her to sing not religious songs, but folk songs about Israel.

“He even told me that one of my songs [בארץ אהבתיIn My Beloved Country — written in 1975] would become very successful because it contained many sevens. He said it would touch everybody’s heart.”

Adis Urieta, Panama’s ambassador to Israel, speaks with Ori Hamani — a one-time student of Haham Shmuel Bruchim — during an event at Moshav Ora to honor the Jewish leader’s memory. (Larry Luxner)

Unlike most of the other dinner guests, Kanner, the event’s master of ceremonies, is Ashkenazi; his parents came to Israel in 1939 from Austria. But he’s familiar with the Iranian Kurdish community thanks to his friend, Yosi Mizrachi, who hired him to emcee a previous event in Jerusalem’s Mamilla district. He also knows Ruhama Raz from her time in the IDF.

“In the years after Israel got independence, these people couldn’t find a place to live, so they settled in Mamilla. They actually lived in debris, without roofs or doors,” said Kanner, 74.

“It’s very nice to see how many people from this community came here to reminisce. They’re really warm people, and everyone knows each other,” Kanner said as he watched cousins embracing, eating, laughing and praying together. It’s also nice, he added, that “there are so few people today who speak Aramaic, and these people are trying to save it. Sadly, we have today a generation that does not know its own history.”

Sweet memories of childhood

Sasson Naim has spent the better part of his 85 years trying to change that.

An accountant by profession, he’s president of the Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers — a charity he established 10 days after Haham Shmuel’s passing in 1979.

Sasson Naim, chairman of the Jerusalem-based Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers, displays the illustrated trilingual dictionary his nonprofit group produced in 2014. (Larry Luxner)

“Aramaic is not dead for me. It’s my mother tongue,” said Naim, whose organization — operating on a shoestring budget — recently printed an Aramaic-Hebrew-English dictionary for the 50,000 or so people in Israel who still speak the ancient language.

But Naim’s most enduring memory is of learning Hebrew, not Aramaic. When he was 3 years old, Naim’s parents took him to the local synagogue in Saqqez where Haham Shmuel was teaching.

“My mother brought refreshments and cookies for all the children,” he recalled with emotion. “He wrote out all the letters, not in ink but in honey. And I had to lick it and swallow the letters. Since I loved him so much, every Shabbat I would go to the synagogue. There was a step made of black stone, and I would sit on that stone in winter and in summer for many hours, from early in the morning until arvit [evening prayer service] was over, just to hear his sermons.”

Bruchim’s lessons eventually paid off — preparing Naim well in advance for a successful, prosperous life in Israel.

“At the age of 4, I wrote the birkat hamazon [grace after meals] in Hebrew, in my own handwriting,” he said proudly. “The haham didn’t find even one mistake.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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