The Urfan Jews are Coming

Tower of David |11/07/2022|584
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Do you love kubbeh? What about lachmajun? Thank the Urfan Jews!  Urfa is a small city in southeastern Turkey which had an ancient Jewish community. At the end of the 19th century, members of the community began moving to the Land of Israel. Many of them settled in Jerusalem and opened businesses revolving around food, and restaurants, many of which became well-known: Chef Haim Cohen, Rami Levy, Rachmo, Pinati, Basher, and others.  Do they sound familiar? Let’s learn about the stories, the places, and the people of this community that helped develop Jerusalem’s taste buds. 


Urfan Jews

Urfa is located in southeastern Turkey next to the border with Syria, not far from Biblical Haran. Local Muslim tradition tells that Abraham was born in Urfa and actually identify it with Ur of the Chaldees from the Bible. Around the city are located sites such as “Abraham’s cave” and “Abraham’s pool” preserving this tradition. Jews resided in the city of Urfa from ancient times - perhaps even stretching back to the Second Temple Period.  Many Urfan Jews had family and business connections with Jews in surrounding communities such as Aleppo, Antep, Siverek, and Diyarbakir and they shared similar customs and traditions. Members of the community spoke Arabic among themselves, but in synagogue they worshiped and studied in Hebrew. The lives of the Urfan Jews was relatively pleasant until 1896 when, because of the Armenian uprising and its heavy-handed suppression by the Ottomans, instability dominated politics and violent events brought about the first emigration of Urfan Jews to the Land of Israel, where they settled primarily in Rishon LeZion and Jerusalem. Many community members who arrived in Jerusalem settled in the Nachlaot neighborhoods, where they established several synagogues between Be’er Sheva St. and Betsal’el St. 


The arrival of the first immigrants to Jerusalem in 1896 made a great impression on the local community.  In a letter sent from the offices of Alliance Israélite Universelle in Jerusalem to the office of Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, Chief Rabbi of France it is written:
“Around the middle of October, 10 families of Kurdish Jews arrived in our city from Urfa - in Hebrew Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.  We are used to seeing groups of Jews flocking to the Holy Land from Russia, Romania, Aleppo, Baghdad, Yemen, etc.  who are small, weak, and miserable. Those from Urfa, however, surprised us by the beauty of their appearance. The men are tall, strong and wonderful; the women are white and pleasant, and some of them are even very beautiful.  They approached us on all sides and hastened to show us their independence…” (from Yigal Moshe Israel, Yigal Baldgreen, Zion Suliman, “Our Forefathers Came from Beyond the River: the Jews in Urfa and Southeast Turkey, and Their Immigration to the Land of Israel” . Rishon LeZion: Rishon LeZion Museum, 2013)

On several occasions, the newspaper HaMelitz reported about the immigration of the Urfan Jews. On November 12, 1896, a newspaper account announced, “About 40 families of our people from Ur of the Chaldees came to Jerusalem. They were exiled from their land by the Armenian rioters, and they are all poor and weeping. They look for work because all of them are strong-spirited and able, and work is in their souls.”


The Urfan kitchen

In the book “Our Forefathers came from Beyond the River,” the Urfan lifestyle, household customs and the Urfan kitchen are explored.  Most houses in Urfa had a large courtyard with a cistern, fruit trees, and spice plants surrounded by citrus trees. Many of the family’s activities took place in the courtyard: games, rest, laundry, cooking and eating. The men would do the shopping in the markets and stores, and the women did the housework and served the meals.  Preparing food and serving it to members of the family required a high degree of skill and a lot of work including grinding grain, sifting legumes, drying meat and vegetables, preparing fruit jam, and of course, using food efficiently. They baked bread, churned butter, prepared cheese, and made noodles from flour and eggs.

The popular foods in the Urfan kitchen are rice and beans, red rice with cubes of meat, Rishta bi Adas (noodles with lentils), rice with noodles, lahmajun (filo dough pastry topped with ground meat, onions and spices), sabicha (eggplant and tomatoes), madfouna (eggplant and meat) and different kinds of kubbeh made from bulgur, including kubbeh hamda (bulgur kubbeh, zucchini, tomatoes and spices). During weekdays they would eat dishes such as red rice with alinazik - a dish with eggplants stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce, kibbeh jareesh - small kubbeh made from bulgur and cooked slowly, and aruk - an omelet with vegetables and herbs.


What was eaten on Shabbat and holidays?

The Friday night the custom was to eat chicken, potatoes and bulgur - the basic ingredients of the region.  There were those who ate a sort of cold eggplant soup called matfunia. On Shabbat morning, like many Jews around the world, hamin was a staple.  In Urfa many types of hamin were popular: Yaprax hamin was prepared in a pot with vegetables stuffed with rice and meat. Kombar hamin has kishke stuffed with meat and rice, with large, flat kubbeh on top.

Paula Hamin is made with green beans, eggplant and baby zucchini, grape leaves and cabbage with rice and meat. Sometimes chicken,  quinces or macaroni is added after frying. Another hamin prepared during the winter is called Joe, which also includes stuffed intestines after they have been boiled for many hours (the smell during the process was unbearable; and therefore, so they say, it was not prepared often).
Other than hamin, customary foods included stuffed foods of every sort with kubbeh, chicken and meat (sometimes quinces or dried fruit were added, contributing a special taste to the dish!), macaroni and kubbeh - noodles with kubbeh filled with meat, or artichoke filled with ground meat and served in a red soup.  This dish required a lot of work over several days, beginning on Monday to prepare it for Shabbat.

On holidays and celebrations, there were special, festive foods. Some examples are nablusia kubbeh - fried kubbeh, popular in markets and shops today but in Urfa considered a festive dish, kasma - a dish made from grape skins and bulgur, and also bayd b’husurum - an omelet from eggs and unripe, pickled grapes. On Passover kubbeh from matzah meal was prepared (possibly a late addition after arrival in Israel and during the period in which commercial matzah was available). On Shavuot, a traditional food was sambusak filled with cheese (stuffed grape leaves) with special cacık sauce, made from leben and pieces of cucumber.  During the 9 days between the first day of the month of Av and the 9th of Av when meat is not eaten, it was customary to eat majadra or small kubbeh without meat and served with a special orange-colored sauce. 


Bulgur - drops of gold

Bulgur is one of the most important components of the Urfan kitchen and a basic ingredient for many foods.  Bulgur is wheat which, through a long process of soaking, pounding, cooking, drying and grinding, produces thick or thin shavings called bulgur. Bulgur can also be prepared from cracked wheat. The women would prepare bulgur in the winter months. Simple, everyday foods as well as richly flavorful and complex dishes were prepared from Bulgur. Bulgur is an important, basic ingredient for many recipes prepared for holidays, Shabbat meals, and celebrations.  One of the festive foods prepared using bulgur in the Urfan kitchen is kibbeh nayyeh, known also as çiǧ köfte - raw meat mixed with bulgur, spices, and sometimes even red pepper, onion and parsley.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Joseph Niego, an emissary from the Jewish Colonization Association and former director of Mikve Israel visited eastern Turkey and the city of Urfa and recorded among other things the local foods. He wrote: “The most delicious food of the Urfans is this: beaten wheat with raw meat mixed with red pepper and onion. These ingredients were combined together, made into balls, and consumed fresh.  This is called kibbeh nayyeh in Arabic. ”The traveler V. Shore who visited the area of Urfa describes bulgur in his records and notes that the “Kurds” were accustomed to eating bulgur during the week as well as on Shabbat. He wrote, “They only know how to cook 2 hot foods, but don’t eat both of them at the same meal. One is called in their language bulgur and is made from wheat mixed with oil or fat with a little bit of salty meat in it.  The Kurds second dish “kalaza” is made from coarse wheat and is a food which has no taste or scent.”

Even today, the Urfan kitchen continues to be a part of the identity of many families who continue to prepare the well-known, beloved dishes in their homes. Many of the Urfan community worked and continue to work in the food industry in Machane Yehuda Market and in other places in Israel. Restaurants such as Pinati, Azura, Rachmo and others serve some of the foods from southeast Turkey in general, and Urfa in particular.

*Thanks to Roni Ishran and Meir Micha for their expertise and cooperation.

Translated by Leiah Jaffe


מלכי מוספי
אמי ומשפחתה עלו מתורכיה לאחר קום המדינה וכשקראתי מה נכתב על יהודי אורפה התרגשתי כי נזכרתי בסיפורי אימי ז"ל
מלכי מוספי
לגבי הצ'יגה שמצוינת בכתבה , משפחתי בהתחלה הכינה את הצ'יגה מבשר נא אך סבלו מכאבי בטן ועברו להכין צ'יגה צמחונית כמו בסרטון שלי
מלכי מוספי
05.04.2022 סרטון על הצ'יגה

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