Iranian Jewish History Is Not Well Known In The West. It Should Be.

Last year I came across a wonderful book called Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, edited by Houman Sarshar. It was published in 2002 and was favorably reviewed, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t received much attention since then.

This is too bad, because Esther’s Children is a sweeping, thoughtful, beautiful introduction to Iranian Jewish history over the past 2,500 years. It is Ethnic Studies at its very best. I realize that this field is easy to caricature and there is a fair amount of subpar work, but there are also amazing, artistic studies that enrich our understanding in so many ways. And Esther’s Children is one of those.

The book is composed of over two dozen essays by well respected scholars, examining Iranian Jews from their origins during the Babylonian Captivity to their situation after the 1979 revolution. Some writings look at their political history, others focus on Jewish literature, music, culture, traditions, and carpets, and still others on their contributions, Jewish women, and episodes of persecution and oppression.

The expression “Esther’s Children” refers to Esther, who was a Jewish companion of the Persian king Ahasuerus and who saved the Jews from the evil minister Haman. This deliverance is the basis for celebration of the Jewish festival Purim. When she was chosen as the king’s concubine, she did not reveal that she was Jewish, out of fear of being harmed or shunned. In Iran Jews honor Esther; Houman Sarshar says that her actions led to an important tradition, “a millennially long tradition of dissimulation in the face of harm or anticipated injury, a tradition of keeping hidden a heritage carried out by our foreparents into Diaspora so that I might survive and safeguard this ancient heritage and do my part in passing it on to the next generation of Esther’s children.” (Pg. xviii). In Iran, Jews have awarded her a special status, almost like a holy figure.

And this book contains such wonderful images! The essays in this work are top-notch and incredibly informative, written by scholars who are the best in their field, but even more marvelous are the pictures. In this book are hundreds of photos of everyday life, works of art, and important figures and places. Some of the ones that caught my eye were:

· Frescoes of Mordecai on horseback and Esther from a synagogue in Dura Europas, Syria

· The pages of the Babylonian Talmud

· An ink drawing of a girl with a bouquet of flowers, from an album of poems in Persian and Judeo-Persian

· An inscription on blue tiles of Hebrew letters from a synagogue in Isfahan (18th century)

· An ink painting of Moses burning the Golden Calf, from a Judeo-Persian manuscript of Shahin Shirazi’s epic poem Musa Nameh

· Photos of five Jews of Mashhad from 1900 A.D.

· A richly decorated ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract) from Mashhad in 1853 (it was hidden because the community was persecuted and forced to practice their religion in secret). A man named Mardkhay was the groom and a woman called Morvarid was the bride.

· A photo of Haji Nehama Morovati, a man who was one of the founders of the Alliance Israelite school in Damavand

· A picture of four generations of Iranian Jewish women (daughter, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother)

· Various carpets, one decorated with figures of Solomon and the Queen and Sheba

· And last but certainly not least, a picture of an Iranian Jewish woman named Munes Morovati that adorns the front cover. She is wearing a traditional wedding naqdeh (veil) embroidered with gold metal thread. Her hair is uncovered and done in the style of movie stars from the 1930s — it looks like a shining blend of traditional and modern fashion. I spoke with Houman Sarshar (the editor of this book) and he mentioned that she was still alive, in her 90s, and living in New York.

The above list doesn’t do the images or the essays justice. What follows are just a few of the book’s highlights:

First, Iranian Jews created a vibrant and rich culture that was greatly influenced by their surroundings. It was both proudly Iranian and proudly Jewish — “In these texts we may find a graceful religious poem, replete with allusions to Jewish and Islamic mystical sources, followed by medical instructions and dream interpretations in colloquial Persian and commentaries in literary prose on various points of Jewish dogma…Iranian Jews also showed a great measure of attraction and admiration toward various branches of Iranian art, music, literature, and philosophy.” (Pg. 81).

They had their own language, Judeo-Persian, and wrote commentaries on the Bible, poems, prose accounts of their times, explanations of Torah portions, letters, and other things. Vera Moreen, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Iranian Jewish history, notes that this literature is greatly understudied and there is still much to be learned.

In the early Middle Ages, many Iranian Jews were Karaites — Jews who stressed the supremacy of scripture and rejected rabbinical authority. They were likely influenced by Islamic beliefs and doctrines, and one of their greatest leaders who the philosopher and religious leader Benyamin ben Musa Nahavandi, who tempered the extremism of his predecessors and worked to reduce tension between them and the rabbinic establishment. He urged his followers to acknowledge rabbinical rulings in cases where the Bible didn’t offer clear answers. Jews also served as important officials under the Abbasid caliphs.

In 1160 a Jewish man named David Alroy led a revolt in western Iran. Alroy was well educated in Jewish religious law and the Talmud, had studied Muslim writings, and mobilized Jews to unite, revolt against the sultan, and reclaim Jerusalem. He was eventually killed by his father-in-law, who was bribed by the sultan; Alroy must have been quite charismatic because even after his death, people claiming to be his envoys were still able to raise funds from many communities. (In the early 1800s, Benjamin Disraeli wrote a novel about him).

In the later Middle Ages some Jews served as viziers for the Ilkhanate, the Mongol dynasty that ruled Iran from 1259 to 1353. One Jewish man, Sa’d al-Dowleh, was a noble and physician who was an administrator for over thirty years and helped ensure the country was quite prosperous. But his rivals accused him of gaining too much power and of nepotism (not without cause, as he put some relatives in charge of some provinces) and of trying to undermine Islam and sending envoys to desecrate the Kaaba (very unlikely). In 1291 he was executed.

The most brilliant Iranian Jewish poet, Shahin Shirazi, lived in Shiraz during the second half of the thirteenth century. His name literally means “the Falcon” and it is most likely a pen name. He wrote an extensive poem called the Musa-nameh in which he recounted Moses and the Exodus story, but in the style of an Iranian epic. What follows his description of when Moses first sees God in the burning bush:

“One night, when Moses once again

Happened to roam the desert,

Walking round and round his sheep,

Nights face was veiled in darkness,

A sense of dread stirred discord in his heart.

Black demons were lurking everywhere; it seemed

That Turning Time itself was plotting ambush.

The world plunged into crow-black mourning,

And morning’s neck was broken.

Fish and fowl were both asleep on this

Malevolent night full of foreboding.

The world was crying but the heaven smiled,

Displaying starry teeth upon the firmament.

Below, the prophet hovered in the desert

Around his flock of sheep;

Suddenly, a lamb jumped out before him running madly

Away from the flock into the desert,

Dashing into the darkness of the night

Like an arrow shot from a bow.

The prophet, seeing this, ran quickly

After that beloved son. And when between them,

But a short distance remained, renowned Moses,

The sun of creation, saw of a sudden

Flames enveloping a tree, resembling a pavilion,

Leaping from there to diverse other trees.

From far away, God’s interlocutor

Was unable to see that the fire was,

In truth, nothing but light.”

(Vera Moreen 2000, 55–56)

Shirazi was a talented poet, and he borrowed freely from different sources — the Tankah, Jewish midrash, and Muslim traditions. He didn’t discriminate. His poetry is similar to Abu Qasim Ferdowsi’s work (Ferdowsi is the author of the Shahnameh, Iran’s national epic) and to me Shirazi’s lines sound very Middle Eastern. They possess a certain style and flair — including their use of the expression O — that marks them as different from, say, Jewish poems and stories from Eastern Europe.

Two beautiful illuminated manuscripts of his work also stood out. In the first picture, afraid of Pharaoh’s men, Moses’s mother casts Moses into a flaming oven, while Moses’s sister Miriam despairs. However, God cools the fire for Moses and he survives. This story is not Jewish but of Muslim origin, and it is similar to a Jewish midrash where Abraham is cast into a furnace.

The second illustration shows Moses burning the Golden Calf in anger after he comes down from Mt. Sinai and sees that the Israelites have committed idolatry. What is interesting about this depiction is that the calf looks very much alive, like an actual animal instead of a statute, and indeed it supposedly showed signs of life.

Other Judeo-Persian poems deal with lighter subjects. Most of the works were modeled after classical Persian literature in rhyme, meter, length, and internal structure. I particularly liked this love poem by Amina, a poet of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, called “I Wish to Walk in the Rose Garden”:

“I wish to walk in the rose garden,

I will be you and you will be me.

We’ll spite the rival enemy,

I will be you and you will be me.

We’ll rest, look into each other’s faces

In the shade of the purple Judas tree;

Roses we’ll pluck, our hearts carefree,

I will be you and you will be me.

I’ll plant a kiss under your chin,

Two and three, two and three,

And four on the corners of your lips;

For two, three days, and the whole night

We’ll tumble in each other’s arms,

I will be you and you will be me.

My secrets you’ll reveal to none,

Nor will you chase after anyone;

Without my leave you’ll smell no rose,

I will be you and you will be me.”

(Vera Moreen 2000, 294–295)

Whoever Amina’s lover was, I hope they had a long and happy life together.

In the 1500s, the Safavid Dynasty rose to power and converted most Iranians to Shiite Islam. The Safavid monarchs and their religious advisors were less tolerant of non-Muslims and developed a theology that non-Muslims were ritually impure. They urged their followers and subjects to have as little contact with them as possible. Jews endured periods of persecution and were increasingly marginalized, but they still survived and carved out niches for themselves, especially in the field of music.

Second, Iranian Jews did not live an untroubled and peaceful existence for most of their history. Instead, they frequently lived under severe discrimination and oppression — it can best be described as both a protection racket and a religious version of Jim Crow. Oppressive laws against Jews included forbidding them to hold public office, to use Muslim public baths, from reading the Quran, they couldn’t leave their houses when it rained, and had to remain silent and bow their heads when Muslims cursed them.

Jews also had to live in a certain quarter, wear a red patch on their garments to distinguish them, couldn’t walk in the middle of the street but had to walk along the walls, couldn’t join Muslim gatherings or touch Muslim belongings, and were prohibited from buying fresh fruits (!).

Moreover, there were repeated massacres, riots, persecutions, and forced conversions. To give a few examples:

· Between 1656 and 1662 the grand vizier, Mohammed Beg, demanded that all Jews convert to Islam or be expelled. Most Jews converted, becoming anusim and secretly followed Judaism for the next six years until they were allowed to openly revert to their old faith.

· The execution of important Jewish community leaders in 1678, and the persecution of the Jews of Kashan in the 1720s.

· In 1830s the Jews of Tabriz were all massacred.

· In 1839, anti Semites rioted in Mashhad and all the Jews converted to Islam out of favor. But in secret they continued to practice Judaism (like conversos in 16th century Spain).

· In 1893 anti-Semitic riots and beatings occurred in Hamadan, incited by a member of the ulema. The rioters specifically tore off the veils that Jewish women covered their faces with; an observer sadly noted that “by this means, it is hoped to degrade her and to bring her down to the level of a vulgar woman of low morality. By forcing her to appear publicly with uncovered face, they seek to expose her to the ignominious outrages of a population, impudent to the point of cynicism.”

· The 1910 anti-Semitic riots in Shiraz, and accusations of ritual murder. However, numerous Iranian Muslims intervened to protect Jews, to combat the rioters, and to help the community rebuild.

· The 1979 execution of Habib Elghanian (a prominent Jewish businessman and philanthropist), the imprisonment of many Jews, and the discriminatory laws they have to currently live under.

It would be a mistake to think this was the only experience of Iranian Jews. There were periods of tolerance and most Muslim Iranians liked their Jewish neighbors, considering them friends and family. Many protected them during periods of oppression. But it would also be a mistake to think that these atrocities were isolated incidents, and clergy frequently played a central role in fanning anti-Semitic sentiment.

Another poem that struck me was called “The Tale of the Anguish of the Community of Forced Converts.” It is a lament by a Jewish apostate who calls himself Hezekiah; he had been forced to convert to Islam along with his community, and deeply regretted it. While his poem was not the most technically accomplished, it is full of anguish and sorrow, and very moving. The man lamented,

“O God, You Who are my life,

Who are the salve for my pain,

Hezekiah grasped the pen because of

This afflicting faith.

My name is Hezekiah,

I am a Muslim preacher;

I am ashamed of what I’ve done for

This afflicting faith.

I used to drink cup after cup of wine

From the Jewish faith, but now

I drink cup after cup of poison from

This afflicting faith.”

(Vera Moreen 2000, 247)

Professor Moreen notes that unfortunately we do not have enough context to figure out exactly when this poem was written. But I hope Hezekiah found peace and was able to return to the religion of his choosing.

Third, an Iranian Jewish community still exists in Iran, but it is much smaller than in the past. Before the 1979 revolution, there were 100,000 Iranian Jews in the country; now estimates vary, but there are at most 25,000. More Iranian Jews now live in Los Angeles than in Iran, and most of them now live in either the United States or Israel. That strongly indicates that conditions for them are not good.

Fourth, while there are a bunch of important primary sources and chronicles, there are very few comprehensive histories. Gradually this is changing, but there is still much research to be done. Moreover, this book was written and published here in the United States, and while there is an Iranian version, it is heavily censored and altered, since it was translated by folks who were anti-Semitic. There is a golden opportunity for scholars who are willing to learn Hebrew, Farsi, and Arabic; any takers?

More than anything else, the history was so rich and wonderful, like a sweet and luxurious dessert. I would come across mentions of a historical figure that I had never heard of before, or a poem that I was unaware of, or an event that affected thousands, and this sent me off on tangents of discovery. This is why it is vital for people to learn non-Western history; there is so much out there that is not covered in traditional curriculums.

To sum up, Esther’s Children is highly recommended for anyone interested in Iranian Jews, or really anyone who appreciates beauty, ancient traditions, and a proud heritage dating back over 2,500 years.