Yet, despite adversity, Persian Jews showed their afflicters what they were truly made of: intellect, hard work, joie de vivre, and undying loyalty to the Torah. They continued to be skilled doctors and apothecaries, celebrated poets and musicians. Light and Shadow’s many artifacts can attest to Persian Jewry’s sustained success. Whether it is an antique carpet hand-woven with Hebrew texts and biblical images, a weathered Ketubah or an amulet beseeching the protection of Queen Esther, one is continually moved by all the beauty and faith this community has created. Additionally, one learns about the many intriguing customs that Persian Jews have amassed in regards to courtship, weddings, and family life.
Aside from the historically rich and aesthetically delightful artifacts of yore, Light and Shadows informs its visitors how Iranian Jews have been living within the past hundred years. The exhibit documents the Pahlavi monarchy (1925-1979) and its pleasant influence on Iranian Jews. Conversely, it also illustrates Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous rise to power (1979-1989) and the renewed suppression of Judaism. In addition, the exhibit portrays Iranian Jews and Zionism. Like all other Jews cast to the Diaspora, Jews in Iran yearned to ascend to the Holy Land. They voiced this yearning in prayers, poetry, and during their pilgrimage to the grave of Serach Bat Asher, located near Isfahan – where, according to legend, an underground tunnel leads to Jerusalem. After the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, thousands of Iranian Jews actually made aliyah an exciting reality. They were eager to flee from Muslim persecution and live in a country where they truly belonged.
Light and Shadows concludes with the 21st century life and culture of Iranian Jews. The exhibit’s captivating documentaries portray Jews who still live in Iran today. One documentary focuses on a teenage girl in Iran who candidly expresses the bittersweet sentiments she has toward her birth country and the challenges she encounters as an observant Jew. The museum’s walls are also lined with photography from the Iranian Jewish communities in Los Angeles, California and Great Neck, New York. These photos are a pleasure to view. One especially interesting photo was taken of an Iranian Jewish family during a Pesach Seder. The family members are holding green scallions while grimacing, smirking, laughing, and shielding their faces. Apparently, to recall the harsh labor in Egypt, Iranian Jews have the tradition to (playfully!) whack others with scallions during their rendition of Dayenu.
However, I surely cannot give away all the fascinating facts and customs of Iranian Jewry. Instead, I highly recommend that readers visit the YU Museum’s Light and Shadows exhibit, which is open now until April 27, 2014. The descendants of Esther and Mordechai, the ultimate storytellers, have lived through their own remarkably resilient and culturally rich tale, weaving through centuries of toil and triumph. And thanks to Light and Shadows, they are finally able to share this tale with us all.