Have you ever tasted the delectable dishes of Persian Jewry? If not, then you need to head to Colbeh immediately, or better yet, to your Persian friend’s Shabbat dinner. Have you ever witnessed the jovial customs of a Persian Jewish wedding? If not, then you need to find a way to land on the guest list. This culture knows how to channel its inner strength and tenacity toward uplifting simchat hachayim and celebratory joy.
Persian Jews possess a remarkable history. Like all other Jews, they have suffered their share of oppression, stigmatization, and anguish. And like all other Jews, they have never faltered. They have risen, and still continue to rise, above the tides of hatred, while being committed to tradition and dedicated to supporting the Jewish community. However, we would expect no less from the descendants of Esther and Mordechai. Jews from Iran carry fierce wit, admirable talent, fortitude, and trust in G-d in their very DNA structure.
Bearing this in mind, when I discovered that the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History is currently featuring an exhibit titled Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews, I knew I had to pay it a visit. And not surprisingly, I am grateful that I went. The exhibit was originally created by Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the YU Museum, in collaboration with the American Sephardi Federation, has allowed us to view it in New York as well.
Light and Shadows is meticulously organized and artfully displayed. It documents the complex past of Iranian Jews, dating back nearly 2,700 years since the first Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia settled in Persia. The exhibit sweeps the visitor on a journey from the biblical plot of Purim to the Islamic conquering of Persia in the 7th century CE to forced conversion in 19th century Persia and, finally, to the 20th and 21st century state of Iranian Jews.
One learns how the Persian Jews experienced their history of light and shadows, success and despair, freedom and persecution. After the miracle of Purim, the Jews in Persia led a tranquil existence during the reign of King Cyrus the Great. Unfortunately, however, they were victimized and deemed ritually impure when the Muslims conquered Persia in the seventh century. The Muslim conquering ushered in many difficulties for Jews.
In fact, under the rule of the Safavid kingdom, Jews were no longer permitted to be wholesale merchants or bankers (trades that they were formerly successful in). Jews were also forbidden to have any kind of physical contact with Muslims, the latter fretting that the former would taint their souls through a mere handshake. Furthermore, like Germany and its Star of David, Persian Jews were also forced to publicize their inherent “impurity.” Their “badge of shame,” however, was not a yellow cloth with the word “Jude” on it, but mismatched shoes. Perfectly paired soles were forbidden for Jews in ancient Persia.
Although unfashionable and embarrassing, clashing footwear paled in comparison to the dire situation that Jewish inhabitants from Mashad found themselves in during the mid-19th century. Jews from this Persian city were not only cruelly attacked by mobs, but also forced to convert to Islam. While Mashadi Jews practiced Islam publicly, they did not yield completely. Like the Marranos, they were determined to keep all the Jewish laws within the privacy of their homes.
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.
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