Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

The Persian Puzzle

Ketubah, Iran, 1921.

A synagogue in today's Jerusalem bears the name "Hajji Yehezkel." Yehezkel is Ezekiel, and Hajji is the Persian term for one who has fulfilled the Islamic precept of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Who was this Ezekiel, and how did he earn his improbable honorific? In its own way, his story encapsulates 2,700 turbulent years of Jewish life in Iran, the country once known as Persia.  

Relevant Links
The “Conversos” of Mashhad  Bernard Livi, Megillah. A Mashhadi Jew tells the story of his community.

A new exhibit at Tel Aviv's Beit Hatfutsot—formerly called the Museum of the Diaspora, now the Museum of the Jewish People—examines the alternating realities that have characterized the long and tangled history of Iran and its Jews. That history goes back to biblical times, as attested in the Purim story of royal intrigue and a narrow escape from attempted genocide at the hands of the evil Haman. But even in those days, Persian history revealed a schizophrenic character; earlier on, it was the humane and tolerant King Cyrus who, after the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., had invited the exiled Jews to return to their homeland, itself now under Persian rule, and to rebuild their temple.

Under the rule of two Persian dynasties (247 B.C.E.–651 C.E.), both the Mishnah and the "Babylonian" Talmud, the twin ancient rabbinic collections of law and lore,  were composed. At the opening of the Tel Aviv show, the Israeli scholar Shaul Shaked detailed some of the legal and ritual terminology in the Talmud that reflects its Persian context, and Houman Sarshar, an Iranian-born chronicler of Iranian-Jewish life, declared that the work should rightly be called not the Babylonian but the Persian Talmud. Even after the Arab-Muslim conquest in the mid-7th century C.E., Persia became the first kingdom in all the "lands of Islam" not to adopt Arabic, instead jealously maintaining its attachment to its own language—in whose preservation the Jews played a crucial role. The earliest surviving writings in Persian are texts written in Hebrew characters.  

In the 16th century, a radical transformation occurred with the establishment of the Shi'ite Safavid kingdom. Shi'ism is far more intolerant of other faiths than is Sunni Islam, teaching, for instance, that all non-Shi'ites are ritually impure. For the next four centuries, thanks in part to such laws as the ban forbidding them to leave their homes on rainy days lest the rainwater convey their ritual "impurity" to Muslims, Iranian Jews suffered more debilities than any other Jewish community in the Middle East.

Which brings us to Yehezkel. In the spring of 1839, in the holy Shi'ite city of Mashhad 500 miles east of Tehran, the Jews were accused of mocking the customs of a Muslim holy day. An enraged mob killed 36 Jews before the rest of the community succeeded in saving itself by formally converting to Islam. Henceforth and well into the 20th century, the Jews of Mashhad were compelled to live a double existence, practicing their Judaism in secret while outwardly comporting themselves as Muslims. In order to allay their neighbors' suspicions, some would even go on pilgrimage to Mecca, but with a twist: secretly, they placed tiny tefillin, the ritual phylacteries worn by observant Jews during morning prayers, underneath their headdress, and once in Mecca they would privately offer up Jewish prayers. (A set of such tefillin is prominently displayed at the exhibition.) On the way back from Mecca, a few of these Persian Marranos, now bearing the prefix "Hajji," would stop off in the land of Israel and, reverting to Judaism, stay. One of them, after whom the synagogue in Jerusalem is named, was Hajji Yehezkel Levy.

At home, relief for Iranian Jews arrived with the rise to power of the Westernizing and nationalizing Reza Shah in 1925–41, and would be significantly extended under his son, Muhammad Reza Shah, who ruled from 1941 until the Islamic revolution in 1979. The latter granted de-facto recognition to Israel in 1950, and his Jewish subjects enjoyed unprecedented legal and civic rights. Emphasizing Iran's national identity and downplaying its Islamic heritage, the Shah opened the 1971 celebrations of Iran's "2,500-year-old monarchy" by paying homage at the mausoleum of Cyrus.

All this came to an end when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in 1979; the story from then until now is too well known to warrant repeating.

What is one to make of the schizophrenic character of Iranian history?  According to David Menashri, an Israeli expert in Iranian affairs, Iran is torn between two competing legacies, that of King Cyrus and that of Imam Ali, perhaps the most venerated figure in Shi'ite Islam. One could also refer to the latter legacy as Imam Ali with occasional tendencies to Hamanism.

But where to strike the balance between the two? Are we to believe that today's dire circumstances are a deviation, while the real story of the connection between Iran and the Jewish people is one of vibrant interaction and cultural exchange? Implicitly, that is what the exhibition in Tel Aviv might seem to suggest, with its rich display of the many, undeniably impressive artifacts of a cross-cultural conversation (or what, in an analogous context, some historians of medieval Andalus like to call convivencia). But if Iranian Jewish history has demonstrated anything, it is that such periods are few and far between. More often than not, that history has been one of persecution and oppression.

In today's Iran, one can perceive signs of a genuine if lopsided struggle between the legacy of Imam Ali and the suppressed legacy of Cyrus. One can only hope that the latter will emerge triumphant. Until it does, the principal lesson of Iranian Jewish history is not to allow ourselves to be blinded to political reality by the brilliant light cast by moments of high cultural achievement.  

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Evan on January 12, 2011 at 9:32 am (Reply)
I don't think it's a real great idea to pick a fight with Imam Ali in the name of the Iranian Jews.

Moreover, Imam Ali himself can be seen in two opposite ways. On the one hand, he was in charge of the war of annihilation against a Jewish tribe during the Islamicization of the Arabian peninsula. On the other hand, he was said to have been appalled when he heard that the Caliph Umar had robbed a Jewish woman of her anklets. These quotations are raised alternately by Shiites depending on whether they want to emphasize this revered figure's ruthlessness or his compassion.

Here's another paradox: It is in Shiite Iran that the largest Jewish minority in the Middle East lives. Not to deny the oppression of Jews (and other religious minorities) in the name of Shiite dogma, but this side, too, has to be recognized.
Aryeh Tepper on January 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm (Reply)
Evan, points well-taken. When I ask Iranian Jews living in Israel why Jews choose to remain in Iran, the standard response is that it's because of "business." Maybe. It also needs to be kept in mind that the present regime is more tolerant of Iranian Jews than were the Safavid or the Qajar dynasties. Their occasional genocidal impulses have been directed, until the present at least, at the Jews in Israel.
tonyk on January 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm (Reply)
The fact that "the largest Jewish minority" in the historic homelands of the Middle-East is now down to a pathetic 20,000 is no cause for celebration or satisfaction. And in every other part of the Arab and Muslim world, with the exception of Israel, Jewish minority communities, which go back over several millenia and predate Christianity and Islam, are now almost non-existent....
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee
Persophone on January 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm (Reply)
So Sunni Islam is more tolerant than Shiite Islam? Are you kidding me? Did you mean Taliban Afghanistan had a better record on women than Iran? Did you mean Wahhabi Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism is a product of Sunni Islam) has a better record on women than Iran?
In Iran women are allowed to drive and work (in Taliban Afghanistan they did not, and in Saudi Arabia they do not)...
That is not to say Iran has a good record on treatment of women. It certainly does not. But let us not kid ourselves by making broad statements like "Shiite Islam is more intolerant than Sunni Islam".
The Sunni minority in Bahrain keep a tight lid on the Shia majority, and in Saudi Arabia the Shiites of al-Qatif and al-Hasa are not allowed to commemorate Ashura, the holiest day on the Shia calendar, in public.


Don't get me wrong. Both Shiism and Sunnism are branches of the same violent religion.

And Shiites can relate to Jews...both Jewish Israel and Persian Shia Iran are surrounded by Sunni Arabs who hate them both...Sunni madrasas teach young children that a jihad must be waged against Jews, Christians, and "Shia heretics".

To be continued...
Persophone on January 23, 2011 at 7:19 pm (Reply)
Really, Aryeh, come reason the late Shah was a strong ally of Israel was that he saw in Israel a natural ally...He knew the large gigantic Sunni Arab world around him did not want a non-Arab Shiite state in its midst, any more than it wanted a non-Arab Jewish state in its midts.
Anti-Semitism in Iran was limited to restricting Jews from going out on rainy days, lest they "contaminate the water", but by and large, Iranians were never, and are not, anti-Semitic.
Jewish-Iranian friendship goes back centuries, back to Cyrus the Great, and even before that, back to the King of the Medes who had a Jewish wife (Queen Esther). Iran under the late Shah was Israel's strongest ally in the Middle East (this position was later replaced by Turkey after 1979).
Even today, Iranians have no ill will towards Jewish people, and we are proud of our ANCIENT Jewish community which has existed even before there was a Persian Empire. Iran's Jews are citizens of Iran, they are our compatriots, and we share the same language, culture, cuisine, customs and history. As fellow Iranian citizens, they are very much a part of our country and our society.
Israelis were among the few people in the Middle East to publicly voice their support for Iran's "Green Movement" (the pro-democracy movement that gained momentum after the election fraud which resulted in a second term for Ahmadinejad). True Iranians will never forget this.
Furthermore, Israelis have never claimed any part of Iran (more than I can say for Arabs who call the Persian Gulf, the "Arabian Gulf" and claim Iran's Khuzestan Province-and its capital city of Ahvaz- as well as Iran's three Gulf islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa). Iran and Israel do not even share any borders for that matter.
Evan on January 23, 2011 at 8:34 pm (Reply)
"Anti-Semitism in Iran was limited to restricting Jews from going out on rainy days, lest they "contaminate the water""
This was a provincial phenomenon and belonged to the old generations. I don't remember this issue being raised at all by any of my Iranian Jewish friends. The regime recently forced shopkeepers who were religious minorities to post a notice stating that they were members of a religious minority so that pious Shiites could be aware and not "contaminate" themselves. This was pretty much laughed down by the Muslims.
Persophone on January 23, 2011 at 9:30 pm (Reply)
Evan, you are right...of course the sign saying "Religious Minority" was mainly on groceries and shops that sold food and drink, and Iranians did laugh it down.
The thing about rainwater goes back 100 years, and NEVER surfaced again. It went out the window with myths that about Jews dipping their Passover matzos in the blood of Muslim children (the ingestion of blood is totally against "kashrut" laws in fact), or Jews abducting Muslim children, extracting oil from their body fat, then marketing this oil at exorbitant prices...These things belong to a century ago, and Iranians are by and large NOT anti-Semitic, even though some Iranians love to boast about the fact that they can outsmart Jews in business.
I love Iran's Jews. They add to Iran's multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-confessional richness and diversity. They are an integral part of Iran, and always will be.
Aryeh Tepper on January 24, 2011 at 1:57 am (Reply)
Persophone: Thanks for reading the article. As I mentioned, there are definetly two competing legacies in Iran, and your voice fits in with the legacy that is open and humane.

Two responses.

The 400 years beginning with the Safavid dynasty and extending through the Qajar dynasty were extremely difficulty for the Jews. It was an extended period of persecution and suffering that was unprecedented by Middle Eastern standards, and was never seen in the Sunni world. Yes the Wahabis are extremely intolerant of minorities - I even recall the Shiite Iranian clerics condemning the Taliban for destroying the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. But don't forget that while the Safavids and Qajaris ruled in Iran the Ottomans ruled throughout the Middle East.

I am sure that you and many other Iranians love the Jews and that you laugh at the whole notion of 'ritual impurity'. But you will find Iranian Jews in Israel who suffered from that notion well into the 20th century. The Tel Aviv exhibit includes their testimonies. Perhaps the issue is local - Iran is a very large country, and what is acceptable in one place is unacceptable in another.

Bottom line: I hope your vision of Iran comes out on top. And you're absolutley right. The Israelis are in your corner, rooting for the 'green revolution' to succeed.
Persophone on January 24, 2011 at 11:51 am (Reply)
Well, Aryeh, I also am saddened that a nutjob like Ahmadinejad thinks he has the right to speak in our name and on behalf of our people when he denies the Holocaust.

We Iranians love children, it is a part of our culture, and to deny the Holocaust, in which millions of children perished, for no other reason than having been born Jews, is outrageous.

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and their likes are a disgrace to our people.
David Pinto on February 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm (Reply)
A member of the Shi'a commnunity here in Montreal once suggested to me that the relationship of the Shi'a to Sunni Muslims is similar to the relationship of Sephardi Jews to the Ashkenazim. (Was he referring only to the numbers, or did he imply something else? I do not know.)

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham