The Persian Puzzle

By Aryeh Tepper
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

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.  

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.  

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