A first-generation Iranian-American Jew, Josephine Mairzadeh says that she feels personally responsible for holding onto 2,700 years of ancestry.
As a child growing up in Great Neck, Mairzadeh was troubled by the lack of photographs of her family from when they were living in Iran. “I didn’t know what my mom looked like at age 5 or the environment that she grew up in,” she says. “There was this eternal emptiness.”
The interior designer embarked on an oral history project, culminating in more than 100 hours of video footage of her maternal grandparents’ life experiences.
Simultaneously, she co-founded the New York division of 30 Years After, a nonprofit organization that aims to encourage Iranian Jews to become involved in Israel advocacy and American public policy while preserving and transferring the community’s unique heritage. Through meet-and-greets with local elected officials and members of Knesset, 30 Years After promotes political engagement.
The organization’s hallmark is the Our Legacy Project, which aims to document the lives of Iranian Jews and the community that existed before the revolution and expulsion of the Shah in 1979. The project is inspired by the work of the Shoah Foundation, she says.
A secondary goal of the oral histories is to document Judeo-Persian ceremonial art. In the videos, older Iranian Jews hold up family heirlooms — such as ketubahs and kiddush cups — and explain the ritual purposes of the objects. A photographic archive of the ceremonial art and videos will be presented to the The Library of Congress and the Jewish Museum of New York upon completion. Videos can be viewed at www.ourlegacyproject.org.
“Down the road, our kids will want to know what an Iranian Jew is,” Mairzadeh says.
Mairzadeh, who interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic art department as a high school student, is a trained artist herself who focuses much of her artwork on identity. Mayor Bloomberg commissioned her to create artwork for an invitation to a Norooz (Persian New Year) celebration held at Gracie Mansion. The artwork is currently on view at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People.
“I didn’t like Persian art growing up; I found the ornamentation on Persian rugs and miniatures to be overly busy,” she admits. “But I learned to appreciate the value and meaning in the aesthetics of art and design, the importance of where it came from.”
Starting young: Mairzadeh had her first solo art exhibition at age 11.