In the center of a windowless Tel Aviv exhibition room stands an ornately handcrafted 1867 Torah case from western Tehran made of colored sheets of wood-coated metal. On a nearby wall is an equally detailed slice of contemporary Iranian Jewry history, two paired pieces envisioned through Photoshop by a 25-year-old in America.
First commissioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a Gracie Mansion celebration of Norooz, the Persian New Year, Josephine Mairzadeh’s intricately designed rendering of family legacy and fertility made its way this winter from Great Neck, L.I., to the palm tree-lined Beit Hatefusoth museum in northern Tel Aviv.
Together called “Five Generations of Reflection into the New Year,” Mairzadeh’s two pieces, subtitled “The Matriarchs” and “Esther’s Legacy,” are currently on view at the museum’s Iranian Jewish exhibition, “which runs through the end of April and is sponsored by the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation.
The show, called “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iran and the Jews,” features more than 20 pieces from New York, particularly from Great Neck’s Mashadi community, whose synagogues collected over 100 pieces that the curators sifted through.
Some items of note from the Great Neck community include elaborate painted doors, dresses for child brides and dual Jewish and Muslim marriage contracts dated from 1885 in the city of Mashhad.
The exhibit is just one of many signs that a new wind has taken hold at the Beit Hatefusoth museum adjacent to Tel Aviv University’s sprawling campus. Beit Hatefusoth — known in English since its 1978 beginnings as the Diaspora Museum and now called the Museum of the Jewish People — is currently undergoing massive changes, to become more inclusive of members of the Jewish community beyond the typical Ashkenazi male, according to the museum’s CEO for the past year and a half, Avinoam Armoni.
“This is the first exhibition that presents the 2,700-year-old story of Iranian Jews in such breadth and depth, and there is no doubt that it marks an important milestone in the transformation of Beit Hatefusoth,” Armoni said.
The new outlook is a welcome change among potential visitors, including the Iranian Jewish scholars who were behind this exhibit’s creation.
“I think this broadening of the scope of the museum’s vision is exactly what it needed in order to morph itself and gain a whole new life that is likely to be a much, much longer one than its first stage,” said Houman Sarshar, New York-based author of the book “Esther’s Children” and associate curator of the show. “How can you be a museum of the diaspora and for all intents and purposes really lose site of the first 2,000 years of the diaspora?”
The goal of the exhibition, according to the chief curator Hagai Segev, is to combine archaeological, ethnographic and contemporary art from the Iranian Jewish world. “It’s a compilation of all those different historical artifacts from all those periods and material culture that I put together,” Segev said. “They afford a different kind of looking at the history. This is what was important to me — to tell the story of the Iranian community from a wide perspective.”
From start to finish, “Light and Shadows” took about three-and-a-half years to assemble, said Ruth Shamir, vice-chairperson of the project.
“They came as total strangers and practically as refugees, and they had their own institutions with them when they came,” Shamir-Popkin said of the Iranian community in Los Angeles, where she lives and acts as president of American Friends of Beit Hatefusoth on the West Coast.
“They managed to maintain their identity, which a lot of communities over the years are not able to do,” she added.
While Beit Hatefusoth has organized exhibitions about Jewish cultures outside of the Ashkenazi bubble before, such as shows on Yemenite and Turkish Jews, Segev said this exhibit remains unparalleled in its thoroughness. Also quite unique, Segev explained, is the use of artifacts as opposed to reproductions, which he said usually make up 80 percent of Beit Hatefusoth shows, along with photos.
Instead, he continued, people can see authentic, beautiful artifacts that were brought to Tel Aviv from various corners of the world through real human effort.
“What was an amazing experience for me was the extent the people of the community were willing to share with us the objects,” Segev said. “There were only a few negative answers to our approach.”
Shamir-Popkin added, “Even today people came and said they have more things we can give you if you can insure it.” One woman had arrived at the exhibit with silver dishes that her grandmother had used in Iran 100 years ago.
While the exhibit contains mostly artifacts, contemporary artwork created by Mairzadeh and four other Israeli and European Iranians is also interspersed throughout, Segev said.
In Mairzadeh’s paired pieces, two royal blue Shabbat candles sandwich either side of a mirror, in which the visitor can also see a superimposed image of the artist’s great-great-grandmother on the first and a doorway to Esther’s tomb on the second.
“One woman can determine the fate of an entire people,” said Mairzadeh, who along with being an artist and interior designer is the co-founder and co-president of the New York chapter of the 30 Years After organization for young Iranian Jewish Americans. Her own family members left Iran at the onset of the revolution but had no idea that they’d never return.
“The piece is a family tree of my family,” she said, describing her artwork. “It also serves as a family tree for a few prominent Israelis, like Knesset Member Shaul Mofaz and Meir Ezri, the first Israeli ambassador to Iran. They were both actually there at the opening of the exhibit.”
Maizadeh’s great-great-grandmother, at the center of her Matriarchs piece, also happens to be Mofaz’s grandmother, she added.
Together, the artist explains, her paired creations depict “Haft-Sin,” what she calls “a symbolic enclave of ceremonial items, displayed during the Persian New Year.” Both pieces evoke rebirth, health and beauty, with images such as eggs, various fruits like apples and pomegranates and a goldfish swimming in a bowl.
“They stand for the never-ending ocean and life within it,” she said.
The image of the Koran in the background of both pieces comes from a Muslim holy book owned by Jewish collector of Islamic art, Nasser D. Khalili.
Even the thick, bronze-colored frames were carefully chosen. “I literally called over a hundred Persian groceries and finally found this frame. I really wanted to use this frame because aesthetically it makes it look like a miniature — a form of Islamic art that is specific to Iran.”
“The person I purchased the frame from said he got the frame when they were auctioning off the Shah of Iran’s belongings in his palace. It’s a very valuable piece of art.”
For Mairzadeh, creating her pieces that ultimately ended up in the Beit Hatefusoth show was more than just artistic pursuit. “It’s a means of expression,” she said, and “a tool to psychologically sift through the tension of not knowing if [she is] American or Iranian and trying to find that balance.”
“I use my art as a vehicle to express the cultural tension I face as a first-generation Iranian Jew. But at the same time I believe there is a beauty to my identity; there are so many things my parents gave to me that I’d like to be able to pass on to my kids and kids’ kids. I use this as a visual medium to get that down, as far as preserving my identity goes.”
While scholar Sarshar is happy to see that members of Mairzadeh’s generation “are holding onto their pride of being Iranian,” he warns that “assimilating into the cultural mill that is the United States is inevitable,” even for a culture as unique as that of the Iranian Jews.
But in hopes of preserving the traditions, Mairzadeh’s work and the rest of the “Light and Shadows” exhibit is slated to travel next to Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the curators hope that it will reach a New York museum afterward.
“We are able to make history-telling interesting and exciting,” Segev said. “The rationale behind showing the art is showing that the elements we absorb into our history have so many ways of being expressed later. Even a 30-year-old artist of Iranian descent can absorb the history and create something that is relevant.”