The story of Esther, who courageously foiled a plot to exterminate the Jews of ancient Persia (modern-day Iran), is the keystone of the Purim tradition and Iranian Jews have always strongly identified with that singular Jewish heroine. Even today, Iran’s remaining 25,000 Jews go to pray at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai ‒ yes, there is such a place ‒ and the Jewish queen is remembered on a daily basis through amulets seeking her protection and beautifully illustrated renderings of the megilla (scroll) telling her story. No surprise that modern Iranian Jews are occasionally referred to as Esther’s children.
With Purim approaching, Yeshiva University Museum’s “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” – an exhibit about one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities – is especially timely.
During their long history dating back to early 6th century B.C.E., the Jews of Iran have been dependent on the whims and favor of whatever group held sway. With the establishment of Shiite rule in the 16th Century, Jews were frequently subject to intense periods of discrimination and persecution. Considered impure, Jews were prohibited from physical contact with Muslims. On rainy days, they were not allowed out of their houses for fear that their impurity would be passed through the rainwater and in certain towns, even well into the 19th century, Jews were not allowed to wear matching shoes. The ever-fresh ingenuity of anti-Semitism never fails to amaze.
Despite the widespread maltreatment, within the boundaries of the mahale (Jewish quarter), Iranian Jews lived a creative and vibrant Jewish life. Displayed are more than 100 objects including archaeological artifacts, illuminated manuscripts, Judaica and amulets, paintings, photographs and documentary ephemera that attest to a long and complex history.
Highlights include a special section on the community of Mashhad, whose Jewish inhabitants were forced to convert to Islam en masse in the mid-1800s. Members of the community lived as Crypto-Jews well into the next century, with miniature phylacteries hidden under a headdress, betrothals arranged at birth or early childhood in order to avoid marriages to Muslims later, and even pairs of marriage contracts, a Jewish version in Hebrew and a Muslim version in Persian. In the short film, “The Marranos of Mashad,” the narrator relates the story of his grandfather who went on Hajj to prove his allegiance to Islam, wearing hidden miniature phylacteries and reciting Jewish prayers throughout his stay in Mecca.
Ironically, because Jews were exempt from the prohibitions of Shiite Muslims to compose and play secular music, the Jewish community became the keepers and preservers of classical Persian music and poetry. A magnificently painted door inscribed with a poem in Judaeo-Persian, dedicated to love, beauty and artistry, along with the many illuminated manuscripts and books, demonstrate the value which the community placed on texts, both religious and secular.
Isolated from other communities, the Iranian Jewish community carved out a culture that was both authentically Jewish and specifically Persian.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.