THE BLOG

Persian Jewry's Glories and Tribulations

01/13/2014 11:49 am ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014

"My father" he cradles the ancient frame, gently. A young cavalry officer squaring up to the camera; exactly the rigor, discipline, daredevil glint you'd want in a leader of men.

"How could he possibly have found his way into Reza Shah's military?"

Eyes linger on the sepia portrait, a proud, quiet smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"Our community hails almost three thousand years back, in Iran. From the start, we'd embraced Iran, evolving a culture at once wholly, eternally Jewish, and thoroughly Persian -- a culture." He grows animated now, removing old tomes from high shelves, opening them at well-thumbed junctions to reveal images of majestic, intricate beauty "of soaring art, music, profound spiritual and intellectual sophistication. Throughout Iranian history, this culture placed us at the right hand of kings. It was our Rashid-al Din Hamadani who headed the bureaucracy that proved Persia's salvation during the Ilkhanate. Where Timur Lenk enslaved other artisans, he paid a king's ransom for Persian Jewish textile work. When the great Shahs Abbas and Nadir needed to extract storied Isfahan and Mashhad from decades of economic doldrums, they began by encouraging Jewish immigration to the cities. There's barely a metropolis in Iran without a Jewish shrine; the graves of our greatest, from Daniel to Harav Ohr Shraga, have always and continue to be pilgrimage sites for even devout Muslims."

Eyes dimming, he slumps deep into his chair.

"Throughout our history, though, whenever Iran's political winds shifted, our neighbors would turn against us. In Iran's cosmopolitan core, our people would be made refugees in their own cities, herded into squalid ghettoes, forced, in a dreadful foreshadowing, to don identifying patches. In the more conservative periphery, brutal laws would attend upon our forcible uprootings. With the early-modern embrace of Shia Islam, for instance, we'd often spend winters restricted to our miserable quarters, fundamentalist Shi'ism teaching that rain could wash Jewish impurity off onto passing Muslims. Egged on by mayors, village elders, riots would always follow, mobs burning our homes, slaughtering us. And finally, our people would be knelt and forced to convert en masse.

"We'd of course hew tightly to our Judaism, though, reading, teaching from our old scrolls in the dead of every night. Eventually, the insanity would pass." "Usually," mirthless laugh "when treasuries realized that absent Jewish Jizya, the Islamic tax on non-believers that cannot be levied from converts, they'd run dry. Slowly, then, regulations would relaxed and we'd emerge from our ghettoes, slowly come to celebrate our faith openly and to again serve the civilization that despite everything we still loved."

His jaw works. Sets.

"By the 19th century, it seemed we'd never again know peace in Iran. The once-proud nation's fortunes had waned, Iran becoming a plaything for Britain, Russia. The people's fury, then, washed over Jews unrelentingly. Even in the most urbane cities, Jews became the brutalized centerpieces of Persia's Panem et Circenses. In the conservative periphery, blood libels and massacres abounded. In the very Mashhad to which Nadir Shah himself had invited us, we endured the Allahdad tribulation: our neighborhoods razed, men butchered, girls and grandmothers alike reft from the corpses, survivors converted at knifepoint. Similar albeit smaller-scale atrocities soon followed in Shiraz and Isfahan. And a new, feverish paranoia made crypto-Judaism a much more dreadful prospect than in past.

"By the 20th century's beginning, though, Iranians were demanding change. In a testimony to the great wisdom, strength that truly do course through Persian civilization's mainstream, they initiated one of history's only peaceful revolutions, convening a constitutional session that would lead to the first Iranian parliament's formation, the nobility's elimination, the clergy's weakening--and eventually, after ultimately-victorious battles against Russia, England's regional proxies, to Reza Pahlavi's ascent and Iran's full embrace of modernity.

"For all of the previous century's horrors, we yet rushed to serve, when the great changes came. We yet loved Iran, yet hoped Persian Judaism would again catalyze national advancement. Our support was a key factor in the constitutional revolution's success, then. In newly founded hospitals, academies, we took point on the subsequent rejuvenation. We produced paeans to Iran's rebirth that remain national hymns. And our young men did indeed flock to officers' commissions under the Pahlavi's standard, fiercely determined to guard the freedom from foreign machinations Reza Shah had won Iran.

"Our labors guaranteed us direct Parliamentary representation. Even in Mashhad, we were openly Jewish. It wasn't, that all had suddenly come up roses: even in the best years, the Pahlavis would occasionally bow to the clergy, shuttering Jewish schools, cultural centers. For decades, though, it truly did seem that our love for Iran would finally be reciprocated in full." Flint in his voice, now. "Of course the Ayatollah ended that. Few believed he would -- hadn't he guaranteed our safety from his Parisian exile? And so, many of us stayed until the revolution was in full throat. The price for delay: fleeing ancestral hearths in the wolf's hour, carrying only family heirlooms small enough to fit in our pockets -- most of which we'd soon surrender to smugglers, that we might be spirited across borders; Proud, ancient families, squirreled away in dusty old trucks...

"Washing up penniless on foreign shores, our first years abroad in the world were devastating. To our new neighbors, we were exceedingly strange, not-entirely welcome strangers. Drawing, though, upon our hallowed, age-old heritage; conjuring up echoes of our sacred music, shades of our timeless art; we once more found the strength to survive and ultimately, triumph. And even as we stand, today, at the very forefront of international industry, academia, arts, we yet turn to, nurture, the unique culture that will forever be our souls' cornerstone.
"Sometimes, though...at night, at quiet moments in our busy days, we cast our minds back to the Iran we once knew. And we wonder. Will we ever see it again?"

Please join us as we explore Persian Jewry's remarkable history in the run-up to Purim -- the holiday devoted to celebrating the community's greatest heroes!