Light and Shadows

The Story of Persian Jews Retold

 

  • Jessica Shokrian (Sacramento, California. b. 1963). Self portrait, 2002 Black-and-white photograph artist proof 22 x 40 cm.

  • Painted doors (detail) Iran 19th Century.

  • Torah Case, Western Iran, 1867. Wood coated with metal, oil, paint and cloth.

  • Pair of Finials, Yazad, Iran, 1933. Silver, ink and paint on paper and glass.

  • Jewish Ketubah or Marriage Contract, Mashad, Iran, 1853.

  • Chain with amulet for protection of a bride. Western Iran, early 20th Century. Hammered and stamped silver, beads, mirror, ink on paper. 9.5 x 5.3 cm.

  • David and Leora Nissan in Purim costumes. Teheran, Iran 1964.

 

Iran, formerly Persia, has been at the crossroads of history since ancient times. Among the participants of that history is one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” at UCLA’s Fowler Museum through March 10, tries to tell their little-known story. The exhibition chronicles a story of exile and struggle, of survival and occasional victory. Appropriately enough, it begins in biblical times when Jews began immigrating to Persia some 2,700 years ago. In the 7th century, Persia came under Islamic rule. The Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, were categorized as dhimmis, or non-Muslims, and treated as second-class citizens. The establishment of Shiite Islamism in the early 16th century proved even more oppressive.

“Throughout those nearly three millennia, the lives of Iranian Jews have vacillated between marginalization on the one hand and integration into the complex and fascinating fabric of Iran’s society and culture on the other,” curators Orit Engelberg-Baram and Hagai Segev write in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog. The show originated at Beit Hatfutsot, or The Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv. Its Los Angeles presentation has been funded in part by the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation.    

The curators arranged the exhibition thematically, starting with “Roots and Identity,” which explains how Jews came to Persia and describes their early culture there. “Life in the Mahale” is about how Jewish people lived and adapted to a social environment often hostile to them and the practice of their faith. “Preserving Traditions of Music and Poetry” reveals the creative culture of the minority, and the final section “Ceremonies and Rituals” deals with rites such as marriage, circumcision and mystical practices. More than 100 objects help tell the story, including archaeological artifacts, prints and drawings, costumes and accessories, religious manuscripts and implements and musical instruments.

One of the most interesting objects in the first section is a replica of a clay cylinder from the British Museum in London. It’s only a few inches long. Written in dense Babylonian cuneiform, it is an account of Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon. It includes something called Cyrus’ Declaration, which allows captives to return to their homeland and practice the religion of their choice. This was a pretty radical idea for the 6th century BCE. Jews are not specifically mentioned here, but presumably this allowed them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. 

Nearby in the display case are four smaller tablets. They are also from the 6th century BCE and are the real thing – and extremely rare. Written in Akkadian, they are from Al-Yahudu, or “Village of Judea,” in Iran. They are records of agricultural and commercial activities, such as receipts for sales of produce and livestock, loans and slave transactions, thus providing a glimpse into day-to-day Jewish life of that era.   

The story of Esther is also here. In the Book of Esther, she was queen to King Xerxes I of Persia, (519 BC-465 BC), although he did not know she was Jewish. Her name originally was Hadassah, meaning myrtle, and she had been raised by her cousin Mordecai. Haman, Xerxes’ second in command, became enraged at the Jews when Mordecai refused to bow down to him (Mordecai said he would only bow to God). Haman paid the king a handsome fee to issue a decree to kill all Jews, both young and old. But through a series of events that involve Esther’s courage and God’s intercession, the Jews were spared. The Fowler exhibition includes an early 1900s illustration of the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai (in Hamadan, Iran), which is still a place of pilgrimage; and a schematic plan of the tomb drawn on paper from 1928. There is also a manuscript of the hymn chanted in synagogues before reading the Book of Esther (apparently, this was a practice unique to Persian Jews). The text is written in six rectangular sections, with floral and decorative borders.

The exhibition features a number of objects unique to Persian Jews. This includes, for example, certain types of finials that would be affixed to the Torah. Two here are in the shape of flat hands, made of engraved silver (early 20th century), with the palm on one side engraved with Hebrew, and the other side with a Star of David. These shapes were clearly influenced by religious objects carried in processions by Twelver Shiite members, and handily demonstrate how one culture sometimes influenced the other, even if they were deeply at odds with one another. 

When they took power in 1502, the Safavids created a religious state based on Shiite principles. During this period, non-Muslims were considered najis, or unclean, and subject to discrimination on many levels. Jews were banned from the best trades, forced to live in ghettos and sometimes randomly beaten in public. In the 19th century historian J. J. Benjamin wrote: “Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt.” 

Since Shiite rule barred Muslims from certain professions, by default Jews filled these jobs – peddlers, used-clothing sellers, jewelry makers, wine producers and merchants, musicians and entertainers, and certain types of doctors, healers and lower-level merchants. One illustration is especially poignant, an illustration from the book “Five Years in a Persian Town” (1905). It shows a row of standing tradesman and peddlers. Among them is a man with a white beard and wearing one reddish-orange shoe and one dark shoe. Apparently, to add insult to injury, Jews were not allowed to wear matching shoes!

However, they did manage to practice their faith at home and within their communities. In the second section we see how Jews might practice secretly, even among those forced to convert publicly, as the Jews living in Mashhad were in the mid-1800s. There is, for example, a 19th century miniature phylactery on display. The small box containing Scripture has been attached to a leather strap that would have been hidden beneath a headdress. From the same era there’s a special paper and copper container for housing the Eternal Light (Ner Tamid), a light meant to hang in front of the Torah Ark to commemorate the light in the Temple in Jerusalem. To disguise its function, this lantern housing could be closed to resemble a box. 

Persecution may have contributed to an elevated sense of identity – something that often happens when minority cultures struggle to survive amid a stronger, dominant mainstream. “It may be argued,” Ariella Amar writes in the exhibition catalog, “that the prolific creativity of Iranian Jews evolved in spite of their long and difficult struggle to survive; yet it may be that the evolution of this tradition was directly influenced by the harsh conditions – that the hostile environment in which they lived actually provided means for community members to define a collective identity and foster self-esteem.”

Since strict Muslim practice prohibits music, the Persian Jews filled the vacuum by making instruments and playing them in public occasions. One platform displays an array of traditional musical instruments. Some are easily recognizable, such as a flute and a hammered dulcimer, but others seem exotic. One of the latter is the kamancheh (also called the “spiked fiddle), a bowed lute, this one with a painted body and elaborate end piece that looks like a finial from a piece of furniture.  

In the 20th century the Jewish population enjoyed some reprieve from restrictions when Reza Shah Pahlavi took over in 1925, followed by his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Ironically, while the second shah has been criticized for a dictatorial regime, he supported modernization, freedom of religion and votes for women. During his reign Jews were allowed to practice their religion openly and to enjoy legal and civil rights as citizens. When the shah was deposed in 1979, a fundamentalist Muslim regime took over and declared the country a religious state. It is estimated that 85,000-100,000 Jews lived in Iran at the time; most left within a couple of years. Many went to the United States, mostly settling in the Los Angeles area, giving Los Angeles yet another culture to add to its diversity. (Significant numbers also went to New York and to Israel.) 

This modern history is told in a second group of exhibitions, arranged in the Goldenberg Galleria, a hallway around the Fowler’s courtyard. There are photographs by Hasan Sarbakhshian, featuring Jews remaining in Iran today, which numbers about 20,000. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 200,000 people of Iranian descent living in Southern California today, about a quarter of them Jewish.

There is a selection of large black-and-white photographs by Shelley Gazin, who has been documenting the social life of Persian Jews in Southern California for the last eight years. Around the corner there’s a video by Jessica Shokrian, which intercuts and overlays 1960s footage from Iran and recent footage from Los Angeles, including documentation of a wedding then (of the artist’s parents) and a wedding recently (her cousin’s wedding). It’s been a long, long journey in between.