The double lives of Mashhadi Jews

For centuries, Jewish-Iranians pretended to be Muslims in order to survive.

Rachel Betsalely 88 224 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Rachel Betsalely 88 224
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Today, most people are familiar with the "hidden Jews" of Spain and Portugal, the anusim who were forced to covert to Christianity, but who, in secret, continued to practice Judaism. Less is commonly known about the "Mashhadi," the Jews of Mashhad, Iran, who from the 1830s were forced to convert to Islam. One of Israel's Mashhadi Jews, Rachel Betsalely, 67, who last year retired after 35 years as a librarian at Bar Ilan University, recalls the complicated maneuvers carried out by her grandparents and parents, as outwardly they lived as Muslims, but at home were observant Jews. Jewish life in Iran can be traced back to the deportation of the Israelites in 724 BCE from Samaria to the cities of Medea and Persia - known as "Iran" since 1935; but in modern times, the history of the Jews of Mashhad, a province of Khorasan, began in 1735 when a new ruler, Nader Shah, had a revolutionary idea: Instead of persecuting the Jews, he invited some 40 Jewish merchant families to come to live in Mashhad. Reasoning that their business acumen and international connections would spark economic prosperity for the whole region, he permitted Jews to flock to Mashhad, a holy Muslim city where previously Jews had been forbidden entry. Nader Shah's gamble paid off. Jewish merchants and traders came, and prosperity followed for both Muslims and Jews. Local Muslims were less than enthusiastic, however, and continued to regard the Jews as unclean, refusing to accept them socially. Nonetheless, within a short time both Jews and Muslims in Mashhad began living lives of wealth and privilege. The honeymoon lasted only a dozen years. In 1747, Nadar Shah was assassinated and the citizenry seized the opportunity to wreak their vengeance on the Jews. Once again the Jews became outcasts, were refused entry to parts of the city and forced to wear identifying marks on their clothing. The simmering hatred finally boiled over on the day before Pessah in 1839, when a wild mob attacked the Jewish community, burned their synagogues, destroyed Torah scrolls and wounded hundreds in the process. Thirty-six Jews were killed, but the final humiliation came at the end of the day when 400 leading Jews were forced to take Muslim names and convert to Islam. The Mashhadis called the day Allahdad, "God's Justice," seeing the destruction as God's punishment for their sins. From all appearances, the Jews of Mashhad truly converted. After 30 days of mourning, they began attending services at the mosque. They appeared to fast during Ramadan, wore Muslim garb, and bought halal meat and Muslim-made bread. But at home, in basements, behind closed doors and shuttered windows, they secretly continued to observe Jewish law. "They were very clever," says Betsalely, who was born in Mashhad. "Outside the home, they were Muslims. They shopped in Muslim stores and observed Muslim holidays. But at home, they were Jews. They had many little ways of maintaining their Jewishness - Shabbat candles were always lit under cover, so they couldn't be seen from the windows. Families kept dogs and cats, so they could feed them the Muslim meat they bought while they themselves ate kosher meat, shechted [ritually slaughtered] in secret and smuggled home under the women's chadors, or long cloaks. In the market, the Mashhadi purchased Muslim bread like everyone else, but as they walked home, they gave the bread to the Muslim poor. In their basements they ground their own wheat and baked their own bread." Betsalely recalls Shabbat preparations. "I was eight-years-old before we left Mashhad and moved to Teheran," she recalls. "I remember my mother sitting in our home, rolling wicks for the candles, which had to be kosher. She made wine in the basement, all we'd need, plus matzah for Pessah. She learned how from her mother, who learned from her mother. They'd give all the maids the day off, and then they'd cook and bake. On Shabbat, to avoid working, the parents would send the children to mind the shops. If someone came in, they'd just say, 'My father is not here. Could you please come back?' I'm proud of how my grandparents and parents managed. It couldn't have been easy." Muslim customs were kept, too. "My father attended mosque. On Muslim days of mourning, the men would cry and slap themselves, and so did my father. The Jewish men would attend mosque, then gather together afterward in secret for the Jewish service. On Ramadan, they'd pretend not to eat, and at night, just like other Muslims, they'd set a lavish table, welcoming all Muslims to come and eat." Marrying very young was another way of maintaining the Jewish line. "My grandmother was married when she was nine-years-old," Betsalely says. "Her aunt married at six. That way, if a Muslim asked to marry them, they were already committed." Betsalely came from a family of five sisters and three brothers. "My mother was 16 when she married, but didn't have babies until she was 19 - she actually had 13 children, including a set of twins, but many did not survive. Life was difficult - my grandmother had 21 children, but only five survived. Life was never boring - at one point, my mother, her mother, her sister and her grandmother were all pregnant at the same time. We were very close brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, and played together all the time." The Jews of Mashhad, once they converted, did not suffer the same persecution as did the "new Christians" of the Inquisition. "As far as the Muslims were concerned, we had converted so we were treated like other Muslims. We had considerable freedom to travel and engage in commerce," Betsalely says. "The Muslims may have forgotten who we were, but we never did. My mother was very strict with us. I wasn't even allowed to go to my best friend's home alone - my friend was Persian, and that was okay, but I couldn't go to her home unless one of our maids came with me. That upset me sometimes, because I wanted to be able to do the same things my friends did." Betsalely believes her Persian friend understood the situation. "She knew, but she understood why, too. She'd say, 'I'd like you to come to us, and it's fine if you bring your maid.' Now I understand why my mother was so cautious. She had the responsibility of raising eight children in a very dangerous country. She had to be very careful about what she allowed us to do." Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Mashhadis is how they retained their unique culture through the centuries. Although they were forced to flee over and over again, each time they resettled in neighborhoods with other Mashhadis. "My grandparents' generation left Mashhad for Russia, where economic conditions were a little better. My parents worked in trade like most of the Mashhadis, buying and selling carpets, diamonds, anything that could be imported or exported. But after the Russian Revolution in 1918, life in Russia became very dangerous so they fled on horses and donkeys back to Mashhad. My father was very young then, just 18 years old, but he took responsibility for everyone - aunts, uncles, young and old. My mother was 15 years old at the time. She was first married to my father's brother, but when the brother was killed my father married his brother's widow, according to Jewish tradition." "Each time they fled, they had to abandon everything they owned. After World War II, life in Mashhad again became dangerously anti-Semitic, so this time we moved to Teheran. Things were better in Teheran. I was the last of my family to leave - everyone else had left for Israel, the UK and US, but I stayed through the first year of university. When I made aliya in 1951, I still had my Persian name - my Muslim name - on my passport. But that was confusing so I took the name 'Rachel,' which was my grandmother's name." After WWII all the Mashhadi Jews had left Iran, spreading out all over the world, with larger communities congregating in London, Milan, New York and Jerusalem. "Every place they lived, they'd build a Beit Knesset [synagogue]," Betsalely says. "They'd live close to each other, and intermarry. Even if there were just two or three families, they'd build a Beit Knesset. Our customs are unique, and for the most part, have been retained. It's still seen as desirable that a Mashhadi will marry a Mashhadi - it's just easier. Everyone knows the families, knows the traditions, knows what's expected." There are still about 15,000 Mashhadi Jews, with the majority living in New York and Israel. In Israel, life as a Mashhadi has become difficult for a different reason. "Here, life is very open. The ties have loosened," Betsalely says. "Before, the families were together, they did business together. But here, with the freedom, it's not necessary to do that anymore. Children don't listen to their parents and grandparents as much, and it's much more acceptable for people to blend and mix. The mentality is different, the culture is more open. There's no outside pressure to keep us together." Today, Betsalely - who married but had no children - lives in a stately Mashhadi retirement home located on a lovely tree-lined street in Herzliya. "The home was built for the Mashhadis," she says, "but the number of Mashhadis who wanted to live here dwindled, so now it's open to anyone. Of perhaps 200 residents, only a handful are Mashhadis. Still, it appealed to me when I was looking for a safe place to live. I knew a few people here, and there was some sense of family. We Mashhadi are a little different - I don't speak any Yiddish. My first language is Persian, which was my mother's language, although here I speak only Hebrew. It's nice to be with a few other Mashhadis, even though I was more cosmopolitan than most. I've traveled everywhere, and worked all my life. But it's nice to be with people who are family, especially for holidays." Still, she says, for elderly Mashhadis - as for many of Israel's senior citizens - the situation is less than ideal. "In old Mashhadi communities, the older generation was kept at home - or children were taken in, if that was an issue. My grandmother lived with us, and every few months she'd go to someone else. She lived to be over 90, and was busy at something up to the day she died. Here, now, even in this home, old people live within four walls. No one visits them.They just wait to die. It's very sad." With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatening to destroy Israel, what does Betsalely feel? "I'm sorry about what that lovely country is doing, but I am a Jew." "It's very different for the Mashhadis than it is for you who came from America, England or other free countries. You lived in a place that was very open. You were a part of that country - it was yours. But for us in Iran, it wasn't our country. We weren't allowed to be part of it. We had to live two lives to survive. So I don't feel the same sense of attachment to Iran as others from more open countries might. For me, Israel is my only home."