From Ahasuerus to Ahmadinejad

Both uplifting and saddening, a lavish new exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot called ‘Lights and Shadows’ chronicles 2,700 years of Jewish life in Iran.

Mordecai Tomb Hamadan 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mordecai Tomb Hamadan 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away unto Assyria, and placed them in Halah, and in Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes – II Kings 17:5-6.

Now in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem. And he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king's house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, even every great man’s house, burnt he with fire. And all the army of the Chaldeans, that were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls of Jerusalem round about.

And the remnant of the people that were left in the city, and those that fell away, that fell to the king of Babylon, and the remnant of the multitude, did Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carry away captive – II Kings 25:8-11.
For virtually all of world Jewry, these terse passages from the Bible recount two of the most tragic events in our people’s all-too-tragic history, the invasion of the Kingdom of Israel and the exile of its population by Assyrian king Shalmaneser in 721 BCE; and the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity of its inhabitants by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.
For the Jews of Iran, however, these passages not only mark the end of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but chronicle the origins of their community.
Not long after Babylon conquered Judah, Babylon was itself conquered in 539 BCE by King Cyrus of Persia, who annexed it to his burgeoning empire and quickly issued a proclamation freeing all of Babylon’s captive peoples and allowing them to return to their native countries.
As we know from the Bible, some Jews chose to return to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel and rebuild the ruined Temple and city. But many others chose to stay, with some migrating eastward and deeper into Persia – to Isfahan, Shiraz, Hamadan and other cities of the Achaemenid empire.
According to Dr. Houman Sarshar, scholar of Iranian Jewry, “This event represents the largest migration of Jews into Iran, and it is from that point forward where the ancestors of Ezra and Mordecai, and all of the other Jews who came to settle in Iran, came there and started what became the largest community of Jews anywhere in the Middle East consistently throughout the last 2,700 years until today.”
The story of those 2,700 years is documented in a lavish and at times breathtaking exhibit at the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. Called “Lights and Shadows: The Story of Iran and the Jews,” the exhibition reflects an almost 3,000-year history of great cultural achievements and outstanding creative and intellectual contributions in an environment often blighted by horrendous persecution, crippling legal prohibitions and even forced conversion to Islam. The show details periods of productive integration followed by bleak periods of marginalization and exclusion; in short, a story of lights and shadows.
MORE THAN a year and a half in the making, the exhibition was kicked off in grand style at Beit Hatfutsot with a two-day conference on Iranian Jewry covering the long, colorful history of this important community from Assyrians to ayatollahs, under regimes ranging from those of Ahasuerus to the current one of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Among the many speakers discussing the ups and downs of this ancient Diaspora community, Sarshar told a packed conference hall: “During the great times of the Achaemenian period, Jews were active at all levels of society, even at court. Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king, an important position because he tasted the wine before the king did to make certain it wasn’t poisoned.
“The prophet Daniel is also one of the Jews of Iranian origin. He, along with the others already mentioned, show the level of integration of the Jewish community in the government and in every aspect of life, where they lived freely during the Achaemenian period and later on.
“They also lived creatively. For example, the entry door to the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan features a device that is considered to be one of the oldest lock mechanisms known to mankind. And, of course, in the sixth century, the Babylonian Talmud was written.
“I am a lone voice in the attempt to rename the Babylonian Talmud the Persian Talmud, because it was written in Babylonia, under Persian rule. If you think about the level of work and the intensity that went into producing such a document, you realize the ease in which the Jews lived under this government, where they had the leisure to sit around with full stomachs and roofs over their heads, and feel the security they needed to produce what is essentially the second most important document in Judaism.”
So when did things begin going downhill?
Not surprisingly, most historians date the Jews’ reversal of fortune with the arrival of Islam to Iran in 636 CE, when they as well as Zoroastrians and all other non- Muslim minorities were forced to assume second-class citizenship. Yet despite having to pay the jizya, a kind of poll tax in exchange for “protection” by the government, Sarshar says that the Jews still lived in relative freedom with occasional difficulties – in “lights and shadows.” According to Sarshar, it was the coming of a new dynasty in 1501, driven by militant Shi’ite Islam and a dread of “impurity,” that was to plunge the Jewish community into more than four centuries of shadow, with very little light.
“According to this concept, all non-Shi’ites, including Sunni Muslims, were considered to be religiously impure. Even their touch was impure. Although this applied to all non-Shi’ites, in time this idea came to be most intensely associated with the Jews. That’s why on rainy days Jews were not allowed to leave their houses out of fear that the water that would splatter off them might fall on a Shi’ite passerby and make him impure. Or, worse yet, the water falling off them might go into the drinking water the city and pollute the entire drinking water of Shi’ite compatriots.”
OTHER RESTRICTIONS applied, like that against riding white horses and building houses higher than Muslims’.
Says Sarshar, “This was also a period fraught with forced conversions. The worst was the forced mass conversion of the entire Jewish community of Mashhad in 1839. It followed a perceived insult to Islam by a Jewish woman who was told by a doctor to treat her leprosy with dog’s blood. She did this on a Muslim holiday, a Muslim neighbor saw it, and became outraged. He spread the word, and rioting Muslims attacked the Jewish neighborhood, forcing them to convert.”
This was the environment in which the Jews of Iran had to live until well into the 20th century.
Hagai Segev, Bet Hatfutsot’s personable chief curator, found himself both awed and galvanized by the challenge of presenting Iranian Jewry’s 2,700-year saga in a museum exhibition.
“What is special about this show,” he says, “is that we tried to have a combination of archeology, ethnography, history, documentation and contemporary arts, all together.
“As curator, I reckoned that the cultural material and history from all those elements should be brought together. So I tried to give an overall view and create some ‘chapters’ about the main principles that the Iranian Jewish community is based on.
“The first are the roots, the basis of the Jewish cultural identity in Iran. The second chapter is about a culture within a culture, because the Jews lived and worked within the larger non-Jewish environment of Iran – sometimes integrated with it, sometimes secluded from it.
“The third chapter deals with poetry, music and literature, which have been among the most important manifestations of Jewish culture in Iran over the centuries.
“And the last chapter is, of course, about ritual and daily life. So you have the basics, the central elements of the culture.”
These central elements are arrayed across two large gallery halls, one ranging from ancient artifacts to the art and music of the 19th century, the other detailing the dramatic rise and fall of Iran’s Jewish community in the 20th century.
“So, for instance, for ‘roots and identity,’ one of the basic and most important stories of the Jews of Iran is related to Cyrus. We have brought from the British Museum a copy, a replica, of the original Cyrus Cylinder, from the year 538 BCE, containing King Cyrus’s declaration allowing the Jews to return from exile and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. While this declaration does not relate especially to Jews but to all nations under the rule of Cyrus, it is a very important part of Jewish history, especially Iranian Jewish history,” Segev says.
Not far from the Cyrus Cylinder are four tiny clay tablets covered with cuneiform script, part of a collection of 100 similar artifacts discovered recently in Iraq that have come to be known as the A¯l-Yahu¯du tablets.
Written in ancient Akkadian, they enable us to get an inkling of what happened to the Judean exiles upon their arrival in Babylon, during their captivity, and then during the years following their “emancipation” by King Cyrus.
WHILE SOME of the exiles were put into royal service when they were brought to Babylon, most were sent to the countryside to establish new settlements in uninhabited places. One such settlement was A¯l-Yahu¯du, “Village of Judah.”
Spanning a period of roughly 90 years, these settlements reflect the daily life of Judean exiles in Babylonia – land leases, receipts for payments in dates and barley, sales of livestock, house rentals, silver and slavery transactions – beginning soon after their captivity to life under Persian rule.
“This town of Jews in Iran, A¯l-Yahu¯du, has been identified by archeologists as the present-day city of Isfahan, and these four tablets are the most important findings that we have included in the show,” Segev says.
Many of the items on display show the remarkable degree to which the Jews have felt at home in Iran. Says Segev of one such item, “A basic element of the Jewish tradition in Iran is the story of Esther. Here we have a slideshow presentation of an ancient illuminated manuscript – a Persian manuscript, written in Persian, using Hebrew letters – that tells an amazing story: Esther giving birth to Cyrus the Great!
“Of course Cyrus lived long before Esther, but this was a way for the Jews to connect with Iranian history, to create a direct link between Esther and Cyrus, the same way that Christians created the link between Jesus and King David.”
Several beautifully crafted musical instruments and carefully preserved illuminated manuscripts – all written in Persian with Hebrew script – attest to the prominence of Jews in music, poetry and literature.
“The Jews were the forerunners of secular music in Iran. They kept the ancient Persian and Zoroastrian musical traditions alive, because they continued to play this music after it became forbidden to Muslims. Whenever the shahs or kings of Iran wanted someone to play music for them, they hired Jewish musicians,” says Segev.
“And throughout the 13th century, virtually all of the leading poets in Iran were Jews.”
The theme of the Jews’ strong feelings of connectedness to Iran finds perhaps its most fascinating expression in an exquisitely wrought 17th-century brass astrolabe, a medieval precursor of the sextant and distant forerunner of the present day GPS.
Engraved with Hebrew letters, this Persian Jewish astrolabe indicates the four directions, the signs of the Zodiac, and the cities of Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz. Exhibited as the central piece of the show, this one-and-only Hebrew astrolabe also graces the cover of the exhibition catalog.
Sadly, there is ample representation of the “shadow” side of Jewish life as well. The forced conversion in 1839 of the entire Jewish community of Mashhad, for example, inspired the creation of several emotionally compelling artifacts in the exhibition.
Segev explains, “After the forced conversion, the Jews were anusim, Muslim on the outside, Jewish on the inside. For example, on this table we see two ketubot, or marriage contracts, for the same marriage – an official Muslim version in Persian, and another Jewish version, written in Hebrew. The Persian ketuba was something the couple showed to officials; the Hebrew version was something they made and kept for themselves.
“Also, the Jews were now marrying off their children very young, at the age of eight or nine, to prevent their being married to Muslims later on. A Muslim might ask to marry a man’s daughter, but the man could answer that she was already wed. That’s why these outfits for brides are in children’s sizes.”
Other displayed artifacts of the community’s double life as Muslims outside and Jews inside are tiny miniature tefillin. “They used to wear the tefillin under the turban and go to Karbala – even to Mecca – to show that they were ‘good’ Muslims, but at the same time not forgetting that they were Jews,” Segev explains.
A more surprising revelation is the display of several “magical bowls,” used instead of publicly visible mezuzot on the doorpost and set under the first step of the entrance to the house. These bowls had writing in Hebrew against the evil eye, or to bring health or prosperity to the home. Some of them were decorated with angels, stories, and excerpts from the Midrash, all invoked to appeal for protection.
THE PORTION of the exhibition focusing on Jewish life in the 20th century might almost be described as an emotional rollercoaster ride, in which we see the Jews of Iran gain rights, become integrated with modern Iranian society, achieve virtually full social and political equality under the last shah – and then plunge once again into shadow under the present radical Islamic regime.
In the brief span of time represented by photographs of the early 20th century, we see the rapid introduction of Western influences, particularly in dress. Photographs from the first two decades of the century show members of the Jewish community in traditional dress; pictures taken just a few years later show virtually everyone in modern Western garb.
But the photo documentation reveals deeper changes as well.
Says Segev, “We see, from the beginning of the century, how Western influences are introduced into Jewish society in Iran, by the entrance of Jewish schooling, like Alliance. Then we have the declaration in 1906 that makes the Jews fullfledged citizens of Iran. Until that year, Jews were not full citizens. Only in 1906 did the shah grant equal rights to the Jews of Iran. Here we have a photograph of Jews celebrating the second anniversary of that declaration.
“The biggest celebrations were in Teheran. This is a postcard, saying. ‘The Jews of Teheran celebrate the second anniversary of their constitutional revolution.’”
“We also see photographs documenting the warm relations between the State of Israel and the last shah of Iran, under whom the Jews of Iran enjoyed a brief, modern golden age. We see the shah’s wife with Israeli ambassador Meir Ezri, and photos of Moshe Dayan touring Iran. We even see a Persian carpet depicting Theodor Herzl.
“At the end, we have the photographic artifacts of the Islamic revolution, and the dramatic changes for the Jewish community in Iran.”
A particularly poignant photograph shows chief rabbis from Jewish communities throughout Iran demonstrating in Teheran in support of Ayatollah Khomeini. They are carrying a banner that says: “Our bond with the people of Iran cannot be severed.” Close by, we also see a page from the memoirs of one of those chief rabbis, saying, “I could sense that things were about to turn for us.”
“Lights and Shadows: The Story of Iran and the Jews” is showing until April 29 at Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People. Visit for details.