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The culture heroes
Dissimulation and the legacy of Esther's children
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September 16, 2004
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Introduction to Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, by Houman Sarshar.

This magnificent volume brings together for the first time ever a comprehensive representation of the Jews of Iran from their earliest documented settlement in that land in 722 B.C.E. (2 Kings 18:9–19) until the end of the twentieth century.

Eloquently illustrated with more than five hundred photographs collected from international private and public archives, the 468 full-color pages of this unique book comprise twenty-five articles from distinguished authors and scholars in the field of Judeo-Iranian studies.

Sarshar, editor and contributor, has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia University and is the director of publications at The Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History. He is the co-editor of three volumes of The History of Contemporary Iranian Jews. He is also a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City.

Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it. (Esther 2:10)

It was the first day of school. I had just turned six and after what seemed an endless summer, I was finally starting first grade. My family lived in a modest three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a building near Jordan Boulevard in the northern part of Tehran. On that Fall morning of Mehr 1 (September 21) the warm narrow kitchen of my parents' home was filled with excitement.

Sitting at the kitchen table with my father and older brother, I watched my mother smile with pride in her hurried frenzy to send us off to school. “You're a big boy today. It's your first day in school. You're going to learn so much. You'll learn to read, to write. You'll make so many friends.” And so she carried on as she ran back and forth, smiling, laughing, preparing my lunch like I had watched her do for my brother for the last two years.

Dressed in my new school clothes, I was wearing the gold Star of David pendant that my grandmother had brought back for me from Israel earlier that summer. Sitting across from me, calm, somewhat distant, with a sternness that at that particular moment so sharply set him apart from my mother, my father was drinking his morning tea. As my mother went on about my first day in school, my dad leaned over and gently slipped the gold pendant under my shirt collar. “That's not something for everyone to see. And if anyone in school asks you about your religion, lie. Tell them you're Muslim.”

A strange quite filled the kitchen as my nervousness about the day ahead turned into confusion. My father was telling me to lie. “Stop filling the boy's head with nonsense,” my mother protested. “Nobody cares about that sort of stuff anymore. Jewish, Muslim--what does it matter nowadays? We're all Iranian and that's that. That's all that's important. Just tell them you're Iranian--Iranian like them--that's all. Muslim! Stop filling the child's head with nonsense.”

And she carried on packing my lunch. My father turned back toward me and with the same seriousness and calm I would hear in his voice again some five years later the night when he came into my room to tell me that we were leaving for America the next day, he said: “If anybody asks you your religion, you're allowed to lie.”

I was too young that day to understand fully all the implications of what my father was telling me. My world in Iran at that age had been largely a secular one in which my Jewishness had never been a matter of contention. My nanny who had raised both my mother and my brother was Muslim, as were all of our neighbors and virtually every one of my parents' friends and colleagues. Everyone knew we were Jewish and no one had ever made an issue of it. To them, as to us, my family's Jewish heritage was simply a matter of identity and cultural difference--a matter of benign otherness.

In that secular world being Jewish meant to me eating different foods every once in a while, and hearing my father speak to his parents in the Judeo-Persian dialect of Isfahan, a language I understood but could not speak. It meant watching my uncle break a glass before he kissed my aunt the night they got married. It meant that I was not allowed to sit in my grandmother's lap and laugh with her for seven days after they called from Israel to say that her mother had died.

These were the things that made me Jewish, I thought. And none of them seemed anything worth lying about. Nevertheless, later that day when in the schoolyard my pendant slipped out from under my collar and a classmate asked me what it was, I tucked it back under my shirt and lied as my father had said.

It took nearly twenty-seven years and the making of this book for me to understand what had happened that first day of school in my mother's kitchen back in Tehran and to recognize that my father's permission to lie was not a lesson in treachery or deceit but rather a right of passage, an initiation into a twenty-seven-hundred-year-old legacy of what it means to be an Iranian Jew, a legacy as old as the Bible itself, one that started with Esther when her uncle Mordecai told her to keep her Jewish faith a secret from King Ahasuerus in hopes of becoming queen.

Esther lied--a lie that with time would prove vital to the survival of Iranian Jews throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the realm of Ahasuerus. And in that lie, in her dissimulation of her true faith to save her people, Esther provided her children and their children after them with a sanction for religious dissimulation to which they would instinctively revert for centuries to come at times of perceived threat or heightened religious persecution.

On that first day of school my father gave me permission to tell the same lie. And in so doing he was handing down to me what by then was a millennially long tradition of dissimulation in the face of harm or anticipated injury, a tradition of keeping hidden a heritage carried out by our foreparents into diaspora so that I might survive and safeguard this ancient heritage and do my part in passing it on to the next generation of Esther's children.

Esther's dissimulation was not without precedent in the history of Iranian Jews. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the twelfth century, reminds us that when enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, the Jews were compelled to bow to idols under threat of persecution. It was not until they were liberated by Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C.E. that they were finally allowed to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and freely worship the Lord, God of Heaven.

While some did in fact return to Jerusalem, others--among them the ancestors of Esther and Mordecai--migrated eastward and eventually settled in various provinces of ancient Iran. Over the course of the next twenty-five hundred years descendents of these freed slaves grew stronger and deeper roots in the land of Iran, at times enjoying the favor of rulers while at others living out the darker side of Esther's legacy and reverting to dissimulation and requisite duplicity to escape persecution or even death.

From what we know of Judeo-Persian history, after their settlement on the Iranian plateau the Jews faired no differently than other religious minorities up until the end of the fifteenth century C.E. Under Achæmenid rule, some like Esther and Nehemiah, cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes, enjoyed places of privilege in the courts of kings, while others rose to important positions in government, law, and the military.

Historians tell us that Jews enjoyed a favorable status during the Parthian Empire. The Sasanian Empire, a period in which Jews are reported to have achieved some of the higher-ranking positions in Iranian society and government, saw what is perhaps the largest Jewish population in Iran's history. It was in this same period that the Jews of Iran wrote the Babylonian Talmud, a text often regarded as the most important document of Jewish theology, law, and thought from the time of its inception until now.

Even after the arrival of Islam in the middle of the seventh century the status of Jews did not change much, as they continued to be treated like other religious minorities and were free to attain important positions in government and finance.

In 1501 Shah Esmail (r. 1501-1524) founded the Safavid Dynasty and declared the Shiite creed as the dominant form of Islam in Iran. Pursuant to the political, social, and religious modifications that took effect, the status of all religious minorities--especially Jews--changed for the worst. This transition marks the beginning of a nearly four hundred and fifty year period of marginalization, hardship, and alienation for the Jews of Iran.

With very few--if any--social privileges and virtually no legal protection from the ever-looming menace of extremist Shiite clergymen and compatriots, the history of Iranian Jews during these dark years is a long litany of pogroms and countless episodes of forced conversions, all of which stand as an ominous reminder of the lot cast for them by Haman in the Book of Esther--a reminder of what could have been had Esther not lied and Haman gotten his way.

It is at the beginning of this period that the concept of nejasat (religious impurity) was introduced in Iran. Though in essence aimed at all non-Shiites, for reasons still debated the notion of nejasat was most vehemently associated with Jews. Perpetuating this discriminatory practice, religious authorities issued random decrees prohibiting Jews especially from coming into contact with Muslims, touching foods in Muslim shops, or selling edibles to Muslims. These decrees further prohibited Jews from using Muslim public baths, drinking from public wells, or walking in the streets on rainy days lest they transmit their alleged nejasat to Shiite citizens through water.

With the arrival of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1897 and the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, the tide gradually started to turn for the better. On a social level, the Jews' Western education started to influence their status in society among the Muslim majority, consequently allowing them to begin a gradual process of reintegration into the community at large.

With respect to the law, the Constitution officially changed the status of Jews as second class citizens and abolished the jezieh, the obligatory poll tax imposed on all non-Muslims. In spite of these significant changes, however, it would take nearly another four decades for Jews once again to be able to live as fully integrated members of society and rise to important positions in government, commerce, finance, education, and the arts.

In 1941 the Allied armies occupied Iran, dethroned Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought his son Mohammad Reza to power. Western-educated by the Alliance schools and no longer restrained by a lack of civil liberties and overt anti-Semitism , the Jewish community was now finally able to flourish. (Under the influence of Reza Shah and in part due to his Nazi sympathies, anti-Semitism had reached new heights in Iran in the 1930s.)

During the thirty-eight years of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's rule (1941-1979)--a period the historian Habib Levy has referred to as the golden age of Iranian Jewry--Jews became some of the leading contributors to the country's full-blown industrialization and Westernization campaign. Banking, insurance, textiles, plastics, paper, pharmaceuticals, aluminum production, liquor distillery and distribution, shipping, imports, industrial machinery, and tile manufacturing were all segments of Iran's then new and booming national industry that were either established by Jews or financed and directed under their leadership.

This was the Iran into which I had been born a world where the issue of nejasat and overt discrimination and marginalization were no longer prominent features of Jewish life. By this point, Jews had in effect been integrated into almost every segment of society, from the media and popular culture to university professorships and high-ranking government positions. Yet, as my father's reaction on my first day of school had shown, the practice of dissimulation and the looming fear of persecution had become too integral a part of the Judeo-Persian psyche to be erased from the collective instinct by less than four decades of enfranchisement.

This was all the more the case as the tradition of dissimulation, equivocation, and false conformity had infiltrated virtually every aspect of Jewish Iranian life over the years. Of all the religious minorities in Iran, for instance, Jews were the ones whose outward appearance and clothing conformed the most to that of the Muslim majority. In fact, this conformity was to such an extent that at various times since the arrival of Islam, Jews were forced by decree to sew patches (yahudaneh/yahudianeh) on their clothes or to dress overtly against the norm so as to be clearly distinguishable from their Muslim compatriots.

Nevertheless, Jews consistently continued to conform to dominant dress codes over the years. The doctrine of dissimulation had infiltrated aspects of religious ritual as well. One of the most revealing examples of this can be seen in the Jewish Iranian practice of hanging the mezuzah on the inside frame of the home's front door, rather than the outside frame where it traditionally belongs, thus insuring that passers-by not be able to distinguish a Jewish home from a Gentile one.

The practice of equivocation by these two means of maintaining an outward appearance of conformity were not the only devices of dissimulation among the Jews of Iran, however. Giving children Islamic names (Nejatollah [savior from Allah]), Arabic names (Mansur [sovereign]), or neutral Persian ones (Parvaneh [butterfly]) was an equally characteristic practice. Hiding a child's Jewish identity in this manner as a preemptive measure against prejudice, injury, or persecution had additional economic motivations in the case of male children especially, given that the child's Jewish identity could prove a disadvantage or even a hindrence with respect to finding employment or starting any kind of trade later on in life.

The practice of giving children non-Jewish names was not only licit, but in the case of Muslim names in particular it had even taken on superstitious value with respect to matters of childbirth and infant mortality. Given that the role of women was so closely tied to motherhood in traditional Iranian society, not having a child had a potentially drastic impact on women, both emotionally and socially in terms of their position in the family structure. Under such pressure, up until the early part of the twentieth century many young women who were having difficulty conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to term--or those who had lost newborns to disease--would convince themselves that they were being persecuted by God as Jews and that they were not able to have a baby because God did not want another Jewish child brought into the world. As a result, some women would vow to give their child to Allah and upon birth give the child a Muslim name in hopes that, thus disavowed and dissassociate from the people of Israel, the unborn soul or newborn baby would be spared from his or her otherwise fated death as a Jew.

Recent scholarship on Iran's cultural history is gradually revealing, however, that the legacy of Esther's children is not limited to dissimulation and the various doctrines that furnished this ancient community with a rationale and justification for conformity, duplicity, and equivocation at times of persecution or anticipated threat. It is now becoming increasingly apparent that many of the same circumstances that compelled Iranian Jews to dissimulate in order to safeguard their cultural heritage from the assault of religious enemies has inadvertently played a central part in further making them the safe-keepers of some of the important elements of Iranian culture in general, particularly with respect to its music and its centuries-old tradition of wine-making.

As previously mentioned, the increasing dominance of Shiism under Safavid rule instigated many political, social, and legal changes that impacted virtually every aspect of day-to-day life. The state of music was one of the areas most effected by these changes. While Islam generally discouraged music-making by Muslims because it was often accompanied by wine drinking and moral laxities, under the influence of Shiite clergymen all non-liturgical music came to be deemed haram (religiously prohibited) and was thus strictly forbidden.

Under these conditions, the only music tolerated was the music approved by the clergy and intended for religious events alone. This religious prohibition and moral condemnation of recreational music had potentially far reaching effects on the heritage of Persian music, the development and very survival of which was now under threat. Yet traditional, recreational, and folk music neither died nor ceased to develop, as non-Muslims were not bound by Shiite prohibitions. For the next three to four centuries, therefore, much of the music in Iran was performed, preserved, and developed by dhimmis--Armenians, Zoroastrians and, most of all, Jews.

The predominance of Jews in music-making can in part be explained by the fact that they were one of the largest and most widely dispersed minority populations in Iran. Moreover, the issue of nejasat and existing restrictions on contact between Jews and Muslims invariably imposed many debilitating limitations on the Jewish population with respect to employment and income-making opportunities. Music-making in particular--and professional entertainment in general--thus provided an advantageous and potentially lucrative means of income, as neither involved direct contact or the trade of eatable goods. As a result of their marginalization from Muslim society and the multitude of oppressive restrictions that were imposed upon them, many Jews thus became professional musicians and inadvertently emerged as the guardians of traditional Persian music.

The artistic achievements of Morteza Khan Neydavud in the course of the twentieth century stand as the most telling testimony in recent history to the crucial role of Iranian Jews in the preservation and development of traditional Persian music. In addition to his various contributions to classical Persian music as a master tar player, Morteza Khan, son of Bala Khan (himself a master zarb player in the court of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar), is credited with discovering and schooling two of twentieth-century Iran's greatest vocalists.

The first, Gholamhoseyn Banan, became one of the most renowned master vocalists of his time. The second, Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri, was the first female vocalist in Iran's recorded history to perform unveiled on stage for a public audience at a concert organized by Morteza Khan himself. More importantly still, in the early 1970s Morteza Khan recorded the first and only existing complete repertoire of classical Persian music's extensive radif (order, chain) system. This monumental and unprecedented undertaking yielded nearly three hundred hours of recorded music, one full copy of which is stored at the Ministry of Education in Teheran and another in Jerusalem University's music library.

The involvement of Jews in safeguarding the ancient tradition of wine-making follows a similar paradigm. Starting with the Safavid Dynasty, strict enforcement of Shiite laws made the consumption and production of wine or any other alcoholic beverage unconditionally prohibited to all Muslim citizens. But once again, Jews and other religious minorities were exempt from this prohibition and were thus free to produce and consume wine in the privacy of their home. More importantly, wine-making--like all other professions and trades at the time--was subject to its own particular tax. Since the ban on wine production thus had tangible fiscal ramifications for the court, allowing religious minorities to take over the industry secured a sizable portion of that tax for the state.

It should be added that the ritual function of wine in religious ceremonies for Jews, Christians, and Armenians was an additional factor in their official exemption from the ban on wine production and consumption. Jews and other marginalized religious minorities were thus able to keep alive the centuries old tradition of wine-making in Iran throughout the ebbs and flows of orthodox Shiism over the course of the past five centuries. Today, the impact of this effect can be felt in the international wine industry as a whole. The famous Shiraz wine produced in Australia is made from the grapes of vines transplanted to Australian vineyards from Shiraz. It is reasonable to expect that a notable portion of those transplanted vines were taken from vineyards cared for over the centuries by Jewish Iranian wine makers.

Though far from comprehensive, this introductory examination of dissimulation with respect to the legacy of Esther's children provides a valuable window from which to continue contemporary scholarship's still nascent demystification of the place of Jews in Iranian history and culture. It would seem from what we have seen thus far, that the doctrine of dissimulation, the very practice of keeping hidden an ancestral heritage in order to live and ultimately to pass the inherited tradition on to following generations engendered in the Judeo-Persian psyche a basic binary principle of survival and guardianship. The fact that this ancient Jewish community today still remains by far the largest and one of the only Jewish communities in the Middle East reveals much about the shear efficacy and power of this principle.

The crucial role of Jews in the safeguarding of wine-making and traditional Persian music in Iran further demonstrates that the said binary principle was ultimately applied not only to the ancient heritage of Iranian Jewry itself but also to the valued traditions of the land of their liberator Cyrus the Great. It is thus no less than a testimony to the inseverable bond between this ancient community and the land of Cyrus that, in the face of increasing persecution by orthodox Shiite clergymen under Safavid rule, the Jews became the guardians of the two most threatened elements of ancient Persian culture ultimately to emerge today as one of the heilbringers, one of the culture heroes of Iran.

What follows is the story of these culture heroes whose legacy goes back almost twenty-six hundred years to that day “in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of [Ahasuerus's] reign” (Esther 2:16) to become queen. I told the same lie on the first day of school back in Tehran.

Yet in retrospect it seems that the lie I told served not so much as a preemptive measure against rejection or even a protective device against harm, but rather as an emblem of my partaking in the ancient legacy of the Jews of Iran. Telling it was tantemount to breaking a glass under the huppah. It was an act of remembrance, a reminder of what had happened, of whence I came, and of what it means to be an Iranian Jew, a descendent of Esther's children.

Purchase Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews from amazon.com. Also see images from the book. More images here.

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