Jewish Journal

The Legacy of ‘Esther’s Children’

A chronicle of Iran's Jews from the Megillah to the 20th century tells a story that few people know.

by Gina Nahai

Posted on Jun. 6, 2002 at 8:00 pm

"Village Jewish Girl." Photo by Antoin Sevruguin, 1875. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Insitution, Myron Bement Smith Collection.

"Village Jewish Girl." Photo by Antoin Sevruguin, 1875. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Insitution, Myron Bement Smith Collection.

In his introduction to Esther's Children," (Jewish Publication Society, $110) editor Houman Sarshar speaks of a time when, at 6 years old and about to start elementary school, he discovered his legacy as an Iranian Jew. Over breakfast in their apartment in Tehran, Houman's father, a top planning commissioner in the Shah's Iran, notices the Star of David pendant -- a recent gift from a grandmother -- hanging from his son's neck. He reaches over and slips the necklace under Houman's shirt.

"If anyone in school asks about your religion," he instructs his son, "lie. Tell them you're Muslim."

Houman's mother, a successful and highly regarded writer, journalist and television personality, flies into a rage at her husband's urgings. Surely, she asserts, no one in the Shah's modern, westernized Iran cares about a child's religion. Surely, the Muslim hatred for Jews, the years of discrimination against "impure infidels," the pogroms and forced conversions that had, for centuries, been the lot of her and her husband's people had died when Iran became Americanized.

"Jewish, Muslim -- what does it matter nowadays?" she asserts in her typically confident tone.

But it's her next sentence -- what she doesn't urge her son to reveal as much as what she wants him to claim -- that leaves the deeper impression on Houman. "Just tell them you're Iranian," she says, omitting any mention of his Jewishness. "Iranian like them."

"Iranian like them" is not a notion that the Jews of Iran have often felt at ease with. The oldest community in Diaspora, Jews have lived in Iran longer than there was an Iran, or a Persia. Their history dates back to 597 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia conquered Jerusalem and carried 10,000 Jews as captives from Jerusalem and Judea. Some 58 years later, the children of those captives would rise against their Babylonian masters and help the armies of Cyrus the Great into victory -- thus ushering in the Persian Empire.

Having lived in freedom in Zoroastrian Persia, the Jews found themselves under attack when Islam arrived in 637. Their persecution began with a list of obligations, Shorut, written by Umar II, that denied social and political equality to believers whose book was not the Koran. Friendship between a Muslim and Jew, under this law, was considered a mortal sin. Jews were declared impure and untouchable -- a belief that was strengthened further by Shiite clergy some 700 years later -- and as such barred from any physical interaction with believers. For the next 1,300 years, Jews were forced to live in specific neighborhoods, and to identify themselves by wearing special patches on their clothes, or, for women, thicker veils on their faces.

Declared "not Iranian," and therefore barred from holding military or government posts, they were forbidden to leave their ghettos on rainy days (for fear that the rain might wash the impurity off their bodies and onto Muslim soil), to touch any food or item that may be consumed by a Muslim, or to study any language except Hebrew. The entire Jewish community of a vast and varied nation was held responsible for the infractions -- real or imagined -- of every individual, and yet, a Jew had no right to defend himself in a court of law. The life of a Jew was, by edict from the clergy, worth the equivalent of the market value of a cow.

While the laws of impurity extended to nonbelievers of every faith in Muslim Persia, they targeted and victimized the Jews more than others.

The book notes that European anti-Semitism, specifically, the movement under the name of "Purity of Blood" (Limpieza de Sangre) that had grown in Spain concerning newly converted Jews to Christianity, had reached Iran and influenced the mullahs. Muslim clergy, especially Shiite mullahs, have always been a political bunch who claim a holy mandate to rule. Against the traditional, more secular monarchies in Persia and later, Iran, they needed an army of zealots -- the believers -- to make a show of force. The quickest and most certain way to rally the troops, the clergy learned, was to designate a clear enemy -- the Jew -- and to declare jihad.

The history of Iranian Jews under Islam is therefore replete with tales of pogroms and forced conversions. Their lot improved markedly in the mid-20th century, when, under American influence, Reza Shah Pahlavi curbed the power of the mullahs and created an army that, for a while at least, kept the "believers" in check. Until then, whether suspected of drinking the blood of Muslim children, accused of plotting to destroy Islam or convicted of insulting the prophet (famously when a group of Jewish children walked, in the early 20th century, ahead of a mule that had belonged to a servant who had worked for a mullah), the Jews remained under constant pressure, always on the brink of annihilation. If they survived long enough to see the Shah's reign, it was by preserving their unique identity without ever challenging the treatment they were subjected to. They learned to be vigilant, invisible and silent.

Perhaps the most devastating consequence of this -- the Jews' inability or unwillingness to challenge their lot -- was a decision not to record their history for fear of "offending" the mullahs. (The fatwa against Salman Rushdie, while certainly the most well-known in the West, was by no means the first or only one of its kind.) And so, a people who had existed on a land for 3,000 years, who had produced poets and philosophers, scholars and scientists and physicians, failed, ironically, to document their own existence.

The only exception to this was Dr. Habib Levy's "History of the Jews in Iran," written in Farsi and out of print until an abridged version was translated into English and released in the United States. Levy wrote his book in the Shah's Iran, at a time when the Jews were protected and had flourished. That was the Iran that Sarshar grew up in, the Iran his parents had worked and thrived in. It was a schizophrenic nation, divided between its desire to return to a pre-Islamic, tolerant, progressive past, and its deep and visceral ties with Islam. In that country, some Jews found the means to emigrate to Israel and the West. Others lived a middle-class existence and feared a time when the Shah would be overpowered by the clergy. Still others, Houman's parents among them, thrived not so much by denying their Jewishness perhaps, as by hoping it would go unnoticed: "Iranian like them."

It was his parents' past, the awareness that while in Iran they had kept their identity half-veiled, that first set Sarshar on the quest to create "Esther's Children."

The Islamic Revolution wreaked unimaginable havoc upon the lives of Iranians everywhere, it is true, but it also forced many into exile into lands where, away from the reach of the mullahs, they discovered strengths they had forgotten they had. So it was for the two-thirds majority of Iranian Jews who left the country in the '80s and '90s. While their brothers continued to live by the old rules in Iran, a group of scholars in Los Angeles set about gathering oral history evidence of their own past. The result is an impressive archive collected under the aegis of the Iranian Jewish Oral History Project, three volumes of "The History of Iranian Jews," and, most comprehensively, "Esther's Children."

A collection of 25 articles written by distinguished historians and scholars living in the West, it is exquisite in presentation and meticulous in research. It manages a fine balance between the aesthetic and the academic, between preserving the Iranian while presenting the Jew in every facet of life. It is not angry or pretentious, nor is it hesitant or apologetic. It is simply a voice that stands confident and utters, without fear or compromise, the simple truth of a people's existence.

It brings to life, in 480 oversized pages and 500 photographs from personal and public archives, the run-down, overcrowded neighborhoods where the Jews lived and died in poverty and disease; the synagogues, some of which have sat empty since the mass emigration of Jews from Iran after the Islamic Revolution; the schools, established in Iran by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, when the Jews were at last allowed to learn to read and write.

It presents a young girl dressed in a traditional gown for her wedding; a group of Polish soldiers who, having escaped Hitler's armies into Iran, were given safe haven in Jewish homes. It depicts the tomb of Queen Esther, wife of Ahasuerus, who married the king by hiding from him her Jewishness and later saved the Jews of Iran from Haman's pogrom -- instituting the holiday of Purim.

In the end, "Esther's Children" transcends ethnic and regional significance, and stands as testimony to the most urgent question facing the West today: what happens to a people who choose not to fight or bear witness to evil; who do not, or cannot, fight the armies of God; who blink in the face of fundamentalism?

Unmoved by his wife's assertions of her children's rightful legacy as Iranians, Houman's father turns to his son that fateful morning in Tehran, and teaches him a lesson he believes will serve him well: "If anybody asks you your religion," he says, "you're allowed to lie."

The more things change for Jews all over the world, the more, it seems, they stay the same. Yet for the Jews of Iran -- at least under the protection of the United States Constitution, in exile and away from the mullahs -- it is at last possible not to lie.

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