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Jewish Journal

The splendor and distinction of Iranian-Jewish art

by Jonathan Kirsch

March 15, 2013 | 8:11 am

Leora and David Nissan in Purim costumes, Tehran, Iran; 1964. Courtesy of David Nissan, from the exhibition “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews”

Leora and David Nissan in Purim costumes, Tehran, Iran; 1964. Courtesy of David Nissan, from the exhibition “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews”

For visitors to the Fowler Museum’s recent exhibition, the show’s catalog, “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” edited by David Yeroushalmi (Beit Hatfutsot/Fowler Museum: $30) will be a keepsake. For those who missed the exhibition, the book captures the sumptuous images and the resonant historical narrative that were on display at the Fowler. Either way, the book is a sumptuous and illuminating work of history.

The book grapples with a paradox that is echoed in the title.  “Jewish existence in Iran was especially characterized by deprivation, persecution and subjection to arbitrary decrees,” explain Orit Engelberg-Baram and Hagai Segev, two of the scholars who have contributed essays to the book, “but during the same period, it was also remarkable for its incredibly rich cultural life and achievements.”

Iranian Jewry represents one of the most ancient communities of the Diaspora.  “The Jewish sources, chief among them the books of the Bible…, reveal a direct connection…between Iran and the Jewish people,” writes editor David Yeroushalmi, who reminds us that the defeat of Babylonia by the Persian emperor Cyrus resulted in the end of the Babylonian Exile and the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The coming of Islam, and the dominance of the Shiites in Iran, led to “the growing isolation of Iran’s Jewish communities and to their detachment from the important Jewish centers and communities in other Muslim countries and throughout Europe.”

The peculiar style of Iranian persecution is illustrated, for example, in an illustration that shows how Jews were legally forbidden to wear matching shoes — an especially humiliating way of setting them apart from the rest of the population and the functional equivalent of the “Jew badge” that was used for the same purpose elsewhere in the world.  As late as 1874, the chief rabbi of Tehran issued a formal report to the French ambassador on the plight of the Jewish community : “[E]very Jew leaving his house to go to market and provide provisions for his family is beaten,” the rabbi reported, “and they consider this to be a religious commandment.”

Yet, as in so many other places, the Jews in Iran also managed to create works of art and literature that embody qualities of refinement and splendor. One example is a pair of wooden doors that have been embellished with the words of a poem in the Judeo-Persian language: “I will take a paintbrush and pen” declares a king who has been inspired by the beautiful women he has seen in a vision of Paradise, “and paint fetching forms, forms that will speak.” And, along with these words, we see the image of a pair of lovers, heads inclined toward one another as the man plays a sitar.  Here, and elsewhere in “Light and Shadow,” we glimpse the glories of a Jewish culture that thrived in the otherwise hateful environment in which these Jews were forced to live.

“Their rich cultural and mystical traditions include the creation of epic poetry, illuminated manuscripts, synagogue art, ritual and secular objects made of silver, copper, and wood, textiles, and musical compositions,” writes Ariella Amar. “t 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.”

The fusion of Jewish and Persian themes resulted in some odd creations.  A poem dating back to 1333, for example, imagines that Cyrus, the great Persian hero of the Hebrew Bible, as the offspring of none other than Queen Esther; significantly, a site in Hamadan is still revered as the site of the tomb of Esther and Mordecai.  And Jewish artists in Iran, unlike other Muslim countries, felt at liberty to adopt the traditions of Persian miniature paintings in which the human figure was freely and beguilingly depicted. 

The rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early 20th century led to a marked improvement in security and opportunity for Jews in Iran, but — as we know all too well — it was short-lived.  “The history of Iranian Jewry is interwoven with recurrent instances of persecution and oppression alongside periods of relative calm and freedom,” observes David Menashri. Curiously, the Shah’s benevolence toward the Jewish population of Iran in the era before the Islamic Revolution owes something to “his desire to present himself as a ruler in the image of Cyrus the Great.”

“Light and Shadows,” both the book and the exhibition that inspired it, are works of curatorship that display and study the literary and material artifacts of Jewish civilization as it existed in Iran for more than two millennia.  But they have a special function for readers in America, where the contemporary Jewish community of Iran has been largely transplanted since 1979. Thanks to “Light and Shadows,” we are able to see and understand the richness of the heritage they brought with them. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in May 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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