Jewish Journal

Purim is perfectly Persian Jewish!

by Karmel Melamed

March 20, 2008 | 6:37 pm

Purim has always had a special place in my heart as it is perfectly Persian Jewish. As a young person of Iranian Jewish background living in the U.S. and attending Jewish grade school among Ashkenazim, I was always exposed to the Ashkenazi traditions for each holiday. When Purim came along it gave me, a Jew of Iranian heritage very special pride as the events of Purim took place thousands of years ago in the land where my ancestors lived. Purim is the one holiday and most popular contribution Iranian Jewry have given to the Jewish faith. We has Iranian Jews are quite proud to claim the character of the Purim story—Esther and Mordechai among one of our own.

The following is a recently article I wrote about Purim that was published in the March 2008 issue of “Jewish Family” magazine based here in Los Angeles. This article sheds light on why Purim has such a special meaning for us Iranian Jews:

Purim, still a source of pride for Iranian Jews

Purim among Ashkenazi communities for years has traditionally been a holiday for little children to dress up in costumes, eat Hamantashan cookies and make noise with their graggers during the megillah reading. Yet the Jewish holiday has for centuries had a special meaning for Iranian Jews as the story of Purim took place in ancient Persia.

Jews of Iranian descent now living in Southern California look back on their celebrations of Purim in Iran prior to the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution with nostalgia and a source of strength for them during difficult times.

“Purim was a big big event for Jews in Iran because it happened in the land were lived in and we were proud of it,” said Shirley Nowfar, a volunteer with the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. “For Jews over the centuries that endured pogroms from the Islamic clerics in Iran, Purim’s story has always been a celebration of freedom and given them hope”.

Interestingly, Purim’s importance for Iranian Jews has even been enhanced by a non-Jewish holiday. Purim typically coincides with the festivities of No Ruz, the secular Persian New Year.

“Purim gets more focus in Iran from Jews,” said Nahid Pirnazar, an instructor of Judeo-Persian literature at UCLA. “It’s like Chanukah in the United States, which coincides with Christmas,” she said. “A lot of the traditions of No Ruz are reflected in Purim, like the idea of exchanging gifts.”

Purim fasts are broken at the conclusion of megillah readings, she added. Iran Jews traditionally eat special Purim cookies as well as halva, a dry or wet dessert made of flour or rice, sugar, oil and saffron.

Nowfar said Jewish parents and grandparents Jews in Iran typically gave gifts of gold coins or money to children in their families, as such gift were given by non-Jews to their children for No Ruz.

Within Iran, the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordechai has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. They are located in the city of Hamadan, and they’ve recently been renovated and maintained by Iran’s Jewish community.

“The Jewish women of Hamedan and other cities, have visited the shrine of Esther and Mordechai during Purim,” said Frank Nikbkaht, an Iranian Jews and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. “They would cover the wooden grave boxes with scarves or ornate fabrics, as gifts, praying and hoping that the Shrine would help grant them sons”.

Although Iranian Jews have long believed the tomb contains the burial sites of Esther and Mordechai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.

“The great archeologist Ernst Hertzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there, but later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there,” said the late Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

That’s not his only point of doubt.

“The tombs of Esther and Mordechai had not been mentioned in any Jewish sources,” Netzer added. “The first Jewish person who mentioned the existence of the tombs there was Rabbi Binyamin of Toodelah in 1167 [C.E.]. I wonder how come there are absolutely no mentions of these tombs in the Talmud or post-Talmud literature?”

Netzer said Jews in Iran have always been cautious in their celebrations of Purim because the Book of Esther contains unflattering depictions of non-Jewish Persians and also includes the tale of a slaughter of non-Jews.

“If you read the book itself you will see that it says the Iranian Jews were permitted actually to massacre a lot of Iranians on a certain day and King Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, is pictured as a stupid king,” Netzer said. “So these factors actually made Iranian Jews extremely careful not to have high-profile celebrations for Purim.”

Although some historians have their doubts regarding the Book of Esther, the experience of Jews in Iran embodies a consonance with events described in the tale. Over the centuries, Pirnazar said, Jews have narrowly escaped forced mass conversions to Islam by participating in communitywide days of prayer and fasting — similar to the fast carried out by Queen Esther in the Purim story.

One such Purim-like episode is identified in Vera Basch Moreen’s book, “Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism” (American Academy for Jewish Research, 1987). In 1629, the Jews in the city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam with the succession of King Safi I of the Safavid Dynasty. Later, these Jews were permitted to return to Judaism after two Jewish leaders successfully interceded with the Iranian monarch — a scenario that parallels the Purim story.

As an often-oppressed minority, Iranian Jews have their own modern-day hardships to confront under Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic rule. Yet the Book of Esther, with its tale of triumph over hardship and evil, still conveys a message of hope to them and Jews worldwide.

(The Mausoleum of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran)

(Inside the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran)

(An ancient relief of Persian soldiers from the time of Esther)

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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