Talk of Iran these days tends to be about threats of the annihilation of Israel, the potential of nuclear weaponry and bellicose leaders. But before all that, over its almost 3,000-year history, Iran has had one of the deepest and richest artistic heritages of any place in the world, and its Jewish cultural component, in particular, is both intrinsic to the place and not so well known to the outside world — even much of the Jewish world.
Among the examples:
A pair of 19th century painted-wood doors decorated with an image of a couple in an intimate tete-a-tete as he strums a sitar behind a raised curtain, with a love poem in Judeo-Persian inscribed in a cartouche below.
An early 20th century Persian wall carpet made in Kashan lavishly decorated with intricate biblical scenes and Hebrew inscriptions, in the style of Persian miniature painting. An undersized set of leather tefillin, from the town of Mashhad in the mid-19th century, indicating one way this community of Jews forced to convert to Islam secretly practiced its Judaism — by creating phylacteries small enough to hide under their headdresses.
And a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) ,drawn in vibrant hues of amber and crimson in Isfahan in 1921, richly ornamented with intertwined images of birds and blossoms, as well as the cypress tree, a symbol of eternal life dating back to the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Iran.
These objects, all of them included in “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” opening at the Fowler Museum at UCLA on Oct. 21, are just a sampling of the more than 100 sumptuous artworks and other objects — including rare archeological artifacts, illuminated manuscripts, ritual objects and amulets — that will be on display. Together, they tell the 2,700-year history of the Jews of Iran, one of that country’s oldest minorities. There are flat, hand-shaped Torah ornaments unique to the Jews of the area, as well as ornaments shaped like the Zoroastrian motif of the botah — almond leaves attached to a stem.
The exhibition’s timeline begins in 539 B.C.E., when Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Empire, defeated the Babylonians and annexed the regions where the exiled Jews from Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judea had settled after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. The narrative continues through the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century and the more hostile Imamite Shiite conquest in the early 1500s that prompted the harsh conditions for Jews that waxed and waned until the tolerant reigns of the Pahlavi shahs in the early 20th century. And the show continues even further, through the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to the contemporary period, there and abroad.
“We wanted to show that throughout these nearly three millennia, the lives of Iranian Jews have vacillated between marginalization and integration into the complex and fascinating fabric of Iranian society,” said Orit Engelberg-Baram, curator of the exhibition, which originated in Tel Aviv in 2010 at Beit Hatfutsot — the Museum of the Jewish People. “We call it ‘Light and Shadows’ because there are so many contradictions in the story of Iranian Jewry — on the one hand, persecution; and on the other, assimilation and rich tradition, and, in later epochs, wealth.”
The show was first conceived in the Beverly Hills living room of attorney Ruth Shamir-Popkin, a Polish-born Israeli émigré who serves on the board of Beit Hatfutsot. About six years ago, she called a meeting with the museum’s then-director, Hasia Israeli, and several prominent members of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community. “The museum had always been accused of being very Ashkenazi oriented, and not enough about other communities,” Shamir-Popkin recalled of that conversation. “I knew the Iranian-Jewish community had never found a way to express itself historically in an exhibition, so I thought it was time.”
She suggested to her guests that they mobilize members of Los Angeles’ community to create such a show, and with the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation offering support, museum officials began two years of intense research, scouring the world for artwork and artifacts.
What’s unique about the exhibition is that a number of the objects came directly from members of various Iranian communities, according to Moti Schwartz, Beit Hatfutsot’s acting director, and Smadar Keren, director of the museum’s curatorial department.
“We did [borrow] from museums and archives, but many of the artifacts came from people who are not even collectors,” Engelberg-Baram said. “We asked them, ‘What do you have from your home, from your parents’ or grandparents’ homes?’ Most of them said, ‘We fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and we didn’t keep anything.’ Later, they would call us and say, ‘I found such and such, but I don’t know if it’s interesting for you.’ And then we would discover treasures.”
At the Fowler Museum, the exhibition opens with what is the most famous Persian-Jewish story of all, Purim’s biblical story of Esther, the Jewess who heroically foiled a plot to exterminate the Jews of Iran. In addition to a floor plan of the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the modern-day city of Hamadan, a protective silver amulet is shown inscribed with the names of the four traditional biblical matriarchs, as well as the name of Esther, as if she were a kind of fifth in the lineage.
A photograph of a fresco from the Dura Europos synagogue, circa 245 C.E., depicts the villain Haman, barefoot and humiliated as he leads Esther’s triumphant cousin, Mordecai, on a horse through the streets of Shushan. A second image reveals Mordecai on his throne, wearing the flowing pantaloon garb of the Persian royal house of the third century B.C.E.
On a computer screen, an illustration from a 17th century book, done in ink and tempera, helps to recount a tale, dated 1333, of Esther and Ardashir (another name used for the biblical King Ahasuerus); this work shows how Persian Jews sought to reimagine Esther as the mother of King Cyrus. In the painting, a squatting Queen Esther, naked from the waist down, is graphically shown giving birth to Cyrus, accompanied by angels and handmaidens, an iconography similar to that used by Muslim artists of the time to depict the birth of heroes and monarchs.
A contemporary mixed-media work by the young New York artist Josephine Mairzadeh, “Five Generations of Reflection Into the New Year/Esther’s Legacy,” is meant to serve as a family tree for the entire Iranian-Jewish community, from a rendering of the doorway to Esther’s tomb to images of eggs, symbolizing the future generations Esther inspired.
Other sections of the exhibition recount how Jews became a reviled minority after the Imamite Shiite factor of Islam rose to power in the 1500s, when all non-Muslims were considered infidels whose very bodies were regarded as impure. Shiites were forbidden from coming into physical contact with Jews, who on rainy days were not allowed even to venture outdoors lest their essence pollute the environment. Jews were denigrated, as well, by laws forbidding them from practicing most respectable professions and even from wearing matching footwear.
The 1905 book “Five Years in a Persian Town” describes how these discriminatory practices continued even into the early 20th century; its illustrations show Jews wearing tattered clothing and ill-fitting, mismatched shoes.
After a pogrom in 1839 involving rape and murder in Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, the entire Jewish community was forced to convert to Islam, although they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Among their treasures is an ingenious Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) from a Mashhadi synagogue-turned-“mosque” that was disguised as a round copper box that could be quickly shut, extinguishing the interior lantern, should non-Jews enter the place of worship.
There are also tiny silk jackets worn by Jewish child brides (girls were betrothed in early childhood so that no Muslim could later ask for her hand in marriage), as well as dual marriage contacts — a clandestine one written in Hebrew for internal use, and another in Farsi, in accordance with Islamic law.
The reigns of the Pahlavi monarchs in the early 20th century brought positive change — and even prosperity — to Iran’s Jews, as evidenced by a photograph of the last shah visiting with the Jewish representative to the Iranian Parliament and then-Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet. Another photo depicts Israeli hero Moshe Dayan standing with officials outside a large mosque, demonstrating the regime’s amicable relationship with the State of Israel.
While videotaped testimonies demonstrate the plight of Iranian Jews who fled to Israel or Los Angeles during the 1979 Islamic revolution, two photographs show startling images of Jews and even Rabbi Shofet participating in anti-shah demonstrations leading up to the revolution. The protesters are either Jewish leftists or community members who wished to show solidarity to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in order to ensure the future safety of Iranian Jewry.
The exhibition at the Fowler will include new additions to the artwork seen at Beit Hatfutsot, including snapshots of Iranian-Jewish community events in Los Angeles and mixed-media work by local Jewish artists, commissioned by the Fowler, according to the museum’s Shirley & Ralph Shapiro director, Marla C. Berns.
A lyrical video by Jessica Shokrian celebrates the community’s ritual observance while describing her own complex relationship with her traditional family, and Shelley Gazin’s installation spotlights generations of women, from grandmothers draped in American flags to a young karate champion who participated in the Maccabiah Games.
Earlier in the exhibition, one poignant photograph depicts two siblings, David and Leora, who appear to be holding hands while wearing their Purim costumes in Iran in 1964: Leora is dressed as the Israeli flag, while her brother is dressed as the flag of Iran. The photo could serve as a metaphor for the relationship between Iran and Israel during the Pahlavi era: “It looks like a dream, or a vision of the future, when we now hear constantly every day about maybe a war coming, and very threatening news about the relationship between Iran and Israel,” curator Engelberg-Baram said.
For more information about the exhibition, visit fowler.ucla.edu.
Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history
- Timeline: A history of Iranian Jews
- Indigo: Remembering Iran
- A journalist’s perspective on Iran
- Under the Tehran sky
- The legacy of Iranian music