I am embarrassed to admit it, but when I met my husband I had no idea there were ever any Jews in Iran. I really thought he was joking. I really thought that even if there had been Jews in Iran, they would be gone, just like the Persian Empire was gone too. I thought that just like Persepolis lay in ruins, any trace of the descendants of Queen Esther and her people were laid in ruins. However, now I know that what would seem a logical course of history for other nations is simply not applicable to Jews. The chosen nation is inextinguishable. Unbreakable. Eternal.
The Jews of Iran have an incredibly long history that begins over 2,400 years ago and continues through today. They first arrived in the region during the Achaemenid period, after King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and Judea, exiling tens of thousands of their Jewish inhabitants, who were expelled to lands all across the east, including today’s Iran. Later Cyrus of Anshan invaded, liberating Babylon and causing many Jewish leaders to hail him as the figure described in The Jews of Iran have a history that begins over 2,400 years ago and continues through todayIsaiah (45:1–6) who would redeem them and provide them with the hope of returning to Judea. Indeed, when he became ruler, Cyrus sent a group of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the Holy Temple; but while some returned, many more remained in Iran.
Famous figures in the Jewish Bible are cited as living in or traversing the areas of Iran, and its populations are described in numerous books of the Bible. The prophet Daniel, for example, who is more widely known for his interactions with Nebuchadnezzar, lived in Shushan (Susa). Chavakuk, another biblical navi (prophet), was a descendant of Jews exiled from Babylonia who traveled to Iran. Shushan was also home to Esther, the most celebrated Persian heroine of the Jewish tradition, and it was the site of the story of Purim. As written in Megillat Esther, Esther and Mordechai saved the Jews of the 127 provinces under King Achashverosh’s rule from a decree for their total annihilation issued by the royal vizier Haman.
By the time of the story of Purim, the Megillah relates that in every province there existed a Jewish presence. But the Purim victory didn’t solidify universal tolerance for Jews by any means, and they still had many threatening enemies. After the miraculous salvation of the population under King Achashverosh, Jews were able to continue to live in their respective communities in Persia, but their numbers have alternately increased and decreased over the years.
Since the times of Queen Esther, however, Jews have maintained a strong presence in Iran. Just at the beginning of the Common Era there were many converts to Judaism in the Middle East, and Jews are said to have made up over 20% of the Empire’s inhabitants.
Less than a millennium later, in 693 CE, through wars, invasions, and conquests, the Jewish presence in Iran was still extant, and Shiraz was established as the capital of the Fars province. Though it would not grow to shelter as many Jews as other cities (such as Tehran, Iran’s capital), over the centuries Shiraz flourished into a religious, cultural, and socioeconomic center for Persian Jewry, even amidst enduring harsh anti-Semitism and persecution. The Islamic conquest of Persia, which would span 600 years, shook the sociopolitical and cultural dynamics of the entire region and made conditions exceedingly difficult for Jews and others practicing non-Islamic faiths. By the 12th century, near the end of the conquest, Shiraz alone is said to have been home to 10,000 Jews, a majority of whom were manufacturing wine for Europeans.
The pattern of relative calm followed by intense anti-Semitism continued for hundreds of years. Intolerance always resurfaced, and under Shah Abbas of the Safavid era in the late 16th century and beyond, Jews were actively forced to wear identifying garments and eventually required to convert to Shiism. In Ketab-e anusi (The Book of a Forced Convert), 17th-century author Babai ben Lotf discusses the circumstances of Jews in Iran at the time, and writes of his experience as one of the many anusim, outward converts who kept Judaism in secret. At the rise of Shah Abbas’ grandson, Shah Safi I, a few decades later, Jews were free to readopt their faith; but not long afterward, under Shah Abbas II, they were once again persecuted by those who disagreed with the removal of the ban.
The victimized communities, however small, maintained a presence in Iran—even when their leaders were imprisoned or torturedIntolerance resurfaced in every dynasty throughout Iran’s history, and by the 18th and early 19th centuries the Jewish population had been reduced significantly. The approximately 3,000 Jews living in Shiraz by 1830 had shrunk to a mere 500 over the next twenty years, and historians have concluded that around 2,500 of them converted to Islam to escape persecution (Jewish Encyclopedia, “Shiraz”). Nonetheless, the victimized communities, however small, maintained a presence in Iran—even when their leaders were imprisoned or tortured.
The Challenges of Spiritual Leadership
The viziers of Iran would arrest Jews such as Mullah Elijah, then chief rabbi of Shiraz, and require them to pay an exorbitant fee or convert to Islam. At first, Elijah said he would convert and become a Muslim, but he would need time to prepare for the transformation. However, when his time was up he refused to convert, so he was locked in a dungeon and brutally whipped. Unsurprisingly, missionaries who visited Shiraz at the time found that many of Shiraz’s outward converts were both socioeconomically and religiously miserable, held an inward contempt for Islam, and maintained the appearance of being identical to their Muslim neighbors while they continued to practice Judaism within their own homes.
Rab Yusef, also known as Ohr Shraga, was an Iranian mystic and Jewish leader for the community in Yazd during the late 18th century. A direct descendant of King David, he is known for performing many miracles, and his tomb in Yazd is considered a religious holy site for Jews and Muslims alike even today (Lalezar 2006). His counterparts were Mullah Mosheh Halevi of Kashan, a Kabbalist, rabbi, and author of books on Jewish mysticism, and later Mullah Rabbi Isaac of Tehran, one of the first rabbis to contact the Alliance Israelite Universelle in search of protection for the Jews of Iran from persecution by Shiite government officials.
Preserved marriage contracts show that intermarriage was also common among Persian Jews, even in ancient times. Ezra and Nechemiah, two of the later Jewish figures of the Tanach, publicly banned intermarriage and issued punishments to those who married outside the faith (Price 1996). In the century and a half that followed the construction of the Second Temple, the final codification of Jewish law—with its clear rule against intermarriage—was one of the prominent factors ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people in the Middle East, and Iran in particular. While it has not always been adhered to, the law, combined with a nearly constant threat of persecution, has been integral to the continued survival of Iranian Jewry (Bard 2010). The mass emigration of Jews from Iran in the mid to late twentieth century has proven the most trying to its preservation of faith and custom; hence, the more isolated communities that opted not to emigrate, such as the Jews of Mashhad, have seen lower rates of intermarriage than others.
Last names in Iran were not customarily used until the early 20th century, when Reza Shah, in an effort to modernize the country, decreed that everyone should take on last names. Family names of Persian descent usually end in suffixes that connote something of their relation to others, or contain the names of the cities from which their ancestors presumably hail. Suffixes such as “-i”, meaning “of,” would be added to a city name, such as Shiraz, to form “Shirazi,” a common Persian last name. Israel now hosts the largest population of Iranian Jews, at more than 47,000Those indicating family ties are “-zadeh,” born of; “-pour,” son of; or “-nejad,” from the race of. These suffixes would be added to the former first names of ancestral antiquity. Some have the suffixes “-ian” or “-stan,” traditionally indicating that the family is from Iran. Still others are more difficult to place, possibly indicating some quality or feature that may have distinguished an ancestor, or used as a marker of unknown symbolic significance. A last name such as Ghermezi, for instance, translates to mean “of red.” In the case of our family, the name Simnegar means silversmith, indicating the trade for which the family was known. Our other last name is Rabizadeh, indicating “born of rabbis,” which would mean my husband is a descendant of both working people and rabbis.
Persian Jews Today
In the decades following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, an estimated 85% of the Jews living in Iran (over 60,000) emigrated to Israel and America. Israel now hosts the largest population of Iranian Jews, at more than 47,000, with an additional 87,000 descendants of paternal lineage only, and 65–70,000 of maternal lineage (CBS Statistical Abstract 2008). Kfar Saba is a social center for Persian Jewry, while many also settled in Jerusalem, Netanya, and Tel Aviv. Immigration to the United States brought entire communities to coastal cities, most prominently Great Neck, New York, and Los Angeles, California, where Jewish traditions have been maintained more potently than were upheld by immigrants of European countries. The estimated number of Persian Jews in America is in the high tens of thousands, but it’s not certain the numbers will continue to increase.
Assimilation is rising very rapidly, especially among the younger generation of Iranian Jews. Sadly, many Persian Jews are today losing their heritage and customs that date back thousands of years and for which so many of their ancestors perished. Today, as in my case, many Persian Jews are also marrying non-Persian Jews. In addition, many Persian Jews have also returned to Torah through various types of outreach programs. However, while this is completely wonderful, many have embraced the more widely known customs of our Ashkenazi brethren. I strongly feel Jewish Persian customs are in jeopardy if we don’t educate our children and make them aware of the beauty and riches of the Persian Jewish heritage.