Persia On Our Minds
The holiday of Purim celebrates the story of the Jews of Ancient Persia escaping potential persecution slated for them by Haman, an evil henchman of King Ahasuerus. It’s thanks to the heroic acts of Esther and Mordechai that we can now celebrate Purim with costumes, groggers, Mishlochat Manot baskets, and the reading of the telling of this important story.
If you’re not familiar with Purim, have never heard the reading of Megilat Esther (the Scroll of Ester) or spun a grogger when you hear “Haman”, we highly encourage you to spend this year’s Purim at a local congregation and see it for yourself. Costumes encouraged! The reading of the Megillah (scroll) is typically combined with a “Purim Spiel” where the story of Purim is acted out with great candor and hilarious modern references. Hamantaschen – filled cookies shaped like Haman’s hat – are consumed as well as libations (for adults). The holiday is an all-out party.
Purim is the only Jewish religious holiday in which the story of the holiday did not take place within, or on the way to, the biblical land of Israel. Nevertheless, following the canonization of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the story of Purim made the cut (unlike Hanukkah) and now is well-known by Jews around the world. And at the center of the story of Purim are Persian Jews.
It’s possible that many Americans are unaware that a Jewish community ever existed in Persia (roughly modern-day Iran). In fact, according to data from the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of American Jews identify as having Ashkenazi (coming from Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe) heritage. In Denver, that number likely is even higher based on a study conducted by the Rose Community Foundation. It’s incredibly likely that unless someone spent time in the Jewish communities of Los Angeles or New York, hubs of the U.S. Persian Jewish community, they’ve likely never met a Persian Jew!
With Purim in the air, and Persia on our minds, as well as the deeply troubling situation taking place currently in Iran, let’s take a moment to learn and celebrate the rich history of Persian Jewry.
- The Persian Jews are likely the first, and longest-standing, diaspora Jewish community. Arriving originally to Persia as slaves in the 7th Century BCE.
- Persian Jews are not a monolithic community. For much of their history, Persian Jews lived in separate communities throughout the areas of modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and the Caucus mountains. Bukharin Jews speak a Jewish dialect of Tajik, a dialect of Persian. There is an active community of Bukharin Jews right here in Denver!
- Throughout changes in power, the Jews of Persia experienced various levels of privileges and inclusion in the society around them. Regardless of adversity, the Persian Jewish community continued to hold onto its identity and there are still a small number of Jews living in Iran today. An amazing example of resiliency are the Jews of Mashhad, Iran. This community practiced “crypto-Judaism” where they would follow the doctrine and cultural requirements of the government around them, and then practice Judaism in secret in their homes. This community left Mashhad en mass by 1946, most of them resettling in Israel, some in Tehran, and a sizeable community in Great Neck, New York.
- Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, there were more than 100,000 Jews living in Iran, mostly in the capital of Tehran. Since the Islamic revolution, the Iranian community has emigrated in huge numbers, with the largest communities of Persian Jews now in Los Angeles, Israel, New York, and Baltimore. There are about 60,000 – 80,000 Iranian Jews living in the United States, and between 200,000 – 250,000 in Israel. The Jewish community remaining in Tehran and Iran has a tenuous relationship with the government and is estimated to be around 8,000. With the recent wave of anti-government protest in Iran, there are new concerns for the Jewish community in Iran and Tehran.
- Persian Jews know how to party! Their celebrations, holidays, and even Shabbat dinners are typically boisterous, crowded, high energy, and full of great Persian cuisine.