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Behind the Veil

ESTHER'S CHILDREN: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, Edited by Houman Sarshar, The Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History/The Jewish Publication Society: 458 pp., $110

June 09, 2002|GINA B. NAHAI | Gina B. Nahai is the author of several novels, including "Cry of the Peacock," a historical novel about the Jews of Iran. Her piece also appears in the Jewish Journal.

In his introduction to "Esther's Children," editor Houman Sarshar speaks of a time when, 6 years old and about to start elementary school, he discovered his legacy as an Iranian Jew. It was 1973. Over breakfast in their apartment in Tehran, Houman's father, a top planning commissioner in the shah's Iran, noticed the Star of David pendant--a recent gift from a grandmother--hanging from his son's neck. He reached over and slipped the necklace under Houman's shirt.

"If anyone in school asks about your religion," he instructed his son, "lie. Tell them you're Muslim."

Houman's mother, a successful and highly regarded writer, journalist and television personality, flew into a rage at her husband's urgings. Surely, she asserted, no one in the shah's modern, Westernized Iran cared about a child's religion. Surely, the Muslim hatred for Jews, the years of discrimination against "impure infidels," the pogroms and forced conversions that had, for centuries, been the lot of her and her husband's people had died when Iran became Americanized.

"Jewish, Muslim--what does it matter nowadays?" she asked in her typically confident tone.

But it's her next sentence that leaves the deeper impression on Houman.

"Just tell them you're Iranian," she said. "Iranian like them."

"Iranian like them" is not a notion with which the Jews of Iran have often felt at ease. The oldest community in Diaspora, Jews have lived in Iran longer than there has been an Iran or a Persia. Their history dates from 597 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia conquered Jerusalem and brought back 10,000 Jews as captives from Jerusalem and Judea. Some 58 years later, the children of those captives would rise against their Babylonian masters and help the armies of Cyrus the Great into victory, thus ushering in the Persian Empire.

Having lived in freedom in Zoroastrian Persia, the Jews found themselves under attack when Islam arrived in AD 637. Their persecution began with a list of obligations, Shorut, written by Umar II, that denied social and political equality to believers whose book was not the Koran. Friendship between a Muslim and Jew, under this law, was considered a mortal sin. Jews were declared impure and untouchable--a belief that was strengthened by Shiite clergy about 700 years later--and barred from any physical interaction with believers.

Though the laws of impurity extended to nonbelievers of every faith in Muslim Persia, they specifically targeted and victimized the Jews. Muslim clergy, especially Shiite mullahs, have always claimed a holy mandate to rule. Against the traditional, more secular monarchies in Persia and later Iran, they needed an army of zealots--the believers--to make a show of force. The quickest and most certain way to rally the troops, the clergy learned, was to designate a clear enemy--the Jew--and to declare jihad. In this, the Muslim clergy were in time emboldened by news of the Inquisition in Europe and by news of an anti-Semitic movement called Limpieza de Sangre, "Purity of Blood," which had grown in Spain, targeting newly converted Jews to Christianity.

For the 1,300 years the Jews of Iran were forced to live in specific neighborhoods and to identify themselves by wearing special patches on their clothes or, for women, wearing thicker veils over their faces. Declared "not Iranian" and therefore barred from holding military or government posts, they were forbidden to leave their ghettos on rainy days (for fear that the rain might wash the impurity off their bodies and onto Muslim soil), to touch any food or item that may be consumed by a Muslim or to study any language except Hebrew.

Jews had no right to defend themselves in a court of law or to offer testimony in another's defense. The life of a Jew was, by edict from the clergy, worth the equivalent of the market value of a cow. Worse yet, the entire Jewish community of a vast and varied nation was punished for the crimes--real or imagined--of any individual member.

The history of Iranian Jews under Islam is therefore replete with tales of pogroms and forced conversions. Their lot improved markedly in the mid-20th century when the late shah's father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, under American influence, curbed the power of the mullahs and created a disciplined standing army that, for a while at least, kept the "believers" in check. Until then, whether suspected of drinking the blood of Muslim children, accused of plotting to destroy Islam or convicted of insulting the prophet (famously when a group of Jewish children walked, in 1922, ahead of a mule that had belonged to a servant who worked for a mullah), the Jews remained under constant pressure, always on the brink of annihilation. If the community survived long enough to see the shah's reign, it was by preserving their unique identity without ever challenging the treatment they were subjected to. They learned to be vigilant, invisible, and silent.

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