Jeremy Shere: Many centuries ago, in the fourth century BCE in Shushan, the capital of the Persian empire, the Jews were in danger. Mordecai, the leader of the Shushan Jewish community, had refused to bow down to Haman, the king's chief minister. And so Haman, enraged, had convinced the king, Ahasuerus, that Jews living in Persian lands who did not obey the king's laws should be destroyed.
The Jews were saved, though, when the king's new queen, Mordecai's niece, Esther, revealed her true identity to the king and accused Haman of plotting to murder her and her people. In the end, the Persian Jews rose up to defeat their enemies, and, thanks to the wisdom of Mordecai and the bravery of Esther, lived happily ever after.
That, of course, is the story told in the Book of Esther, which we read every year on the holiday of Purim, which is coming up soon. It's easy to get the idea from the story of Purim that Persia, which we know today as Iran, was a bad, dangerous place for Jews. Add to that the decades-long animosity between modern-day Iran and Israel, and it's hard to escape the idea that Jews and Persians, or Iranians, are and always have been mortal enemies.
But the truth is more complicated. In this episode, we explore the history of Jews in Persia, from its ancient roots to the present day, to help bring to light the ways in which Jewish and Iranian life and culture have been, and remain, so deeply intertwined.
Galeet Dardashti: When did Jews come to Iran? 586 BC. My family would say, “Yeah, we've been in Iran since the destruction of the First Temple.”
Jeremy Shere: This is Galeet Dardashti, an assistant professor of Jewish music and a musician- in-residence at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Iranian Jews are typically proud of the millennia-long Jewish presence in Persia, says Lior Sternfeld, an assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at Penn State.
Lior Sternfeld: As every Iranian Jew can tell you, Jews have lived in Iran for 2,700 years. They came first with the Assyrian exile and then the Babylonian exile in the eighth and sixth century BCE.
Jeremy Shere: Which means that Jews were in Persia throughout the centuries, as the region was conquered by the Assyrians, the Greeks, and other ancient empires, by Muslim Arabs, and later by Genghis Khan's Mongol horde during the Middle Ages, and in the early modern period by a series of Islamic rulers. By the 17th century, Jews were one among a variety of tolerated and protected minority populations living in Persia.
Lior Sternfeld: The first point would be the declaration of Shah Ismail the First of Twelver Shia as the state religion. And this was significant because Iran still is a country of minorities. And when there was this acceptance of the minorities as the majority, Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians could find ways to negotiate their relationship with the Muslim majority of society, because even the Muslim majority society was Sunni, but also practicing different orthodoxies of Sunni and Shia and Sufi and so on.
Jeremy Shere: It wasn't until the early 20th century, during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution from 1906 to 1911, that Iranian Jews were granted full and equal rights, and as Sternfeld puts it, became stakeholders in the Iranian national project.
Lior Sternfeld: They won representation in the parliament that was formed for the first time and their status became part of the constitution. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were now protected, but also granted representation by the constitution.
Jeremy Shere: The new legal status for Jews and other religious minorities attracted Jews from other countries to move to Iran during the reign of the Pahlavi monarchy. In the 1930s, a small but influential wave of German Jews immigrated to Iran.
Lior Sternfeld: These are students, doctors, engineers that, because of the ascendance of the Nazi party and the establishment of the Nazi government, were fired from their jobs at the time.
Jeremy Shere: Germany had close ties with Iran, and German firms ran Iranian railways and telegraph lines.
Lior Sternfeld: Jewish engineers could not work for the German companies in Germany, but they could work for German companies in Iran. So they did, and there were Jewish doctors that moved to Iran as part of these professional opportunities, that they could come and work, provide services to the growing German population in Iran.
Jeremy Shere: German Jews never became a large part of the Iranian Jewish population, but Sternfeld says they were respected as cultured Europeans. In fact, it was a German Jewish archaeologist, Ernst Herzfeld, who led the excavation of Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital.
Lior Sternfeld: He had a number of Jewish students in his team. So they all became part of this, finding the legitimate roots of the Pahlavi monarchy. And I find it fascinating in so many ways that Jewish students from Germany, who could no longer work in Germany, come to Iran to legitimize the monarchy in Iran.
Jeremy Shere: In the wake of the Farhud attack carried out against Jews in Iraq in 1941, a wave of Iraqi Jews immigrated to Iran. At first, they weren't exactly welcomed by Iranian Jews.
Lior Sternfeld: They had very high tensions with the Iranian Jewish community, because for the Iranian Jewish community, they were Arabs. They were looked down upon by the Iranian Jewish community and they found mutual language with the Arab minorities of Khuzestan, of Southern Iran. So, in the area of Abadan, they spent much more time and they shared cultural background with the Arabs of Iran, rather than with the Jewish community.
Jeremy Shere: In the early 1940s, Polish Jews fleeing Soviet tyranny arrived in Iran, where they established a temporary community. Because they came as refugees, Sternfeld says, the Iranian Jewish community welcomed them and did what they could to help them.
Lior Sternfeld: They supplied them with housing solutions, temporary or long-term solutions. They provided them with food items and economic support and they tried to really protect them or help them settle in.
Jeremy Shere: When modern Israel was founded in 1948, Jews throughout the Middle East immigrated to the new Jewish state, including Iranian Jews. But unlike Jews from Arab countries, Iranian Jews weren't forced to leave. In fact, Sternfeld says, most Iranian Jews did not relocate to Israel. Those who did were mostly among the poorest and neediest, which, Sternfeld says, benefited the Iranian Jews who stayed.
Lior Sternfeld: They reduced the level of support that the community had to provide to a good amount of people, a good number of people. It helped those who stayed in Iran, which was the overwhelming majority, to improve their condition and their status in Iran.
Jeremy Shere: Many of those who did immigrate found Israel to be something less than the mythical land of milk and honey. As we explored in the Yemenite Children's Affair episode from Season One, Jewish immigrants from the Middle East often faced harsh conditions in the maabarot, or absorption camps, where they were housed and were looked down on by the Ashkenazi Zionist establishment.
Galeet Dardashti: My father's grandfather immigrated to Israel first, and he wrote to the family and said, “Don't come, don't come. “ You know, it was the early 1950s. “Things are a mess, these are not great conditions. Wait before you immigrate to Israel."
Jeremy Shere: Unlike Jewish refugees from Arab nations, Iranian Jews could return to Iran, and many did, often as employees of Israeli companies that did business there.
Now to be clear, most Iranian Jews supported Israel and considered themselves to be Zionists, but just like the vast majority of Jews in Europe and the United States, who are staunch supporters of Israel but have no intention of moving, Iranian Jews were at home in Iran. After all, many had done very well there. And it didn't hurt that Iran was the second Muslim nation to recognize Israel; the first was Turkey. Israel had a permanent delegation in Iran. The Jewish Agency operated openly there, and in general, Iranian Jews had a very positive view of Zionism. But it didn't mean they were going to leave Iran.
Lior Sternfeld: They thought that Zionism was a very good thing, but not for them.It wasn't meant for them. So they raised money for Zionist causes, and, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, when Jews became more affluent and they felt they really made it in the Iranian context, it got to the point that in 1961, Israel decided to stop the active work of getting the Iranian Jews to immigrate. In a memo, they wrote, “Iranian Jews are now like the Jews of Britain, of South Africa, and Australia. They are not going anywhere.”
Jeremy Shere: Many non-Jewish Iranians also had a positive view of Israel, at least for a while. After all, the Jewish state had chased away its British colonizers. And so, Israel was popular among Iranian leftist intellectuals, who saw it as a model of post-colonialism.
Lior Sternfeld: One of the prominent Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, visited Israel and he wrote a travelogue that was very popular among Iranian intellectuals. And there were a number of Iranian intellectuals that came to visit Israel in the 1960s.
Jeremy Shere: Like most Iranian Jews, Galeet Dardashti’s grandparents on her father's side were avid Zionists. In fact, they planned on relocating to Israel, and it was Dardashti's grandmother, she says, who was the driving force behind the plan, even after Dardashti’s grandfather became a famous singer of Iranian classical music in the 1950s.
Galeet Dardashti: She decided to raise the money for the synagogue that they were going to ultimately live by in Israel, in Rishon LeTsiyon. And she had my grandfather use his fame to raise some of that money.
Jeremy Shere: But Dardashti's grandparents ended up staying in Iran for the next 15 years, in part because of her grandfather's singing career, but also because, like most Iranian Jews, they had deep ties to the country where their ancestors had lived for many hundreds, and even thousands, of years.
By the mid 1950s, the Pahlavi dynasty was trying to unify the country by deemphasizing the role of religion in society and promoting a national Persian identity. For Iranian Jews who until then were seen as a distinct religious minority, the initiative helped them integrate more fully into the mainstream of Iranian society.
Lior Sternfeld: So Iranian Jews, as the minority that has no other language other than Persian — they pray in Hebrew, but they don't speak Hebrew in the everyday. Jews had newspapers in Persian. So emphasizing the Persian identity actually served the Jews in their integration project
Jeremy Shere: Because many Iranian Jews spoke multiple languages, they were valuable assets as Iran began expanding its economy and forging diplomatic ties around the world. Plus, the Jewish cultural emphasis on education put Jews in a good position to enter the professions. Many became doctors, lawyers, scientists, and teachers.
Lior Sternfeld: In a matter of two decades, Jews were overrepresented in all the major fields of Iranian society. They experienced tremendous success in identifying themselves with Iran and being part of Iranian society in ways that they could not imagine four decades earlier.
Jeremy Shere: Iranian Jews also thrived in the arts. Dardashti's grandfather, Yona Dardashti, became incredibly famous as the country's most celebrated singer of classical Iranian music. According to Dardashti, her grandfather was mostly self-taught, picking up singing techniques in his local synagogue, where prayers were sung and chanted using melodies and scales that were similar to those used in classical Iranian music.
Galeet Dardashti: He apparently was discovered by this woman, Ghamar-Molouk Vaziri,when he was about 40, in the early 1950s. She heard him sing somewhere. And as the story goes, she came up to him and said, “Oh my God, that was amazing.” And she kissed him and she was just so excited. And she said, “Where have you been?” And he said back to her, “I'm Jewish.” And her response was, “I don't care what you are.” And she just proceeded to help him with his career from then on.
Jeremy Shere: Soon, Yona Dardashti's career took off. He performed at the Shah's palace and in concert halls throughout Iran, and, having come from a religious family, he was also in demand as a service leader and Torah chanter at synagogues throughout the country.
Galeet Dardashti: He knew all of the prayers very well. Supposedly he memorized most of the Torah, could chant all of the Torah by heart. And when he was leading services in a specific synagogue, there are these stories of Muslims saying, “Oh, Dardashti is singing.” And they would put their ears up to the synagogue to listen to him singing. And I've always just really loved that image.
Jeremy Shere: Here's what Yona Dardashti sounded like in his heyday.
[clip of Yona Dardashti singing]
Yona Dardashti’s success is just one measure of the extent to which Jews participated fully in Iranian society in the post-World War II era. Another is the childhood of Galeet Dardashti’s father.
Galeet Dardashti: My father and his siblings were very integrated in Iranian life. They went to a Jewish day school, they went to an Alliance day school in Tehran, so they had a strong Jewish identity, but many of their friends in the neighborhood were Muslims and Armenians. They absolutely were part of Persian culture and were Persian. They spoke Persian. That was their language. And my father loved many of the Persian pop singers
Jeremy Shere: In fact, Dardashti’s father, who inherited his father's singing talent, regularly sang on Iranian television and became something of a teen pop idol during the late 1950s, before moving to the United States. Ironically, Dardashti’s father, the former Iranian pop star, ended up studying to become an Ashkenazi-style cantor.
Galeet Dardashti: My father then made his way to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. This Iranian young man studied, more or less, to be an Ashkenazi hazzan. So I grew up with a father who was a professional cantor in Ashkenazi synagogues.
Jeremy Shere: Dardashti also inherited her grandfather's talent, and has become well-known as a composer and performer of Persian and Middle Eastern-style music set to Hebrew lyrics, including this song about Vashti, the deposed queen from the Purim story.
[clip from song]
Jeremy Shere: When Israel declared independence in 1948, all of the neighboring Arab countries declared war and attacked. But, as I mentioned earlier, Iran was an early supporter of the Jewish state and continued open support and strong diplomatic ties, even after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and the site of the ancient Judean temple and the Old City of Jerusalem.
Iran continued to supply Israel with much of its oil, and the Israeli army trained the Shah's secret police squad known as the SAVAK. And one of the most famous nightclubs in Iran. The Moulin Rouge, invited many Israeli singers to perform there and launch their international careers.
The Six-Day War did have some consequences for Iranian Jews, when in the eyes of the political and intellectual left, Israel went from being a celebrated post-colonial nation to a colonizing nation. Sternfeld says it caused a generational rift among some Iranian Jewish families.
Lior Sternfeld: Iranian Jewish students, for example, when they went to the university, they joined groups that matched their ideology, and many of them were underground socialist, revolutionary cells, and Israel was not popular in those cells.
Jeremy Shere: Some Iranian Jews were inspired by the Six-Day War to pull up stakes and move to Israel. Among them were Dardashti’s grandparents, who finally did make aliyah in 1967, although Yona Dardashti returned to Iran often to perform. But generally, right up until the end of the 1970s, most Iranian Jews were fully committed to the Iranian national project and felt fortunate to be citizens of such a prosperous and tolerant nation. At its height in the mid seventies, around 150,000 Jews called Iran home.
Lior Sternfeld: They experienced this amazing transformation inside Iranian society. They moved from the lower-middle class, from the lowest, impoverished communities to upper- middle class and the new urban elites in a matter of less than four decades. It's amazing that a community could transform itself so quickly.
Jeremy Shere: I imagine that so far, most of you have been nodding along and thinking. “Okay. So Iranian Jews had it pretty good for a while. But what about the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini? Isn't that when the other shoe drops and it all falls apart, and when Iranian Jews had to flee for their lives?”
Not exactly. It's true that once Khomeini took charge, relations between Iran and Israel collapsed. Iran cut all ties, barred anyone carrying an Israeli passport from entering Iran, and declared Israel an enemy of Islam and “the little Satan”— the United States, of course, was “the great Satan.” And consequently, many Iranian Jews did leave, some for Israel, but mostly for the United States, New York and Los Angeles in particular.
That's the broad strokes version anyhow. But dig a little deeper and the story gets more complicated. For one thing, the Iranian Revolution didn't begin strictly as an Islamic revolution. The Pahlavi monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza, ruled as a dictator and brutally clamped down on political opposition. Plus the modernization program that had so benefited Iranian Jews also sparked resentment among Iranian clergy and others alarmed by the rapid pace of change.
And so the revolution included many disgruntled constituencies whose central goal was to overthrow the Pahlavi regime, but not necessarily to replace it with an Islamic dictatorship. In fact, like many Iranian youth, Jewish students joined the protests too, widening the generational divide among Jewish families that had begun after the Six-Day War.
Lior Sternfeld: There's a generational split. The older generation went with the establishment and the more Zionist and pro-Shah tendencies,a nd the younger generation was much more radical, much more attuned to the grievances of the demonstrators. They also felt that these are their own grievances against the dictatorship, against the human rights violations.
Jeremy Shere: Some Iranian Jewish students even spent time in prison, where they met some of the leaders of the Islamic revolution. But at the time, it wasn't assumed that Khomeini was going to claim leadership of the country. Many revolutionaries, including Jews, believed that Khomeini was mainly a figurehead who would return to being a religious leader after the Shah was deposed.
When Khomeini instead installed himself as the country's new dictator and demonized Israel and the West, Iranian Jews were, of course, deeply concerned about their status under the new regime. On more than one occasion, Jewish leaders met with Khomeini, hoping for assurances about policies regarding Jews and other minorities.
Lior Sternfeld: One of them was in May 1979, when the revolutionary courts executed Habib Elghanian, who was one of the leaders of the community and a Zionist philanthropist. And he was accused of spying for Israel and spreading corruption on Earth and was executed on the same day of his trial. They went to meet with Khomeini and told him, "Tell us now, please, if we should see it as a sign for what's to come.”
Jeremy Shere: Khomeini responded that his fight was with the Zionists, not with loyal Iranian Jews.
Lior Sternfeld: He considers Iranian Jews to be the brothers and sisters of the Iranian nation. And it established the relationship between the government and the Jews. We separate between Judaism and Zionism. We see Iranian Jews as Iranians and Zionists, they are infidels. They are enemies.
Jeremy Shere: Furthermore, despite Khomeini's demonization of Zionists, Israel sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran. Israel even supplied Iran with weapons and other military technology.
None of this is to downplay the brutality and oppressiveness of the Islamic regime in Iran, or to overlook its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other anti-Israel and anti-semitic terrorist groups. And because of all this, as I mentioned, for the first time in their long history in Iran, Jews left the country in large numbers after the revolution. But Sternfeld says many believed, or at least hoped, that they would someday return.
Lior Sternfeld: I interviewed someone in 2012 who had just claimed their American citizenship because they refused to do so until then, because they felt that taking American citizenship would be, would make it final.
Jeremy Shere: That's not where the story ends. Because while the Islamic Revolution essentially outlawed Zionism, it couldn't erase the long history of Jews in Iran or the many ways in which Jews had become integrated into Iranian society. So while many Jews left Iran, some stayed and are still there today. In fact, Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel, according to Sternfeld, numbering between 15,000 and 25,000.
Things are not the same as they were under the secular rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, of course, but it's also not the case that Jews who remain in Iran live in constant fear for their lives or are systematically persecuted. In fact, in some ways the Iranian regime has made a point of recognizing Jews' place in Iranian history and society. For example, in 1999, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami visited the Yusef synagogue in Tehran, and his message was positive.
Lior Sternfeld: He talked about the role of the Jews in building the post-revolutionary Iranian state and nation.
Jeremy Shere: And when Khatami’s successor, the infamous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, trafficked in Holocaust denial, Iranian Jewish leaders didn't stay silent.
Lior Sternfeld: The Jewish representative in the Majlis spoke against him in the parliament, the Jewish leadership wrote op-eds in Iranian—not Iranian Jewish, but Iranian—newspapers.
Jeremy Shere: The Holocaust became such a hot topic in Iran, Sternfeld says that during Ahmadinejad's presidency, Iranian state television produced a Holocaust drama that became a big hit.
In 2008, the Iranian government declared the tomb of Mordecai and Esther in the city of Hamedan a National Heritage site. And in 2014, the Iranian government officially unveiled a monument commemorating Jewish soldiers who had fought and died in the war against Iraq.
Lior Sternfeld: There's no way to downplay the importance of unveiling the monument, an official monument commemorating the Jewish foreign soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war. This was the most important formative experience of post-revolutionary Iran, and Jews were now included in this narrative.
Jeremy Shere: The Jewish community in Iran today is small and it's not exactly growing. But it is a community nonetheless, with several active synagogues, a few Jewish private schools, and even a handful of kosher restaurants. And it's important to keep in mind, Sternfeld says, that unlike Jews who were trapped in the former Soviet Union, Iranian Jews are not prisoners. They're free to leave for Israel or the United States or anywhere else. That any Jews choose to remain in Iran goes a long way towards complicating the narrative that the Iranian regime is rabidly anti-Jewish, at least concerning Iranian Jews. Anti-Israel, yes, with a vengeance, and insofar as the regime opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, it's arguably also guilty of anti-semitism. But for Jews who willingly remain in Iran, life goes on, which, at least for me, shines a new light on the story of Purim.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, the Book of Esther is, at its core, a parable about the dangers of Jewish life in the diaspora. And throughout their history, Jews living in the diaspora have, of course, been persecuted, and Jewish communities exiled and destroyed. But not always, and not everywhere. The millennia-long history of Jews in Iran is a prime example. And so, Sternfeld says, for Jews still living in Iran, Purim has a different meaning than it does for most Jews.
Lior Sternfeld: For Iranian Jews. It symbolizes their belonging to the nation. Last year, there was a fire in the tomb of Esther and Mordecai. And it wasn't clear if someone set fire, if it happened because of electrical negligence or something. But in a second, the entire Iranian media talked about Esther and Mordecai and the importance of this tomb and the story of Purim. For Iranian Jews, this is their holiday. This is something that celebrates them.
Lior Sternfeld, PhD, is an assistant professor of history and Jewish Studies at Penn State University. His is a social historian of the modern Middle East with particular interests in the histories of the Jewish people and other minorities of the region. His first book, titled Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran (Stanford University Press, 2018), examines, against the backdrop of Iranian nationalism, Zionism and constitutionalism, the development and integration of Jewish communities in Iran into the nation-building projects of the last century. He is currently working on two book projects: "The Origins of Third Worldism in the Middle East" and a new study of the Iranian-Jewish Diaspora in the U.S. and Israel. He teaches on the modern Middle East, Iran, Jewish histories of the region, and Israel-Palestine related classes.
As both anthropologist and performer/composer Dr. Galeet Dardashti, PhD, has earned a reputation as a trail-blazing performer, educator and advocate of Middle Eastern Jewish culture. As a scholar, her publications examine Israeli music/media, Mizrahi cultural politics, and the political economy of philanthropy; she is currently completing a book on the Mizrahi piyyut (sacred song) phenomenon in Israel. Dardashti has held postdoctoral fellowships at NYU and Rutgers and most recently was Assistant Professor of Jewish Music/Musician in Residence at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her research as Affiliated Fellow at University of Pennsylvania’s Katz Center in 2020/21 examines a nascent movement of young liberal “Mizrahi” North American Jews. As a performer/composer, Dardashti is widely known as leader/founder of the all-woman Middle Eastern ensemble Divahn, and through her multi-disciplinary commissions The Naming and Monajat; she will be recording Monajat as the Artist-in-Virtual-Residence at Indiana University’s Jewish Studies Program in spring 2021.
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips