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Interview: Houman Sarshar Discusses the New Book Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews

All Things Considered: August 27, 2002

'Esther's Children': The Jewish Experience in Iran



ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

And I'm Jacki Lyden.

King Cyrus brought Jews to Persia in 559 BC from ancient Babylonia; a kingdom of what is now Iraq, to Persia, which is now Iran. There, their history paralleled the rise and eventual diaspora of Jews in many parts of the present-day Middle East. The story is one of persecution, assimilation, forced conversion and a golden age and, eventually, emigration. A portrait of the history of Iranian Jews is beautifully presented in a new book called "Esther's Children," which reads as anthology and scrapbook of the Jewish experience in Iran. It's edited by Houman Sarshar, and the book's name comes from the story of Queen Esther, Iran's Jewish queen.

Mr. HOUMAN SARSHAR (Editor, "Esther's Children"): She was brought to the court of King Ahasuerus by her uncle, Mordecai, who worked in the court. The king was looking for a new bride, and Mordecai brought her to court and told her not to reveal her religion to the king in hopes of becoming queen, and she followed his advice. The king fell in love with her, and they got married.

Later on, Esther realized that one of Ahasuerus' prime ministers, by the name of Haman, was starting to devise a conspiracy against the Jews of Iran. He was planning to receive a decree by the king and persecute all of them. News got to Esther, and she finally essentially had to reveal her Jewish identity to the king and explain to him that Haman was out to kill her people. And the story was all turned around, and Haman was the one persecuted by the king and the Jews of Iran were saved.

LYDEN: This is, of course, the story of Purim, is it not?

Mr. SARSHAR: Yes, absolutely. Yes.

LYDEN: How did the Jews coexist with the early Zoroastrians? Iran, of course, followed mainly the prophet Zoroaster before the Islamic conquest of 622 AD. How did they get along with Zoroastrians?

Mr. SARSHAR: According to most of the information that we have, they got along not so poorly. I mean, there were persecutions at certain periods in history with a couple of the more prominent Zoroastrian figures. But as far as Jews, they were allowed to participate in the army, they were allowed to participate in the government. They were pretty much able to participate in many walks of life while Zoroastrianism was the prominent religion in Iran.

LYDEN: The relationship with the local chieftains would change after the Islamic conquest under the caliph Omar.

Mr. SARSHAR: Yes, that is certainly the case. After the arrival of Islam in the second half of the seventh century of the Christian era, of the Common Era, caliph Omar was one of the first caliphs to actually start a decree by which the Jews were forced to wear a yellow patch on their clothes to distinguish them from the Muslims. This was the first time in the history of Iran that this was done. As you may remember, similar things were starting to happen again in Afghanistan when the Taliban had taken over. They wanted Hindus to wear the same yellow patch.

LYDEN: Now you have so many wonderful compendiums and of documents and maps and family photos and paintings in here.

Mr. SARSHAR: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: But let's go to the 1500s where Jews are first decreed najasat. In other words, that's the Farsi word, I gather, for `impure'?

Mr. SARSHAR: Yes. Najasat is a religious term that applies specifically to all non-Shiites. And King Abbas I, who was the first Shiite king in Iran and who brought the Safavid dynasty to Iran--as a result, the Shiite clergymen who had all of a sudden gained a lot of power started to come up with all sorts of decrees that were meant, for the most part, to encourage conversion to the Shiite creed of Islam. And as a result of that notion, a whole slew of limitations in clothes, in architecture, in where the Jews could live started to be imposed, and it started to make life very difficult for the Jews. And for reasons that we still don't know to this day, this notion of najasat seems to have been impressed upon the Jews more than all other religious minorities in Iran, and it's an issue that really has haunted them since the beginning of the 16th century.

LYDEN: Just reading a little bit from that list of some of the limitations are--(Reading) `Jews may not have shops in the bazaar and cannot open shops on city streets,' but others sound almost bizarre. `When it rains, Jews may not leave their houses.'

Mr. SARSHAR: Yes, that, in fact, is one of the more extreme cases. The idea is that water was considered to be one of the chief catalysts of impurity of najasat. And for that reason, Jews were not allowed to leave their houses on rainy days for fear that raindrops would splatter off their clothes and land on the Shiite passersby and make them impure. Or worse yet, the water would run off from them and go into the water supplies of the town and make the entire water supply impure. And so, yes, they were not allowed to leave their homes on that day.

LYDEN: For hundreds of years, there would be various pogroms, various forced conversions, a very, very famous one in the city of Mashad, in which the entire population is forced to convert within a single day to save their lives, and these are the Mashadi Jews who stay together into contemporary times. But under the Pahlavi dynasty, the Jews of Iran, you write, really would enjoy the most freedom that they had had since the Islamicization of Iran.

Mr. SARSHAR: Yes. There were a couple of reasons for it, and probably the most important one is that the Pahlavi dynasty identified itself very much with the glories of ancient Iran.

LYDEN: And, of course, the shah really wanted that for his people.

Mr. SARSHAR: Absolutely. He wanted it for his people, he wanted it for himself, he wanted it for the country. And also in 1906, a constitutional revolution had happened in Iran, whereby after Article 8 of that constitution, Jews were no longer considered second-class citizens, and by law they were allowed to participate in all aspects of civil life in Iran.

LYDEN: Of course, this golden age under Shah Reza Pahlavi would end with his overthrow and the Islamic Revolution and the coming to Iran in 1979 of Ayatollah Khomeini. Obviously, most of them emigrated.

Mr. SARSHAR: The larger majority of them emigrated. There was approximately about 85,000 to 100,000 Jews living in Iran in the '70s. Close to 60,000 to 65,000 of them immigrated. Most of them went to Los Angeles; some came to New York. The rest went to Israel and dispersed in other towns in the United States.

But as you can imagine, this society that had gone from the lowest levels of society to some of the highest levels economically and educationally were very frightened by the prospect of an Islamic revolution. They had 500 years of history that led them to believe that the situation could become very dangerous for them, and they packed up and left.

LYDEN: Do you think Iranian Jews who are now in America and other places look back to Iran with any sort of nostalgia?

Mr. SARSHAR: I think that they do, for the most part. There is a young generation here that is very much assimilated into the American culture, the kids who came here when they were 10 years or younger--10, 12 years or younger. But our parents--the generation of our parents and the generation of their parents certainly look back at Iran with tremendous nostalgia. Most of the people, most of the Jews alive today, are the ones who witnessed the golden age of Iranian Jewry under the Pahlavi dynasty; life was wonderful, everyone was making a lot of money, they were successful and participating in society in ways that they never dreamt of. Naturally, they would look back with a certain degree of nostalgia.

LYDEN: Well, Houman Sarshar, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. SARSHAR: Thank you very much, Jacki.

LYDEN: Houman Sarshar is the editor of "Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews."

For more on our story on Iranian Jews, check on our Web site at www.npr.org.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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