Jews of Iran

views updated

Jews of Iran

ETHNONYM: Yahundai


Identification. Until mass emigration began in 1948, Jews constituted one of the largest and longest-settled non-Muslim populations in Iran. Dispersed in every city and town in the country, Iranian Jews were almost always a minority except in a few rural settlements, where they occasionally constituted a majority. Jewish communities of Afghanistan, Daghestan, and Central Asia were culturally and linguistically very closely related to those of Iran.

Location. Iran is bounded on the north by Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Turkmenistan; on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan; on the south by the Persian Gulf; and on the west by Iraq and Turkey. Much of Iran consists of mountains and high plateaus, and lacks navigable rivers. The climate ranges from semitropical along the Caspian to true desert in the east. Precipitation varies greatly but is limited to the cold season, (i.e., from October to March).

Linguistic Affiliation. All Iranian Jews speak Farsi, an Indo-European language. Each community also has its individual Jewish dialect, often mutually unintelligible to Jews from other regions. These dialects are grammatically and phonetically distinctive from standard Farsi and utilize Hebrew loanwords and metastasis. A mutually intelligible trade jargon, letra'i, consisting of mostly Hebrew vocabulary embedded in Persian grammar, was regularly spoken by Jewish merchants engaged in both local and intercity commerce. Jewish goldsmiths had their own jargon, zargari, which interpolated nonsense syllables into the flow of speech. A liturgical formalized version of Judeo-Persian is used in synagogue worship, and literature is written in Hebrew characters.

Demography. Until 1979, the Jewish population of Iran was usually estimated at 80,000 to 100,000. Prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948, substantial numbers of Jews were to be found in nearly every city. Rural Jews were found in Fārs Province and Kurdistan. Eşfahān and Shīrāz were traditionally the two largest settlements. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tehran's growth attracted large numbers of provincial Jews. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Tehran had over 50,000 Jews, Shīrāz about 8,000, and Eşfahān 3,000. During that period, increasing fertility and lower mortality were offset by emigration. The Iranian Revolution caused large numbers of Jews to emigrate; estimates of the remaining population are approximately 30,000: 8,000 in Shīrāz, 20,000 or more in Tehran, and less than 2,000 scattered among the other cities and towns. Important communities of Iranian Jews are also to be found in Los Angeles and New York, and large numbers are settled all over Israel. The total number of Iranian Jews may be in excess of 300,000.

History and Cultural Relations

Jews probably first came to Persia (ancient Iran) during the eighth century b.c.e., as a result of Assyria's conquest of Israel. Various traditions ascribe Jewish settlement of Eşfahān to Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, after his conquest of Judah in 586 b.c.e. The biblical books of Daniel and Esther allude to large and sometimes influential Jewish communities in Achaemenian Persia. Under the Sāssānians (226-646 C.E.), Iranian Jews were ruled by a Jewish royal figure, the exilarch, living in Babylonia. Eşfahān was ostensibly a center for Talmudic study. Jews clashed with Zoroastrians over a number of ritual practices in the late fifth century. Mounting suppression of Jewish ritual practices finally culminated in anti-Jewish riots and expulsion of Jews from Eşfahān. After the Arab conquest in 642, Iranian Jews fared rather well. Jewish travelers of the ninth to eleventh centuries described large tracts of Jewish-controlled territory in the Zagros Mountains and refer to Jewish tribal entities engaged in pastoralism. Arab historians of the period refer to the area as "Yahudiya" (lit., "Jew land"). Jews helped found the city of Shīrāz in the eighth century. Iranian Jews were instrumental in international commerce and set up widespread credit networks. A series of messianic movements occurred in the north of Iran and were forcibly suppressed. Jews fared well under the Mongols and were influential in government in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was during this period that there was a flowering of Judeo-Persian religious literature. In 1502, under the Safavids, Shia Islam became the state religion. Jews were more formally treated as dhimmi, a "protected" minority. They were numerous regulations imposed upon Jews, including special dress, colored markers, and restrictions on touching food. In the seventeenth century large numbers of Jews were forcibly converted to Islam, first under Shāh Abbas I and later under Shāh Abbas II. Subsequently they were allowed to return to Judaism, but many did not. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, conditions for Iranian Jews changed with the rulers. Under the Afghans (1736-1747) and Zands (1750-1794), conditions were good, whereas under the Qajars (1796-1925), Jews often suffered extensive abuse and discrimination. In the late nineteenth century European Jews intervened in Iran and sought to protect indigenous Jews from violence. Alliance Française Universelle established schools in the larger Jewish communities and sponsored European-type education for Jewish children. Anti-Jewish pogroms in Fārs Province prior to World War I marked an attempt by local politicians to use indigenous Jewish ties with Europe in an effort to influence European governments. Under the Pahlavis (1925-1978), most discriminatory legislation against Jews was lifted, and Jews were free to participate in almost every aspect of commerce and government. From 1948 to 1978, there were waves of Jewish emigration from Iran to Israel. The last large-scale emigration began in the autumn of 1978 and lasted through the spring of 1979, when large numbers fleeing the Revolution and the Islamic regime established after the demise of the Pahlavis fled to Israel, Europe, and the United States. Under the Islamic government, a number of important Jewish leaders were executed, Jews were harassed, and Jewish schools were forced to integrate Muslim students, teachers, and curricula into their programs. Foreign Jewish-aid organizations were forced out, and some discriminatory restrictions were imposed on Jews. Small-scale Jewish emigration continues, but the remaining community seems to have established a viable socioeconomic niche, and blatant hostility seems to have subsided.

Jews have long been treated as dhimmi; however, this status of "protected minority" has been precarious ever since Imami Shiism became the state religion nearly 500 years ago. In fact, Jews are considered nagas ("polluting") in Shiite terms, and, from time to time, various forms of discriminatory legislation have been adopted. Direct physical contact between Jews and Muslims was traditionally forbidden, and indirect contact such as food handling or sitting on the same carpet was prohibited by strict Muslims. Jews had to wear identifying dress. They were unable to engage in certain occupations, such as agriculture, and tended to enter service or middleman occupations and certain crafts such as gold-smithing. Under the Pahlavis, most of these discriminatory practices were officially eliminated, although the behavior was not totally extinguished. It is not clear whether restrictions were reimposed under the Islamic Republic. Until the late twentieth century, Jews competed economically against other minorities, especially Armenians, and did not generally enjoy good relations with them. They interacted far better with Bahais, some of whom had converted from Judaism.


Ninth-century travelers reported large numbers of rural Jews, many of whom were pastoralists. Since the eighteenth century, at least 80 percent of Iranian Jews have been urban. Their quarter, the mahalleh, was largely homogeneous and usually close to the seat of political power. Housing was traditionally mud-brick with flat roof (except for Kermān, where dome construction was more common). Entrances were low as a defense against forced entry. Alley-neighborhoods were common and kin often lived nearby. The Jewish quarter tended to be self-reliant, distributing foods raised outside and supplying most communal services needed: education, meat slaughtering, ritual bath, synagogue, and so forth. In the late Pahlavi period, most urban Jews lived in newer areas of the cities, recreating some of the institutions left behind in the mahalleh.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence was provided by manual labor and middleman occupations. Diet was heavily dependent on rice, bread, and vegetables. Dairy products processed by local Jews, as well as meat, chicken, and beef ritually slaughtered and distributed by Jewish butchers, were part of the diet. Meat was consumed at least twice a week. The diet began shifting in the late 1960s as processed foods such as pasta, vegetable oil and fat, soft drinks, candy, and ice cream became more available. Among the Western-educated, European, American, and Israeli cuisine became more common. The basic diet, however, remained unchanged.

Lacking banks, fearing robbery, and having been precluded from investing in land, most Jews traditionally disposed of spare cash through moneylending. Many served the community as butchers, ritual slaughterers, and other religious functionaries. Others worked as metalsmiths, masons, drapers, musicians, druggists, doctors, and liquor and carpet merchants. In more recent times, with the breadth of economic opportunity broadly expanded, many more Jewish professionals and entrepreneurs have emerged. Teaching and civil service have provided new opportunities. Others have become automobile dealers and international shippers. Many of the poorest Jews have emigrated; the prerevolutionary community was, for the most part, economically comfortable.

Industrial Arts. The traditional cottage industries of Iranian Jews included warp winding and the manufacture of wine and liquor, jewelry, musical instruments, ritual artifacts, and mosaics. More recently, coppersmithing, "antiques," and tourist items for foreign Jews were also made by Jewish artisans.

Trade. Although a few rural Jews traditionally engaged in farming, most were peddlers. Urban Jews, too, were usually middlemen, plying their merchandise in nearby villages and among distant pastoralists or visiting the homes of perspective buyers within the city. Most have shops along the main streets or booths in the bazaar. Some sell from pushcarts. In Pahlavi times, large Western-style automobile showrooms, stores, and movie theaters were owned by Jews.

Division of Labor. In the past, Jewish women's occupations were limited to peddling, spinning cotton, midwifery, healing, and sewing. Since the early 1960s, many women have obtained high school and college educations and entered nursing, laboratory technology, teaching, librarianship, and business.

Land Tenure. Iranian Jews were generally not permitted to own land until 1925. Since then, Jews have invested heavily in urban property and rural agricultural holdings. Most own their own homes outright or lease by "key" money.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Among contemporary Iranian Jews, the nuclear family is basic, but the khanevadeh (patrilateral extended family), which generally consists of three generations, is the most important unit of family obligation. When the khanevadeh is a residence unit (as it commonly was in the past), extended corporate responsibility is usual. In recent times, more of the responsibilities have been assumed by the famil (bilateral kindred). The famil is loosely defined but usually includes consanguines who are removed from Ego and affines by no more than four degrees. Kindred responsibilities are most associated with life-cycle events, but business associates and mates are often preferentially selected from this group. Descent is agnatic, and lack of sons is deemed calamitous, but lineage links are rarely traceable for more than three or four generations.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is bifurcate collateral; cousin terminology is of the Sudanese type. Fictive terminology is frequently adopted for enhancing business relationships.

Marriage. Marriages were traditionally arranged while the bride was prepubescent. The age difference between husband and wife was frequently ten years or more. Spouses were often close kin; unions between first cousins and between uncles and nieces were especially preferred. Postmarital residence was exclusively patrilocal. In the 1960s brides were usually in their late teens, often high-school graduates, and the age difference between spouses was somewhat reduced. Dowry remains the norm, and with large numbers of young males emigrating from Iran, dowries are said to have reached monumental proportions. Patrilocality is still fairly common, at least for the first year or until a child is born. Divorce is uncommon among Iranian Jews.

Domestic Unit. The khanevadeh was formerly the most prevalent type of domestic unit, but, since the 1960s, households have tended to be nuclear, and family size has been greatly reduced. Traditional households of as many as twentyfive to thirty individuals often included several nuclear or extended families, sometimes unrelated (sometimes not even all Jewish) but often sharing domestic responsibilities. Among emigrants to the United States, extended-family households have sometimes served as a temporary buffer to confronting the economic and socially assimilatory pressures of American life.

Inheritance. Patrilineal inheritance is the rule; all sons inherit equal shares. Daughters receive dowries in lieu of inheritance; they only inherit if there are no sons. A "law of apostasy" used to give the entire estate to any son who converted to Islam, but that law was effectively revoked under the Pahlavis.

Socialization. Sons are favored by parents, but mothers like having daughters to assume domestic responsibility. Corporal punishment is rare and almost never across gender lines. Both parents are much respected, but affection for the mother, as well as her demands on her children, are exceptionally strong. Sons' educations is a father's responsibility; daughters are still primarily a mother's concern. Sibling responsibility remains very powerful, especially across gender lines; brothers can veto their sisters' marriages and resort to corporal punishment of unmarried siblings. On the other hand, sibling mutual responsibility transcends marriage, and ties often remain close and affectionate.

Sociopolitical Organization

Iran has long had authoritarian government. Under the Pahlavis and thereafter, Jews were permitted to elect a parliamentary representative, but they have had very little direct national or local political influence.

Social Organization. Jewish communities are not really stratified, but there is a hierarchically structured ranking system. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the economic structure of the community shifted from a few rich and more poor to a larger proportion of wealthy and "middle class." Social mobility within the community is easy, and ranking is constantly fluctuating.

Political Organization. Traditionally, a dual organization was common in larger urban communities: a publicly visible council of community notables with responsibility to the authorities, and a "council of the pious" composed of community religious figures and ritual functionaries. The latter was frequently more important in community matters. Under the Pahlavis, each community elected an anjoman (council), which gradually assumed full political responsibility for the community, both internally and externally. The anjoman often preferred to defer action, whenever possible; its activities usually had little impact on most people. Group decisions are arrived at by consensus.

Social Control. Ta'arof, formal Iranian manners, based on honor exchange and mutual "offering" was traditionally a most important mechanism for regulating interpersonal relations; public opinion always influences behavior. Mediation is the most common means of settling disputes. Recourse to a Jewish court is a last resort. Use of state courts for resolution of intracommunal matters is considered reprehensible.

Conflict. Because Jews have rarely been treated equitably under the law, external conflict has never been handled well. Where possible, Jews maintain low visibility and rarely resort to violence, no matter the provocation.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Iranian Jews follow the mizrahi, or oriental tradition of Jewish observance. Sephardic influence has affected the ritual tradition over the past 200 years, but practices remain locally and regionally distinctive from the Great Tradition. Judaism is very important for most Iranian Jews, although piety and observance varies inversely with assimilation. The knisa, "synagogue," is not only the most important community religious institution, but remains its primary social institution even in the current Iranian Jewish diaspora. Many men attend synagogue daily, and almost all do so on the SabbathFriday night to Saturday night. Holyday attendance is likewise high. Women participate less regularly. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most important holy days and are occasion for ziyarat ("pilgrimage") to the shrine of Serah bat Asher in the village of Lenjan, near Esfahān. The other holy days are more specifically family- and home-oriented. Each community has numerous ritual functionaries, but few of them, aside from religious teachers, earn their primary income from this service. Observance of the kashrut, the dietary laws, and separation of spouses during and after menses, are the norm.

Arts. Jews have long been among the leading musical performers, dancers, and instrument makers. There are specialized ritual-art forms for local use and the tourist trade.

Medicine. Jews have been fortune-tellers, herbalists, bonemenders, midwives, and doctors. Some continue these traditional practices. Since the 1960s, many have become Westerntrained doctors, dentists, nurses, and medical technicians.

Death and Afterlife. Death is an expected conclusion of life and an occasion for family solidarity. Burial takes place within twenty-four hours of death, and formalized wailing by females is ceremonially appropriate. Customary Jewish mourning rituals continue for a full year. Prayers are recited weekly on the day of the parent's death, special study occurs in the house of the deceased every Sabbath, and yeshuva ("sitting") is held, with study, prayer, and feasting in the house of the deceased on new moons and certain holy days. Death is thought to revisit susceptible households, so amulets are used to keep it away. Belief in spirits is common and similar to that among non-Jewish Iranians.


Loeb, Laurence (1977). Outcaste: Jewish Life in Southern Iran. New York, London, and Paris: Gordon & Breach.

Pliskin, Karen (1987). Silent Boundaries: Cultural Constraints on Sickness and Diagnosis of Iranians in Israel. New Haven: Yale University Press.