The Accidental Pilgrimage: Rediscovering Persian Judaism and the Perennial Tradition in Iran

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francisco Hayez, 1867

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francisco Hayez, 1867

by Jacob Zamani Cohen, Guest Contributor

This article is part one of a series derived from a larger work in progress by the author based on his travels and experiences.

Since the WikiLeaks sponsored documentary Mediastan went into wide release last December, Lexander Magazine has—independently of WikiLeaks and Sixteen Documentaries and without their knowledge or permission—sought to privately screen the film for a number of journalists in Iran, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Serbia, Bahrain, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The goal of this enterprise was to invite commentary on the questions asked by the Mediastan filmmakers, revolving around the penultimate question, “Does freedom of the press truly exist anywhere in the world and is such an ideal even possible to achieve?”

The ultimate goal of the Lexander project was not to create another film or anything in that vein, but rather to use Mediastan as a springboard to break the ice with various independent and citizen journalists in areas where outsiders don’t often consider such outlets to even exist or able to operate freely. In particular, countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are totalitarian welfare states that attempt to dominate and control every facet of their native citizens’ lives, even the most seemingly minor or trivial aspect. In Bahrain, which is a Shi’a-majority country ruled by a British-imposed foreign Sunni Salafist dynasty originating from the Najd, it is nearly impossible for the ruling regime to control their populations to the extent that is done in other Salafist regimes of the Persian Gulf such as Qatar and the Emirates. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, which has several large indigenous religious and ethnic minorities, the regime is unable to effectively control the flow of information outside its power centers in Riyadh and Jeddah.

Being of partly Persian background myself, and not ever having been to the Motherland of my forefathers, I volunteered to tag along with the Iran group. I had no idea what to expect, but little did I know that I would veer completely away from the team and learn the true story behind my heritage and the truth about the history of the world’s oldest surviving Jewish traditional community.

Like most Jews of Iranian descent born and raised in the Diaspora, I was raised in a mostly secularized, Hellenized Orthodox environment with what little religious education stemming from my days at Sinai Akiba Academy at Sinai Temple in Westwood, Los Angeles. Sinai Temple was and still is a unique congregation due to the fact that it is an Ashkenazi institution that has assimilated a very large Persian component in the years following the 1979 Revolution. This assimilation has come at a very high price in that the Persian members of the congregation, as with other Ashkenazi and Sephardic dominated institutions, are expected to fully assimilate and abandon their native Judaic traditions.

For most Jews of Persian or Iranian background in Los Angeles, this was never usually a major problem due to the fact that the vast majority of the post-revolution emigres were themselves already largely secular, many of whom had never once even spent a day in temple prior to the overthrow of the Shah. The 1979 Revolution had a very interesting side effect in that it actually was a boon for religiously observant Jews in Iran, as the new regime granted overwhelming support for traditionalist community leaders who had been largely marginalized by the Hellenized Jewish elites of Tehran during the era of the Imperial State, many of whom themselves were not actually indigenous members of the historic Persian Babylonian community.

Therein lies the rub: who exactly are the Jews of Iran, and do they all share the same origin? In all the years of my life, I had assumed that they did. Not only was I wrong, not only was everything I had been taught during my years at Sinai Temple wrong, I could not possibly imagine just how ignorant not only Iranians and Iranian Jews themselves are about the history and traditions of the indigenous community, but that global Jewry in general was almost completely ignorant on the matter, including most ironically the State of Israel itself, which, as with most Jewish organizations in the Diaspora, does not even officially acknowledge the unique status and traditions of the Persian Jewish community.

Let me first clear one very annoying and asinine fallacy: Persian Jews are not remotely Sephardic nor Mizrahi. Not even close. You will find in Los Angeles some self-described Persian or Iranian Jews claiming themselves to be genuinely Sephardic or Ashkenazi—such individuals are not actually of indigenous Iranian origin, but are mostly descendants of Jewish immigrants to Iran from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Russian Empire during the 1800s. Some of these immigrants included groups that were not originally Sephardic, but have since largely become assimilated into that ethnoreligious category, most notably the Yemenite Jews.

The indigenous Jews of Iran and Central Asia (the latter known as Bukharan Jews) are in actuality Babylonian Jews who over time became a distinct Persianate society in the years following the release from Babylonian captivity by Cyrus the Great, Emperor of Persia. While many Jews who had been forced into exile by the Babylonian returned to the land of Judah, marking the beginning of the Second Temple period, many others chose to remain in the Persian heartland provinces of Fars, Yazd, Kerman, and Esfahan. Throughout all these centuries since that time, these Persianate Babylonian Jews retained their distinct religious traditions, indeed the oldest and most genuine of Jewish religious tradition, and their traditionalist agricultural lifestyle.

In contrast to the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the indigenous Jews of Iran were mostly commoners of humble background, either rural farmers or textile merchants in the traditional Jewish centers of Shiraz and Esfahan. To this day, the textile industry in those two cities remain largely dominated by Jewish merchants. The indigenous Jews of Iran, due to their social and religious traditionalism, were not generally involved in banking and finance, in contrast to Jews who had immigrated to Iran during the 1800s from North Africa and Europe, who were largely bankers and traders of gold, silver and diamonds, the vast majority of whom settled in Tehran, which prior to the twentieth century did not have a sizable Jewish community. It should be made clear that for the most part, the Jews of Tehran were of non-indigenous origin and highly secularized. They were also generally hostile to any form of Jewish traditionalism and orthodoxy. By the 1950s, a huge gulf had developed between these secular, Hellenized Jews of Tehran and those of the traditional indigenous communities in the south and central regions of the country. The Tehrani Jews were largely fanatically loyal to the Shah’s Imperial State and were viewed as being complicit in the crimes of the regime for having accumulated their massive wealth through their loyalty and devotion to the State.

I learned that my grandfather, a lowly textile merchant and shoe cobbler from Yazd, a very religious man of rabbinical heritage, had endured great discrimination and prejudice at the hands of the powerful elites in Tehran who mocked his humble background and religious faith. I learned that prior to the Revolution, status in the Jewish community of Tehran was tied to one’s economic standing and secularism, in contrast to the traditional communities to the south, which enshrined the fear of God and the Divine Knowledge above the vanity of wealth accumulation and the worship of material comforts.

In conversations with my relatives and various rabbis in Iran, I learned many more depressing facts which opened my eyes to the fact that both the State of Israel and international Jewish organizations promote falsehood after falsehood about not only the status of Iranian Jewry, but the history, heritage and identity of the historic Jewish community of Iran.

While anti-Iranian fanatics like Benjamin Netanyahu and his criminal supporters call for the total destruction of Iran and the Iranian peoples, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Zoroastrians live together side-by-side in the vast metropoles of the nation, as they have done so for many centuries since the dawn of civilization. Iran is one of only two countries, the other being Iraq, where Gnostic Christian communities still exist and thrive, such as the Mandeans. I have encountered none of the antisemitism claimed by anti-Iranian racists, in contrast to my experiences living in Los Angeles, where despite the fact that it is one of the most Jewish cities in the world, also harbors just as many antisemites and self-hating Jews.

At a recent lecture at the Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences in Tehran, a speaker with close ties to the Iranian Parliament spoke of the need for reconciliation between the nations of the world and that the peoples of Iran and Israel are not enemies, and can never become enemies, no matter how hard those like Netanyahu and his Christian Zionist allies try to spark insane holy wars of insanity. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the victim of an absurd campaign of hatred and libelous falsehoods in the Western media, was often criticized by his opponents in Iran for being too pro-Israel and for his advocacy of restoring diplomatic and cultural relations with the State of Israel. What irony of ironies that we live in a world like this, where illusions and delusions reign supreme, and ignorance is the rule rather than the exception. Such ignorant clowns as Benjamin Netanyahu and Pat Robertson would do well to heed the words of Yitzhak Shamir, considered one of the greatest statesmen of Israel, who unabashedly spoke of the eternal friendship between the Iranian and Jewish peoples and the fact that Israel and Iran, no matter their political or ideological differences, must remain allied against the Saudi Salafist cults of terrorism and genocide.

I came to Iran a secular Jew from a materialist background of privilege and financial affluence in Beverly Hills, propagandized into accepting an artificial Jewish identity concocted by Hellenized rabbis claiming themselves to be genuinely Orthodox. While my friends back home think I’ve gone mad, for the first time in my life I have discovered the true meaning of what it means to be a Jew and why Tradition is the only true source of authentic wisdom and knowledge.

To be continued …

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