Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The secret Jews of Mashad

A conference on the Secret Jews of Mashad entitled "From Darkness to Light " took place at Netanya Academic College on Sunday Dec 25, 2011. It was organized by the "International Institute for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim)" at the College. Greetings were delivered from Israel’s Fifth President, Izhak Navon, the President of the Netanya Academic College, Prof. Zvi Arad, the Chairman of the Institute, Prof. Michael Corinaldi, and Major General (retd.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu. The speakers were Prof. Aharon Namdar, himself a Mashadi Jew, Prof. David Menashri, Mr. Ori Cohen Aharonov , who showed a movie made in the 1970's about the Mashadi Jews, Dr. Hilda Nissimi, Mr. Ben-zion Yehoshua Raz and Mr. Avi Bezalely. The Heads of the Mashadi communities in Israel, Milan and the USA were also present.

Mashad is a city in the north east of Iran. It is one of the holy cities of the Shia Muslims who dominate Iran. Jews lived in Mashad from way back. On a specific day, March 27, 1849, a rumor circulated that a Jewish woman had desecrated the Mosque by sacrificing a dog there. In Mashad there was a pogrom, about 40 Jews were killed, their shops were attacked and ransacked and the whole community of ca. 4,000 Jews were forcibly converted to Islam. They became known as Jadid al-Islam, or new Muslims.

These Jews continued to live in their ghetto area and maintained a very close community in which they secretly remained practicing Jews, but outwardly they were Muslims. They attended the Mosque, they had Persian names, they bought Halal meat, but fed it to their dogs, they did everything in Farsi, they betrothed their children in marriage at a very early age 5 or 6, in order to prevent them marrying out, but the other Muslims refused to marry them anyway. The parallels with the "marranos" of Spain and the Balearic Islands are uncanny, they were forcibly converted to Christianity, they were called New Christians or conversos, they did not inter-marry, and the Old Christians refused to inter-marry with them. But, the Mashadi Jews were unique because for 150 years they maintained their secret lives as Jews even though they were constantly being checked by the Shia Muslims and even though it was risking death to do so.

Every member of the community from the time they were babies were schooled in how to keep the secret. They lived double lives. Candles were lit on Friday night in cellars, The Synagogue was a hidden room that people entered in small groups and left surreptitiously. Whereas there were forced conversions throughout the Persian Empire, nowhere else (as far as is known) did the whole community successfully retain their Jewish identity, only marry between themselves and produce ketubot in Hebrew to document the generations. Mashadi Jews spread throughout Iran, and in some other places, such as Tehran, they lived openly as Jews, but in Mashad they could not. In other towns and villages they were assimilated into the predominant Shia population. Since there were altogether about 1 million Jews throughout Persia, it is estimated that now about 30% of the Iranian population are descended from Jews. Even Pres. Ahmedinejad is rumored to have Jewish antecedents, his name comes from Ahmed al-jadid.

The subtitle of the conference was "From darkness to light." Secret Jews from Mashad went on the Hajj to Mecca and also they were Kerbalis, going to the Shia Shrine in Kerbala. But, many of them then continued to Jerusalem and many stayed there. The first Mashadi Synagogue was built in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem 100 years ago. Under the Shahs the situation for Jews improved, but after the Iranian revolution in 1979 things deteriorated. Most of the 300,000 Iranian Jews then left for Israel, leaving behind about 20,000.

In Mashad there were other attacks and another pogrom took place in 1946, by which time the whole population of Mashadi Jews left for Israel, the US and Europe. All the Mashadi Jews successfully emigrated, and today there are 16,000 in Israel and an equal number in the US and elsewhere. They consider themselves separate from the other Iranian Jews who were never forcibly converted to Islam, similar to the difference between Sephardim and "marranos". This difference caused them some difficulties, including suspicion by the British in Palestine, even though some of them helped the British in Persia, and difficulty being accepted as Jews in Israel.

Ironically the Mashadi Jews in Israel today are in the process of assimilating into Israeli culture, whereas in the US they have retained their identity through intra-marriage, close community relationships as well as continued use of Farsi. The Mashadi Jews are a unique example of the powerful force of adherence to Judaism against all odds.


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