Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Sion Mehdi spoke at AACI Netanya on "the Secret Jews of Persia."   Sion himself was born in Jerusalem to parents who came from Mashhad, his father traveled via Odessa, Russia, and his mother via Cairo, Egypt.  They met in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem, when it was still part of Syria under the Turks   Sion himself went to England as a child with a British Mandate passport as a Palestinian.  He also had an Iranian Islamic Republic passport.  He returned to live in Israel in 1979.
The Jews of Mashad were a special case, unique in the Muslim world as far as we know.  Mashhad is a city on the silk road in Iran near the Russian/Afghanistan border.  It is considered one of the holy cities of Shia Islam, where the tomb of the eighth secret Imam Ali Reza of Shia Islam is located.  Because it was holy to the Shia, no Jews were allowed to live there, because they would render it unclean.  Elsewhere in the Iranian/Persian Empire under Islam, Jews were treated as dhimmi, an inferior position. 
There are four important dates in the history of Mashhadi Jews:
1736 - Nader Shah, a Sunni Muslim who had taken over the Muslim Persian Empire and expanded its realm as far as India, decided to establish his capital at Mashhad near the eastern border.  Because he did not trust the Shia Muslims he imported Jews to work for him as agents, collecting taxes and controlling his wealth. 
1747 - Nader Shah was assassinated and the situation of the Jews in Mashhad became dire, although they were allowed to continue living there.  
1839 - Upon rumor of a Jewish family sacrificing a dog on the important Shia holiday of Ashura, there was a pogrom, and 35 Jews were killed and many injured and raped.  The remaining ca. 4,000 Jews were gathered together and forced to convert to Islam.  The leaders of the community decided that it was better to convert than die.  But , they took oaths to retain their Jewish identity and practices.  Under great danger they retained two names, a Muslim and a Jewish one, they continued practicing Judaism in secret, they bought halal meat but continued to eat only kosher meat, they engaged their children to be married at birth to avoid inter-marriage and outwardly they were practising Muslims.  The Muslims called them Jadidi-al-Islam, meaning New Muslims (just as the Catholics called the Jews who were forced to convert, New Christians).  Some Secret Mashhadi Jews went on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and then visited Jerusalem, where they founded synagogues for the rest of the community to come to eventually.  During this period the Secret Jews of Mashhad suffered many indignities.
1920 - On the ascension of the Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi, freedom of religion was introduced and the Jews of Mashhad left. Many went to Tehran, but others spread all over the world to London, New York, Munich, and Jerusalem, where they settled in the Bukharan Quarter.  Amongst themselves they are known as Jadidi.  Their history shows close parallels to the conversos and Bnei Anusim of Spain and Portugal.  A library of the Mashhadi Jews has been established at the Gloria and Leslie (z"l) Mound library in Netanya Academic College. 


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