All News

Light and Shadows - in New York



Since ancient times, Iran has been a mosaic of ethnicities, religions, cultures, and languages. Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews an exhibition created and organized by Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, tells the rich and complex history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, which dates back nearly 2,700 years since the first Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia settled in the Persian sphere. The exhibition official opening was held on December 2, 2013 at a reception attended by over 200 leaders of the Iranian Jewish community and the general community, and will be on view through April 27, 2014 at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

The exhibit sheds light on the age-old enigma of the survival and flourishing of the Jewish people.  To quote Dr. Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper at the British Museum, “The exhibit highlights the moral underpinning of the Jewish people as well as the values and creativity demonstrated by them as they lived among other people.”

The story of Iranian Jews is transformative and universal as it underscores the potential and capacity of all Diasporas to thrive.

Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews is sponsored by The Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation.  The New York presentation of the exhibit is made possible through the generous support of the Diamond Charity Foundation, The David Berg Foundation, Slovin Foundation, Iranian American Jewish Federation of NY-IAJF, UJA Federation of New York, The Global Mashadi Jewish Federation, The E. Ike Eshaghian Foundation, and individual philanthropists.
More than 100 objects including archaeological artifacts, illuminated manuscripts, Judaica and amulets, paintings, photographs, videos, and documentary are presented in the Light and Shadows exhibit. The exhibition’s timeline begins in 539 B.C.E., when Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Empire, defeated the Babylonians and annexed the regions where the exiled Jews from Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judea had settled after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.  It highlights the most famous Persian-Jewish story of all, Purim’s biblical story of Esther, the Jewess who heroically foiled a plot to exterminate the Jews of Iran.  In addition to a floor plan of the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the modern-day city of Hamadan, a protective silver amulet is shown inscribed with the names of the four traditional biblical matriarchs, as well as the name of Esther, as if she were a kind of fifth in the lineage.

The narrative continues through the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century and the more hostile Imamite Shiite conquest in the early 1500s that prompted the harsh conditions for Jews that waxed and waned until the tolerant reigns of the Pahlavi shahs in the early 20th century. And the show continues even further, through the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to the contemporary period, there and abroad.

Muslims conquered Persia in the seventh century CE and the lives of Jews there became progressively difficult. In the early 16th century the Safavid kingdom rose to power establishing strict Shiite Islamic doctrine, which discriminated against Iran’s religious minorities. Conditions worsened for the Jews, and the exhibition uses objects to illustrate life in the Jewish quarter (mahale) of various cities and some of the constraints caused by Shiite edicts. A section is dedicated to the professions practiced by Jews.  Many of these professions, such as working as peddlers, used-clothing vendors, jewelry-makers, producers and sellers of wine, and musicians and entertainers, were forbidden to Muslims.
Ironically, these circumstances led the Jews of Iran to play a key role in preserving the legacy of classical Persian music and poetry, and Light and Shadows features traditional instruments such as the tār, setār, and santūr and offers several examples of recorded musical compositions. Because the Jews were considered to be “People of the Book,” they valued literacy in both religious and secular texts. Persian literature was integral to Jewish community life, and the exhibition includes rare illuminated manuscripts and books.
In the mid-1800s, the Jews living in the city of Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam. As a result, they lived double lives, practicing Islam in public but privately maintaining Jewish customs. A special section focuses on the distinctive experiences of the “crypto-Jews” of Mashhad and includes miniature phylacteries worn covertly under a headdress; lavish garments for child-brides, who were betrothed at an early age to avoid marriages to Muslims later in life; and pairs of elaborately, decorated marriage contracts, a Jewish version in Hebrew and a Muslim version in Persian.

Another section highlights a range of objects associated with religious practices, ceremonies, and rituals, which have a distinctive Iranian Jewish style. The consecrated space of the synagogue holds a prescribed set of religious objects and Light and Shadows includes an ornamented cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept as well as a number of silver finials, decorated with Persian motifs. Wedding ceremonies were a hybrid of Jewish and Persian traditions and were designed to ensure the health and well-being of the young couple. Each marriage was sealed with a formal contract (ketubah), among the most beautiful of Persian Jewish illuminated documents. Lastly, the Jews of Iran wore amulets to confer protection against harm and promote healing, and the exhibition includes a wide range of delicately engraved examples in silver and bronze.
The exhibition also examines the opening of Iran to the West starting in the late-19thcentury, the reign of the Pahlavi Monarchy, and the exodus of much of the Jewish population following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Photographs by Hasan Sarbakhshian document the Jews remaining in Iran today, a community that numbers approximately 25,000. 
Michael Glickman, Michele Tocci 
  Michael Glickman, Michele Tocci
Dan Tadmor, Shula Bahat, Frank and Farshad Lalezarian
Dan Tadmor, Shula Bahat, Frank and Farshad Lalezarian
Dan Tadmor, Judith Stern Peck, Elissa Blaser, Dr. Misha Galperin
Dan Tadmor, Judith Stern Peck, Elissa Blaser, Dr. Misha Galperin
Marvin Kagan, Rabi Hadji Soleimani, Shula Bahat, Eitan Ben Eliahu
Steven Khadavi, Shula Bahat, Shahram Yaghoubzadeh
Dan Tadmor, Shula Bahat, Michele Tocci
Clay Tablet, Persia, Āl-Yahūdu, fifth century BCE, collection of David Sofer, London
 Book of Esther, Iran, 18th century, vellum scroll, gift of Parvis Nazarian, collection of Beit Hatfutsot