The Arty Semite

3,000 Years of Persian-Jewish History

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Gallery
Jessica Shokrian, Self Portrait, 2002

At a time when Iran is in the American consciousness thanks to both Washington and Hollywood, a major exhibition about the Jews of Iran has opened in Los Angeles. “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” which originated at Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, is at the Fowler Museum at UCLA until March 10, 2013.

The show, the first ever in the United States on Iranian Jews, traces the 3,000 year-long history Iranian Jewry with more than 100 objects ranging from archeological artifacts to intricately made Judaica to illuminated manuscripts to contemporary photographs and art installations. According to Smadar Keren, Beit Hatfutsot’s curatorial department director, it took two years to collect the various objects and mount the exhibition, which ran in Israel for most of 2011 and was a huge success.

Moti Schwartz, Beit Hatfutsot’s director noted that “Light and Shadows” represented a major turning point for his museum, which does not have its own artifact collection, save for a few items. Based on the positive response to the exhibition, the museum is now set to open one on the Jews of Bukhara, with exhibits on other Jewish communities in the works, as well.

“The artifacts are from Europe, Israel and the United States — mainly from individuals, but also from some collectors,” Keren said. “Once people heard we were looking for items, they started calling us about things they had in their families. In some cases, people didn’t know the importance of these things.” Keren cited as an example a pair of painted doors from 19th-century Iran whose owner had found them at a flea market.

Among the most fascinating material in the show are artifacts from the crypto-Jewish community of Mashhad, such as tiny tefillin that were worn under turbans and sets of Jewish ketubot and Muslim marriage contracts.

Schwartz tells how, in a wonderful coincidence, a kosher Scroll of Esther of Iranian origin had been found in the museum’s storage rooms and which had originally belonged to the Y & S Nazarian family, whose foundation is the exhibition’s lead sponsor.

Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Musuem, believes bringing “Light and Shadows” to her museum made eminent sense given its “long and deep commitment to exploring global cultures, especially the relationship between people and place, and between past and present.” Also, Los Angeles seemed like the right city, given that there are approximately 50,000 Iranian Jews living there — the largest concentration of Iranian Jews in the U.S.

Berns says the show is aptly named, reflecting the fact that the history of Jews in Iran is “not always a dark story. There was great creativity and achievement, and a great will for a culture to survive.” The director emphasized that the Fowler shifted the focus of the contemporary part of the story from Israel to Los Angeles. This section includes: a video installation based on the Jewish lifecycle in the Persian tradition by Californian artist Jessica Shokrian; work by Shelley Gazin, an American artist who has documented the local Iranian Jewish community; and an expanded selection of photographs by Hasan Sarbakhshian, an AP photojournalist who covered the Jewish community in Iran until he left for New York several years ago when things became too dangerous for him to continue working in Iran.

Saba Soomekh, assistant director of the Jewish Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University and an expert on Iranian Jews, is the project coordinator for “Light and Shadows.” Soomekh, 36, says young Iranian Jews do not appreciate what an historical, integrated Jewish-Persian culture and ethnicity is all about. “Persian is the culture they practice at home with their families, but they have a separate Jewish identity that is very much Israel-based,” she said of her contemporaries. She is hoping this exhibition will help them see how Persian nationality and Judaism were, are and can continue to be melded together.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Renee Ghert-Zand, Light and Shadows, Exhibits, Fowler Museum, Bet Hatfutsot

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.