Memoirs of the Iranian Jews

Although the Jews initially came to Iran as a foreign and non-Iranian group, they soon settled down and began a long process of cultural and social interaction with other groups in the Iranian plateau. Part of the history of this process, which has lasted nearly three thousand years, has been told in a number of Jewish documents, texts, memoirs and literary works which have been largely influenced by the Iranian culture.

The article begins by reviewing a number of Biblical texts which shed some light not only on the ancient history of Iran, its kings and life in the royal courts but also on the life style of the jewish communities and their interrelationship with the non-Jewish communities. The bulk of the article, however, discusses a dozen Jewish memoirs and autobiographies that were written during the Safavid, Afshar, Qajar or Pahlavi periods.

Numerous events and episodes described in these sources, which the author believes have been largely ignored by the Iranian historiographers, draw a detailed picture of the social life of the jewish communities in Iran, particularly in Kashan, Herat and Mashhad and describe their inter-ethnic relations in various periods of Iranian history. Furthermore, these sources provide vivid accounts of forced conversion of Jews, characteristics and policies of a number of powerful Iranian notables as well as certain economic features of the late Safavid period.

According to the author, the periods where Jewish communities in Iran flourished and their members could play a significant role particularly in the social, cultural and educational life of the country coincided with the existence of relatively tolerant political systems. Conversely, whenever the reins of government were controlled by the dominant religion, conducive to the recurrence of religious intolerance and inter-sectarian tensions, the Jewish community in Iran was forced into seclusion and inertia.

Haideh Sahim
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