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Reading Megillah in Tehran: How Iranian Jews Celebrate Purim

As Jews around the world commemorate the rescue of Persian Jewry, how do those who live where the story took place mark the day?

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Closing the ark during morning prayers at Youssef Abad Synagogue in Tehran on Sept. 30, 2013. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Iranian city of Hamadan is composed of a series of concentric circles punctuated by spokes that spin traffic out across town. The peculiar urban planning gives the impression of a shimmering pinwheel. Almost at the very center of the innermost circle lies the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai—a mausoleum traditionally thought to be the resting place of the Book of Esther’s two heroes—where Muslims, Christians, and Jews regularly pray. In late 2010, when tensions between the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state were particularly high, hundreds of Islamists protested outside the tomb on a small street fittingly called Esther Lane. Old World War II-era propaganda about Purim being a celebration of a Persian massacre reappeared in the Iranian media, and Western observers started talking seriously about Iran’s “War on Purim.” Meanwhile, the Simon Wiesenthal Center mobilized, lobbying UNESCO to protect the historic tomb. As it turned out, the threats to Jewish religious practice never materialized, and fears for the safety of Iran’s Jewish monuments, while well-intentioned, were largely misplaced. In all, it would seem that apart from creating unique traffic problems, Hamadan’s layout may have had the effect of unduly magnifying the relatively minor disturbances that took place in its center.

Iran’s Jewish community, the largest in the Middle East outside Israel, is currently preparing to celebrate Purim, as it does every year. The Book of Esther will be read aloud in synagogues small and large, gifts will be exchanged, charity will be distributed, and even in the officially “dry” Islamic Republic, wine will be imbibed. Barring traffic jams, the traditional seasonal pilgrimage from cities like Tehran to the mausoleum in Hamadan should run as scheduled. And yet, the events of a few years ago still raise interesting questions about what it means to observe a holiday that celebrates Jewish survival in the face of a Persian decree while still living in modern-day Persia—Iran.

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The establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war had the effect of quartering Iran’s Jewish population in short order; while there were some 80,000 to 90,000 Jews in Iran before 1979, today there are estimated to be around 25,000. A further consequence was that while prior to the revolution significant Jewish communities could be found across the country in places like Mashhad and Yazd, Jews are now mainly concentrated in Tehran, with smaller numbers in Shiraz and Isfahan. Many Iranian Jews—particularly those who left Iran immediately following the revolution—look back at the reign of the shah as the final, golden gasp of Iranian Jewry. And yet, many thousands of Jews continue to freely make their lives in the Islamic Republic, much to the bewilderment of Jews in the West and the government of Israel. Recent fieldwork done in Tehran’s Jewish community shows Jews publicly practicing their religion and living relatively full lives. Occasional anti-Semitic flare-ups notwithstanding, based on conversations I’ve had with people from the community, the Iranian Jewish experience, including Persian Purim celebrations, looks much the same as it did four decades ago under the shah.

I spoke with an Iranian rabbi who recently emigrated from Iran for economic reasons and for whom last Purim was the first he celebrated outside the Islamic Republic. After recounting his initial shock at the unbridled levity and even racy costumes that have become the norm in Purim celebrations in places like Israel and the United States (the custom to dress up on Purim is not native to Iranian Jewry, and Iran, which is a rather conservative place to begin with, has official modesty laws), the pious rabbi proceeded to tell me about the festive but relatively reserved atmosphere of Purim as it is celebrated in Iran today. Even Jews not generally punctilious about synagogue attendance make great efforts to attend Megillah readings. And for reasons of decorum, the booing at Haman’s name is limited as much as possible to the climactic section naming Haman’s 10 sons. When asked about disturbances and anti-Jewish propaganda in reaction to the holiday, the rabbi was entirely dismissive, claiming that this was the inconsequential chatter of a small minority of misinformed fanatics. Purim in Iran, he stressed, was celebrated with pride, dignity, and not a hint of shame.

Ever since Iran’s economy was modernized over the course of the 20th century and widespread crushing poverty became a memory, Iranian Jews have celebrated the sometimes costly holiday unhindered and often to great effect. Lavish food gifts are exchanged among friends and family, although in Iran it is engaged couples who devote the greatest effort preparing exquisite Purim platters. One elderly woman who left Isfahan after the fall of the shah related to me that she still remembers the delicious burn of dried-fruit liquor, which grooms would send to their brides to break the Fast of Esther on Purim eve. With Purim normally coming right before the first stirrings of spring, there’s a sweet, natural logic to Iranian Jewry’s romantic twist on mishloaḥ manot. Still, Purim in Iran looks on the whole like Purim anywhere else—if one ignores the significance of celebrating the holiday where the story took place.

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While the biblical Book of Esther details the establishment of an annual celebration with feasting, gifting, and charity distribution, Purim as we recognize it today is in a basic sense a product of the Babylonian Talmud. The unique texture of the festival was formed only in late antiquity, when rabbis living in Babylonia fleshed out the various observances and, through pronouncements like the requirement to get so drunk that one cannot distinguish between Mordecai and Haman, effectively transformed Purim into something like a raucous Jewish Mardi Gras.

During the centuries when the Talmud was produced, two superpowers divided much of the civilized world. The Roman (and later, Byzantine) Empire reigned over the West, including the Land of Israel, while the Sasanian Iranian dynasty ruled the East, which included Babylonia. Iran was never far from the thoughts of late antique Jews, especially those within and alongside the Sasanian Empire’s borders. Interestingly, the Jews assumed a connection between the ruling Sasanians and the ancient Achaemenid kings Cyrus and Xerxes, who appear in the Bible. And like Jews living in the Islamic Republic today, these communities celebrated Purim in the shadow of a powerful if usually benevolent Iranian empire.

One passage in the Talmud hints at the implications some rabbis saw in celebrating Purim while still subjects of a Sasanian king. The discussion concerns the reason Jews do not recite the Hallel (“Praise”) prayer on Purim despite the fact that the holiday commemorates a salvation from a crisis even more dire than that of the bondage in Egypt. Rava, a prominent Talmudic sage who lived in close proximity to the corridors of Sasanian power, remarks: “Granted, Hallel is said with respect to the exodus from Egypt, for in Hallel it says: ‘Give praise, O servants of the Lord’ (Psalms 113:1)—servants of the Lord and not the servants of pharaoh. But can it be said here ‘Give praise, O servants of the Lord’ and not the servants of Ahasuerus? We are still the servants of Ahasuerus!” (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 14a). Rava felt that despite the great joy Jews experience on Purim, their celebration is somehow dampened by the cold facts of Realpolitik. Indeed, how could one give full-throated thanks for escaping Ahasuerus’ dangerous decree if centuries later they were still governed by his progeny?

The Jewish community of Talmudic Babylonia was not the only one that knew intimately of contemporary Iranian power and considered the Purim story in that light. A well-preserved synagogue discovered in 1932 in the Western Syrian garrison town of Dura Europos reflects a parallel approach that is nevertheless quite different from that of Rava. The third-century C.E. synagogue contains no fewer than 14 colorful frescos depicting biblical scenes. One of the most prominently displayed panels is the Purim Triumph, which contains two scenes from the Book of Esther. On the left side, Mordecai is shown garbed in royal Persian raiment and led on a horse by Haman, who is dressed as a lowly, Iranian stable boy. This image is apparently a midrashic embellishment of Esther 6:11. In the middle of the panel, there is a group of four men dressed in Greco-Roman garb apparently making a hand gesture signifying approval. And on the right, a young messenger presents a missive to King Ahasuerus with Esther and some attendants close by. Given the triumphant context, the letter is probably a report of the number of attackers killed by the Jews, which was sent to the royal court (Esther 9:11).

Apart from the easy identification of the relevant biblical verses, the broader meaning of the Purim panel is not given to easy interpretation. One of the greatest mysteries concerns the group of men in the center of the frame. What is their role and what might they represent? Hebrew University art historian Sholom Sabar suggests that the toga-clad men represent Roman authorities who gleefully approve of the debasement of the Iranian authority, Haman, in the scene on the left. When this is coupled with the report of Jewish pre-emptive assassination of would-be Persian assailants depicted on the right, a more coherent interpretation emerges: The Jews living in Roman Dura apparently saw in the Purim story a still-relevant degradation and defeat of the dangerous Persian threat directly across the border.

This is actually not the end of the story of Purim and Persians at Dura. Fascinatingly, the Purim fresco contains a brief Persian inscription marking an unexplained visit by two Sasanian officials to “this place of worship of the God of gods of the Jews” in 255 C.E. According to a recent reconstruction by University of California professor Touraj Daryaee, the brief text recounts how the officials “saw this painting … and liked” it. It is tantalizing to imagine how the Persian dignitaries were drawn to this vivid depiction of an Achamenid ruler, and how synagogue officials would have had to scramble to provide a positive spin on the scene. In any case, the whole affair was swiftly put to a rest; within a year, the Sasanian army overtook Dura. The settlement lay virtually untouched until it was rediscovered by archeologists less than a century ago.

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I recounted some of this history to the Iranian rabbi I spoke to, hoping to cut through some of the banality of Purim, as I saw it, in today’s Islamic Republic. I repeated my questions: “Are you sure that Iranian officials took no real interest in a holiday with violent depictions of Persian-Jewish tensions? Were you never concerned about publicly announcing Megillah-reading times?” Apparently, I was fishing for a story that was not to be found. Without skipping a beat, the rabbi responded to my question by making a point of his own: “I don’t understand. The Purim story is not about a Persian threat against the Jews. It is about what happens when a non-Iranian character like Haman the Aggagite infiltrates a ruling Iranian government and tries to turn everything upside down.” Indeed. Every generation and its seekers. Every generation and its interpreters.

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Reading Megillah in Tehran: How Iranian Jews Celebrate Purim

As Jews around the world commemorate the rescue of Persian Jewry, how do those who live where the story took place mark the day?