Rare L.A. exhibit tells complicated story of Iranian Jews

Talk of Iran these days tends to be about threats of the annihilation of Israel, the potential of nuclear weaponry and bellicose leaders. But before all that, over its almost 3,000-year history, Iran has had one of the deepest and richest artistic heritages of any place in the world, and its Jewish cultural component, in particular, is both intrinsic to the place and not so well known to the outside world — even much of the Jewish world.

Detail of 19th-century painted door from the collection of miriam kove, new york

Some examples:

• A pair of 19th-century painted-wood doors decorated with an image of a couple in an intimate tête-à-tête as he strums a sitar behind a raised curtain, with a love poem in Judeo-Persian inscribed in a cartouche below. 

• An early 20th-century Persian wall carpet made in Kashan and lavishly decorated with intricate biblical scenes and Hebrew inscriptions, in the style of Persian miniature painting.

• An undersize set of leather tefillin, from the town of Mashhad in the mid-19th century, indicating one way this community of Jews forced to convert to Islam secretly practiced its Judaism — by creating phylacteries small enough to hide under their headdresses.

Farsi marriage contract, circa 1853 from collection of robert mardcha, usa

• A ketubah, drawn in vibrant hues of amber and crimson in Isfahan in 1921, richly ornamented with intertwined images of birds, blossoms and the cypress tree, a symbol of eternal life dating back to the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Iran.

These objects, all included in “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” at UCLA’S Fowler Museum, are among the more than 100 sumptuous artworks and other objects — including rare archaeological artifacts, illuminated manuscripts, ritual objects and amulets — on display through March 10. Together, they tell the 2,700-year history of the Jews of Iran, one of that country’s oldest minorities.

Leora and David Nissan pose at Purim, 1964, in Tehran photo/courtesy of david nissan

The exhibition’s timeline begins in 539 BCE, 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 BCE. 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. The show continues through the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the contemporary period, there and abroad.


“Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” Through March 10, Los Angeles. Free. www.fowler.ucla.edu

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal