Ancient Texts Could Unlock Persian Past

It took Iranian Jews in the United States nearly three decades in exile from the land their ancestors called home for 2,700 years to appreciate the rich history and culture preserved in their literature.

Considered one of the oldest but least- studied Jewish writings in the world, Judeo-Persian writings consist of the Persian language written in Hebrew characters by Jews living in what today are Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and some parts of India during the last 1,000 years.

“In Iran the Jewish community was not aware of the value of Judeo-Persian writings, but now that they are away from their home they feel more attached to their heritage and want to preserve it,” said Nahid Pirnazar, founder and director of the nonprofit Los Angeles-based House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts foundation.

Pirnazar, who obtained her doctorate from UCLA in Iranian studies with an emphasis in Judeo-Persian writing, said she formed the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts in 2000 after a significant number of Iranian Jews in Southern California expressed their interest in learning more about these ancient texts.

“There are probably hundreds and hundreds of Judeo-Persian manuscripts in the possession of Iranian Jews,” Pirnazar said. “Not knowing what they are, they think they’re copies of Torahs.”

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution sparked a mass exodus of Jews; today approximately 30,000 to 35,000 Jews from Iran live in Southern California.

For the last five years, Pirnazar has spent her own money in addition to small donations from local Iranian Jews to acquire copies and even originals of Judeo-Persian manuscript collections owned by museums, libraries and individuals in the United States, Europe, Israel and Iran. Her ultimate objective is for the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts to amass the largest collection of Judeo-Persian works in the world.

“Our first goal is to collect and transliterate these manuscripts into the Persian script before the generation that can read them easily is gone,” Pirnazar said. “The next step is to eventually publish and translate some into English and other languages.”

According to “Padyavand,” a series of books about Judeo-Iranian studies by professor Amnon Netzer of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Judeo-Persian literature consists not only of Jewish biblical translations and commentaries but also secular poems, dictionaries, medical texts, scientific treatises, legends, calendars and translations of works by non-Jewish masters of classical Iranian literature.

The oldest Judeo-Persian manuscript — which is also the oldest extant example of Persian writing — is a 37-line merchant’s letter dating to the year 750 C.E. It was discovered in the early 20th century by archaeologists in eastern Afghanistan, according to Padyavand.

Judeo-Persian came into being following the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, when the Jews of Persia, who then spoke what is known as Middle Persian, refused to write the Persian language in Arabic letters but instead wrote Persian with the Hebrew letters they were familiar with, Pirnazar said.

Aside from its linguistic value, Judeo-Persian literature has been a unique window into the previously unknown and painful history of Iranian Jews, who lived under oppressive kings for centuries. According to Vera Basch Mooren’s book, “Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism,” the Iranian Jewish writer Babai Ibn Lutf chronicles in Judeo-Persian a seven-year time span in the early 17th century when the Jews in the Iranian city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam or face execution.

In 1629, Isfahan’s Jews ultimately were permitted to return to Judaism after two of their leaders interceded on the community’s behalf with Safi I of the Safavid dynasty.

Pirnazar also said Iranian Jews continued writing and reading Judeo-Persian up until the beginning of the 20th century but gradually drifted away from it as they secularized and Iranian society opened to them.

Bijan Khallili, an Iranian Jewish publisher and owner of the Los Angeles-based Ketab Corporation, has been publishing Iranian Jewish-related books in Persian and English for more than 20 years.

In 1999, his company published 3,000 Persian-transliterated copies of a Judeo-Persian Torah commentary originally written by the 12th-century Iranian Jewish writer Shahin. He also hopes to publish a Persian translation of a Judeo-Persian text written by the 15th-century Iranian Jewish writer Emrani.

“Sales of the Shahin Torah were OK. Mostly only older Iranian Jews can read the book since it is in Persian,” Khallili said. “The main problem is that younger people can’t read Persian writing, and they are the ones usually buying these books because they want to learn about their history, so we are looking to publish more of them in English.”

Nearly five years ago, interest in Judeo-Persian was rekindled in the Southern Californian community after the Habib Levy Foundation in Los Angeles began providing endowments for a class on Judeo-Persian that was initially taught by Netzer and now is taught by Pirnazar at UCLA.

“A lot of Iranian Jews still do not know that Judeo-Persian studies exists,” said Tannaz Talasazan, 21, an Iranian Jewish student at UCLA. “I think this course on Judeo-Persian is a great opportunity for young Jewish people, especially Iranian Jews who grew up here in America, to learn more about who they are and where they came from.”

The UCLA course not only has received tremendous praise from young Iranian Jews but also has sparked the curiosity of some Iranian Muslim students wanting to learn more about an aspect of Persian literature and poetry they hadn’t known.

“Being able to read Judeo-Persian script was certainly a feeling that I will never forget,” said Reza Khodadai, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who now is a biochemistry major at UCLA. “It was at the final exam, when I answered the whole transliteration section, I was reading a script that had always been unknown to me and I was seeing that it was actually in my own language of Persian.”


Jews of Uzbekistan

What and where is Uzbekistan? Following the breakup of the USSR, Uzbekistan is an independent country of 23 million people, located in central Asia, west of China.

There are three theories on when Jews came to Uzbekistan:

1. A myth-like tale claims they are part of the tribe of Naftali that fled to Central Asia following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.

2. A more authenticated story is that they fled the persecution in Persia under King Peroz in 458 to 485 C.E.

3. They came in the seventh century along the silk road, primarily as merchants.

Whichever story you accept, there is a long history of a Jewish presence in this area. In the ninth century, the city of Samarkand had 50,000 Jews, and the Jewish population of Uzbekistan in 1989 before the mass emigration was 120,000. Today it is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews remain. The number is uncertain because only now have many surfaced who did not identify as Jews under Soviet rule for fear of discrimination.

Over the centuries, the fortunes of the Jews rose and fell with the pains and progress of the region, home to many people whose names at best are only faintly familiar to us in the West: the Sardians, the Achemid Empire, Massagetai, Kushans, Ephthilites, Genghis Khan’s empire, the Timurids of Tamerlane, and many others, not to mention Alexander the Great, the Turks and the Soviets. It’s a land torn by centuries of warfare; Samarkand has been razed eleven separate times.

In spite of difficult periods in the past, today there is no prejudice against Jews. They’re respected more highly than the Russians, whose oppression of Central Asians during the Soviet era is well remembered. However, Uzbekistan is a poor country, suffering from a crippling inflation. In six years, the cyn (local currency) has gone from 11 to the dollar to the current price of over 800 to the dollar, decimating savings and creating economic havoc. A poor economy combined with rising Uzbeki nationalism means that few employment opportunities are available for ambitious young Jews, who have been leaving the country, going primarily to Israel and the U.S. Only in Tashkent, the major city, are some career opportunities available with foreign companies that are entering the country seeking to develop the extensive oil resources.

In spite of this questionable future, the city of Bukhara’s 1,300 Jews have a vibrant Jewish school and two active synagogues. Through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our guide to Jewish Bukhara was 19-year-old Artur Davidov, son of the president of the Bukhara Jewish Community. Davidov, the local schochet, spent a year in Israel and is planning on making aliyah upon completing his university training, citing the lack of opportunity for a creative career in Bukhara.

The vitality of Jewish school No. 36 was electric. The school leaders are Uzbekis who emigrated to Israel, were educated there and returned to their native country full of energy, purpose and enthusiasm. As the principal told us, “I’ll be the last one to go.” Funding for the school comes primarily from the New York Syrian community through a yeshiva in Israel, plus the JDC and the Jewish Agency.

In Morocco, we saw this same process. Jews are leaving, not because of overt prejudice, but seeking a healthier, more fulfilling life. They do not leave out of fear or despair, but with hope for a richer life elsewhere. Perhaps the opportunities in Tashkent will allow a surviving Jewish remnant to remain. Only time will tell. The Jews of Uzbekistan are living in the midst of a mass migration, an oft-repeated saga of the Jewish people.

Emergency Meeting

Experts from Turkey, Uzbekistan and Los Angeles converged in Tel Aviv last month to trade disaster response strategies with Israelis. United by a shared history of disasters — natural and man-made — specialists in the forefront of emergency care attended the week-long International Seminar on Emergency Situations — organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The event was held at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Indeed, many emergency care workers believe that Los Angeles — perhaps the most accident prone city since Pompeii with fires, floods, riots, shootings and earthquakes — could always use some pointers on disaster preparedness and response.

“The Israelis really know how to get people back on their feet and into society,” said Ellis Stanley, Director of Los Angeles’ Emergency Preparedness Division and conference participant. He added that Angelenos should note the manner in which Israeli civilians become “part of a response” to an emergency, i.e., the way they are trained from childhood to deal with the potential for disaster and identify potential bombs in unattended bags and packages.

City officials from Tel Aviv shared the methods they employed during the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles into Tel Aviv.

Israelis expressed interest in adopting a post-disaster trauma program developed by Yanki Yazgan, head of the Psychiatry Department at Turkey’s University of Marmara, to help children cope with catastrophe through artistic expression. At the conference, Yazgan told his fellow specialists that in the wake of the August quake that claimed 17,000 lives in the Izmit region, more than half of the surviving children suffered from some type of trauma.

The conference also included a tour of Ichilov Hospital’s facilities, equipped for gas attacks — an emergency situation in which Israeli expertise is unparalleled.

Said Prof. Natti Laor, director of Tel Aviv Mental Health Center, “In Israel, we are very good at being altruistic and creative. But goodwill is not enough. We must internalize our experiences into the legal system and have standards like we do for chlorine or cholesterol.”

Among the delegates who traveled to Tel Aviv for the conference:

*From Los Angeles — Bil Butler and Constance Perett, Office of Emergency Management, County of Los Angeles; Commander Mark Leap, L.A.P.D.; Deputy Chief John Callahan, L.A.F.D.; and Fredi Rembaum, Overseas Director, Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.

*From Washington, D.C. — Dr. George Buck, consultant to the Federal Government and the City of Los Angeles; and Cindy Larson, Department of Justice, Office of Victim Assistance.