Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews


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Fowler Museum at UCLA and other institutions highlight this complex topic.

"Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews," on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA through March 10, 2013, tells the rich and complex history of one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, which dates back nearly 3,000 years, since the first Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia settled in the Persian sphere.

Residents and visitors to Los Angeles can view more than 100 objects, including archaeological artifacts, impressive illuminated manuscripts, beautiful Judaica and amulets, paintings, photographs, videos and documentary ephemera are presented in the Fowler's Lucas Gallery to highlight the key features of this long, complicated and vibrant history.

According to the UCLA News Service,the exhibition begins with the biblical story of Esther, who heroically foiled a plot to exterminate the Jews of the ancient Persian city of Shushan. Iranian Jews identify strongly with Esther, and she is remembered through beautiful renditions of the book telling her story, amulets seeking her protection, and her tomb, which is still a pilgrimage site today.

Muslims conquered Persia in the seventh century A.D., and the lives of Jews there became progressively more difficult. In the early 16th century, the Safavid kingdom rose to power and established strict Shiite Islamic doctrine, which discriminated against Iran's religious minorities. Conditions worsened for the Jews, and the exhibition uses various objects to illustrate life in the Jewish quarters (mahale) of Persian cities, as well as some of the constraints caused by Shiite edicts. A section is dedicated to professions forbidden to Muslims and practiced by Jews, such as working as peddlers, used-clothing vendors, jewelry makers, producers and sellers of wine, and musicians and entertainers — in addition to those Jews who still worked as doctors, healers and merchants.

Ironically, these circumstances led the Jews of Iran to play a key role in preserving the legacy of classical Persian music and poetry (both forbidden to Muslims under Shiite law), and "Light and Shadows" features traditional instruments such as the tār, setār and santūr and offers several examples of recorded musical compositions. The Jews were considered "People of the Book," and they valued literacy in both religious and secular texts. Persian literature was integral to Jewish community life, and the exhibition includes rare illuminated manuscripts and books.

In the mid-1800s, Jews living in the city of Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam. As a result, many of them lived double lives, practicing Islam in public but privately maintaining Jewish customs. A special section of the exhibition focuses on the distinctive experiences of these "crypto-Jews" of Mashhad and includes miniature phylacteries worn covertly under a headdress, lavish garments for child–brides who were betrothed at an early age to avoid marriages to Muslims later in life, and pairs of elaborately decorated marriage contracts, a Jewish version in Hebrew and a Muslim version in Persian.

A final section in the Lucas Gallery highlights a range of objects associated with religious practices, ceremonies and rituals that have a distinctive Iranian Jewish style. The consecrated space of the synagogue holds a prescribed set of religious objects, and "Light and Shadows" includes an ornamented cabinet in which Torah scrolls are kept, as well as a number of their silver Torah finials, decorated with recognizably Persian motifs. Wedding ceremonies were a hybrid of Jewish and Persian traditions and were designed to ensure the health and well-being of the young couple. Each marriage was sealed with a formal contract known as a ketubah, among the most beautiful of Persian Jewish illuminated documents. Lastly, the Jews of Iran wore amulets to confer protection against harm and to promote healing, and the exhibition includes a wide range of delicately engraved examples in silver and bronze.

Continuing in the museum's Goldenberg Galleria, the exhibition examines the opening of Iran to the West starting in the late 19th century, the reign of the Pahlavi monarchy and the exodus of much of the Jewish population following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Photographs by Hasan Sarbakhshian document the Jews remaining in Iran today, a community that numbers approximately 25,000. Installations by local artists Shelley Gazin and Jessica Shokrian reflect the large and dynamic diaspora community of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles.

"The Fowler is known for presenting exhibitions that effectively connect local communities with their distinctive heritages and then for sharing these rich and sometimes little-known cultures and histories with our visitors," said Marla Berns, the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum. "In the case of 'Light and Shadows,' it is significant that the museum is situated in Westwood, in the heart of Los Angeles' Westside, with its strong Iranian American presence."

This exhibition was created and organized by Beit Hatfutsot–The Museum of the Jewish People (Tel Aviv, Israel) and curated by Orit Engelberg-Baram and Hagai Segev.

The lead sponsor for the exhibition is the Y & S Nazarian Family Foundation.

The exhibition partner at the Fowler Museum is the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Additional  support comes from the Farhang Foundation and Sinai Temple.

The English-language edition of the book Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews will be published this fall and distributed by University of Washington Press. The multi-authored volume is edited by David Yerushalmi, professor at the Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Related Exhibitions in Los Angeles

A number of companion exhibitions and events at other local institutions have been planned in conjunction with "Light and Shadows."  The exhibitions are:

'My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West'
Shulamit Gallery
Through Jan. 4, 2013
Works by contemporary artists Ben Mayeri, Laura Merage, Soraya Nazarian, Farid Safai and Jessica Shokrian.

'What Remains: The Iranian Jewish Experience'
Hillel at UCLA
Through Dec. 14
Photographs of the Iranian Jewish experience in Los Angeles by Shelley Gazin, Jessica Shokrian and others.
'Iranian Art Reimagined'
Jewish Federation's Bell Family Gallery
Through March 31, 2013
Works by contemporary artists Jessica Shokrian, Mitra Forouzan, David Abir, Shamram Farshadfar and Tal Schochat and by architect Yassi Gabbay.

'We are a reality: Iranian Jewish History in L.A.'
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library (East Exhibit Case)
Through Dec. 14
Books, journals and historical materials from UCLA Library collections that reflect the presence of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles, as well as in Iran.
'Leaving the Land of Roses'
Shulamit Gallery
Through March 9, 2013
Works by contemporary artists David Abir, Krista Nassi, Soraya Nazarian, Tal Shochat and Marjan Vayhgan.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Fowler is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 the museum website.


Visit your local library to learn more about this topic

Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews
David Yeroushalmi, editor, Kathleen Abraham, Fowler Museum at UCLA.; Bet ha-tefutsot, (2012).

Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews
by Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, (2002).   

From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish
by Saba Soomekh, (2012).





Torah finials
Central and western Iran, early 20th century, cut and
engraved silver, 26.9 x 11 cm., Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv


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