REVIEW: David Yerushalmi. The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century

The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century: Aspects of History, Community and Culture

By David Yerushalmi




Reviewed by Nahid Pirnazar, University of California at Los Angeles

The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century, by Professor David Yerushalmi ofTelAvivUniversity, is an innovative development in documenting the history of Iranian Jews of that era. Although some sources and documents have been revealed and used by previous researchers, Yerushalmi has taken the pioneering step of presenting them all in one volume and one language. This effort will certainly be of great convenience and assistance to researchers and students of Iranian and Iranian Jewish studies for generations to come.

The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century includes a detailed introductory chapter of fifty-six pages followed by eight chapters of documentary sources, divided according to related topics. In his introduction, Yerushalmi draws a detailed and picturesque image of Iranian Jewry, in spite of the limited number of documents available to him.

In his collection, Yerushalmi lists the work his predecessors have previously done in this area. His list, given in chronological order, is an additional resource for those scholars interested in but not already familiar with this topic.[1] In the introductory chapter, Yerushalmi also lists three major obstacles standing in the way of any “well-informed and balanced” study of Iranian Jews in the 19th century and previous eras:  first, “scantiness of primary sources,”[2] second, a “ limited body of scholarly and solid research  and publications,”[3] and, third, the “disjointed and highly scattered nature of available sources”.[4] He then categorizes the types of accessible documents available to researchers into seven major categories:  1) writings by European diplomatic officials, 2) materials written by Christian missionaries 3) travel books and memoirs of European and some Middle Eastern travelers, 4) reports and articles on Jews of Iran in Hebrew and European languages, 5) accounts and testimonies of Jewish religious emissaries visiting Iran, 6)  Iranian historical and clerical sources, and, 7) private and local Judeo-Persian records from different Iranian Jewish communities. He then further divides them based on the time period, location, subjects and authors and, last but not least, the languages in which they were written.[5]

In the second part of the introductory chapter, he gives a general historical background of Iranian Jews and prepares the reader to visualize the Jews’ standing in 19th-century Iran.[6]

Depending on the sources available to Yerushalmi, each of the eight sections contains a number of documents, some translated from their original texts, including those in Judeo-Persian, Persian, French, and Hebrew, as the case may have been. An introduction to each section, given by Yerushalmi, points out the background and the significance of the documents. He expands on the time period, location, and peculiarities of that particular document in relation to individual and communal life of Iranian Jewry in the nineteenth century. The eight sections of the book are as follows:

In section one, nine documents are listed, starting with Jami’i ‘Abbasi, “Comprehensive Collection Dedicated to (Shah) ‘Abbas,’ the Safavid Ruler” – a basic Shi‘ite document from the seventeenth century. This source, compiled by the Shi‘ite scholar Sheikh Muhammad Baha’ al-Din ‘Amili, codifies the Shi‘ite law and dogma.[7]

Other documents presented here are from European countries, particularly Englandand France, and from the Middle East, including Baghdadand Ottoman Palestine. The documents cover a range of writings including travelogues, reports from the Jewish Chronicle of London, and reports from the presidents of Alliance Israelite Universelle, especially those fromBaghdad regarding Iranian Jews.

Several other documents in this section include the observations of Dr. Jacob E. Polack, personal physician to the Shah of Iran from the years 1952 to 1955[8] and “Reports on the Great Famine of 1871-2 in Iran” by the Anglo Jewish Association (1876-7), which reflect Jewish life in Iranian communities”.[9] Street songs, chanted in Tehran by Muslim mobs, depicting the interaction between Jews and their Muslim neighbors and the fundamentally negative stereotypical perception of Jews, make up another part of this section.[10]  The last document included, primarily dealing with the persecution and massacre of the followers of Bab in the city of Yazd during the spring of 1891, indirectly touches on the low rank and comparatively inferior position of the Jews of Yazd at the time.[11]

In section two, Yerushalmi  discussed the demography and geographical Diffusion of  the community. The calculation to estimate the size of the Jewish population in 19th century Iran is a difficult one, due to the lack of appropriate sources as well as insufficient research and studies in the field. Most sources referring to the first half of the 19th century were available to Yerushalmi via Jewish travelers, religious missionaries, European visitors and mainly British officials, all of whom had visited Iranian Jewish communities. The later travelers and officials provide information regarding the number of Jewish families and houses they found in different locations. As Yerushalmi infers, the Jewish communities of Iran grew considerably and progressively during the second half of the nineteenth century, according to the available material, especially those from European Jewish sources.[12]

The second document in this section gives the demographic size of the Jewish communities and settlements of Iran following the Great Famine of 1871-2. This information is based on the annual reports of the Anglo-Jewish Association in connection with the Alliance Israelite Universelle, in both the 1874-75 and 1876-1877 reports.[13]

The third document of this section gives reports of the Jewish population of Iranduring the years 1889-1903. Some of the demographic figures of this era were transmitted by the heads of the Jewish communities of Iranto communal officials and organizations in Baghdadand Western Europe as well as appearing in non-Jewish press and publications of Western Europe.[14]

Section three, reviews the economic and material existence of the community. Often the common occupations and professions held by Jews reflect their socio-economic condition as members of a religious minority.[15] We find most occupations held by the Jews during the 19th century to be among lower, degrading social positions. In fact, certain occupations in that era were left only to Jews, including jobs related to music, entertainment, and wine production.[16] One of the documents in this section, translated into English from Judeo-Persian, concerns the recollections of a traveling Jewish physician from Gulpaygan in 1811. This diary, and those of the kind which the author lists, not only reflects the role of a limited number of Jews as physicians, but also depicts this man’s experiences in provincial towns and villages as a physician treating Jewish and non-Jewish patients.[17]

Another document in this section is an example of “Responsa Literature” found in the correspondence between Jewish merchants of Yazdand Baghdadcirca 1880. Such documents not only reflect the lack of a Jewish religious and halakhic center in Iran to be approached, but also give valuable information about the socio-cultural and economic condition of the existing communities.[18]

Section four reflects the communal organization and inner communal relations. Synagogues have always played a functional role as religious, community, and cultural centers in the preservation of the community, regardless of each individual community’s past history, geographical location, or demographic size. Eye-witness reports by outsider travelers and missionaries, such as Henry A. Stern, visiting Jewish communities and their synagogues are among such reports. In his repeated travels to Iran, Henry Stern reports on the synagogues of cities such as Kermanshah, Hamadan, and Isfahan. His reports reflect the material hardships and lack of adequate legal and physical protection that characterized the lives of many members of Iranian Jewish communities at that time.[19]

Section five discusses the Jewish culture and education  of the era. The educational level of Persian Jews in both general knowledge and Jewish literature was very limited in the nineteenth century. Jewish education, begun at home by the father and primarily for male children, was later continued at schools by teachers according to the oldest methods and heavy discipline. Nevertheless, there were exceptions, and knowledgeable men of deep religious education and pedagogical talent carried out the job of religious and Jewish training in the communities.

Professor Ezra Sion Melamed (1903-1994) has offered some background with regard to the Jewish culture and educational system of the community of his time.[20]  In addition, according to Dr. Abraham Dee Sola, other documents reflect the variety present in the level of education among different areas of Iran, such as that of the Jewish community of Hamadan in the 1840s.[21]  The Judeo-Persian biblical commentary by Benyamin ben Eliyahu of Kashan, circa 1824, is another document reflecting this variety in education, across different parts of the country.[22]

The level of sophistication of the community, reflecting their cultural and educational background, is shown in a small body of original works written in Judeo-Persian during this time. This type of literature is found in the circle of rabbis, sages, and the better-educated Jewish families and individuals in larger urban communities.  Among such sources, the Song of Praise and Prayer for Sir Moses Montefiore represent some of the Jewish literature of that era.[23] 

In section six, discussing religion and spiritual lives, Yerushalmi uses some passages from the memoirs of a learned Iranian clergyman as a sample of the religious life and Jewish affiliation of Iranian Jews.  Mullah Rahamim Melammed Ha-Cohen (1864 -1934), born in Shiraz and passed away in Jerusalem, was the son of a Rabbi and teacher, with no mother since the age of three. His life story, although successful professionally, reflects the miserable family life of his time.  While he was a misfortunate son, husband, and father, we find him performing his religious career, acting as a rabbi and preacher, from the age of eleven. His life story, having only four children survive from among the fourteen his wife had borne, as well as other tragic incidents, demonstrates the poor conditions in general and the ill-treatment extended to children and women at that time.[24]

Section seven reviews the aspects of life and history in the larger communities of Iran. Presenting one of the most resourceful portions of the book, in this section Yerushalmi tries to include documents from different perspectives originating in different communities. In addition to those Iranian Jewish communities familiar to the Western audience, Yerushalmi tries to cover a more comprehensive selection of communities in the areas not as well known to non-Iranian researchers. The cities covered in this section include a variety of large and small communities such as Yazd, Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan, Tehran during the Cholera Epidemic of 1892, Hamadan, Western Azerbaijan (Urumia), and Barforoush (Babul) following the pogrom of May 1866.  The diversity of Iranian and non-Iranian documents written in different languages is another significant characteristic of this section. This mixture creates a pictorial collage of Iranian Jewry in the 19th century. [25]

In section eight, under major events and processes, Yerushalmi discusses the role of the European press and periodicals in the 19th century in introducing Iranian Jewry and their hardships to the world. The role which the author finds to be instrumental and significant. It was the reports of the European press that mobilized the assistance of world Jewry towards Iranian Jews at the time of hardship. However, due to the large volume of such documents, Yerushalmi has tried to present an eclectic choice, mainly made up of those from Great Britain, France, Germany, and Austria. Such communities, with the assistance of their philanthropic organizations, served as “guardians” and “watchdogs” on behalf of distressed and persecuted Jews in other parts of the world, including Iran. In addition to urgent humanitarian causes, along with Northern American publications they later devoted a considerable effort toward identifying and analyzing the underlying roots and causes of the socio-economic disabilities of Jewish communities in various parts of the world.  As Yerushalmi points out, a large body of such material grew progressively as of the 1850s onward.[26]

In his long list of published works cited, Yerushalmi provides the reader with a comprehensive list of published works, old and recent, with regard to Iranian Jews of 19th century.[27]

Overall, we find the titles of the different sections disjointed due to the limited type of sources he has had access to.  Nevertheless, the vision of David Yerushalmi – to gather an eclectic documentary collection in one volume – is certainly a valuable and unprecedented step in studying the history of Iranian Jews, especially for non-Persian-speaking researchers.

Other highlights of the nineteenth century that could be documented in the same manner may include volunteer and forced religious conversions of the Iranian Jews, the early stages of migration of Iranian Jews to other locations, and some documents regarding the establishment of Alliance Israelite schools in Iran.

It is to be hoped that Yerushalmi will pursue this project with regard to the twentieth century as well, either doing so himself or else directing younger researchers to follow in his footsteps, and complete the mission he has started to undertake.  The history of Iranian Jews during the twentieth century should be easier to cover due to the greater availability of sources both withinIranand in the Diaspora. However, due to the number of events and communal accomplishments, such a publication would be much longer.


[1] David Yerushalmi, The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century (Leiden,Boston: Brill, 2009), p. xxiii, n. 6.

[2]  Ibid, p. xxii.

[3]  Ibid. p. xxii.

[4]  Ibid. p. xxiv.

[5]  Ibid. pp. xxv- xxvii.

[6]  Ibid. pp. xxviii- lvi.

[7]  Ibid, pp. 2 – 10.

[8]  Ibid, pp. 24- 35.

[9]  Ibid, pp. 36- 41.

[10] Ibid, pp. 51-54

[11] Ibid, pp. 55- 60.

[12] Ibid, pp. 63-70.

[13] Ibid, pp. 71- 75.

[14] Ibid, pp. 76- 84.

[15] Ibid, pp. 85- 96.

[16] Ibid, pp. 102-107.

[17] Ibid, pp. 97- 101.

[18] Ibid, pp. 108- 118.

[19] Ibid, pp. 121-130.

[20] Ibid, pp. 141-150.

[21] Ibid, pp. 151-157.

[22] Ibid, pp. 158- 163.

[23] Ibid, pp. 164-169.

[24] Ibid, pp. 173-183.

[25] Ibid. pp. 192- 292.

[26] Ibid, pp. 297- 414.

[27] Ibid, pp.  415- 437.

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