- Mashhadis:Jews Out of Place
This study is an important, if still only a partial, answer to the intriguing question of why the Jews of Mashhad still largely perceive themselves, wherever they happen to be living, as separate and distinct from the rest of Iranian and world Jewry. Nissimi's book is also a serious contribution to the study of the "formation and retention of communal identity and memory practices" (p. xii) as observed in the crypto-Jewish community of Mashhad, Iran, especially in the community transplanted to New York. The author makes a thoughtful effort to analyze and understand the reasons behind the enduring resistance to assimilation of the Jews of Mashhad either to local Iranian Jewish communities or to American and Israeli Jewish communities at large.
The Jews of Mashhad, Iran, converted to Shī'ī Islam in the spring of 1839 as a result of an incident allegedly involving a Jewish woman seeking treatment for a wound, on the advice of a Muslim physician, from the warm blood of a dog. This took place, apparently, either on the Shī'ī festival of Āshūrā (10th of Muḥarram), the day commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn (d. 680), or on the 19th of Dhū'l Ḥijja, on 'Īd-i qurbān (Arabic: the Feast of Sacrifice), the commemoration of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Ishmael (not Isaac, as in Judaism). Either way, the woman's act involving a dog, considered najis (Arabic/Persian: 'dirty,' 'impure') by Muslims, especially Shī'īs, incited a mob which burned down the synagogue, desecrated Torah scrolls, looted many homes, and abducted some young girls. Thirty or forty Jews were killed in the melee. Perceiving the community to be in great danger, the leaders of the Jewish community of Mashhad proclaimed the willingness of the entire community to convert to Islam, which was then carried out promptly. The Shī'īs [End Page 712] called the day of conversion Allāhdād (Persian: God-given) deeming the event a divine gift.
While such mass conversions are rare in Jewish history, they are not that rare in late medieval/early Iranian Jewish history. At the risk of promoting herself, this reviewer found it egregious that Nissimi's thoughtful study makes no reference at all to two Judeo-Persian chronicles on which the reviewer has written at length and which have been known since the beginning of the twentieth century.1 Had she consulted them, she would have found out that substantial waves of conversion, forced in various degrees, took place between 1656 and 1666 in many Iranian communities, and in1729 and 1730 chiefly in Kashan. Resisted as much as possible, these conversions were always in the form of anusut (Hebrew: 'forced conversion') in that the physical existence of these communities was perceived to be in danger. However, even if they lost some individuals, all these communities largely continued to practice Judaism in secret, hoping, as it happened in 1666, that a change of reigns would restore religious freedom. In every case, and fully aware of the vagaries of Iranian power struggles, the preservation of the community was the primary goal behind the conversions. Moreover, it may be argued that dissimulation in a Shī'ī environment, which was fully conversant with the religious use of taqīyah (Arabic: 'dissimulation'), was a kind of "game" borrowed from one's Muslim neighbors with every group fairly cognizant of the false nature of such conversions. This would explain why, as soon as appropriate opportunities arose, the Jews on these earlier occasions were allowed to return to their faith without the death penalty demanded by Shari'ah for apostasy.
Thus the event in Mashhad had strong precedents in Iran of which its Jewish leaders must have been aware at least to some degree. Although some Jews fled from Mashhad to Herat, the bulk of the community chose to remain in Mashhad. The reason that that the jadīds (Arabic: 'new [converts]') of Mashhad did not feel safe enough to return to...