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  • Communalization of Memory in an Immigrant Community:The Mashhadis after Mashhad
  • Hilda Nissimi (bio)

Jews came to Mashhad in the first half of the eighteenth century and did reasonably well at that midpoint of several commercial routes.1 Always barely tolerated in this important Shi'i religious center, the Jews were forced to convert to Islam in 1839, thus beginning the story of the Mashhadi community. The individuals who faced the dangers and challenges of a double religious life found that cooperation and unity were important factors in their survival. The families became shrines for the transmission of their Jewish past and for reenactment of that past as far as possible. The common experiences, the common memories, the common blood relations wielded them into one unified underground, cryptofaith community.

When Yaghoub Dilmanian wrote the history of his community and looked for major signposts to divide its history, he aptly named the last chapter "The Immigration Period." Indeed, although immigration was a keynote of the community's life, it was the last pogrom on Passover 1946 that marked the end of the Mashhadi period. Yet they remained one community with many branches, through a "continuous circulation of people, money, goods, and information."2 Before the start of the major emigration of the community in 1946, the estimated number of Mashhadis in Mashhad was between 3,000 and 4,000; in Tehran, 400; and in Palestine, about 1,500.3 The Khomeini revolution in 1979 led to the final uprooting of the entire community in Iran. Today there are about 10,000 Mashhadis in Israel, more than 3,700 in the United States (2,700 on Long Island, New York, and 1,000 in Queens County of New York City, with the rest in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and St. Louis), perhaps 1,000 in Italy, about 50 in Germany, and 5,000 scattered without effectual communities over the globe.4 The numbers for the present do not represent an objective count but something more meaningful: the number of Mashhadis who want to be counted as such.

The first Mashhadis arrived in the United States in the 1940s as students or as their families' business representatives.5 The Khomeini revolution in 1979 brought the entire Tehranian community to New [End Page 141] York. It was an immigration of refugees who left behind property and assets, for whom the United States became first a haven and then a new center.

Perhaps the least expected chapter of the community's survival is the one in the United States. Indeed, the accepted wisdom of the 1950s that immigrants would dissolve into the receiving society, as in a "melting pot," has been dropped.6 American society has changed and is no longer characterized by a single core culture; so too socioeconomic advancement is not dependent exclusively anymore on the adoption of Anglo-American standards. Thus, research vocabulary has also moved from "assimilation" to "immigrant adaptation," and scholarship has preferred to look into specific issues and particular ethnic groups, rather than rendering all-encompassing judgments about American society at large.7

Even so, the Mashhadi community now residing in the New York City area is a special case even among migrant communities. Many (if not most) of the Mashhadis are not originally from Mashhad, nor do they crave to be back there. Many in the community are of the second but often third and even fourth generation after the migration from Mashhad. There, communal ties were the sole guarantee for religious survival and quite often the key to physical safety. However, after the exodus, not only did the rationale for such communal ties disappear, but to some extent the community's continued existence became an argument against its central claim of being an inseparable part of the Jewish people.

It is the purpose of this article to suggest an answer to the paradox. By following the continuity and rupture of the memory practices that led to the formation of the community, the article will chart the community's reconstruction and changes to its identity after it began practicing Judaism in the open, concentrating on the New York experience.

The underground period is characterized by a scarcity of...


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