This issue of Nashim, devoted to Iranian Jewish women, fulfills a dream of mine. I am immensely indebted to Shulamit Reinharz for offering me the opportunity to be a part of this project and to the editors of Nashim, Deborah Greniman and Renée Levine Melammed, for their devotion and support.
Jewish existence in Iran, some researchers believe, dates back to the destruction of the First Temple, the Babylonian exile, and the freedom granted the Jews in 539 BCE by the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great. Others assert that Jews settled in Persia (Media) even earlier, in two waves of emigration from the Holy Land that occurred in 727 BC and 721 BCE, during the Assyrian conquest.1 Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Jewish population has shrunk drastically, from 100,000 before the Revolution to approximately 20,000 in 2009. Even so, Iran still hosts the largest number of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel.
Research into the lives and cultures of Iranian Jewish women is relatively new. Information-gathering on Iranian Jewish life has accelerated since the Islamic Revolution and the mass exodus of Iranian Jews from their ancient homeland, as researchers set about recording data that would otherwise be lost with the aging of the older generation. The resulting series of books on Iranian Jews do include some information on women and their lives, cultures and lifestyle, providing raw material for further research and analysis. For example, Yehuda Kopeliovitz's report of his 1928 encounter with R. Haim Moreh in Tehran (see my article), as documented by Amnon Netzer, also mentions the lifestyle of the rabbi's young daughters and his views on women's roles, reflecting those of his society, albeit through the eyes of a western traveler.
Homa Sarshar's Oral History Project is especially significant. After the initial shock of displacement from her homeland, she rushed to record khaterat, recollections of Jewish life in Iran, many of them by women. "Join us," requests the Project's Statement of Purpose, "in discovering these old and wise people [End Page 5] who are walking encyclopedias of knowledge, and help us compile their experiences before it is too late."2 Sarshar has tried to acknowledge, document and dignify not just the history of the highly educated, influential and intellectual members of the community, but also the travails of the less fortunate, who suffered poverty and intense oppression.
Through reading books by Sarshar and other scholars, I, too, have come to appreciate and reclaim my heritage. In my research and in my personal life, I now seek out the wonders of an Iranian Jewish life, as bestowed upon me by my foremothers. Once, I believed that my grandmother Tavoos was a superstitious woman because she was illiterate; now I know that her wisdom went beyond any formal education, and I regret that I don't have the knowledge of her herbal remedies. I still miss her jooshondeh, the brew of roots, seeds and leaves of various plants that she forced us grandchildren to drink each time we had the flu. It was dark brown, and many teaspoons of sugar didn't hide its bitterness, [End Page 6] but the effect was magical. Through her recollections, she taught me Shirazi Jewish history as well as the art of storytelling.
Saba Soomekh writes that many older Jewish women she interviewed "considered each aspect of their domestic world to be holy. They felt that cooking, cleaning, keeping kosher, and observing the Jewish holidays had enabled them to get closer to God and to maintain a Jewish environment for their families." Similarly, I have come to believe that my mother's and my grandmothers' drudgery, which I abhorred and escaped from, had a touch of holiness as well. Every holiday, I...