Ancient Language Comes Alive for Iranian Jews in Today’s L.A.
It took Iranian Jews in the United States nearly three decades in exile from the land their ancestors called home for 2,700 years to appreciate the rich history and culture preserved in their literature. Considered one of the oldest but least studied Jewish writings in the world, Judeo-Persian writings consist of the Persian language written in Hebrew characters by Jews living in what today are Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and some parts of India during the last 1,000 years. “In Iran the Jewish community was not aware of the value of Judeo-Persian writings, but now that they are away from their home they feel more attached to their heritage and want to preserve it,” says Nahid Pirnazar, founder and director of the non-profit Los Angeles-based House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts foundation.
Pirnazar, who obtained her doctorate from UCLA in Iranian studies with an emphasis in Judeo-Persian writing, said she formed the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts in 2000 after a significant number of Iranian Jews in Southern California expressed their interest in learning more about these ancient texts. “There are probably hundreds and hundreds of Judeo-Persian manuscripts in the possession of Iranian Jews,” Pirnazar said. “Not knowing what they are, they think they’re copies of Torahs.”
Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution sparked a mass exodus of Jews; today approximately 30,000 to 35,000 Jews from Iran live in Southern California. For the last five years, Pirnazar has spent her own money in addition to small donations from local Iranian Jews to acquire copies and even originals of Judeo-Persian manuscript collections owned by museums, libraries and individuals in the United States, Europe, Israel and Iran. Her ultimate objective is for the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts to amass the largest collection of Judeo-Persian works in the world. “Our first goal is to collect and transliterate these manuscripts into the Persian script before the generation that can read them easily is gone,” Pirnazar says. “The next step is to eventually publish and translate some into English and other languages.”
According to Padyavand, a series of books about Judeo-Iranian studies by professor Amnon Netzer of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Judeo-Persian literature consists not only of Jewish biblical translations and commentaries but also secular poems, dictionaries, medical texts, scientific treatises, legends, calendars and translations of works by non-Jewish masters of classical Iranian literature. The oldest Judeo-Persian manuscript – which is also the oldest extant example of Persian writing – is a 37-line merchant’s letter dating to the year 750 A.D. It was discovered in the early 20th century by archaeologists in eastern Afghanistan, according to Padyavand. Judeo-Persian came into being following the Arab-Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, when the Jews of Persia, who then spoke what is known as Middle Persian, refused to write the Persian language in Arabic letters but instead wrote Persian with the Hebrew letters they were familiar with, Pirnazar said.
Aside from its linguistic value, Judeo-Persian literature has been a unique window into the previously unknown and painful history of Iranian Jews, who lived under oppressive kings for centuries. According to Vera Basch Mooren’s book, Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism, the Iranian Jewish writer Babai Ibn Lutf chronicles in Judeo-Persian a seven-year time span in the early 17th century when the Jews in the Iranian city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam or face execution. In 1629 Isfahan’s Jews ultimately were permitted to return to Judaism after two of their leaders interceded on the community’s behalf with Safi I of the Safavid dynasty.
Pirnazar also said Iranian Jews continued writing and reading Judeo-Persian up until the beginning of the 20th century but gradually drifted away from it as they secularized and Iranian society opened to them. Bijan Khallili, an Iranian Jewish publisher and owner of the Los Angeles based Ketab Corporation, has been publishing Iranian Jewish-related books in Persian and English for more than 20 years. In 1999, his company published 3,000 Persian-transliterated copies of a Judeo-Persian Torah commentary originally written by the 12th-century Iranian Jewish writer Shahin. He also hopes to publish a Persian translation of a Judeo-Persian text written by the 15th century Iranian Jewish writer Emrani.
“Sales of the Shahin Torah were OK. Mostly only older Iranian Jews can read the book since it is in Persian,” Khallili said. “The main problem is that younger people can’t read Persian writing, and they are the ones usually buying these books because they want to learn about their history, so we are looking to publish more of them in English.” Nearly five years ago, interest in Judeo-Persian was rekindled in the Southern Californian community after the Habib Levy Foundation in Los Angeles began providing endowments for a class on Judeo-Persian that was initially taught by Netzer and now is taught by Pirnazar at UCLA.
“A lot of Iranian Jews still do not know that Judeo-Persian studies exists,” says Tannaz Talasazan, 21, an Iranian Jewish student at UCLA. “I think this course on Judeo-Persian is a great opportunity for young Jewish people, especially Iranian Jews who grew up here in America, to learn more about who they are and where they came from.” The UCLA course not only has received tremendous praise from young Iranian Jews but also has sparked the curiosity of some Iranian Muslim students wanting to learn more about an aspect of Persian literature and poetry they hadn’t known.
“Being able to read Judeo-Persian script was certainly a feeling that I will never forget,” says Reza Khodadai, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who now is a biochemistry major at UCLA. “It was at the final exam, when I answered the whole transliteration section, I was reading a script that had always been unknown to me and I was seeing that it was actually in my own language of Persian.”