07 July 2009

Iran: The Mashadi Jews

When we lived in Teheran, we generally attended the Abrishami synagogue on Kakh Shomali. Opposite this rather large building - where the chief rabbi officiated, was a smaller synagogue called the Mashadi.

This synagogue was attended by Jews from the northeastern city of Mashad who had been subjected to a mass conversion in 1839, and termed jadid al-islam (New Moslems), much like the Spanish Sephardim who were forcibly converted to Catholicism and called New Christians.

When we lived in Teheran in the 1970s, the beautiful Mashadi center was established, concerts and other programs were held, and a kosher chelo kabab restaurant functioned very well. Eventually, 10 Mashadi synagogues were open in various areas of the city.

To be more accurate, the original 40 Jewish families who settled in Mashad, brought by Nader Shah in 1746 to increase the commercial success of the city, came from various cities - Kashan, Isfahan, Hamadan. It was only in Mashad, and due to common historical events, that they became known as Mashadis.

The Mashadi families went underground with their Jewish traditions and remained extremely learned and Orthodox in all respects, while adopting Moslem customs and names in their public lives. There were some 11 secret synagogues in Mashad.

To avoid breaking the Shabbat, young children were left in charge of the businesses.

To avoid intermarriage, infants and very young children were betrothed. Thus if a Moslem wanted to marry one of the community's girls, they could say she was already betrothed and that ended the discussion. Of course, when the couple grew up and were supposed to marry, there were cases in which either the boy or the girl refused the match.

Marriages took place in the mosque and in the synagogue. Mashadi ketubot are unusual, representing both traditions.

Outwardly, they attended the mosque and also had private synagogues in their homes. Many Mashadi were very successful merchants, some traveled as far as Moscow where they established beautiful homes and successful businesses, while other branches settled in Hamburg, Milan and London.

Only rarely was there marriage between the Mashadi and Iranian Jews of other communities. This has become more prevalent in the past and currrent generation. A problem in the community is that there were really only a handful of families that continually intermarried through the generations - a very small gene pool. In some families, birth defects were the result. Even today, the preferred marriage is within the community, but it is not unusual for young people to marry other Iranian Jews or even Ashkenazi Jews.

Today, some 4,000 live in Kew Gardens (Queens) and Great Neck, Long Island, with about 15,000 in Israel, and smaller groups in several European cities. The community holds extensive archives and photographs and has a well-organized program for young people as well as a monthly magazine.

The Persian Jews are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic. A more accurate description is "Mizrahi" or Eastern Jews. Their customs and traditions more closely resemble Jews of Spanish background, so they are categorized as Sephardim.

The community held a conference in Jerusalem today (July 6), under the auspices of the Global Mashadi Jewish Federation, founded by Bahman Kamali, whose mission is to ensure the survival of Mashadi heritage and preserve it.

For excellent historical information on Mashadi history, see http://mashadirabbi.com/

"By strengthening our global ties, we are working towards promoting the survival of our Mashadi heritage as well as Judaism overall,” Kamali said. “This is a group with a particularly unique history and series of traditions that we are proud to embrace, and this gathering will give us the chance to so here in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world.”

The event, at the Jerusalem Sheraton Plaza hotel, is being attended by leaders and individuals from the international Mashadi Jewish communities. the agenda includes assimilation of the Iranian Jewish Community in the US and Italy, reaffirmation of traditions, and creation of an archive museum documenting Mashadi history, books and artifacts.

The website covers the history and photographs of the community and solicits all contributions - written material, pictures or interviews.

It discusses the difficulties of the Jewish families in the fervently Moslem Shiite population, which considered Jews unclean (najes) and they lived in a specific neighborhood, although they became quite successful businessmen and traders.

In 1839, on Nissan 12, a false accusation spread on a Moslem holy day that Jews were insulting Moslem religious practice. A mob gathered at the local religious leaders' offices demanding punishment for the Jews, and it attached the Jewish neighborhood.

The event was called Allah-dad (meaning "giving of Allah"). Homes, shops synagogue and property were destroyed; 36 Jews were dead. The rest were given an ultimatum: death or conversion; 200 Jews converted to Islam under threat of death and they became masters of living double lives.

Islamic names - such as Hossein, Ali, Hassan and Mohammad, -were common among the older generations. Some added Haji, a title signifying a Mecca pilgrimage, which some traveled to. All children were given a secret Hebrew name.

They bought non-kosher meat but did not eat it. It was fed to the dogs or thrown out. Meat was kosher-slaughtered in secret. Iranian architecture helped as the standard was rooms built around a central courtyard so privacy was assured, with no windows facing outward to the street.

After praying in the mosque they went to their secret synagogues. There were secret Jewish schools for the children who attended regular schools as well. They were carefully educated not to let their Moslem classmates know.

Like marriages, funerals were also held twice, although burials were in the Moslem cemetery.

In 1925, when Reza Pahlavi became Shah, there was a breath of freedom, but in 1946, another riot took place in against the now-3,000-strong community. It was time to leave and many moved to Teheran. Of course, the next exodus took place in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution began.


  1. Fascinating story. Any link (linguistic or otherwise) between the Mashadi and the Jewish Khazars? What are their historic origins?

  2. Warren, Mashadi Jews are Persian Jews, and there is absolutely no connection with Khazars in any way, shape or for.

    Most Persian Jews arrived there following the destruction of the Temple, during the Babylonian Exile. Some date their presence even earlier, from the Assyrian Exile. But there is absolutely no connection to Khazars.

    The Jews brought to the city of Mashad came from other Persian cities.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Schelly. I was just asking, not asserting.
    Any sense of how they contributed to life in Mashad during the last couple centuries?

  4. Hi Schelly,
    Great article! Are there any Persian surnames (or given names) used today that would suggest they were descended from one of the 200 families who converted to Islam?

    Thank you!

  5. Hi, Shelly, Not 200 families, but 200 individuals in some 40 families. Their names are well-known and are still used today. They are very proud of their status, history and family names. The 40 families have intermarried for generations since 1839.

  6. Dear Schelly,

    Thanks for the clarification and information.
    Is there a list of these surnames? I'd be most interested for my own genealogy research.


  7. Hello,
    I googled and found this blog.

    I just read the history on the rabbi's page and i am proud to be a Mashhadi Jew.

    I want to make sure that being American born, that my kids will be able to understand our history.

    Being first generation American, I already have lost part of the history that my dad endured.

    If you want to find a list of names, there is a directory of all the Mashhadi Jews in America. I also think there was a family tree published some 10 years ago with many of the names you may be in need of.

    -Shaily Hakimian