took Iranian Jews in the United States nearly three
decades in exile from the land they call home
to appreciate the rich history and culture preserved in
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 Iranian Jews living in
mainland-Iran and the area that is known as the Greater
Iran such as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
“In Iranian Jews were not aware of the value of Judeo-Persian
writings, but now that they are away from their home they
feel more attached to their national heritage and want to preserve
it,” said Nahid Pirnazar, founder and director of the non-profit
Los Angeles-based House of Judeo-Persian
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
Iran’s 1979 revolution
sparked a mass exodus of Jews; today approximately 30,000
to 35,000 Iranian-Jews 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 said. “The next step is to
eventually publish and translate some into English and
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 C.E. It was discovered in the early
20th century by archaeologists in east of Greater Iran
today known as Afghanistan, according to Padyavand.
Judeo-Persian came into
being following the Arab invasion of Iran in the seventh
century, when the Iranian-Jews, who then spoke what is
known as Middle Persian (Pahlavi), refused to write the
new Persian script which is based on the 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, Isfahani Jews
ultimately were permitted to reconverted to Judaism after
two of their leaders interceded on the community’s
behalf with Shah 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,”
said 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,” said 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.”