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Fowler Museum to present major exhibition on history of Iranian Jews

By Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, UCLA Newsroom

Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews

Opening day community celebration takes place Sunday, Oct. 21

Since ancient times, Iran has been a mosaic of ethnicities, religions, cultures and languages. "Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews," on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from Oct. 21 through March 10, 2013, tells the rich and complex history of one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, which dates back nearly 3,000 years, since the first Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia settled in the Persian sphere.

More than 100 objects, including archaeological artifacts, impressive illuminated manuscripts, beautiful Judaica and amulets, paintings, photographs, videos and documentary ephemera are presented in the Fowler's Lucas Gallery to highlight the key features of this long, complicated and vibrant history.

The exhibition begins with the biblical story of Esther, who heroically foiled a plot to exterminate the Jews of the ancient Persian city of Shushan. Iranian Jews identify strongly with Esther, and she is remembered through beautiful renditions of the book telling her story, amulets seeking her protection, and her tomb, which is still a pilgrimage site today.

Muslims conquered Persia in the seventh century A.D., and the lives of Jews there became progressively more difficult. In the early 16th century, the Safavid kingdom rose to power and established strict Shiite Islamic doctrine, which discriminated against Iran's religious minorities. Conditions worsened for the Jews, and the exhibition uses various objects to illustrate life in the Jewish quarters (mahale) of Persian cities, as well as some of the constraints caused by Shiite edicts. A section is dedicated to professions forbidden to Muslims and practiced by Jews, such as working as peddlers, used-clothing vendors, jewelry makers, producers and sellers of wine, and musicians and entertainers - in addition to those Jews who still worked as doctors, healers and merchants. 

Ironically, these circumstances led the Jews of Iran to play a key role in preserving the legacy of classical Persian music and poetry (both forbidden to Muslims under Shiite law), and "Light and Shadows" features traditional instruments such as the tārsetār and santūr and offers several examples of recorded musical compositions. The Jews were considered "People of the Book," and they valued literacy in both religious and secular texts. Persian literature was integral to Jewish community life, and the exhibition includes rare illuminated manuscripts and books.

In the mid-1800s, Jews living in the city of Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam. As a result, many of them lived double lives, practicing Islam in public but privately maintaining Jewish customs. A special section of the exhibition focuses on the distinctive experiences of these "crypto-Jews" of Mashhad and includes miniature phylacteries worn covertly under a headdress, lavish garments for child-brides who were betrothed at an early age to avoid marriages to Muslims later in life, and pairs of elaborately decorated marriage contracts, a Jewish version in Hebrew and a Muslim version in Persian.

Torah finials
Central and western Iran, early 20th century, cut and
engraved silver, 26.9 x 11 cm., Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv

A final section in the Lucas Gallery highlights a range of objects associated with religious practices, ceremonies and rituals that have a distinctive Iranian Jewish style. The consecrated space of the synagogue holds a prescribed set of religious objects, and "Light and Shadows" includes an ornamented cabinet in which Torah scrolls are kept, as well as a number of their silver Torah finials, decorated with recognizably Persian motifs. Wedding ceremonies were a hybrid of Jewish and Persian traditions and were designed to ensure the health and well-being of the young couple. Each marriage was sealed with a formal contract known as a ketubah, among the most beautiful of Persian Jewish illuminated documents. Lastly, the Jews of Iran wore amulets to confer protection against harm and to promote healing, and the exhibition includes a wide range of delicately engraved examples in silver and bronze.

Continuing in the museum's Goldenberg Galleria, the exhibition examines the opening of Iran to the West starting in the late 19th century, the reign of the Pahlavi monarchy and the exodus of much of the Jewish population following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Photographs by Hasan Sarbakhshian document the Jews remaining in Iran today, a community that numbers approximately 25,000. Installations by local artists Shelley Gazin and Jessica Shokrian reflect the large and dynamic diaspora community of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles.

"The Fowler is known for presenting exhibitions that effectively connect local communities with their distinctive heritages and then for sharing these rich and sometimes little-known cultures and histories with our visitors," said Marla Berns, the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum. "In the case of 'Light and Shadows,' it is significant that the museum is situated in Westwood, in the heart of Los Angeles' Westside, with its strong Iranian American presence."

This exhibition was created and organized by Beit Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People (Tel Aviv, Israel) and curated by Orit Engelberg-Baram and Hagai Segev.

The lead sponsor for the exhibition is the Y & S Nazarian Family Foundation.

The exhibition partner at the Fowler Museum is the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Additional generous support comes from the Farhang Foundation and Sinai Temple.

The English-language edition of the book "Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews" (8.75 x 10.75 inches, 198 pages, 100 color and 19 b/w ills., hardcover, ISBN 978-0-9847550-2-8) will be published this fall and distributed by University of Washington Press. The multi-authored volume is edited by David Yerushalmi, professor at the Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel.


A number of companion exhibitions and events at other local institutions have been planned in conjunction with "Light and Shadows." A complete list is online at The exhibitions are:

'My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West'
Shulamit Gallery
Oct. 15-Jan. 4, 2013

Works by contemporary artists Ben Mayeri, Laura Merage, Soraya Nazarian, Farid Safai and Jessica Shokrian.

'What Remains: The Iranian Jewish Experience'
Hillel at UCLA
Oct. 25-Dec. 14

Photographs of the Iranian Jewish experience in Los Angeles by Shelley Gazin, Jessica Shokrian and others.

'Iranian Art Reimagined'
Jewish Federation's Bell Family Gallery
Nov. 1-March 31, 2013

Works by contemporary artists Jessica Shokrian, Mitra Forouzan, David Abir, Shamram Farshadfar and Tal Schochat and by architect Yassi Gabbay.

'We are a reality: Iranian Jewish History in L.A.'
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library (East Exhibit Case)
Nov. 2-Dec. 14

Books, journals and historical materials from UCLA Library collections that reflect the presence of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles, as well as in Iran.

'Leaving the Land of Roses'
Shulamit Gallery
Jan. 14-March 9, 2013

Works by contemporary artists David Abir, Krista Nassi, Soraya Nazarian, Tal Shochat and Marjan Vayhgan.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is one of the country's most respected institutions devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Fowler is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $11 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 or visit



Sunday, Oct. 21
Noon-5 p.m.
'Light and Shadows' Opening Day Community Celebration

1-4 p.m.       
'Hello! Shalom! Salam!'
Family Art Activities

Create a tzedakah box to collect spare change for causes you want to support, and make a wish for your family as you emboss a silver hamsa charm, a sign for protection and good luck.

2 p.m.
'The Tapestry of Iranian Jewish Heritage: Reflections on Historical, Sociocultural and Political Relations'
Fowler OutSpoken Lecture by Nahid Pirnazar

In this opening day program, Nahid Pirnazar, a lecturer in Iranian studies at UCLA who teaches the history of Iranian Jews and Judeo-Persian literature, reflects on how Iranian Jews have influenced and been influenced by Iranian culture and identity. Additionally, Pirnazar discusses how in more recent years, Iranian Jews have continued to balance their attachment to both their religious homeland, Israel, and cultural homeland, Iran, while adjusting to their new environments in the United States and elsewhere.

Sunday, Oct. 28
2-4 p.m.
'Tugging at Heart Strings: Experience the Classical Iranian Tār!'
Family Jam

Discover the melodic beauty of Iranian classical music through Parviz Panah's virtuosic performance on the tār, the stringed Persian instrument that has been said to cure headaches, insomnia and melancholy. Enjoy the exciting conversation between strings and percussion - and then make your own instrument.

Thursday, Nov. 15
Saba Soomekh on Masshadi Jews
Culture Fix

The Jews of Masshad, Iran, were forced to convert to Islam, yet they secretly maintained their Jewish faith. Join professor Saba Soomekh, assistant director of the Jewish studies program at Loyola Marymount University, for this 30-minute talk inside "Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews" as she discusses this "crypto-Jewish" community and their diaspora in America.

Thursday, Nov. 29
7:30 p.m.
Jewish Women's Theatre presents 'Saffron and Rosewater'

Enjoy an evening of stories, song and lovely surprises, transporting you to Iran and back to America and illuminating the struggles of Persian Jewish women. "Saffron and Rosewater" features dramatic readings from the insightful writings of Gina Nahai, Angella Nazarian, Farideh Goldin, Dora Levy Mossanen and Esther Amini, many of whom will be in attendance for a talk-back session. The program concludes with a hosted reception. This special presentation is free, but reservations are required. Unclaimed reservations will be released 15 minutes before the program start time. For reservations, visit

'Saffron and Rosewater" is directed by Eve Brandstein, produced and adapted by Ronda Spinak, co-produced by Jessica Youseffi and presented in collaboration with the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel.

Sunday, Dec. 2
1-4 p.m.
'From Market to Table: A Persian Jewish Tasting Experience'
Fowler on the Town

Mother and daughter Manijeh and Saba Soomekh take participants through Los Angeles' bustling Elat Market to learn about special ingredients and recipes used to make Persian Jewish fare. Following the tour, guests will have a brief cooking demonstration followed by a kosher Persian food tasting. For adults and teens ages 13+. Transportation is provided, and attendance is limited to 40 guests. $20 for Fowler members ($25 for general public). To register, contact

Presented in partnership with the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel.

Sunday, Dec. 16
1-4 p.m.                  
'Gifts to Delight the Senses'
Kids in the Courtyard

Cultures throughout the world give gifts that are infused with scented oils or that contain spices and herbs. Create a gift of your own that charms the senses, inspired by artist Jessica Shokrian's installation in "Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews."

In early 2013, the Fowler will also present a scholarly conference, a Purim celebration and other related events.

... Payvand News - 09/06/12 ... --

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