Sunday, 18 February 2018

The "Hidden Jews" of the East

Many of us have heard about the fate of the Spanish Jews who lived under the Inquisition, the Anoosim. Few, however, myself included, have heard about the Mashadi Jews in Iran who had to endure a similar fate.

A few days ago, I met with a descendant of one such family, Kami Izhakov. This is their story.

Their story begins in 1734 when a king by the name of Nadir Shah, a tolerant man, sought to fortify the northeastern border of then Persia. Towards that end, he brought Jews and resettled them in Mashad, in the District of Khorasan. It is the second holiest city to Shiite Muslims and was, therefore, forbidden to Jews.

The city of Mashad is situated on the silk road was renowned for commerce, mainly leather and fur. The King’s decision paid off. Soon after the resettlement of Jews there, prosperity followed. Their business sagacity coupled with their international connection soon helped the Jews turn the city into a vibrant business center. Even the Muslim residents who had treated the Jews contemptuously and had shunned them socially, soon enjoyed their contributions. Relationships between the two communities improved and both enjoyed the wealth and economic growth.

Unfortunately, after the assassination of the king twelve years later, Muslims began to persecute the Jews and make their lives unbearable.

According to some accounts, matters got worse following an incident which occurred in 1838. A Jewish woman who suffered from leprosy, sought the advice of her doctor. The latter suggested that she uses the blood of a dog to treat her ailment. The woman hired a young Muslim boy to kill a dog for her. The two had a scuffle and the young boy announced to the Muslims that Jews killed a dog during the holy fast day for the revered Ali whom the Shi’a Muslims consider the First Imam appointed by Muhammad.

That incident triggered the resurgence of Muslim hatred to Jews. On that day, crowds of Muslims burst into Jewish homes, pillaged, burned houses and the synagogue and murdered 32 Jews. The Jewish community at that time counted 400 people.
From that day on, the Jews of Mashad, endured a similar fate to the Jews of Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. They became, outwardly, “Jadid Al Islam,” the New Muslims sadly assumed the role of leading a double life, one Jewish, one Muslim. It was reflected in their names, customs and practices.

The clever and pious Jews of Mashad, however, managed to remain loyal to their Judaism by using various means to deceive their Muslim oppressors. They prayed in cellars. They stationed a woman at the entrance to their buildings which stopped the entry of Muslims. They opened their shops on Shabbat but never conducted business. A child would generally be put in charge of the store and instructed to tell the customers that the owner was gone or that the merchandise they wish to purchase was not available.

Keeping Kashrut on Pesach was a more difficult endeavor. Yet, the Jews of Mashad never failed that either. They baked their own Matzah and continued to buy bread which they eventually shared among the poor residents of the city. Throughout their history, the Jews of Mashad postponed the Pesach celebration by about one week due to persecution and intimidation by their Muslim neighbours.

Kosher slaughter, another important tenet of our Jewish culture, as difficult as it was at times, was also adhered to by these Jews. On one occasion, a ritual slaughterer was caught, tortured and eventually killed for performing this important Mitzvah. 

Their double life was also reflected in the way, Mashad Jews attended houses of worship. Prior to entry into the mosque, they would ask forgiveness from G-d. On Friday mornings, they would go to the Mosque and in the evening observe the Shabbat rituals at home, in secrecy of course.

Under pressure applied by their Muslim authorities, many Jews were also forced to perform the custom of the Haj. Those that partook in the pilgrimage to Mecca, were honoured immensely. Funnily enough, they were the leaders of the Jewish community and were the most staunch and devout believers.

One of them was Kami’s grandfather.

Born in 1883 under the Name Rachamim Ben Yitzchak, he adopted the Muslim name Abdul Karim Izhakov. As one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Mashad, Rachamim was very influential. He was a successful businessman who travelled much and was there fore able to maintin valuable contacts with Jewish communities elsewhere. That important fact helped him smuggle a Sefer Torah to Mashad from Russia, a Sefer Torah that is proudly housed in a synagogue in Ramat Hasharon.

Moreover, when Rachamim made the Haj pilgrimage, he stopped in Eretz Yisrael and bought a piece of land in Yerushalayim. He was determined to ensure that he strikes Jewish Zionist roots for his future generatiosn here in Eretz Yisrael.

During WWII when Jewish children, later known as The Teheran Children, made their way out of the inferno in Poland on their way to Eretz Yisrael, it was Rachamim and his fellow Jewish community members that hosted them and helped ease the trauma that those kids had undergone.

With the rise to power of Riza Shah, the father of the late Shah, life became easier for the Jews of Mashahd. About 2000 of them realized their dream to move to Eretz Yisrael.

It is accounts like this one that  make my Jewish essence overflow with pride and awe echoing over and over again the ancient bliss, “Am Yisrael Chai!”


  1. Absolutely Fascinating Batzi!Thank you so much- A very dear and close friend who immigrated from Iran 9 years go will love to read this! Thanks again!

  2. Thanx for a fascinating article about our fellow Jews.- He could be just that old man sitting on a park bench here,- who knows all their stories

  3. Thank you for that uplifting story of struggle and persevanrance....

  4. Bat you always post informative story's and i learn much from your excellent postings so thank you....

  5. Batzi thank you for always posting informative things concerning the Jewish People and i very much enjoy your posts and learn much....

  6. The Jewish people were oppressed, prospered with everyone else, but that brought the religious ire of the Imams and the cycle started all over again with severe oppression and forced "conversion".

    Yet it was even worse under the christians in Europe and later in Russia with the pogroms. thanks for taking the time and effort to put life we live today in a proper historical perspective. We are so blessed!

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