Persia, Then And Now

With the imminent advent of Purim and our annual encounter with Haman and the forces of evil, we are, yet again, brought into uncomfortably close contact with the darker side of Jewish history.

Actually, just in case we might be missing the message, the ancient rabbis declared the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim to be Shabbat Zakhor – the Shabbat on which we are, both literally and figuratively, commanded to remember. From a second Torah scroll, we read a special selection from Deuteronomy (and, subsequently, a special prophetic portion as well) featuring the Biblical injunction to remember Amalek and its infamous treachery. Amalek was the relentless and irreducibly cruel tormentor of the ancient Israelites, so fierce and unscrupulous an enemy that, to this day, the name itself has become synonymous with senseless hatred of Jews. We are commanded to do nothing less than blot out its memory.

The irony is surely lost on no one that the ancient Purim story is set in Persia, the site of today’s Iran. Millenia may have passed, but the story, sadly and stubbornly, remains the same. Call him Haman, call him Ahmedinejad, call him this Ayatollah or that… it is, to say the least, an unsettling, recurring leitmotif. It reminds me of the famous rabbinic comment about Sh’khem– Nablus– to the effect that nothing good ever happened there insofar as Jews are concerned. Joseph was tending his father’s flocks there when his brothers sold him into slavery, his sister Dinah was raped there, and even today Nablus remains a hotbed of Palestinian animus towards Israel. There’s something, it seems, about Persia, that transcends time when it comes to hatred of Jews.

All true, except for one inconvenient fact: it is not at all true that nothing good ever happened there.

In better times, the Jews of Persia, particularly in the middle of the twentieth century, actually thrived. At the time of the rise of the Ayatollah Khumeini and the Iranian revolution against the rule of the Shah, Persian Jews were doing just fine- even more than fine. They were completely integrated into the cultural and political life of Iran, working and socializing alongside the elites of Teheran and other Iranian centers, and large sectors of the Iranian community enjoyed enormous wealth. They moved in the best circles, and were welcomed in the court of the Shah.

Hmm… where have I heard that before?

Scholars of the Golden Age of S’farad, whose remnants I had the opportunity to visit just a few weeks ago in Toledo, Spain, will attest to the fact that much the same could fairly be said about the Jews who flourished so spectacularly under Muslim rule. In every conceivable way, material and spiritual, S’farad in its glory was nothing short of spectacular. Art, literature, music, Torah scholarship, political access… these were Jews who were surely convinced that, outside of the land of Israel for which they pined, they were living in the best of all possible worlds. They lacked for nothing.

And, of course, in our own time, any serious student of the Shoah will know that, in the years leading up to World War II, the Jews of Germany were similarly well positioned. The early Reform Jews described themselves asGermanim b’nei dat Moshe; Jews of the Mosaic persuasion. The promise of modernity, as represented by the Emancipation of European Jewry and their own lives in Germany, seemed to them palpably real, and they were the agents for its realization. And it was not just Reform Jews, but all of those expressions of Judaism that came into being as responses to Emancipation. Neo-Orthodoxy, Positive Historical Judaism, later to become known as Conservative… They believed that Germany was the perfect host for the newly emancipated Jew, the place wherein each and every one of them could find a culture and society that would embrace them. And they were, indeed, embraced– until they weren’t.

Persia, Spain, Germany… each of these outstanding Jewish communities soared higher than Jews ever had before, and then each crashed and burned in increasingly horrific ways. The immutable truth of these stories of glory followed by destruction begs the question that Talmudists employ when encountering seemingly puzzling or unexpected juxtapositions of text: what do we learn from this?

Although they obviously weren’t replying to events that would transpire long after they themselves had left the scene, the ancient rabbis provide an answer that is piercing and devastating in its clarity. Zakhor et asher asah l’kha Amalek baderekh b’tzeitkhem miMitzrayim. Remember what Amalek did to you when you were leaving Egypt. From generation to generation, it will be tempting to forget– to willfully forget– the possibility of the unthinkable ever happening. This is not to say that seeing the unthinkable around every corner is the necessary prescription. That is absolutely not the case. But it is also what makes the imperative of Zakhor so powerful. How do you know which threat is real, and which is not?

We can’t know. And because we can’t know, we are obliged to live in a perpetual state of watchfulness. Zakhormeans that we American Jews who believe that we live in our own version of a redeemed Jerusalem need to be dedicated students of our own history even as we delight in the glorious freedoms of America… which sound eerily familiar to those of the other countries I’ve spoken of in this article.

Zakhor! And despite it all, a very happy Purim!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.