Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing
   1997-03-21: Purim in Iran 




Purim in the land where it began ersian-born Jews of San Diego talk about their 
special holiday

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, March 21, 1997

By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego (special) -- Each year in San Diego, we make lots of noise whenever the name of Haman is uttered during the reading of the Megillah. We participate in costume parades and eat hamantaschen. But what are some of the customs for celebrating Purim in Iran, the nation where the story of Queen Esther and Mordechai actually took place?

Manijeh Breskin, executive director of Congregation Dor Hadash, recalled that when she was growing up in the capital city of Teheran, it was customary for children to fashion a puppet with a triangular hat and "this would be Haman and he would be our slave and we would pull him on the floor behind us."

Today, the former Manijeh Shadpour is married to an Ashkenazic Jew (Stephen Breskin) so she is aware that some Ashkenazim (Jews of central and Eastern European ancestry) write the evil Haman's name on the bottoms of their shoes, "symbolizing walking on him" But Iranian Jewish children "would make the puppet and pull it behind us." 

"Some kids liked to put him on fire, but that wasn't a good idea, so the parents wouldn't agree," Breskin recalled.

Dr. Joshua Cohen, an obstetrician who grew up in the Iranian city of Isfahan, said Haman would be burned in effigy under some circumstances in Jewish quarters of villages and cities, but the effigy would be called "Omar" instead of "Haman."

Today, Iran is an Islamic country, and most of its residents are Shi'ites, belonging to the branch of Islam which believes that their prophet Mohammed's true successor was his son-in-law Ali. Shi'ites also believe that Omar (whom the Sunni Muslims recognized as the successor) was a usurper.

Accordingly, Cohen explained, when an effigy said to be that of Omar was hanged in effigy and set afire, none of the Shi'ite Muslim authorities objected. 

On the other hand, a religious rite based upon Haman might have raised questions, even though Haman and the other non-Jewish characters of the Purim shpiel lived many centuries prior to the advent of Islam and probably followed the Zoroastrian religion.

Breskin said most Jewish ceremonies in Iran would be performed in the privacy of the home, or in the synagogue, to avoid attracting attention. Although during the last decade of the reign of the Shah, Jewish worship became more public (even occasionally being covered on Iranian television), it has reverted to strict privacy since 1979 when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and the current Islamic Revolutionary government came into power.

Breskin and the Cohens both left Iran before the fall of the Shah, deciding not to return after the ayatollahs took power.

Whereas triangular pastries shaped like Haman's ears or hat (hamantaschen) are the favorite holiday treat in the West, Breskin said that in Iran the standard Purim dessert is halva. She does not mean the halva which has the consistency of sawdust that is sold in various delicatessens in San Diego, but rather a different varietey of halva, which has the consistency of Mexican flan.

Breskin said dessert-makers vie with each other to come up with the best design on the halvah, which they decorate with almonds, safron, pistachios and other edibles. The decorations are up to each individual's imagination, but Hebrew words, designs and even scenes from the Book of Esther are frequent themes.

She said that halva is often served at weddings and is also brought to houses of mourning, and has come to be associated both with events of great happiness and great sadness. "It's very appropriate for Purim," she said, because although Haman's plans for the destruction of the Jews were defeated by the clever Queen Esther, "the story could have gone the other way."

Halva is served at the synagogues for the onegs following the megillah reading, she said. Additionally it often is sent to friends and relatives as part of a shalach manot present.

Esther and Mordechai are believed to be buried in a tomb in the Iranian city of Hamadan, which is located between Teheran and Iran's western border with Iraq.

Lyda Cohen, wife of the obstetrician, remembers having gone from her home in Teheran to visit the tomb. One had to bow low to go inside its entrance, assuring that a pilgrim entered with an attitude of respect.
She recalled that pilgrims would pray while walking around two large, ornately carved trunks, before they would back out of the tomb. By backing out, the pilgrims avoided showing disrespect to the great personages buried inside. 

The burial sites of Mordechai and Esther were said to be in the cellar below, in the exact locations where the two trunks were placed on the floor above, she recalled.

Breskin said pilgrims would fast the day before Purim--the way Esther had fasted before she persuaded King Ahashuerus to save the Jews -- so as to give their petitions and prayers inside the tomb more merit.
Architect Yassi Gabbay, who renovated the tomb 20 years ago before moving to Beverly Hills, said pilgrims used to light candles in an antechamber before entering the main room of the tomb, but said that custom was halted as a result of a fire. Candles were especially dangerous in the main room, he added, because of the pilgrims' custom of draping the ornately carved trunks with cloths as a remembrance of their visit. 

"Sometimes there would be so many fabrics left by people," that the fire danger was particularly high, he said.

The architect, who since has won awards from the City of Beverly Hills for his design of an office building at 9025 Wilshire Blvd., and an Oriental Rug Showroom at 8725 Wilshire Blvd., said before the tomb was refurbished it was hidden from view by an apartment building.

He said the Jewish community of Hamadan purchased that apartment building and razed it to clear the way for a courtyard and a synagogue to be added to the tomb complex. 

The tomb itself dates back only to the 16th or 17th century, he said, built over the deep pit in which the original burials are believed to have occurred.

Although the small Jewish community of Hamadan has mostly emigrated since the takeover of the Iranian government by Islamic fundamentalists, Gabbay and Cohen both reported that they have been informed that the tomb remains well cared for by the Islamic Revolutionary authorities.
Asked how it happened that Esther's and Mordechai's` tomb should be in Hamadan, rather than in Persepolis, which was the ancient capital of Persia (Iran), Joshua Cohen explained that after King Ahashuerus died, there arose a king who knew not Esther.

Hamadan, which has far cooler temperatures than the desert city of Persepolis, was the summer capital of Persia, so Esther and Mordechai removed themselves from the palace to an exile in the summer resort, where they spent their final years, according to the folklore.

Hamadan literally means "place of knowledge," and people from Hamadan are praised or teased about how smart they are supposed to be, Breskin said. "When my children seem to be full of themselves, I joke with them that perhaps they think they are from Hamadan," Breskin said.

It is said that Jews have been in Iran for more than 2,600 years, arriving there even before the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE and the resultant exile of the Jews from Judea to Babylon (modern day Iraq). 
As a result of the defeat of the Babylonian empire in 537 BCE by Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Dynasty, the captivity of the Jews in Babylon was ended. 

Many Jews returned to Jerusalem (perhaps afraid, as the Psalmist said, that their tongues might cleave to the roofs of their mouths and their right arms wither for forgetting Jerusalem), but others chose to relocate from Babylon to the land of their liberator, increasing the small community already based in the area of Iran known as Shushan
Cyrus was followed to the throne by his son, Darius, who in turn was succeeded by Xerxes I. 

King Ahashuerus of the Book of Esther is believed to be the same man as Xerxes I, son of Darius and grandson of Cyrus. Xerxes I was born in 519 BCE and was assassinated in Persepolis in 465 BCE.