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The Jewish community of Mashhad, Iran formed in the 1740s, when Nadir Shah Afshar called for the relocation of forty Jewish families from Qazvin and Dilaman to Kalat. Circumstances ultimately led these families to settle in Mashhad. Known for their integrity and loyalty, these trusted Jewish families were selected to protect Nadir Shah’s treasures and jewels, spoils which he had taken from his Indian invasion. He did not live long enough to witness the implementation of his proclamation.
Mashhadi Jews living in the current Iranian diaspora remain steadfast in their community ties. Religion, community, and nationality are key components forming the identity of the Mashhadi Jewish community. Similar to many of their Jewish brethren, the Jews of Mashhad gravitated towards professions that allowed their trade skills to flourish. They were avid merchants, navigating the ancient Silk Road. Mashhadi Jews were held with the highest regard by Sunni Turkmen and Shiite Mashhadi tradesmen, because of their reputation for honorable and ethical business practices. The perils of travel subjected Mashhadi traders to freezing temperatures, murderous bandits, and limited means of transportation.
Due to their occupations and the arduous conditions involved in their travels, Mashhadi men adopted a lifestyle which required spending several months to years on the road without their families. Modern Mashhadi men continue their forefathers’ unique tradition of working as traveling merchants to support their families. Mashhadi women have likewise upheld their matriarchal tradition of creating family and community cohesiveness by nurturing home, family, and community relationships. Unlike their female predecessors, modern Mashhadi women are exemplary businesswomen, who are heirs to the savvy trade skills of their ancestors.
The pivotal historic event that transformed an undefined group of Iranian Jews into an unfaltering community was the Allahdad (means “God’s Justice”) of 1839. Building social tensions and resentment and suspicion by Shiite Muslims of the Jewish inhabitants of Mashhad's Eydgah ghetto, culminated in an explosive event. A blood libel on the commemoration day of a holy Muslim Imam led to a devastating pogrom. On the eve of Mashhad's Allahdad (March 27, 1839), an estimated thirty-six Jews were killed and approximately seven Jewish girls were abducted to become Muslim child brides. Within the next twenty-four hours, under the risk of death, approximately three hundred Jewish families made the pretense of converting to Islam, under the advisement of their community leaders. The term Allahdad was coined by the forced converts to relate their past sins with the calamity they were enduring.
Following the forced conversions, a number of Jewish families, unable to sustain the facade of Muslim faith, escaped to Herat, Afghanistan. Later on, from Afghanistan to Sub-Continent (Pakistan). Very few Mashhadi converts permanently assimilated to Islam. It is estimated that the remaining community members proceeded to live dual lives as crypto-Jews through the 1920s. During this time, the Jadid-al-Islam (a term meaning “New Muslims”) boasted of two known Sheikhs, fifty-seven known Hajjis, and twenty-one known Karbalais while preserving their secret Jewish identities. Their ties to the Islamic religion were complex at times.
Mashhadi families gradually migrated to Marv and surrounding areas of Czarist Turkmenistan, in an effort to escape persecution in Mashhad and look for better business opportunities in pre-communist Russia. The seemingly stable social and trade environment of Russia did not benefit them for long. In the fall of 1917, the Russian revolution caused the first return of Mashhadi Jews, from Marv to Mashhad. Mashhadis who remained in Russia fell prey to Stalin's “purge of petit bourgeoisie” and some members of the community were imprisoned. In 1925, Reza Shah made an agreement with Stalin to exchange Iranian and Russian nationals. The imprisoned Mashhadis were released to return home, once again. A second blood libel in 1946 led the disenchanted community's gradual relocation to the tolerant cities of Tehran and Jerusalem, joining the few Mashhadi families who already resided there.
Within an eighty-year span, the Mashhadi community migrated at least five times to avoid persecution. Throughout this short period they migrated from Mashhad to Herat, Mashhad to Russia and back, Mashhad to Jerusalem and Tehran, ultimately fleeing during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Mashhadi communities now exist in Israel, New York, Milan, Hamburg, London and Pakistan. In Pakistan, Mashhadi families are Muslims; some of them are Shia and some of them are Sunnis.
Mashhadi youth have assumed their predecessors' ethos of primarily socializing and marrying within their community. This once necessary survival mechanism has transitioned to a comfortable modus operandi for today's Mashhadis. Many praise the modern Mashhadi community for their sense of unity, while some question their insular lifestyle. All perspectives undeniably credit the Mashhadi community for their fervor in upholding their Jewish heritage and traditions.
The resounding conclusion of the Mashhadi story is one that reflects their ability to protect their inherent Jewish religion. The unusual survival method of the Mashhadi crypto-Jews laid the foundation for a modern Mashhadi community who now safely and proudly practice Judaism.
Timeline of Jews of MashhadEdit
Iranian Jews are considered to be the descendants of the Assyrian 722 B.C. and Babylonian Exiles 586 B.C. Within this diaspora, a smaller tribe of Jews evolved, due to their geographic setting in the city of Mashhad, and their robust community ties.
- 1650 – Safavid dynasty ruling in Iran calls to convert or kill all Iranian Jews
- 1739 – Nadir Shah of the Afsharid dynasty invades India.
- 1740 – Nadir Shah brings spoils back from his Indian invasion, in the form of treasures and jewels.
- 1746 – Nadir Shah orders the relocation of forty Jewish families from Qazvin to Khorasan province, for the purpose of guarding his acquired treasures and jewels. Nadir Shah holds a favorable disposition towards Jews.
- 1747 – Nadir Shah is assassinated. Persecution of Iranian Jews resumes. Seventeen of the forty original families move to Eydgah ghetto, Mashhad.
- 1750 – Seven of the original forty families proceed from Sabzavar and settle in Mashhad.
- 1755 – Sixteen of the original forty families proceed from Kalat and settle in Mashhad.
- 1839 – The Allahdad - the forced conversion of Mashhadi Jews to Islam - March 27, 1839 (12 Nissan 5599/11 Muharram 1255). Mashhadi (Anusim) live dual lives as crypto-Jews, through 1925
- 1840 – A number of Jewish families, unable to sustain the facade of Muslim faith, escaped to Herat, Afghanistan
- 1886 – Some Mashhadi Jewish families immigrate to Turkmenistan, Russia, through 1917.
- 1890 – Muslim Mashhadi attempts to expose secret Jewish burial proceedings of crypto-Jews. A potential pogrom is averted.
- 1890s – After completing the Hajj, some Mashhadi families make Aliya to Jerusalem, instead of returning from Mecca to Mashhad.
- 1901 – Haji Adonya HaCohen builds the first Mashhadi Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem, followed by Haji Yehezkel‘s synagogue, built in 1905.
- 1910s – Some Mashhadi Jews move to London
- 1918 – Russian Revolution and start of communism prompts the first wave of Mashhadi Jews to return from Marv to Mashhad.
- 1925 – Reza Shah permits freedom of religious practice in Iran. Mashhadis begin to practice their Jewish faith openly
- 1946 – Second notable Blood Libel in Mashhad forces the now openly Jewish Mashhadi community to begin a decade-long migration to Tehran and Israel.
- 1940s – Some Mashhadi Jews move to United States, well through 1980s
- 1948 - The Jewish population of Mashhad is 2,500.
- 1950s – Some Mashhadi Jews move to Germany and Italy.
- 1979 – Iranian revolution impels Iranian Jews to flee Iran
- 2010 – Over twenty-thousand Mashhadi Jews now reside in Israel, New York, Milan, Germany, and London.
- "The Jews Community of Mashhad". The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.