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The Mysteries of Azerbaijan: A Shiite Nation Embraces its Jews: Rob Eshman, Jewish Journal, Dec. 18, 2013— Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon.
Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews: Richard McBee, Jewish Press, Jan. 24, 2014 — This extensive exhibition of more than 100 objects originated at the Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv and surveys more than 2,500 years of Jewish presence in Persia, known since the early 20th century as Iran.
Bucharest’s Jewish Theater Struggles to Cheat Death: Can’an Liphshiz, Times of Israel, Feb. 24, 2014— When secret police opened fire on protesters near her home, Maia Morgenstern headed for the Jewish State Theater.
Zionism in Jassy, Romania: The Importance of History: Milad Doroudian, Jerusalem Post, Feb. 22, 2014 — Zionism, a polemical issue, still causes fiery debate amid Israeli and international politics and is seen by some as a movement, culture and mentality that is no longer viable in the current Israel.
Freud and the Marranos: How Yosef H. Yerushalmi Gave Voice to Jews Caught Between Worlds: David N. Myers, Tablet, Feb. 10, 2014
Syria’s Israeli Guardian Angel: Itay Hod, Daily Beast, Jan. 31, 2014
Bouena Sarfatty of Salonika: A Partisan-Poet Holocaust Survivor: Renée Levine Melammed, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 28, 2014
BDS and the Oscars: How Screenwriter Ben Hecht Defied an Anti-Israel Boycott: Rafael Medoff, Tablet, Feb. 26, 2014
Jewish Journal, Dec. 18, 2013
Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon. To get there, you fly 13 hours from Los Angeles to Istanbul, then catch a three-hour flight to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country of some 9 million people on the Caspian Sea. From Baku, you take a bus past churning oil derricks and miles of empty desert, up into the Caucasus, through tiny villages surrounded by apple orchards. After two hours, you arrive in Quba, the capital of Azerbaijan’s northeast region. About a mile past an attractive central mosque, a simple steel bridge spans a wide, mostly dry riverbed and leads directly into Red Village.
One of the first things you see is a large brick building atop which sits — improbably, impossibly — a Jewish star. About 4,000 people live in Red Village, every one of them Jewish. That makes Red Village the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel. This entirely Jewish town exists in an almost entirely Muslim country — ancient, placid, prosperous. It is also completely unknown to the majority of the world’s Jews. I had to see Red Village to believe it. I had to figure out: What’s the deal with Azerbaijan?
Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev convened 750 journalists, scholars, activists and scientists from around the world to participate in the annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum. The invitation offered a chance to see for myself a country that, from what I’d heard over the years, has never quite fit the standard American perception of Muslim = Fanatic and Shiite = Really Fanatic. After all, Iran, also a Shiite nation, lies just across Azerbaijan’s southern border. But while Iran is the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. The Shiites of Iran would treat me, an American Jew with a passport full of Israeli stamps, as an enemy. In Azerbaijan, I was an honored guest…
For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Azerbaijan was under the rule of the Russian empire, which exploited its resources. When the tsar fell in 1918, Azerbaijan quickly formed a secular republic, the first Muslim majority country in the world to do so. Its parliament immediately granted women the right to vote — a year before the United States did. But the flowering of democracy, commerce and art was brief. The Bolsheviks arrived just 22 months after Azerbaijan declared independence, attacked what they called liberal and decadent Baku Muslims, crushing a rebellion and absorbing Azerbaijan into the USSR. When Hitler invaded Russia, his brass ring was Baku’s oil, which provided more than 80 percent of the fuel for the Soviet war effort. In 1942, Hitler’s general staff gave him a cake in the shape of the Caucasus. Hitler ate the slice with “Baku” written on it. “Unless we get Baku oil,” Hitler said, “the war is lost.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baku finally won its independence in 1991. Its first president, Heydar Aliyev, who died in 2003, and his son and successor, Ilham Aliyev, have managed to negotiate lucrative long-term oil and gas contracts that, for the first time, keep Azerbaijan’s money at home and have tilted the former Soviet satellite westward. Oil money has enabled a modern, busy city with cutting-edge architecture and luxury stores to grow up around the well-preserved walls and narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City. Baku is a cleaner Tel Aviv surrounding a smaller-walled Jerusalem.
What’s even more surprising about Baku is its people. The majority are traditional but secular. Few women wear headscarves — the look is skirts and heels, more Westwood Boulevard than Riyadh. But Azerbaijan’s tolerance is not a Western import. It’s homegrown, even ancient. “The multinational, multiconfessional society is one of our assets,” President Aliyev said in the conference’s keynote address. “All nationalities see their religion respected. … This contributes to the building of a civil society.” For the Jews, that is remarkably true. “There has never been anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan,” Arye Gut, the Azeri-born founder of the international association Israel-Azerbaijan (AZIZ), told me. Like many Azeris who have immigrated to Israel, he maintains strong personal and business ties to his home country.
In a meeting at his office, Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee for Work With Religious Organizations, pointed out with some understatement that Azerbaijan has resisted the increasing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. Iskandarov, an urbane graduate of Columbia University, theorized that Azerbaijan’s location on the Silk Road international trade route long ago encouraged its people to accept all kinds of cultures. Or, as a Cambridge-educated Azeri told me later in my week there, “Our philosophy is, ‘Why fight when you can trade?’” Like many Azeri officials I met, Iskandarov could rattle off the names of famous Azerbaijani Jews — who are pretty much the most famous Azerbaijanis, period — among them pianist Bella Davidovich, Nobel Prize physicist Lev Landau, Israeli singers Sarit Hadad and Yaffa Yarkoni, pioneering physician Gavril Ilizarov and chess master Garry Kasparov, who is half Armenian. There is also writer Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey and Kurban Said, author of the most famous Azeri novel, “Ali and Nino.”…
Iskandarov wondered aloud whether the nation didn’t share a lineage with the eighth-century Khazars who converted en masse to Judaism. Perhaps, the ambassador posited, Azerbaijani Shiites have Jewish blood. “When we are talking about Jews,” he said, “this is tolerance of our own past.” I asked how the government keeps extremist Islamic ideologies from taking root in Azerbaijan. Iskandarov pointed to his bookshelf, where there were thick tomes of sermons prepared by government-appointed imams and distributed to mosques — local imams were encouraged not to veer from these more liberal teachings. There is freedom of religion — but not too much. Many countries, including Iran, say they love the Jews — it’s just Israel they can’t stand. Azerbaijan is different. It has strategic defense partnerships with Israel, and the two countries conduct $5.5 billion in trade annually. Last year, Iran protested and even threatened “consequences” after the Azerbaijan foreign minister announced an official visit to Israel. President Aliyev refused to back down.
“I know who my friends are,” Aliyev said, “and who my enemies are.”
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Jewish Press, Jan. 24, 2014
This extensive exhibition of more than 100 objects originated at the Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv and surveys more than 2,500 years of Jewish presence in Persia, known since the early 20th century as Iran. While this is primarily an intriguing historical exhibition chronicling the heroic as well as disastrous history of Jews in the Shiite Islamic empire, it also features significant works of Jewish art. The most exciting artifact is in the first section: the Cyrus Cylinder, dated from 530 BCE. This reproduction of the original found in The British Museum is a cuneiform inscription by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire and conqueror of most of the civilized states of the ancient Near East. Seen by some as the “oldest known declaration of ‘human rights,’” it specifically permits Babylonian captives to return to their homelands and religious practices. This historical proof of the Jewish return from the Babylonian exile is overtly praised in Ezra 1:1 -11 and reflected in Isaiah’s approbation of Cyrus; “So said the Lord to His anointed one, to Cyrus, whose right hand I held, to flatten nations before him…” (45: 1-7). It is here that Jewish history leaps alive in the artifacts of an ancient civilization.
Jewish life in Persia came with many trials and tribulations, but the establishment of a Shiite Muslim regime from the early 16th century well into the 19th century created an institutionalization of the oppression of the Jewish minority. According to Shiite belief, Jews are ritually impure and therefore the slightest physical contact is anathema. Persian Jews were discriminated against and forced to live in isolated Jewish neighborhoods called the Mahale. Forced conversion, mismatched and distinctive clothing, limited profession opportunity along with occasional violence kept the Jews subservient, even while paradoxically there was a traditional Jewish elite of doctors and healers essential to Persian society.
The intolerant nature of Persian society resulted in periodic attacks, including the pogrom in the city of Mashhad on March 26, 1839 resulting in the death of 30 Jews and the forced conversion of close to 2,000, many of whom continued to secretly observe Jewish practices. Tens of thousands of their descendants are in Israel and New York to this day and many artifacts of their dual existence that were necessary for daily life are seen here including ketubot that mimic Muslim marriage contracts, weekly Torah readings that imitate Koran readings, tiny tefillin boxes for secretive use and similar ruses. Nonetheless, Jews were able to operate on the fringes of Persian society, even maintaining a surprising role in preserving secular poetry and musical traditions that Shiite tradition suppressed. Utilizing many videos the exhibition documents the notable contributions that Jews made to Persian society whenever they were allowed to exercise their natural creativity.
Not surprisingly in the literate and affluent Persian society all types of illuminated manuscripts flourished, including Jewish literature. Many of the manuscripts selected here, including those only represented in digital format, are amalgams of traditional Jewish texts, such as the Book of Esther, and that of Persian kings and history. Additionally poetic paraphrases of biblical stories based on Jewish, Islamic and Persian sources, such as Shahin-Torah Nama by Mawlana Shahin (1877) are seen here illuminated. Unfortunately, these beautifully complex works that blend multiple cultural influences and visual traditions derived from the extremely rich illuminated Persian manuscript tradition are not adequately explained or shown to their best advantage. The manuscript Prayer Book by “the Young Yosef Avraham Shalom Abd al-Raziq from Yazd, Iran (1860)” is an exception; its well-lit and open presentation allows for a full appreciation of its beauty, skill and sensitivity…
Equally surprising is the introduction of the entire exhibition with a large Kashan wall carpet from the Ben Ephraim Family Collection in Tel Aviv. This beautifully complex image presents an eschatological program starting with Moses and Aaron and the Mishkan on the bottom and proceeding up to the Temple Mount and the Sanctuary above, depicted in perspective as a kind of futuristic grand synagogue. Along the borders are depictions of Noah’s Ark and Sacrifice, Binding of Isaac, Sale of Joseph and Finding Moses in the Reeds. Further research reveals that the prototype of this carpet “was presented by the Shah of Iran, Nasser-e-Din (1848-1898) to his Jewish doctor, Hakim Nour Mahmood, in honor of Mahmood’s survival from an assassination plot by his envious colleagues” (Jewish Carpets by Anton Felton, 1997; pg 156). And just as it is especially perplexing that none of this information is available in the exhibition, neither is there an exploration of the extensive history and iconography of Persian Jewish carpets. Yet, in spite of these omissions, Light and Shadows at YUM still serves as a significant introduction to the history and art of Persian Jews, and, by their example, a courageous model for Jewish culture wherever it is found in our vast and sometimes troubled Diasporas.
Times of Israel, Feb. 24, 2014
When secret police opened fire on protesters near her home, Maia Morgenstern headed for the Jewish State Theater. It was 1989 and Morgenstern, then 27, and a few of her friends took refuge in the theater as protesters outside clashed with forces loyal to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Hundreds died in two weeks of chaos that culminated with Ceausescu’s execution and the end of decades of communist tyranny. For Morgenstern and her friends, the theater was a natural destination amid the chaos. Between the bunker-like walls of its 19th-century building, Romanian Jews have historically found a rare space in which they could come together as a community even during their country’s bloodiest periods. “It was my second home,” said Morgenstern, who became the institution’s manager in 2012. “We went there because it offered us a sense of safety.”
Throughout Romania’s tumultuous 20th-century history, the Jewish State Theater remained open and Jewish, providing the capital’s Jewish community an island of sanity and a sense of continuity through difficult times.
More recently, the theater has become a cultural bridge, attracting large non-Jewish crowds to its Yiddish-language performances, an unlikely development made possible by simultaneous translation technologies and Morgenstern’s star status. As an actress, Morgenstern has appeared in dozens of Romanian films and television shows and, in 2004, came to the attention of English-speaking audiences when she portrayed Mary in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
But the institution’s future was plunged into uncertainty last month after a snowstorm destroyed parts of its dilapidated roof and interrupted performances for the first time in decades. The theater is now mounting a campaign to repair the structure and ensure the institution’s survival. Earlier this month, a cast of 20 performed the comedy “Mazl Tov and Justice for All” on the street in front of the theater to raise awareness about its plight. “This show is meant to be a warning to public opinion but also for the authorities,” said a statement announcing the show. “Do not let a theater with a unique tradition and identity disappear from Europe’s cultural landscape because of carelessness.”
The Bucharest city council has promised to repair the theater. Legally, it is required to do so, as the building is registered as a national monument. But Morgenstern is skeptical. She says the council had made repeated promises to upgrade the building before the accident, but nothing happened. Complicating matters is that the building was neglected for so long that merely repairing the roof won’t suffice. Morgenstern points to deep cracks that crisscross the ceiling, pillars and beams. The cost of fixing it all is estimated at several million dollars. “The building is so rundown that a renovation won’t do,” Morgenstern said. “It needs restoration, not renovation.” On Jan. 25, about 80 square yards of the theater’s roof caved in under snow, producing a cascade of moisture that destroyed the building’s old wood floor. The theater suspended shows, which had been running every other day.
Before the roof collapse, the theater had a mostly non-Jewish cast who performed 70 percent of their shows in Yiddish before a predominantly non-Jewish crowd. Attendance jumped over the past year from 50 audience members a week to roughly 500. Staff say this was made possible by Morgenstern’s outreach to non-Jews and her celebrity status. Romanian leaders had long visited the theater on Jewish holidays as a gesture of closeness to the Jewish community. But Morgenstern wanted ordinary Romanians to come. She enlisted support from friends in the entertainment industry and launched a public relations campaign that helped raise the theater’s profile among non-Jewish patrons. Morgenstern also drew non-Jewish acting students to the theater, helping them hone their craft at a private acting academy. Some students began performing at the theater and are now part of the rescue campaign, giving interviews to local and international media. “I think it would be a tragedy for all Romanians if this place is lost,” said Irina Varius, an 18-year-old, non-Jewish acting student who rehearses at the theater every day.
During the Holocaust, the theater’s importance grew for Bucharest’s Jews because it was the only Jewish cultural institution left standing. It was also the only venue open to dozens of Jewish actors, among them some of the greatest names in Romanian theater. Artists like playwright Moni Ghelerter and director Alexanderu Finti had been barred from working elsewhere because of racist laws passed under Romanian leader Ion Antonescu. About half a million Romanian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but Bucharest’s 100,000 Jews were never deported or harmed. “Throughout the Holocaust era, Jewish theater professionals continued to work at the Jewish theater, turning the theater into a pillar of civil society for Jews,” according to Liviu Rotman, a Jewish historian at the National University for Political Science…
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Jerusalem Post, Feb. 22, 2014
Zionism, a polemical issue, still causes fiery debate amid Israeli and international politics and is seen by some as a movement, culture and mentality that is no longer viable in the current Israel. Whatever the case may be, how can one understand the viability of an ideology, without first understanding the history of its design? Jassy might only be a small piece amid the long and complex battle of Zionism for the Jewish people in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it can help to show how to facilitate the organization of a people surrounded by adversity. In better words the formation of a strong collective – something that not only helped to make Israel a reality, but continues to keep it one today.
Once a great center of Jewish culture, Jassy seems to have disappeared from the view of Jewish historians, let alone the general public. In fact, few know that it was the place where the famous Naphtali Imber wrote “Hatikvah,” the poem which gave Israel its national anthem. Or the fact that it was once the home of the first Yiddish theater of Eastern Europe, founded by Abraham Goldfaden. The great bulk of Jassy’s Jews, which at one point amalgamated to 45,000, could trace their roots to Poland, where thousands of Jews facing persecution at the hands of the Cossacks migrated southward across into Romania. Although the majority of the population consisted of Ashkenazi descendants, there were very small remnants of Shepherdim that escaped Spain in the 15th century.
The history of Jassy’s Jews is as comprehensive and as complex as most communities that once inhabited Eastern Europe. Yet Romania, called by Hannah Arendt the most anti-semitic country prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, was not very welcoming to its Jewish populations. In fact, Jassy’s Jews, although they got along with the national and local government, were in constant turmoil with the severely xenophobic Moldavian populations. It was of no surprise that even before Zionist organization became a viable reality in Europe, and as some sources claim even before Hibbat Zion, Jassy’s Jews began organizing groups based on proto-Zionist ideas. The first among these was Dorshei Zion, which sought after the creation of literary framework by building libraries.
The reformation of Jewish and Hebrew culture became the most important goal, as was the trend with most Zionist-oriented groups in the 19th century. Perhaps the best example of this being the foundation of the Ohalei Shem foundation in 1878, that had as its main goal to educate the Jewish masses in Hebrew and Jewish studies. This cultural rebirth played an important role in creating a mentality of secularization among Jassy’s Jewish population, amid religious tradition and convention. Something which in itself would become the vanguard goal of Herzlian Zionist groups, which sought at the creation not just of a Jewish state, but a Jewish culture devoid of religion.
The most important Zionist organization to have ever existed in Jassy was Yishuv Erez Israel, founded by Lippe Karpel in 1880 as a response to the incessant anti-Semitism that Romanian Jews faced across the nation. The group helped facilitate the transport of numerous Jews from Romania to Palestine between 1882 to 1890. Although Karpel was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state he still encouraged the formation of Jewish culture in Palestine in order to escape persecution in Europe. Karpel famously gave the opening speech at The First Zionist Congress in 1897 advocating for the purchase of land in Palestine, but also representing Romanian and Jassy Jewry. Immediately after the congress the Jewish community of Jassy began to be far more organized in the creation of Zionist organizations. About nine of them had formed, until they all conjoined into one in 1919 under the name of the Romanian Zionist Movement. The first meeting took place in 1920 in Jassy. In the period up until 1941, when the notorious Jassy pogrom took place resulting in the death of 14,000 Jews, the movement helped to organize the community, build schools. libraries and educate the Jewish populace. Its greatest accomplishment was aiding thousands of Jews to achieve aliyah before they could be murdered. Unfortunately a great many of Jassy’s Jews did not leave for Eretz Israel, as was the case of the rest of European Jewry.
You might be asking yourself what the reason for knowing all of this might be. Well in short, by understanding small insular pockets in the greater narrative of European Jewish history, such as Jassy, we can better form an understanding of the way Israel came to be in 1948, and more importantly an understanding of the necessity of moderated Zionism as a means to facilitate a cultural and national Jewish identity. Zionism is not nationalism, it is cultural and physical self-preservation. Jassy’s Jews used Zionism to ensure their survival as a community, and as a people.
CIJR wishes all its friends and supporters Shabbat Shalom!
Freud and the Marranos: How Yosef H. Yerushalmi Gave Voice to Jews Caught Between Worlds: David N. Myers, Tablet, Feb. 10, 2014 —To those who studied with Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the great Jewish historian, the encounter was unforgettable.
Syria’s Israeli Guardian Angel: Itay Hod, Daily Beast, Jan. 31, 2014 —If there’s an afterlife, Anat (not her real name) has earned herself a ticket to heaven’s VIP section.
Bouena Sarfatty of Salonika: A Partisan-Poet Holocaust Survivor: Renée Levine Melammed, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 28, 2014 —While investigating an eminent Sephardi family named de Botton from the Ottoman Empire in 1989, I wrote to all the Sephardi communities abroad in search of any of their descendants.
BDS and the Oscars: How Screenwriter Ben Hecht Defied an Anti-Israel Boycott: Rafael Medoff, Tablet, Feb. 26, 2014 —Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht said he “beamed with pride” when he heard the news on that autumn afternoon in 1948: The British had declared a boycott against him.
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