from Esther’s Children ©2002 by Houman Sarchar, published by The Jewish Publication Society
Photo caption: TEHRAN’S MAHALLEH Photo by Antoine Sevruguin, c. 1880-1900. Mahalleh, meaning “quarter, district or neighborhood,” is the word widely used in Persian to refer to any given part of a city or town based on demographic (e.g. the jeweler’s district). The mahalleh-ye juhudha (the Jewish district) was called simply mahalleh by the Jews. In the area known as ‘Sar-e chal, the more wealthy Jews would buy a home at the end of one of the cul-de-sacs in the tight and narrow maze of alleys to gain more protection from the mobs during the periodic raids and lootings.
Apple and honey; Chives (or leeks); Zucchini; Kidney beans or black-eyed peas; Beef tongue (traditionally, meat from a sheep’s head); Meringue; Beetroot; Dates; Pomegranate.
The point, Gould says, is to have a food that represents airiness when the prayer is recited: “May it be Your will…that our sins be as light as lungs.”
While the symbolism of some of the foods may be obvious - apples and honey for a sweet year; pomegranate and beans for profusion - others are included because of word associations between their names in Hebrew or Aramaic, and their related prayers. For example, in Hebrew the date is called tamar. The blessing said over the date at the seder, using the word yitammoo, asks that evildoers be done away with. The root of yitammoo is tam, directly taken from tamar.The blessings over chives and beets make the same request, also based on wordplay. Zucchini symbolizes a public recognition of good deeds and a “ripping up” of bad. (“Kra” in Hebrew means zucchini, but is also the root for “read” and “rip.”) Meat from the head of a cow or sheep represents intelligence or scholarly pursuits.
Said and Rosa Rastegar, Dr. Houman Sarshar, and Diana and Barry Gould at the Goulds' home in Stamford. Dr. Sarshar, author of "Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews," spoke at a recent event called, ìA Celebration of Persian Jewish Culture,î sponsored by the Persian Jewish community of Stamford and the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan & Darien. Photo by Norm Ostroff
“The most important factor about the Jewish High Holidays in Iran is that the Jewish holidays most fully celebrated are the ones that coincide with Persian holidays,” writes Dr. Houman Sarshar, author of “Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews,” director of publications at The Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, and a psychotherapist in New York City.Since Rosh Hashanah coincides with an ancient Persian festival (Mehregan), it is celebrated grandly by Persian Jews.
By doing many of the same things during the Jewish holiday as Muslims do during coinciding Muslim holidays, Sarshar writes, “Iranian Jews get to be Jewish and Iranian at the same time.”
She lists the ritual foods that adorn her seder table every Rosh Hashanah, blessed in this order:
Apple and honey
Chives (or leeks)
Kidney beans or
Beef tongue (traditionally, meat from a sheep’s head)
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Adhami's parents came from Tehran to Los Angeles as students in the 1960s. But her interest in Iranian Jewish culture, she said, grew with the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Newcomers would come to her parents for guidance in navigating American life. "I was hearing the stories over and over," Adhami said in a recent telephone interview. "And it was always the same themes -- everybody's pain and loss."
Nazarian may have been unable to take her wedding photos with her out of Iran, but she retains recollections of life there.
In addition to her strong memories of Passover, Nazarian remembers a different kind of seder. She wrote and translated from Farsi, the Persian language, the text of a Rosh Hashanah seder, a singularly Iranian Jewish custom.
In addition to apples and honey (for a sweet year), seven symbolic foods -- pomegranates, dates, beets, zucchini, black-eyed peas and the head or tongue of a cow or sheep -- are blessed and eaten, each representing an aspect of health and good fortune.
Nazarian was inspired to create the English-language seder guide for the children of Iranian immigrants raised in America.
"If they cannot read and write Hebrew or Persian," said Nazarian, "they're not going to have a seder. This is our tradition. We have to keep all the holidays."