Purim is a Jewish holy day that originated in ancient Persia. Many narrative features of the story reveal different aspects of Persian culture. Gift giving is an example of a valued custom and method of diplomacy which appears in the Purim text, and on bas-relief images carved into the walls of Persepolis. A line of diplomatics holding gifts, their hands on each other’s shoulders reveal the camaraderie of the moment. In Persepolis, both male and female workers were given three months leave after the birth of babies. The archeology of Persepolis also reveals the fact that queens inhabited their own castles. No wonder Queen Vashti demanded gender equality!
Gifts of food given at Purim are part of what we might call ‘banquet diplomacy’, a peacemaking tactic used in Jewish and Iranian society to welcome people from all nations and invite them to enjoy a feast and share in the bounty of the host. Jewish people preserve the ancient gift giving and banquet customs at Purim in the form of a religious obligation to distribute gifts of food to our community. We share these customs with contemporary Iranians who have preserved the ancient festival of Norouz which features gift giving during the new year’s spring festival.
The gift giving custom can be a foundation upon which we create a new/old vision of shared culture and traditions with the Iranian people whose ancestors first gave welcome to Jewish exiles and helped our ancestors rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Jews stayed in Persia. Shiraz was known as the city of Jewish musicians. There is much beauty to remember and celebrate, and many bridges still to build.
There are still between 12,000 and 30,000 Jews living in Iran, mostly in the cities of Shiraz, Tehran and Esfahan. Jews of Iran feel deeply connected to the Jewish history of Persia and preserve many ancient pilgrimage sites, including the graves of Mordecai and Esther. They represent the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world and possess a Torah that is 1800 years old which resides in Hamadan.
To read more about Jewish Persian culture check out: Esther’s Children by Houman Sarshar, 2002. This book is a must read for anyone interested in Jewish Iranian history and culture.
The two links below are about Louisa Shafia, a dual heritage woman. Her father came from a Muslim household in Iran. Her mother is an Ashkenazi Jew from Philadelphia. Her parents met, fell in love and married. Louisa’s mom learned traditional Persian cooking for her husband. Their daughter combined her knowledge of cooking with the traditions of her parents and produced a wonderful cookbook. Check out the results below along with an interview. Purim and Norouz are featured in the HuffPo article.