Jewish and Israel Studies

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The Crypto-Jewish Mashhadis

The Shaping of Religious and Communal Identity in their Journey from Iran to New York

Hilda Nissimi is lecturer of General History at Bar Ilan University, Israel. She has published Rebellion and Tradition in Palestine during the Mandate (Ramat-Gan, 1985). Her current interests include crypto-faith communities, especially the Mashhadi Jewish community.

This book tells the little-known story of a fascinating crypto-Jewish community through two centuries and three continents. Beginning as a precarious settlement of a few families in mid-eighteenth-century Mashhad, an Islamic holy city in northern Iran, the community grew into a closely-knit group in response to their forced conversion to Islam in 1839. Muslim hostility and a culture of memory sustained by intra-communal marriages reinforced their separate religious identity, vesting it in strong family and communal loyalty. Mashhadi women became the main agents of the cultural transmission of communal identity and achieved social roles and high status uncharacteristic for contemporary Jewish and Muslim communities.

The Mashhadis maintained a double identity – upholding Islam in public while tenaciously holding onto their Jewish identity in secret. The exodus from Mashhad after 1946 relocated the communal centre to Tehran, and later to Israel and after the Khomeini revolution to New York. The relationship between the formation and retention of communal identity and memory practices – with interconnected issues of religion and gender – draws upon existing research on other crypto-faith communities, such as the Judeoconversos, the Moriscos, and the French Protestants, who through the special blend of memory-faith and ethnicity emerged strengthened from their underground period. For the immigration period, the author challenges the old paradigm that “modernity and religion are mutually exclusive”. The book also explores the sometimes uncomfortable yet intimate relationships that exist between seemingly incompatible ways of seeing the past, both secular and religious.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-160-3
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $67.50
Release Date: December 2006
Page Extent / Format: 252 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes



Part I: Crypto-Faith Communities: Paradox and

1 The Emergence of Crypto-Faith
2 Communities of Memory-Faith

Part II: The Mashhadis: Memory and Identity in the Underground
3 Living within Two Faiths, Two Cultures
4 Creating a Cohesive Community: Family Ethnicity and Gender
5 The Mashhadi Way: Memory of Sacred History

Part III: The Mashhadis: An Old–New Community
6 Memory and History: The Cultural Boundary
7 Women and Family: The Social Boundary
8 What is Mashhadi? American, Zionist, Persian

Conclusion: From Descent to Consent


Hilda Nissimi’s book is a valuable and worthy contribution to what is gradually emerging as a new and much needed phase in Judeo-Persian studies brought about by a new generation of scholars who are expanding on the work of previous archeologists, historians, and anthropologists to shed light on previously overlooked nuances of what it meant, and indeed of what it means, to be an Iranian Jew.
From the Foreword by Houman Sarshar, editor of Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews

Nissimi gives us a thorough history of the Jews of Mashhad, who continued to live there until around 1946, when many settled in Teheran, and moved later to Israel, New York and some other locations. She places their experience in a sociological context, detailing especially the function of the women in this community in the furtherance of their secret culture and religion… This valuable addition to the literature on communities which perforce used deceit in order to ensure their continuance leads one to hope that one day the growth of toleration will render such communities unnecessary. However their long history, going back to Biblical times, makes it clear to us that we still have a long way to go.
Digest of Middle East Studies

In 1839, the Jews of Mashhad in Northern Iran were forcibly converted by their Muslim neighbors. Like the Marranos, they continued to observe Jewish practices in secret. Members of the community can now be found in Israel, the United States, England and elsewhere. Of special interest are the features of an underground community. There was much intermarriage within the community. Women played a very special role in the maintenance of tradition. When the Mashhadis left Iran and returned to the open practice of Judaism they tended to build their own synagogues, similar to the Landsmannschaft of the emigrants from East Europe. The importance of this book is that it treats a topic of which the average reader knows nothing.
AJL Newsletter

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