Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews: A Must See Exhibition
As I waited inside the lobby of UCLA?s Fowler Museum I absorbed the sight and sounds of one chestnut tour after the next. I observed the kind of ?museum-like? atmosphere you expect to find in a museum ? people walking slowly, the occasional muffled conversation, faces peering at artifacts from unnecessarily close distances. My expectations were neither here nor there, but to my soon-to-be delight, the exhibition I was about to witness was both inspiring and thought provoking. Greeted by the convivial smile of the museum?s director of external affairs, Stacey Abarbanel, I entered into Light and Shadows: The story of Iranian Jews.
During our walkthrough of Light and Shadows, a curious pair of framed artifacts caught my eye. Perceptively, Abarbanel explained that the mid-1800s in Iran was a period of callous oppression where Jews were forced to convert to Islam. Avoiding persecution, they assimilated to their oppressor?s mores but secretly kept their religious traditions alive. In an effort to prevent their children from marrying Muslims, the Jews would marry their children off at the age of seven or eight. The framed artifacts were the official marriage contracts ? one in Farsi, the clandestine other in Hebrew.
Towards the end of the tour I asked Abarbanel how the initiative to bring Light and Shadows to UCLA was set into motion. She credited the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation for the idea but informed me that demographics played a big role. In her own words, ?[the exhibition?s] focus on the Iranian Jewish Diaspora serves the important purpose of connecting history with contemporary issues ? In the case of Light and Shadows, it is wonderful that the Museum is situated in Westwood, in the heart of Los Angeles?s Westside with its strong Iranian American presence.?
The exhibition was originally introduced to high acclaim in 2011 at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Abarbanel shared with me that its effect was significant and that its message infused a sense of honor in Iranian-Israeli Jews and Sephardic Jews in general. In Los Angeles, the exhibition has been received warmly by Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews alike, as well as a surprisingly large non-Jewish audience. Since its October opening, Light and Shadows has received over 500 visitors per week.
The biggest question looming in my mind was whether the local Persian population had the same sentimental reaction to the exhibition as was experienced in Tel Aviv. To answer that question I spoke with Dr. Saba Soomekh, professor of Jewish Studies at Loyola Marymount University and the project coordinator of Light and Shadows.
Soomekh, author of ?From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture,? was born in Tehran, Iran to a Persian Jewish family and moved to Los Angeles during the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. According to Soomekh, the reaction by the Los Angeles Persian community was indeed reminiscent of Israel?s Beit Hatfutsot. From her ubiquitous involvement, Soomekh professed that ?the exhibition validated the community?s history and culture? but was quick to add: ?not that they require the exhibition to do that.?
The profound story behind each artifact deepens the appreciation for the fascinating history of the Jewish Diaspora in Iran. While Persian Jews may be a proud people to begin with, an exhibition dedicated to their grandparents? legacy can only serve as a reinforcement of their noble Jewish roots.
Light and Shadows at the Fowler Museum is open every Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5pm and Thursdays from noon to 8pm until March 10th, 2013. Admission is free! For every Persian Jew, Ashkenazi Jew, and aficionado of mind-boggling history and non-Western art, Light and Shadows is a must see exhibit.