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Home page Heritage Jews in 18th & 19th century Afghanistan

Jews in 18th & 19th century Afghanistan


Nāder Shāh Afshār (1736-1747)

 

It is most likely that the Jews left Mashhad because of the growing religious fanaticism of the Moslem inhabitants. Wishing to develop the town's trade and crafts in the 1730s and in the 1740s, Nāder Shāh Afshār (1736-1747) again brought the Jews of Qazvin and other Iranian towns to Mashhad. This was opposed by the reli­gious establishment of Iran, but the ruler prevailed.(2) The largest number of Jews came from Gilan province, and so the Gilaki di­alect of Persian became the principal language of Mashhad Jews. (3) At the same time there was also another dialect spoken. It was Yazd dialect, brought here by a part of the Jewish immigrants.(4) After resettlement, many Jews started trading with Turkmenian tribes,(5) the ones living in the south of Turkmenia - Tekkes, Sālors and Saryks.

Joseph Wolff, an English Protestant missionary of Jew­ish origin, who settled in Mashhad in 1831, claimed the local Jews even went to Russia for commerce with their caravans.(6) Lieutenant Colonel Johann Blaramberg, a Holland-born employee of the Rus­sian government who visited Mashhad in 1838 as a member of a Russian delegation, pointed out that the main occupation of local Jews was trading in turquoise, which they themselves polished and set.

Their jewelry was exported to Russia via Bukhara, and, to a lesser cxtent, to India.(7) Another English Protestant missionary of Jewish origin, Jacob Samuel, who visited Persia in 1836, wrote about a large number of Jews in Turkmenia (of whom he had heard),(8) obviously referring to the ones from Mashhad. The eco­nomic status of the Mashhadi Jews gradually improved, which drew Jews of other Iranian towns to settle there.(9)

Statistic information about Mashhadi Jews are somewhat contradic­tory. In 1807, the French officer M. Truilhier found only about 100 Jewish families in Mashhad, (10) while Georg Meyendorf, a Russian officer of German origin, learned from Jews of Bukhara that in 1821, the Mashhadi Jews had owned 300 houses. (11) Johann Blaram­berg testified that in 1838, about 400 Jews lived there,(12) probably meaning the number of families. If we assume that, on average, five people lived in a Mashhadi house, similar to other homes in Central Asia, (13) the total number of Jews must have been two thousand. This is how Joseph Wolff estimated their population when he visit­ed Mashhad again in 1843-1844. (14) Taking into consideration what happened to them in 1839 (see below) the statistics provided by Joseph Wolff seem to be somewhat overstated at the time of his second visit to Mashhad and probably his estimation corresponds more to the late 1830s. Against this background, the data provided by the following colonels seem to be greatly understated: the En­glish colonel Arthur Conolly counted only 100 houses of Mashhadi Jews in 1831, (15) and the French colonel Joseph Ferrier mentioned that in 1845 there were only 600 Jews there.(16)

 

The 19th Century

 

By the end of the 19th century, small Jewish communities existed in other towns of Khorasan as well: Kalat-e Naderi,(17) Sabzawar,(18) Nishapur and Turbat-i-Haidariyeh. (19) According to Wolff, there was a settlement of Mashhadi Jews in the Afghan town of Maimana. (20) During the first third of the 19th century, the economic status of the Mashhad Jews deteriorated as a result of increased persecutions and legal restrictions.(21) James Fraser, an English traveler who visited Mashhad in 1821, wrote about them: "...the miserable way common to this oppressed and ill-used class of men".(22) Jacob Samuel, the above-mentioned missionary, visited Persia in 1836 and wrote about the hard life of Jews in Persia in general.(23) The above-men­tioned lieutenant colonel J.F. Blaramberg wrote several years later about the attitude towards Mashhadi Jews and about their occupa­tion: "Kikes ...are disregarded by Persians. They are roundly insult­ed..." (24) As a result of harsh and humiliating restrictions and direct forced compulsion, a small part of Mashhadi Jews converted to Is­lam. The newly-converted Jews in Mashhad as well as in other Ira­nian towns were named Djedid ul-Islam (Arabic for "newly-convert­ed"). In 1839, during one single day, all the other Mashhadi Jews were forcibly converted to Islam by crowds of Shi'ite fanatics. That day became hnown as the Allahdad (God's Justice). It is described in detail in other works and will not be discussed here.(25)

 

Djedid Jews of Mashhad

 

After being converted to Islam, many Djedid Jews of Mashhad like the Chalah (Tajik for "neither one thing nor the other", half-fin­ished, meaning Bukharan Jews who were converted to Sunni Is­lam) (26) living in adjacent Central Asia, continued to secretly observe the Jewish rituals.(27) By dint of bribes many of them obtained the permission to leave the town, which resulted in the decrease of their population there, by more than two thirds by the middle of the 1840s, according to information of Joseph Ferrier given above. The newly-converted who left town moved to Central Asia (which will be discussed in further detail) and to the following towns: Kab­ul, Balkh, Tashqurgan and Herat (all in Afghanistan); Yazd, Tehran and Hamadan (all in Iran). (28) Relatively large numbers of Mashhadi Jews moved to Dargaz (Darreh Gaz) as well,(29) a settlement in the northern part of Khorasan.

In Afghan towns, Jews of Mashhad openly returned to Judaism be­cause the dominant Islamic doctrine there was that of the Sunnis, and Shi'ites were considered heretics. Herat became the largest cen­ter of concentration of Mashhadi Jews outside of their native town. They identified themselves with the local Jewish community, which they outnumbered by far.(30) Consequently, most probably, by the last yuarter of the 19th century, originally Herati Jews were assimi­lated by better educated and wealthier Mashhadi Jews who took the lead of the Jewish community in Herat. With that, because of their new citizenship and place of residence they were called "either Afghani and Herati Djedids or Afghani and Herati Jews" in pre­-Revolutionary Russia while other Jews from Mashhad received the name "Mashhadi Djedids". Accordingly, this article will use such names, despite the above-described definition of the term "Dje­dids," to include not all of the descendants of Mashhadi Jews who convcrted to Islam, but only those who openly or secretly returned to Judaism, preserving by  that their membership in the Jewish community  and not assimilating into the lslamic world. The descen­dants of the newly--converted Mashhadi Jews called themselves Dje­dids in their official addresses to the Russian authorities instead of calling themselves Jews. The reasons for that will be revealed be­low. In Mashhad they also were officially called Djedids. And in other Iranian cities they called themselves Moslems from Mashhad in order to hide their Jewish origin.

 

"Mashhadi"

 

As for self-identitication, until the last quarter of the 19th century the Jews originating in Mashhad called themselves "Mashhadi". In doing so they did not refer to their city of origin, but considcrcd themselves as a separate subethnos within the language and ethno­cultural features of the Jewish-Iranian language and ethnoculture (for example, even now, unlike other Jews from Iran, they eat rice dishes on Passover, as they did in the times when they could not use matzoth in Mashhad). From the early 20th century in Eretz-Is­rael, England and the USA they have their own synagogues sepa­rate from other Iranian Jews. Unlike the Mashhadi, the Jewish na­tives from other Iranian cities, for example, Tehran, Hamadan, Isfa­han, Shiraz, Yazd, identify themselves primarily as Persian Jews and only secondarily as natives of the respective cities. Despite strong relations, communications and common language and ethnoculture with other mashhadi Jews, the Jews from Mashhad who settled in Herat had by the late 19th century assimilated into the old Herat Jewish community and were known as "Heroti". From that time Herati Jews had in fact become a separate subethnic group of the Mashhadi Jews.

 

The Jews of Balkh

 

Apart from the Jews of Herat, the only significant Jewish commu­nity in the territory of modern Afghanistan during the 19th century was in Balkh. Michael Zand considers the Jews of Balkh to be a part of the Bukharan Jewish ethnos whose dialect they spoke. (31) In other cities of Afghanistan the Jewish population in the 19th centu­ry was insignificant and consisted basically of emigrants from Iran and Bukhara. Despite the lack of indigenous Jews at the end of the 19th century, during the 1920's and the 1930's the Jews of Afghanistan were a united political community viewed by Itzhak Bezalel as Afghani Jewry. (32) This was most likely a consequence of Afghanistan's self-isolation during these years. In Eretz-Israel this political association has, over time, led to a change of self-identifi­cation by natives of Herat. Those who had not joined the Mashhadi community consider themselves Herati, or Afghani Jews.

 

(ibid., p. 1-7)

Illustration 1: An old Herati Jew. In: Weissenburg S., Die zentralasiatischen Juden in anthropologischer Beziehung, Wien, 1913, p. 260; ibid.

 

(ibid., p. 1-7)

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Kaganovich, Albert:

The Mashhadi Jews (Djedids) in Central Asia. Halle / Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag 2007

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