Jews of Iran - Orientation

Identification. Until mass emigration began in 1948, Jews constituted one of the largest and longest-settled non-Muslim populations in Iran. Dispersed in every city and town in the country, Iranian Jews were almost always a minority except in a few rural settlements, where they occasionally constituted a majority. Jewish communities of Afghanistan, Daghestan, and Central Asia were culturally and linguistically very closely related to those of Iran.

Location. Iran is bounded on the north by Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Turkmenistan; on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan; on the south by the Persian Gulf; and on the west by Iraq and Turkey. Much of Iran consists of mountains and high plateaus, and lacks navigable rivers. The climate ranges from semitropical along the Caspian to true desert in the east. Precipitation varies greatly but is limited to the cold season, (i.e., from October to March).

Linguistic Affiliation. All Iranian Jews speak Farsi, an Indo-European language. Each community also has its individual Jewish dialect, often mutually unintelligible to Jews from other regions. These dialects are grammatically and phonetically distinctive from standard Farsi and utilize Hebrew loanwords and metastasis. A mutually intelligible trade jargon, letra'i, consisting of mostly Hebrew vocabulary embedded in Persian grammar, was regularly spoken by Jewish merchants engaged in both local and intercity commerce. Jewish goldsmiths had their own jargon, zargari, which interpolated nonsense syllables into the flow of speech. A liturgical formalized version of Judeo-Persian is used in synagogue worship, and literature is written in Hebrew characters.

Demography. Until 1979, the Jewish population of Iran was usually estimated at 80,000 to 100,000. Prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948, substantial numbers of Jews were to be found in nearly every city. Rural Jews were found in Fārs Province and Kurdistan. Eşfahān and Shīrāz were traditionally the two largest settlements. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tehran's growth attracted large numbers of provincial Jews. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Tehran had over 50,000 Jews, Shīrāz about 8,000, and Eşfahān 3,000. During that period, increasing fertility and lower mortality were offset by emigration. The Iranian Revolution caused large numbers of Jews to emigrate; estimates of the remaining population are approximately 30,000: 8,000 in Shīrāz, 20,000 or more in Tehran, and less than 2,000 scattered among the other cities and towns. Important communities of Iranian Jews are also to be found in Los Angeles and New York, and large numbers are settled all over Israel. The total number of Iranian Jews may be in excess of 300,000.

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