Academic journal article American Jewish History

From Mashhad to New York: Family and Gender Roles in the Mashhadi Immigrant Community *

Academic journal article American Jewish History

From Mashhad to New York: Family and Gender Roles in the Mashhadi Immigrant Community *

Article excerpt

The crypto-Jewish community of Mashhad, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest cities in Iran, owes its inception to the settlement of several Jewish families in the city in the first half of the eighteenth century. (1) The community's forced conversion to Islam in 1839, combined with its members' tenacious though covert fidelity to their Jewish faith for over a century, called into being a unique collective identity. These families had to lead a double life for as long as they stayed in Mashhad, recurring pogroms as well as changes of rulers and regimes notwithstanding. Indeed, only after World War II and another pogrom did a real exodus begin. Most of them moved to Tehran, while many emigrated to Israel. By the time of the Khomeini revolution in 1979, they were scattered to every major city of commerce on earth. The revolution removed the bulk of the Tehran community--about half the total--to New York. (2)

The purpose of this article is to chart the patterns of gender roles forged during these years, with particular focus on the post-immigration period. What were past patterns, how did they mold the immigration experience, and how were they molded by it? Finally, what can these patterns tell us about the Mashhadi community more broadly? The experience of women immigrants, comparatively neglected until the last two decades, has been a topic of increasing scholarly interest. (3) However, besides exploring the effect of immigration on gender roles and on the family, which is of intrinsic importance, this venture can also shed light on the entire community's reconstitution in the United States and the identity changes resulting from such an upheaval.

Throughout the community's history--the underground period, the relocation to Tehran, and the emigration to the West--the family was the arena for identity formation. Bred by crypto-Jewish ethnicity, the family was the most formative and most significant factor for the individual within Mashhadi culture. Its primacy was manifested in the prevalence of intra-communal marriages, the importance of raising a family, and loyalty to the family as the central institution in one's life. The centrality of the family endured, though gender roles have continually changed. In tracing these changes, the period before emigration to the United States should be divided not only by the movement from Mashhad to Tehran, from provincial and religious city to the capital and center of the Shah's modernization and secularization policies, but more significantly by the emergence of an openly Jewish community. Together, these two periods comprise nearly a century and a half within what the demographer John Caldwell has called the "patriarchal belt," which geographically comprises large areas of Africa and Asia. (4)

Each period of the Mashhadi story requires a different method for divining the patterns characteristic to it. Knowledge of the underground period, with its scarcity of sources, comes mainly from folklore and memoirs. Most of these accounts are in a male voice, but a voice that recognizes and celebrates the pivotal part that women played in building the underground community. These stories and memories comprise the basic building blocks for reconstructing our knowledge of gender roles during the underground period. For the later part of this period, as well as for the Tehran period, interviews with community members, male and female, provide a more balanced voice. Finally, for the period of migration to the West, the New York community has produced a wealth of publications and archival sources, which have documented its memory celebrations and preserved the reminiscences of its members. The decision to focus the research for this article on the New York community was in part based on this relative wealth of such material.

Past Patterns of Partnership and Patriarchy

The influence of past power structures and cultural values on the formation of gender roles after immigration is not clear-cut. …

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