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Los Angeles — Several objects were contributed by members of the Mashadi Jewish community in Great Neck, N.Y., and are featured in one of the show’s most surprising and controversial exhibits. The Mashadis are a community of Iranian Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in 1839 but covertly observed Jewish religious practice into the early 1900s, when the imposition was lifted. Items on display include tiny tefillin worn covertly under Muslim garb, a miniature phylactery that was secreted beneath Islamic headgear during the Jewish owner’s Hajj to Mecca, and a book, resembling a Quran, that contains a hidden Talmud.
Among the more unique and beautiful objects in the exhibition are ketubot, official marriage contracts, said Saba Soomekh, author of the soon-to-be published “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture.” Soomekh, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, helped with the writing of the museum’s explanatory materials for the exhibition. The ornately inscribed handwritten contracts come in duplicates, one Islamic and the other Jewish, an arrangement that allowed Mashadi Jews to rebuff Muslim suitors and keep marriages within the hidden confines of the Jewish community.
The Treasury Department’s requirement to attest to the legal provenance of these and other objects of Iranian origin took the Fowler by surprise. “We weren’t aware of this,” Berns told the Forward. “These objects had left Iran a long time ago and were circulating through antique shops and personal collections,” before being assembled for the Beit Hatfutsot exhibit.
“We were surprised, too,” said Moti Schwartz, Beit Hatfutsot’s acting director, speaking to the Forward from Tel Aviv.
The Obama administration sanctions put a burden on importers of any items coming in from abroad that carry any association with Iran. The Fowler’s curators had to document the provenance of the exhibit’s 102 artifacts to demonstrate to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control that no Iranian entity benefited from their importation.
Leila Heller, owner of Leila Heller Gallery, which often displays Iranian work, said she believes that the Fowler show will have a significant impact, raising awareness of Iranian art and placing it in the context of Iran’s history as an intellectual and cultural center.
But Heller agrees that politics have cast a shadow over contemporary Iranian artists. “No one wants to get in trouble because of the sanctions,” she said. Most of Heller’s artists work outside of Iran.
The exhibit links clay tablets recording legal contracts from the time of Cyrus the Great — the founder of the ancient Persian Empire, who allowed Jews exiled by the Babylonians to return to Jerusalem — to today. Its contemporary artists include Hasan Sarbakhshian, whose photographs document some 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran today, and Jessica Shokrian, whose photo installation reflects the large diaspora community of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles.
The exhibition, which cost nearly $500,000 to mount, is sponsored by the Y S Nazarian Family Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Farhang Foundation, Milken Community High School and Sinai Temple.
Contact Rex Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org