Secular Literary Representations in Judeo-Persian


As a natural consequence of nearly 3,000 years of living on Iranian soil, Jewish identity became inextricably connected to Iran and was thereby shaped by Iranian history, culture, and language. Judeo-Persian (hereafter, JP), written in modern Persian with Hebrew characters, is the vehicle with which Iranian Jewry recorded intellectual and creative literary syncretism. Jews most likely abandoned Hebrew and Aramaic for Persian well before the Islamic conquest of the mid-seventh century. In fact, the earliest existing modern Persian records are Judeo-Persian documents dated to the eighth and ninth century CE.

Manuscripts copied by scribes up to the end of the 19th century reveal a body of literature containing a wide range of topics—both religious and secular—in prose and verse, with varying styles and levels of sophistication. While not in the scope of this survey, it is important to note that JP intellectuals read Hebrew and Arabic as well as Persian, and also authored Hebrew works. Just as (in the last millennium of its development) classical Persian poetry occupied a central position in Persian literature, JP poetry is equally central to JP literature.

JP works in manuscripts appear in no systematic order. In any given manuscript one may come upon compositions on disparate subjects such as astrology, poetry, medicine, folklore, biblical commentary, and lexicons. It is not uncommon to find transliterations of the classical Persian poetry in manuscripts that also contain Hebrew and JP liturgical hymns. Jews were as enamored of Persian lyric and narrative poetry as their Iranian compatriots; the original versified works produced by Iranian Jewish poets attest to the fact that their sense of literary aesthetic was completely shaped by it. Among other factors, linguistic and socio-economic elements impacted the quality of JP poetry. Needless to say, its value does not lie in how it compares to the classical Persian corpus but in the distinct body that reflect a people’s world view and sense of self.

From the beginning of the 14th century, JP poets composed original versified epics paraphrasing and elaborating on the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible. The standard did not value innovation, but rather the embellishment and refinement of set literary conventions. Though no JP transliterations of Ferdowsi’s (d. 1010) “Book of Kings” have survived, there can be no doubt that JP poets read and faithfully emulated what Persian speakers viewed, and still regard today, as Iran’s national epic. Shahin (13-14th century) was the first to do so by versifying the books of the Torah as well as content from the books of Esther and Ezra. Subsequent JP poets such as Emrani (d. 1536) and Khajeh Bokharai (16-17th century) regarded him as their great predecessor and perceived themselves to be following in his footsteps. Emrani versified accounts found in the canonical books of Joshua, Ruth, and I and II Samuel. Khajeh Bokharai produced a versified account of the Book of Daniel. Subject aside, the poetic form, overall structure, prosody, poetic devices, motifs and themes, depiction of characters, and scenes found in these compositions, closely mirror Ferdowsi’s Persian epic.

The third and final category is that of original JP verse containing little or no Hebrew vocabulary or Jewish content. Emrani, mentioned above for his epic treatment of biblical accounts, also wrote a lyric mystical composition entitled “The Book of the Cup-bearer,” which draws extensively from Hafiz’s work of the same title, as well as from themes found in the poetry of Saadi and Khayaam. Emrani also composed a relatively short pietistic poem entitled “In Praise of Forbearance.” Elisha ben Shemuel (17th century) took the use of non-religious subject matter further by composing an adaptation of the Buddha biographies he entitled, “The Prince and the Sufi.” As with most JP didactic poetry predating it, this work drew from Jewish, Iranian, and Islamic traditions of wisdom literature; however it is mostly devoid of specifically Jewish content. Of the lyric poems composed by Benjamin ben Mishael (17th-18th century), “I Wish to Walk in the Rose Garden” is particularly noteworthy for its eroticism and intimate tenderness. Two other lyric poems penned by him indicate his bitter resentment of women born of an unhappy marriage.

While the use of Hebrew characters excluded Jewish poets from actively participating in Persian literary circles, it did not preclude them from reading and responding to the literature itself. JP poetry of a secular nature is just one creative manifestation of Iranian Jewry’s complete acculturation into Iran.