The Jewish community of Persia, modern-day Iran, is one of the oldest in the Diaspora, and its historical roots reach back to the sixth century BC, the time of the First Temple. Its history in the pre-Islamic period is intertwined with that of the neighboring Babylonian Jews. Cyrus, the first Achaemenid emperor, conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E. and permitted by special decree the return of the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel; this brought the First Exile to an end. The Jewish colonies were scattered from centers in Babylon to Persian provinces and cities such as Hamadan and Susa. The books of Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel give a favorable description of the relationship of the Jews to the court of the Achaemenids at Susa.
Under the Sassanid dynasty (226-642 C.E.), the Jewish population in Persia grew considerably and spread throughout the region, yet Jews nevertheless suffered intermittent oppression and persecution. The invasion by Arab Muslims in 642 C.E. terminated the independence of Persia, installed Islam as the state religion, and made a deep impact on the Jews by changing their sociopolitical status.
Throughout the 19th century, Jews were persecuted and discriminated against. Sometimes whole communities were forced to convert. During the 19th century, there was considerable emigration to the Land of Israel.
Under the Phalevi Dynasty, established in 1925, the country was secularized and oriented towards the West. This greatly benefited the Jews who were emancipated and played an important role in the economy and in cultural life. On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran, concentrated in Teheran (60,000), Shiraz (8,000), Kermanshah (4,000), Isfahan (3,000), and in the cities of Kuzistahn. In the wake of the upheaval, most Iranian Jews left the country, leaving behind vast amounts of property. Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that the Iranian Jewish community numbered between 9,000 and 12,000 as of 2012.
In 2015, the Forward’s award-winning investigative reporter Larry Cohler Esses was allowed to visit Iran. Among the articles he wrote on that occasion was the following chronicle of contemporary Iranian Jewry. This article originally appeared on forward.com on August 15, 2016, and is reproduced with permission.