My Citizens, the long Labor Day Weekend is upon us here in the United States, and in My particular case this isn’t a 3 day holiday weekend – it’s 4 days off for Me due to Monday night being the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana!
To celebrate the last gasp of grilling season, I wanted to showcase a treasure of Iranian Jewish (and Muslim) culinary tradition – the saffron-stained, smoky and spiced ground chicken dish that ALONE is moorgh kabob. This fits perfectly into my dual theme of grilling whilst showcasing an often forgotten part of Iranian culture – the nearly ten thousand Jews who still live in the country (the biggest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel!).
While the Iranian government remains sadly and intensely hostile to Israel, the remaining Jews in Iran are surprisingly well-treated – though the vast majority of the Jewish population emigrated when the Khomeini government toppled the Shah.
Persian Jews or Iranian Jews (Persian: یهودیان ایرانی, yahudiān-e-Irāni; Hebrew: יהודים פרסים) are the descendants of Jews who were historically associated with the Persian Empire, whose successor state is Iran. The biblical books of Esther, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah contain references to the lives and experiences of Jews who lived in Persia.
Dating back to biblical times, Iranian Jews constitute one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities. Jews have had a continuous presence in Iran since the time of Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus invaded Babylon and freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity.
Today, the vast majority of Persian Jews live in Israel and the United States, especially in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and on the North Shore of Long Island. There are smaller Persian Jewish communities in Baltimore, Maryland and the Twin Cities. According to the latest Iranian census, the remaining Jewish population of Iran was 9,826 in 2016; a 2021 population website numbers the Jews In Iran as 8,500 in 2021.
Today, the term Iranian Jews is mostly used in reference to Jews who are from the country of Iran. In various scholarly and historical texts, the term is used in reference to Jews who speak various Iranian languages. Iranian immigrants in Israel (nearly all of whom are Jewish) are referred to as Parsim (Hebrew: פרסים, a term which means “Persians”).
In Iran, Persian Jews and Jewish people in general are both described with four common terms: Kalīmī (Persian: کلیمی), which is considered the most proper term; Yahūdī (یهودی), which is less formal but correct; Israel (اسرائل) the term by which the Jews refer to themselves; and Johūd (جهود), a term having negative connotations and considered by many Jews as offensive.
Jews had been residing in Persia since around 727 BCE, having arrived in the region as slaves after being captured by the Assyrian and Babylonian kings. According to one Jewish legend, the first Jew to enter Persia was Sarah bat Asher, grand daughter of the Patriarch Joseph. The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Esther contain references to the life and experiences of Jews in Persia and accounts of their relations with the Persian kings.
In the book of Ezra, the Persian kings are credited with permitting and enabling the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple; its reconstruction was effected “according to the decree of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia” (Ezra 6:14). This great event in Jewish history took place in the late sixth-century BCE, by which time there was a well-established and influential Jewish community in Persia.
Jews in ancient Persia mostly lived in their own communities. Persian Jews lived in the ancient (and until the mid-20th century still extant) communities not only of Iran, but also the Armenian, Georgian, Iraqi, Bukharan, and Mountain Jewish communities. Some of the communities have been isolated from other Jewish communities, to the extent that their classification as ‘Persian Jews’ is a matter of linguistic or geographical convenience rather than actual historical relationship with one another. Scholars believe that during the peak of the Persian Empire, Jews may have comprised as much as 20% of the population.
According to the biblical account, Cyrus the Great was ‘God’s anointed’, having freed the Jews from Babylonian rule. After the conquest of Babylonia by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus granted all the Jews citizenship. Though he allowed the Jews to return to Israel (around 537 BCE), many chose to remain in Persia. Thus, the events of the Book of Esther are set entirely in Iran. Other Persian cultural influences remain to the present day, such as the Jewish festival of Purim which parallels a springtime Zoroastrian festival called Fravardigan. However, various biblical accounts say that over forty thousand Jews did return home to the Holy Land.
In the Islamic republic, Jews have become more religious. Families who had been secular in the 1970s started adhering to kosher dietary laws and more strictly observed rules against driving on the Shabbat. They stopped going to restaurants, cafes and cinemas and the synagogue became the focal point of their social lives. Haroun Yashyaei, a film producer and former chairman of the Central Jewish Community in Iran said, “Khomeini didn’t mix up our community with Israel and Zionism – he saw us as Iranians.”
In June 2007, though there were reports that wealthy expatriate Jews established a fund to offer incentives to Iranian Jews to immigrate to Israel, few took them up on the offer. The Society of Iranian Jews dismissed this act as “immature political enticements” and said that their national identity was not for sale. Jews in the Islamic Republic of Iran are formally to be treated equally and free to practice their religion. However, de facto, discrimination is common. Iran’s Jewish community is officially recognized as a religious minority group by the government, and, like the Zoroastrians and Christians, they are allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament.
Now – as to the recipe at hand!
Iranian kabobs are justifiably famous throughout the Middle East for their spicing, succulence and savor – my interpretation of this classic grilled ground chicken kabob hits every one of those descriptors thanks to the seasoning magic practiced by the Sultan of Spice Himself – YOUR TFD! First off, while this kabob is traditionally made with ground chicken breast alone, I have taken a hint from other Middle Eastern ground meat kabobs and added in some minced lamb fat to keep the breast meat super-juicy and to add even more flavor!
I also call for the ruthless authenticity of my own Iranian spice blend to flavor these bad boys – the recipe is here. I further add some very tart powdered loomi, or dried Persian limes, you can buy it from here. My favorite high-quality saffron is grown by farmers in Afghanistan, who desperately need help right about now – you can buy it from here. You’ll lastly need some flat metal skewers to make the kabobs, these are an excellent choice!
This is an amazing way to say goodbye to summer grilling season, My Citizens, as well as honoring the Persian Jewish community for this Jewish New Year. I hope you enjoy the kabob recipe as much as I did creating it for the members of TFD Nation! 🙂
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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