Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jews of the Week: Shushandukht and Bahram V

Gold Coins Depicting Iranian Shah Bahram V, often referred to as Bahramgur – “Bahram the Hunter”

Shushandukht (c. 380-430 CE) was born in Persia, the daughter of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), a title reserved for the chief rabbi and official leader of the Jews in the diaspora during this time period. Little is known of her early life. She went on to marry the Sasanian king Yazdegerd I, and gave him two sons, Shapur IV and Bahram V (c. 406-438 CE). Yazdegerd and Shapur were assassinated, triggering a brief civil war that ended with Bahram successfully taking the throne. Bahram V went on to reign for nearly two decades as Iran’s Shah. In that time, he held off the advancing Eastern Roman Empire and conquered Armenia. Later, a massive invasion by the feared Huns nearly destroyed his empire. However, he caught the Huns unaware in a surprise night attack, decimating their force, and bringing peace to the entire region. Bahram presided over a period of great Persian wealth. Coins with Bahram’s portrait have been found across Asia. Not surprisingly, Bahram V became one of the most legendary kings in Asian history, and is an important figure not just in Iran, but in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, and even in Islamic literature (despite the fact that the Muslims tried pretty hard to erase pre-Islamic Iranian history). Bahram V is the hero of many ancient Persian legends. One of these was translated into English under the title The Three Princes of Serendip – giving rise to the word “serendipity”. In the famous Persian epic Shahnameh, he is the king that slays two lions with his bare hands. Meanwhile, his mother Shushandukht used her position to assist the Jews of Iran (where the vast majority of the world’s Jews lived at the time). She established large and prosperous Jewish neighbourhoods in Esfahan, Susa, Hamadan, and Shushtar. During this period, the Jewish Exilarch sat on the Shah’s court. Many scholars believe that the ‘Tomb of Esther and Mordechai’ in modern-day Iran is actually the tomb of Shushandukht.

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Words of the Week

It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.
– Hippocrates

Tomb of Esther and Mordechai (or Shushandukht) in present-day Hamadan, Iran (Credit: Philippe Chavin)

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Zecharia Barashi

World’s Oldest Jew

Rabbi Barashi (Credit: Lazar Berman)

Zecharia Barashi (1900-2017) was born in Kurdistan, the last of ten children in an observant Jewish family. His father was a rabbi who traveled from village to village, serving the needs of small Jewish communities in Iraq. Unfortunately, this job did not come with a salary, and the poor family made a meager living by sowing clothes and selling nuts and dates. Several years of harsh poverty, disease, and the difficulties of the First World War left six of the ten children dead. Barashi himself nearly died when he was 11 years old. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi as well. Inspired by Zionism, Barashi struggled to move the family to Israel. In 1936, he finally got a chance by working as a Hebrew interpreter for the Jewish Agency. After a long and arduous journey, the family settled in Jerusalem. Throughout World War II and Israel’s ensuing War of Independence, Barashi supported the war effort by digging trenches, and paving roads and runways. In 1950, the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan made a mass aliyah to Israel, and Barashi soon became their spiritual leader. He would go on to earn the esteemed title of Chacham, “Sage”. He also published four important books on Judaism. He was in the midst of writing his fifth book when, at the age of 111, his eyesight became too poor. Deeply respected as one of Israel’s greatest rabbis, Barashi was known for his incredible memory, humility, and great sense of humour. Sadly, he passed away earlier this week. Until that moment, he was the world’s oldest living Jew. He was also Israel’s oldest living resident, having spent over 80 years in Jerusalem. Although he outlived two of his own children and his beloved wife, he is survived by five more children, 29 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren, and 24 great-great-grandchildren. His advice for a long life: “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat, always leave the table a little hungry.”

Chag Purim Sameach!

Words of the Week

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”
Harry Houdini

Rabbi Barashi with Shimon Peres (Credit: Mark Neyman/Flash90)