Ancestry & Ritual: Persian Jews in 1950s London do Christmas lunch …

When my father died I made sure I kept his old box of loose, predominantly black and white personal photographs. I found them more interesting than the bound albums which had more formal, traditionally “presentable” images often taken at weddings and bar mitzvahs by commercial photographers or selected posed photographs on holidays and birthdays.  Here are some photos from that old tattered box – which I’ve since transferred into a proper archival box. The picture below was probably taken in the mid 1950s. My paternal grandmother, known to us as Bibi, is in the centre, posing ready to carve what appears to be a turkey. She is flanked by her daughter and daughter-in- law. The children in the photo are my elder first cousins. There is familiar food on the table; the basmati Pulau persian rice we would always eat on the Sabbath and on Jewish festivals. I have vague recollections of the soda siphon at my grandmother’s house. (I was born there and lived there with my parents till I was five.) There appears to be a plate of home made Persian pickles, called tershi though the photo isn’t the clearest. However, what is unusual about this photograph is the focus – the object of desire – which appears to be a turkey.

Bibi does xmas?

The next photograph is particularly unusual as it is the only photograph focussing on a sole food item rather than on people  in the collection.  This confirms to me that having a turkey was a really big deal. The question is, was this  – in a family who had almost no contact with people outside their immediate community – a homage, acknowledgement and personalised celebration of Christmas?



In the box there are several photographs of family meals. Here below is one with my late grandparents and and parents, again before I was born. This must either have been a Friday night, Saturday “Shabbat” lunch or other Jewish festival. The photographer is unknown – possibly one of my father’s siblings.  The couples raise their glasses in what in this case would gave been a mix of Le’chaim (to life in Hebrew) or Salamati-jam  (Farsi for to everyone’s health I believe).

I find this photo particularly interesting as it reveals some of the complex cultural influences and mixes in the Persian Jewish Community in the 1950s. The men are wearing head coverings (kippot) but these were brought from Iran and are large and exotically embroidered and different to the skull caps worn by Jews of German, Polish and other European origins, known as Ashkenazi Jews. Most Jews in the UK are Ashkenazi. My family came from a community In Mashhad, Iran, and settled in Britain in the late 1920s. The plaited challah bread looks intact which indicates this is the beginning of the meal. The starters on the plate are none other than the traditional Ashkenazi gefulte fish, and there also appears to be a plate of chopped liver in the centre. So challah, gefullte fish and chopped liver were all examples of Ashkenazi culinary tradition but finding it’s way onto a traditional Persian Jewish table. You can see there are also bottles of alcohol, and I remember my late grandmother who lived until her 90s would have a regular sip of brandy with her sabbath meal (as well as salt on her grapefruit).

Meal with gefilte fish and challah

One thing for sure is that the meal would have ended with a glass of lemon tea, We always had lemon tea, even on the most sweltering days of the year. Here’s one from that archive featuring my Bibi and aunts and several glasses of lemon tea aka chai limoo.

lemon tea 1-0004

Finally on the ritual of lemon tea here’s one of my dad and his cousins and mates – I like the ghostly movement and reflection as well as the sense of shy camaraderie and of course the bad boy lemon tea!


1 thought on “Ancestry & Ritual: Persian Jews in 1950s London do Christmas lunch …”

  1. Lovely, Mish. Sweet memories. Interesting how our host country’s traditions seeped into ours.
    Thank you for posting , and Happy Christmas, ghorbon !


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