Tag Archives: Hillel

Where Did all the Dancers Go? Scholar Uncovers the World of Jewish Boy Dancers in Iran

By: Katherine Gianni

Dr. Houman Sarshar’s passion for promoting the art, culture, and history of Iran is well in evidence. It leaps off the pages of the books and articles he’s written, the volumes he’s co-edited, and it is embedded in the Kimia Foundation, an independent humanities organization that Dr. Sarshar founded and continues to oversee.

On Tuesday, April 2, Dr. Sarshar shared his zeal for the subject with the Boston University community in a lecture on The Jewish Boy Dancers of Iran. His presentation came as part of the Leon and Alice F. Newton Family Lecture in Jewish Studies, an event co-sponsored by The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and the Boston University Center for the Humanities.

Over the years, thanks to this series, we’ve been able to invite preeminent scholars in all areas of Jewish studies to BU,” said Associate Professor of Hebrew, German, and Comparative Literature Abigail Gillman in her welcoming remarks.

The lecture was established almost 30 years ago by the children of Leon and Alice F. Newton as a way to honor both their father, an alum of what was then called the BU School of Management, and their mother. Past speakers have included scholar Susannah Heschel, theologian Arthur Green, and philosopher Hilary Putnam, among others.

“Dr. Houman Sarshar did his undergraduate work in French and English literature at UCLA and his PhD in comparative literature at Columbia University. He’s a scholar, perhaps my favorite kind of scholar,” Associate Dean of the Faculty/Humanities Karl Kirchwey said, a grin spreading across his face. “One without a university affiliation.”

The event poster featured a Qajar photograph which captured one of the boy dancers.
The event poster featured a Qajar photograph which captured one of the boy dancers.

In his independent study of boy dancer entertainment in Iran, Dr. Sarshar has complied enough research to fill the pages of an entire encyclopedia. Through in-person interviews, thorough analysis of Qajar photography, and countless hours of fact-checking, he has laid the groundwork to learn more about the prevalence of such boy dancers in the past and their eventual disappearance from Iranian culture.

Prior to beginning his presentation, Dr. Sarshar issued a warning to the audience of students and community members gathered in the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House.

“The culture of dancing boy entertainment in Afghanistan has shed much necessary light on the despicable dynamics of enslavement, human trafficking, and sex slavery that today forms the backbone of this heart-wrenching hidden world,” he said. “While many of the features of the dancing boy entertainment of today’s Afghanistan are without doubt remnants of the same long tradition in neighboring Iran in particular, and the entire Persian world in general, there is at the very least one material distinction between what happens in twenty-first century Kabul and what occurred in pre-constitutional Iran. And that difference is time.”

Dr. Sarshar expressed that he was not referring to time in its chronological sense, but rather, “in the fullest sense of zeitgeist as the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” By examining these dancers, he relayed that he did not wish to coat the realities of the boys’ humiliating position with a sense of nostalgia, but rather, use the images, texts, and testimonies as a means to broaden our understanding of the culture.

In telling the stories of the boy dancers, some of whom began their careers as early as six-years-old, Dr. Sarshar explained the ties between the profession and male homosexuality in Iran. While the dancers dressed in predominantly female clothing, he noted there was no mistaking the allure of their male gender identity. As various photographs and poems flashed across the screen, Dr. Sarshar argued that, despite legal strictures, Iranians widely engaged in homosexual relationships.

“Even occasional bans issued on male homosexual behavior throughout Iranian history had little impact on the love and desire of men over the years,” he said. “If anything, the fact that such bans had to be issued with any degree of frequency suggests that amorous and erotic relationships between men did not just occur in palaces, but throughout the general population.”

Dr. Sarshar concluded that the cultural norms surrounding homoeroticism, specifically when it came to dancing boy entertainment, shifted as Westerners categorized the practice as perverse, rather than something to be celebrated. The resulting shame led to the gradual disappearance of boy dancers. But, Dr. Sarshar, emphasized, there is still so much one can learn from this complicated history.  

“The history of boy dancer entertainment in Iran is a rich one, not only in its scope and breadth, but more importantly in its unique capacity to provide a telescope with which to explore many dynamic nuances within Iranian society, culture, and even art history over the past 500 years,” Dr. Sarshar said. “My research therefore celebrates boy dancers and the culture of boy dancer entertainment precisely for the unprecedented analytic opportunities that the history of this tradition provides.”

To learn more about the Leon and Alice F. Newton Family Lecture in Jewish Studies visit https://www.bu.edu/jewishstudies/calendar/annual-lecture-series/.

Center Spotlight: Tallulah Bark-Huss

By: Katherine Gianni 

Tallulah Bark-Huss (COM '21), hails from the windy city of Chicago, IL. As an undergraduate employee at the Elie Wiesel Center, Secretary & Social Media Manager of BU's premiere Jewish a cappella group, Kol Echad, and VP of Social Action and Holocaust Education Chair for BU Hillel, she certainly keeps busy on campus. We found time to sit down and chat about her many involvements at BU, and her enrollment in the Jewish Studies minor program.

What has your experience been like so far at BU? What is your major/minor? Are you involved in any student organizations, on-campus clubs, or activities? 

I’m studying Film and Television in COM and minoring in Jewish Studies. On campus, I’m really involved in Hillel. I work on the student board as the Vice President of Social Action and the Holocaust Education Chair. I’ve been doing that since last year. I put on a lot of different social action events at Hillel. For example, we did an event where we made birthday cards for Holocaust survivors, and another event where we made dog and cat treats and toys and donated them to the animal rescue league in Boston. We’re also planning some trips this semester to go to a food shelter.

I am also very involved in the Kol Echad a cappella group—it’s the Jewish a cappella group here at BU. I’m the secretary and social media manager, but next year I will probably be the president, so I’m very excited about that. We practice twice a week for a total of six hours. We sing a mixture of contemporary American songs, some more prayer-like songs, and also contemporary Israeli music. It’s a big variety. I joined the group my freshman year and it’s really my passion. I’ve also done a little bit with BUTV10 on some of their shows. Hopefully I’ll work more on that in the future. And finally, I’m in Sigma Delta Tau sorority.

Tell us about your involvement with The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. When did you first join the team?

I started working at the Elie Wiesel Center at the beginning of this semester, in January 2019. I knew about the building and the Center from my classes as a Jewish Studies minor. I also met Connor Dedrick and Deni Budman through the Hillel board and I knew that they both worked here. Deni and are both Film and TV majors and Jewish studies minors along with working together at Hillel. So when she was preparing to go abroad she thought I would be a good fit for the Center and gave my name to Theresa, the Program Administrator here.

What is your favorite part about working with the Elie Wiesel Center team?

Everyone is so nice. Theresa and Professor Zank, the Center’s Director, have made it very clear that they want me to pursue everything that I want to pursue. If there’s a passion project of mine or something they will support it. Being involved in the meetings and seeing Professors and other adults at the Center working is really cool. It feels good to be seen and accepted and welcomed into that environment. They also really value student opinion which I feel like isn’t always necessarily the case in other places. Also a lot of free food. I love that, not going to lie.

You are one of eight students currently enrolled within the Jewish Studies minor. What has your experience been like so far? Which classes have you taken?

I didn’t know I wanted to do the Jewish Studies minor until Professor Anderson talked to me about it my first semester freshman year. I was taking her Ethics After Auschwitz writing class because my senior year of high school I took a very similar course and really enjoyed it. Professor Anderson mentioned the Jewish Studies minor so I came to the open house which was hosted at the Elie Wiesel Center and talked to other professors about it. Then I really thought to myself, yeah, this sounds fun, you know it’s what I know and I know I’m interested in it. So since then I’ve taken the Blacks and Jews writing class which was really interesting and last semester I took the Holocaust Seminar and the Holocaust Through Literature and Film course. I really loved the Holocaust Through Literature and Film, so now I’m taking the Holocaust Through Film class this semester with the same professor.

Last semester really showed me that I’m really passionate about Holocaust education, which I didn’t really realize so much when I first thought about doing Jewish Studies. That definitely has impacted other aspects of my college experience, like now I’m Holocaust Education Chair for Hillel, and my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I also think it’s really interesting being in Jewish Studies classes with people who aren’t Jewish, because all my life the majority of people I was in school with were Jewish. I knew that my friend for example knew the same amount of Jewish history as I did so I could say something and immediately know they would understand what I was talking about. But now I have to modify how I go into class discussion, which is ultimately beneficial because I know not everyone in the world comes from the same background.

What does the Jewish community at BU mean to you?

I went to Jewish day schools my whole life so this is my first time in “the secular world” I guess you could say. Also the community I lived in growing up is very heavily Orthodox Jewish. It was definitely a big transition to come to BU in a sense, and I sought out a Jewish community because it does feel like home. It’s nice to meet people that you have so much in common with. Also Jewish geography you probably know their cousin or something, or their friend from camp so that’s always fun. But you know, Purim is this week and all of my friends are celebrating, so it’s nice to have people that understand and share in your culture. It totally makes a big community feel smaller.

Center Spotlight: Connor Dedrick

By: Katherine Gianni

Meet Connor Dedrick (QST '21) a Princeton, NJ native who works as an undergraduate employee at The Elie Wiesel Center. We sat down with him to talk about the Jewish community at Boston University, his involvement at the Center, and his new role as President of BU Hillel.

Tell us a bit about your experience so far at BU. What is your major/minor? Are you involved in any student organizations, sports teams, community service work, etc.?

My major is business administration and I have a minor in religion. Everything has been so fantastic—I love my business courses, but I find that the religion classes that I’ve taken have been the ones that really provoke some deep thought and some personal growth. Outside of the curriculum, I work at the Elie Wiesel Center, which is a great thing. I love talking to Theresa, our Program Administrator and Professor Zank, our Director because they’re such insightful and smart people. I’m also president of Hillel. I love being able to build on our Jewish community on campus. For most other college campuses it’s hard to come by such a large and close-knit Jewish community.

You began your tenure as the president of BU Hillel in January, 2019. How did you come into that position? What does that role entail?

I went to Hillel the first Shabbat of my freshman year. I met the then president, Zoe, and just kept talking with her and then eventually when elections came around she convinced me to run for Director of Fundraising. As it turns out, no one actually ran for treasurer so she convinced me to run up. I was elected treasurer and then I thought, you know, president is next. My position entails planning a lot of the larger events—things like Latkepalooza, our Chinese buffet event, therapy dogs, the name readings. The building of overall the Hillel community is what my job is focused on.

Tell us about your involvement with The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. When did you first join the team? What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities?

I was really good friends with Deni Budman, another EWCJS student employee, through Hillel. When two of the former student employees had graduated she put in a good word with Theresa to help get me here. Day-to-day a lot of what I do is distributing flyers and our other promotional materials to co-sponsors and departments that may be interested in our events. I also compile mailing lists, contact lists, create some of the course materials—like the Fall 2019 flyer I was just working on.

What do you enjoy the most about working with the Elie Wiesel Center team?

I think, for me, it’s carrying on the legacy of Holocaust education through Elie Wiesel. When my mom went to BU she took a class that Elie Wiesel taught and so I think to work here is a very nice continuation of his work overall. Outside of the work aspect, I also enjoy just talking to Theresa and Professor Zank. As I said, they’re such insightful people who have really great things to say about the world, Judaism, and everything like that.

What does the Jewish community at BU mean to you? Do you feel as though you’ve grown in your faith/identity since beginning school here?

Yes. Absolutely. So where I’m from, Princeton, New Jersey, it’s a very big conservative Jewish community. For most of my life that was really the only kind of Jew that I had been introduced to. When I got to BU, and all of a sudden there are 4,000 Jews, you know, secular, reform, conservative, Orthodox. I felt like I got so lost. I had no idea what to call myself because I was still raised conservative, but there were things about Orthodox that I liked, there were things about reform that I liked. By learning through Hillel with the Rabbis I was able to grow my identity to a much more abstract level and not feel like I have to put myself into a denominational box.

How would you encourage others to get involved with the BU Jewish community?

I think the best way is to show up. Just go to things! That’s how I became so involved…I just showed up. I showed up to Shabbat and people welcomed me and I felt like that was my place. You have to put yourself in places where things can happen to you. Opportunities aren’t always just going to throw themselves before you, you have to put yourself out there, you have to go out to events that may interest you, or they may not. But if you don’t, you won’t find the community for you. I think that another thing is don’t be afraid to do things alone. I think what holds a lot of people back from going to a lot of really interesting academic lectures and things like that is because their friends aren’t going. But I think that if people overcame that they would really find a love of learning and really stoke some intense passions.