Shabbat with the Iranian Jews of Tehran

Annika Hernroth- Rothstein

By the fourth stanza of Lecha Dodi, I can feel the tears streaming down my face, and I quietly surrender to the moment. The woman next to me puts a heavy hand of comfort on my shoulder and we exchange a smile that is equal parts exploration and familiarity.

The century-old Abrishami synagogue is located on the second floor of an unassuming grey building in Palestine Street in north Tehran.

The top floor houses a busy yeshiva and in the basement there is a ballroom-style kosher restaurant often used for the community’s many weddings and barmitzvahs.

Every day, there are two minyanim here and, on Shabbat, the synagogue welcomes around 250 people, generations of Persian Jews bound together by tradition and necessity.

I walk in right after sunset and immediately all eyes turn to me, the 5ft 9ins blue-eyed oddity marking a stark contrast to the otherwise homogenous congregation. I’m ushered to the front by Dina, a short black-haired woman in her late 70s and, in a mix of Farsi and Hebrew, she introduces me to the other women sitting in the prestigious front row.

Farideh, Liora and Gilda immediately start asking me questions in a hushed tone: am I married? Am I looking? Would I consider staying put? And my answers are debated and the information swiftly passed along down the many pews.

In so many ways it is just like any shul – the chatter and bad ventilation, the obvious hierarchy and the children running rampant, ignoring the older mens’ condemning stares. In others, it is unlike any place I’ve ever known.

I came to Iran to see for myself what Jewish life is like behind a wall of dogma, having had it be a looming presence in my religious and political life for quite some time. When I applied for the journalist visa, I was blissfully unaware of what it would feel like to get on that plane, armed with nothing but a siddur and a newly purchased veil. Most of my friends and family urged me not to go, sending me articles chronicling the atrocities I would encounter, and when I was handed that ticket saying “Khomeini IKA,” I prayed they were mistaken.

Thirty minutes before we landed in Tehran, I started tying my hijab, using the printed instructions I had found online, tucking every strand of hair into the multicolored cloth. Lastly, I took off my Magen David for the first time in years and I put it in my purse between two pieces of paper.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I do know it wasn’t what I found. In Tehran alone, there are 7,000 Jews residing and the vast majority of them are Orthodox and highly observant, and several smaller communities are still thriving in ancient cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz, putting the total Jewish population of Iran at approximately 15,000.

At the time of the Shah, it was seven times as large, but the 1979 Islamic revolution caused more than 80,000 Jews to leave for Israel and the United States, never to return. During the reign of the Shah, Jews saw little of worry, but the Islamic revolution brought not only hatred toward Israel but also violent anti-Semitism, resulting in harassment, repossession of assets and the public execution of Jewish community leader Habib Elghanian, accused of espionage for the Zionist regime.

It doesn’t take long for me to be invited to several dinners, and after services we walk in a gentle pace to the house of the community leader who has proudly won the bid.

Next to me is my assigned government handler, staying close throughout the trip, and I can’t help but feel as if I have somehow invaded their space and broken an unspoken rule.

But if they are uncomfortable, they don’t show it, and my Muslim guest is welcomed with warmth and offers of colorful Ghormeh sabzi.

I watch the interaction, slightly befuddled, as if everyone else is clued in on something I’m struggling to understand. The women pull me aside, giggling, pointing to my hijab and speaking in fast-pace Farsi. The wife of my host translates as best she can, saying that I’m wearing it too tight. “You look Arab. You look warm. Let me help you,” she says and pulls and adjusts until my dark curls fall out in a manner that matches the others.

Confused, I ask them about my Magen David – can I wear it and still be safe? They look at me as if I asked for the moon and assure me that I have been sorely mistaken.

I feel lost in my prejudice and embarrassed and relieved all at once. This country fails to deliver what I expected and I’m not quite sure what that means.

It is fascinating to see this 2,700-year-old Jewish community prosper despite living under Sharia law, but its Torah-true ways may be partially attributed to that very fact. With intermarriage being punishable by death and religion being an absolute value, there is little to no assimilation and the outward pressure seems to tighten the knit in the fabric of their lives.

This community is living in and adjusting to Sharia law, being a recognised minority, yes, but with conditions and limitations, and a preparedness for and memory of the worst. They are separate but equal, free yet contained and the regime lets them know this with their perennial outburst of Holocaust denial and unbridled anti-Zionism. Much like the country in which they reside, they are a community full of contradictions and with beauty and darkness in equal measure.

The father of the family keeps asking me questions, quizzing me about customs and traditions, comparing them to their own. When I tell him about the situation in Europe, his eyes darken and wander, lost in a thought to which I’m not privy, then he raises his glass and smiles.

“Thank you Annika for coming here to tell our story, and for allowing us to hear yours. I want to tell you how much I admire you for keeping your religion under such dire circumstances. For that you have my respect”.

His words take my breath away, as they were neither sarcastic nor dark, but spoken with earnest sympathy. I had arrived there pitying them, but here I saw him pitying me, and I felt the bond between us grow far beyond geography or Halacha.

I leave their house that night, promising to return, and I walk back felling both heavy and happy. I came to see for myself, and I did; yet I do not quite know what I saw. These are my tribesmen who fought Haman and the evil nation of Amalek, and in a month I will drink and dance as I commemorate their victory. This year will be different, this time will be new, as I’ll think of these, my brethren, for whom the fight is far from over.