Internet Allows Iranian Jews to Mourn
As a young woman in Tehran during the 1970s, Susan Manavi never visited a cemetery, even after her grandparents were laid to rest a couple of years before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although they were buried in a Jewish cemetery near the city, Manavi’s parents adhered to an Iranian cultural taboo that death and youth should be kept apart, so as not to tempt fate.
The 52-year-old Los Angeles woman first laid eyes on her grandparents’ headstones two months ago on the Web site Beheshtieh.com. The site has photographs of thousands of graves from Beheshtieh Cemetery. “Looking at those graves took me back to our homeland and all the memories, sweet and bitter,” Manavi said. “The sweetness of everybody living side by side, rather harmoniously, and the bitterness of leaving and not knowing if you will ever be back.”
The site was developed by L.A. resident Shahram Avraham Farzan. He has cataloged the final resting place for generations of Tehran’s Jewish people. Indexed alphabetically, the site provides an opportunity for e-mourning at a time when many Jews throughout the world feel antagonized by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The hardline conservative has repeatedly called for the annihilation of Israel, and most recently sponsored a conference denying the existence of the Holocaust.
Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, said the Web site has stirred a lot of excitement because, “there are many in our community who, for various reasons, feel limited when it comes to going back to Iran. “They fear hostility but they still feel a closeness to that land and that people and their shared history,” he said.
For a community in exile, seeing the graveyard is a rare, meaningful way of connecting with the past, said Roya Hakakian, author of “Journey to the Land of No,” a memoir of growing up as an Iranian Jew. “I think in an ironic way this Web site makes you feel like you have not left your dead behind,” Hakakian said. When “you are able to reach back to your dead, then there’s a sense of being alive and not having entirely vanished.”
The admittedly morbid undertaking was somewhat accidental for Farzan, who returned to Iran in 2002 to place a marker on his father’s grave. Nearby, he saw the grave of a family friend and decided to snap a photo for the friend’s relatives. In other parts of the cemetery, he saw poorly maintained graves, and others being moved for construction.
Farzan continued to take photos for the next 10 weeks, covering about 70 percent of the graveyard and spending thousands of dollars before returning to the United States. Farzan would often haul buckets of water in the wintry cold of Tehran to wash the graves before snapping shots of them. “I thought it would be a good gift for the families of these people,” Farzan, 51, said. “A mitzvah.”
Like many Iranian Jews, Farzan often refers to the rule of Cyrus the Great when explaining how deep his ties are with Iran. In 539 B.C., the emperor invited Jews and all others to become citizens of what was then the Persian Empire and issued what is believed to be the first-known declaration of human rights. “There are 2,500 years of Jewish Persians,” he said. That history “cannot be eradicated completely.”
Farzan now hopes to find the financial support and time to go back to other Jewish cemeteries in Iran to add to his Web site. He’s received many letters of support from Jewish Iranians of different generations. A rabbi wrote to Farzan to thank him because his Web site offered him his first opportunity to say the Kaddish over his father’s grave. The mourning prayer requires 12 Jewish men to pray at a grave, and the rabbi was able to do so, via Internet.
Others have written letters asking Farzan to help locate their family’s graves, including many from California, where more than 160,000 Iranians live. Iranian Jewish communities dot the globe, with the highest concentrations in Los Angeles, Great Neck, N.Y., and Israel.
For Manavi and many of the estimated 80,000 Iranian Jews who emigrated to the Los Angeles area – about 20,000 remain in Iran – the idea of going back, if only for a visit, is never far from their minds. “I think, before I die, I have to go back. I want to see those places again,” Manavi said. “I’m just waiting, hoping.”