Iranian Jews in America: Torn Between Homelands
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Great Neck, New York, and Larry Bencivenga is taking me on a driving tour. Bencivenga is the head security guard at a local synagogue for Iranian-American Jews.
He tells me that when the Persian Jews emigrated to Great Neck — a Long Island suburb about thirty minutes by train from Manhattan — they transformed the community. They built stained-glass synagogues and colossal homes — “That garage is bigger than my house!” Bencivenga laughs as he points to a mansion — which has since led to a broader pattern of gentrification in the area as a whole.
“You can tell which homes are Persian because they’re made out of brick,” Bencivenga tells me. Why brick? “They want them to last forever.”
The word “forever” isn’t one Persian Jews use lightly, either. The Jewish community in Iran stretches back for 2,700 years. They preceded the Iranian Muslims by more than 1,000 years. But Iranian Jews also know what it’s like to leave that history — and the sense of permanence that went with it — behind. Two-thirds of Iran’s Jews immigrated to the United States in the thirty years after the 1979 revolution.
Now, 31 years later, global tension is high over Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and the question of what, if anything, the United States or Israel should do to stop it. Many Iranian-American Jews are now facing difficult questions: As a community that straddles at least three different societies and identities, are their loyalties divided? Who should they support, and how? Could Persian Jews back Israel — a country most love deeply — in striking what is for some of them an equally important homeland?
For most, these are painful questions — and even intrusive, when posed by someone from outside of the community. Neither are they easily answered.
BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, Jews in Iran enjoyed a relatively free and prosperous life under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. While most of the Jews in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq fled to Israel in 1950s and ’60s, Iranian Jews stayed. Now, some historians consider this to be a testament to the Shah’s leadership. But the social and economic success of the Jews during the Pahlavi monarchy cost them later: They were partially blamed for the domestic and economic woes that faced the new Islamic Republic.
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took the reins in 1979, he ushered in an era characterized by conservative Islamic values, anti-Semitic rhetoric and distrust of the West. Most Jews believed they would no longer be free to succeed professionally and worship freely. Those who ventured to America settled mostly in Beverly Hills and Great Neck.
Becoming American citizens added a third layer to an already complex identity.
“Growing up in Queens, half of my friends who knew I was Jewish were surprised I was Iranian [and not Israeli],” says Raymond Iryami, an attorney in Great Neck who immigrated to America in 1982 when he was 10-years-old. “The other half of my friends who knew I was Iranian were shocked to find out I was a Jew, thinking all Iranians are Arabs. So it’s a very delicate balance.”
The current tension between Iran and Israel has not made that balancing any easier.
“It’s very difficult for us,” explains Hooshang Nemat, the executive vice president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. “You don’t want to see your nation destroyed, and you don’t want to see a conflict between your country of birth and the country that you sympathize with because of religion and because of shared history.” Nemat, a 67-year-old Mashadi Jew (an small, ancient group from the Iranian city of Mashad), came to America in 1961 as a student at the University of Miami. He returned to Iran in 1972, and came back to the United States because of the revolution.
Like Nemat, most Iranian American Jews are against a military strike on Iran — whether it is from Israel or from the United States. But while they’d prefer a diplomatic solution, others say they would still support Israel in defending itself against a virulently anti-Semitic, and potentially dangerous, regime. Sam Kermanian, the former secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, believes that an Israeli strike “would be viewed as a justifiable act of defense,” adding that “the reaction of the Iranian American Jewish community won’t be much different than the reaction of the majority of the people of Iran, who view the current regime as oppressive, and in conflict with the interests of the people of Iran.”
If Israel strikes, Iranian-American Jews say they will fear for the safety of their family in Israel, America and, in some cases, still in Iran. The estimates of Jews remaining in Iran range from 15,000 to 25,000. Only a few trickle out each year. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an agency that facilitates the immigration of Iranian religious minorities through Vienna, 136 Jews left Iran in 2009, 159 in 2008, 229 in 2007 and 152 in 2006. Mark Hetfield, senior vice president for Policy and Programs at HIAS, says the numbers reflect the change in approval ratings, which became higher a few years ago. “There was a time when you would come to Vienna and you were taking a bit of a chance that you could be denied,” he explains. But at this time, the vast majority are approved.” When the percentage of denials declined, more Iranians who were once hesitant to leave applied for the program.
According to Hetfield, there are no governmental barriers to immigration on paper. Ostensibly, Jews are free to leave if they wish. But it’s not a simple decision to leave a homeland. Many of the Jews who remain live comfortable, and reportedly lavish, lives. They don’t want to leave. Others are too old to travel, and many don’t have the means. According to Nahid Pirnazar, a professor of Iranian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Iranian Jews can live a good life in Iran on one condition.
“I often talk to the community leaders who come here,” she explains. “They go right away denouncing everything about Israel and Zionism.” As long as they “keep their mouths shut about Israel,” they can lead quiet, comfortable lives. Of course, she adds, their denigration of Israel is a show. But it is a crucial and believable one.
For many in the community, the regular denial of a connection to Israel is unimaginable. Especially for those who were not born in Iran, and have never visited, Israel has become a stronger and more palpable homeland.
“A lot of Persians that I know have shifted their loyalties to Israel,” says Janet Eshaghoff, an attorney and secretary on the Great Neck Library Board of Trustees. “Persian traditions have been displaced by the politics of the Iranian government. Now, when you hand [them] down to your children, it is easier to talk about and identify with Israel rather than with Iran.”
There are certainly some Persian Jews who disagree, those who grew up in Iran. They find it impossible to choose between their country of birth and their religious homeland. It is, many of them say, akin to choosing a favorite parent.
These Persian Jews have a trove of memories from their birthplace — sensory experiences that have informed a deeper understanding of why Jews today still choose to stay in Iran.
Even Persian Jews who were born in America, like Eshaghoff, say they feel a deep connection to their Iranian roots. Inside her Great Neck home, Eshaghoff shows me her Persian room, a salon that’s designed in a traditional Iranian style. There’s always a backgammon set, she tells me. Her version of Persia is adorned with embroidered rugs, faded turquoise couches and antique chandeliers.
While the traditions of Eastern European Jews in America have been diluted over time — distinctions between Russian, Polish, and Austrian Jews are less defined — the Iranian community remains unified. In some cases, they attend separate synagogues, like the Mashadi synagogue in Great Neck. There, most congregants speak native Farsi and accented English. The English siddurim, or prayer books, are located at the top of a foreboding shelf at the entrance of the sanctuary. I am ushered to a section of seats behind a gossamer silver curtain. Because most Mashadi Jews are orthodox, women sit separately from men.
Persians cook with different spices than Eastern European Jews. They savor foods that can’t be found at an average New York deli (like gondi, a type of dumpling), and chant Torah the way Muslims sing passages from the Quran. A Middle Eastern background has left many with golden complexions and blunt personalities.
Persian Jews are as diverse as any other group of immigrants — they live on opposite coasts, fall into a wide range of socio-economic groups, and left Iran during different periods in its tumultuous history — while politically and ideologically, they’re as diverse as the rest of the United States.
But their complex cultural identity remains a potent force in their lives, as does the hope for a time when they might know Iran again in the way many American Jews know Israel. “I think we are kind of in a holding pattern,” Eshaghoff says. “There is talk of Pahlavi’s son [eventually] being restored, or at the very least, for Persian Jews being able to visit Iran more freely and making Iran a bigger part of our lives.”
Until then, they’ll keep building their houses here out of brick.