Iranian Jews in US Grapple with Crisis
Eighty-year-old Manoochehr Omidvar — a serene presence if there ever was one — has witnessed many things, but these are especially strange and troubling times for him and other Iranian Jews living in America. Israel is fighting in Lebanon against the Iranian-backed extremist group Hezbollah. And Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called the Holocaust a myth, refused to abandon his country’s nuclear development activities, and said the main solution for the tensions in the Mideast is Israel’s obliteration.
As the fighting in Lebanon continues, Iranian American Jews are watching the news closely and worrying about relatives in both Israel and Iran. But when it comes to their loyalty or identity, they say there is no conflict, just complexity. One recent day, in a small white house that felt more like a sauna, Omidvar drank a glass of hot Iranian tea and glanced at a Hebrew-language newspaper. Nearby, copy machines spat out the latest issue of Payam, a weekly Persian-language magazine he edits. Female Israeli soldiers appeared on the cover, with the headline ”Women at War.”
Omidvar lauds the Jewish state, saying, ”History has shown us that nowhere in the world do Jews have security besides Israel.” Still, he longs to see his homeland once more. ”I love Iran,” he said. ”If the regime changes, two weeks later, I’d go back.” Make no mistake — by and large, Iranian American Jews are fervent supporters of Israel. The community, an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 strong, has raised millions for the country it considers a spiritual homeland. They have no sympathy for Hezbollah.
As for Iran, that is a more complex subject. Iranian Jews may disdain Iran’s hardline rulers, but there is much respect and affection for Iran the country and the culture, especially among the elder generation. ”I miss Iran,” said Nasser Rahmani, 64, who left the country almost 20 years ago. ”I miss the dust and the water.”
Next to Los Angeles, the New York area is home to the second-biggest group of Iranian American Jews, about 10,000 people, community leaders said. More than half live in Great Neck and nearby villages.
The first Iranian Jews in Great Neck arrived several decades ago, community leaders said, but the influx grew dramatically after the 1979 Iranian revolution brought to power an Islamic regime. Except for the occasional Persian-language store sign, though, there are few signs of the Iranian Jewish presence in Great Neck. The Iranian Jews in town are very affluent and tight-knit — some say insular — with their own synagogues and organizations.
Parents try to transmit their ethnic as well as religious traditions to children, even if it is just through Persian cooking or music. It is not unusual to see Iranian Jews in a rally supporting Israel, which is home to some 200,000 Jews of Iranian descent. At the same time, they may root for Iran in the World Cup.
”We’re Jews, but we’re Iranian,” said Houman Sarshar, a scholar who has written extensively about the community. ”Everybody wants their children to speak Persian. Everybody’s always reminding each other that they’re Iranian. They want their children to marry Iranian Jews.”
Iranian American Jews often note that before 1979, Jews lived relatively freely in Iran and the country had good relations with Israel. They point to 2,700 years of Jewish presence in the Persian land, predating Islam. They also note that at least 25,000 Jews still live in Iran, and that as a religious group, they are technically protected by the country’s constitution.
”The position we take is that we support what the majority of the Iranian people want for that country, which in essence translates into the ability of the majority to speak their mind — a democracy,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, which also has a New York counterpart.
Raymond Iryami, a lawyer from Great Neck who serves on the board of the New York federation, said that although Iranian Jews keep both Israel and Iran at the forefront of their identities, the younger generation in particular considers itself very much American, taking an active role in professional and political circles.
Iranian Jews in the U.S. tend to approach the pro-Israeli cause more quietly than other groups, keeping in mind the safety of the Jews in Iran. The money raised goes to Israel for humanitarian purposes, community leaders said. In the past, when Iran has suffered from earthquakes, the community also raised money to help people there.
Nahid Rahimian, 36, left Iran almost four years ago and is now in Great Neck. She said the Jewish community in Iran is allowed to worship freely, ”but you could only go so far.”
She dreams constantly about Iran but is getting used to life in America. For her, that includes helping Omidvar prepare Payam for his 1,000-plus subscribers. And it means wondering when the latest Middle East crisis will end. At the end of the day, everyone just wants peace, she said. What if the battle escalates, transforming itself from Israel versus Hezbollah to Israel versus Iran? Some Iranian Jews refuse to entertain the hypothetical, saying it is too far-fetched. Others, apparently having heard this question before, pose one in return: ”How can one choose between their mother and their father?”