When the Iranians came to Jerusalem

Inside P’tachiya, the first Iranian synagogue in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in 1886. Penniless and pious, they built tin homes for themselves and prioritized their synagogues.

Traditionally, Iranian Jews auction off the rights to synagogue honors, and the highest bidder wins. But at Ohavei Zion synagogue in Jerusalem’s Neve Shalom neighborhood there was one exception: When worshippers began sparring for the right to open the ark during Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre service, the auctioneer would pound his gavel and yell “sold” as soon as Meir Banai offered 50 liras.

No one minded, even though the honor was worth a lot more than 50 liras. They knew that Banai, a fruit and vegetable vender, was not a rich man, and that this particular honor was his. For during the War of Independence, when his son Avraham was wounded and captured by the Jordanians, Banai had made a vow. Should Avraham come back to him, he had sworn, he would buy this particular honor every year as long as he lived. Six months later, his son returned home.

Not long ago, we joined a tour entitled: Parsim in Jerusalem, with “Parsim” the Israeli name for Jews of Iranian (Persian) descent. Leading us through the earliest Iranian neighborhoods in Jerusalem was the multi-faceted Tal Chenya: lecturer, tour guide and master storyteller.

During our jaunt he regaled us with fascinating stories about Parsim who made the difficult trip to the Holy Land in the late 19th century. We learned that they came here with little but the shirts on their backs, but with an immense love for Israel in their hearts.

The first wave of Iranian immigrants to reach Jerusalem arrived in 1886, inspired by the revered Rabbi Aharon HaCohen. Most of them came from the city of Shiraz, and had made the month-long journey to the port at Bushar by foot, on camels and atop donkeys, women and children riding in pack saddles on either sides of the same beast. Once they arrived, they waited for a ship that would take them to their yearned-for destination.

After disembarking in Jaffa, and kissing its “holy” ground with gusto, they traveled to Jerusalem. The city’s two established communities – Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe and Ladino-speaking Sefaradim from Spain and Portugal – had a hard time believing that the newcomers, with their strange language, exotic customs and dark skins, were actually Jewish. Unfortunately, while Ashkenazis and Sephardis had already set up bustling neighborhoods for other immigrants, they felt no obligation towards these newcomers from the east.

Too poor to buy property or to build homes, the Parsim squatted on an empty plot next to Mishkenot Sha’anamim (the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls). But their shacks and tents created such an eyesore that they were soon evicted and they ended up in a make-shift transit camp. Lacking building materials, penniless, they took enormous, empty tin gasoline cans, separated the sides, smoothed them out and stood them up to form walls. That’s why their earliest neighborhood, officially called Shevet Tzedek, is known far and wide as the Tin Neighborhood.

If you lived in Shevet Tzedek, you walked on dirt floors and slept in beds made of wooden crates pushed together. Your mattress would consist of rags and tattered clothes, which you would also use as bedcovers when it got cold. Yet this was a vibrant, crowded quarter teeming with life – and a characteristic eastern aura.

And, poverty-stricken or not, the Iranians were deeply religious. They needed a synagogue where they could pray in their own special style and hear sermons in Persian. So they erected P’tachiya, the first Iranian synagogue in Jerusalem.

P’tachiya was built in 1894 as a simple hut whose permanent walls were added one by one whenever the destitute residents were able to come up with a donation. There was no money for a floor, and they stood on a layer of dirt – but they did get their hands on a 400-year-old Torah. And after finding a box with a velvet interior and cloth on the outside, they had an ark.

One caretaker (gabai) of this synagogue was Moshe Mizrahi. Known to Jerusalemites as “the legendary Moishele,” he was obsessed with making sure there were always ten men available for morning worship. Moishele regularly woke people up at three or four in the morning; when the police were around, he borrowed their bullhorns to do the job.

The first permanent neighborhood, built by Parsim for Parsim, was established in 1900, and called Neve Shalom. Although it consists of only a few streets and a couple of alleys it contains half a dozen different Iranian synagogues – evidence of the new immigrants’ immense spiritual needs.

The Beit Yitzhak Synagogue was named for a rabbi who left Shiraz with his family but never made it to Israel. That’s because, two nights after they set sail, Rabbi Yitzhak Kalifa was killed on the deck of the ship during a terrible storm.

Neve Shalom residents were very poor, so everyone had to contribute towards building the Beit Yitzhak synagogue. Indeed, the walls and even the light fixtures are covered with their names and the sums they donated. One of them, Agababa Ben Yitzhak Ben Raful Shemesh, dug a cistern and sold water to the Arabs; for every tin of water he got a chiseled stone in return.

As the 19th century came to an end, more and more Parsim flocked to Jerusalem. And while girls stayed home and learned how to become good housewives, boys ran ragged in the streets, getting into all sorts of trouble. Worried that ignorance would be the downfall of the Iranian community, an organization called Ohavei Zion determined to deal with the problem. In 1906 a combination synagogue, absorption center and school appeared here, with Rabbi Yaakov Melamed – son of Rahamim Melamed, who was the Parsi community’s spiritual head and rabbi of the Shaarei Rahamim Synagogue – in charge of education.

Knowing that each family had only one multi-purpose basin for washing clothes, dishes, teeth and people, Yaakov Melamed added a shower to the school, complete with soap and towels. He provided to fill his pupils’ stomachs and even built a platform for drama classes and performances. It was here, in 1937, that famous entertainer Yossi Banai sang his first solo.

Shaare Rahamim Bana Hai Synagogue is home to Jerusalem’s mekubalim (mystics). The structure was originally built as a vineyard by a supremely successful Parsi in 1903 who lost his vast wealth during the First World War. In 1934 it was purchased by Rahamim Aharoni, who turned it into a synagogue popular with mystics like Mordecai Sha’arabi, famous for cursing the financially luckless Einee building only a few meters away.

Nearby, the Shauli and Kashi Synagogue, like other Iranian synagogues, holds more than one Holy Ark. The explanation is simple: Iranian law decreed that if you have an ark in your synagogue, it must hold the Quran. So Iranian Jews built at least two arks in each house of worship – one to hold the Torah, and another for the Quran.

The Shaar Harahamim Synagogue is located inside a yard which housed half a dozen large families from Shiraz, including that of its rabbi, Rahamim Melamed, and his amazing wife Esther.

Among other pursuits, Esther manufactured rose water, removed the guts from koshered cows, and opened a women’s prayer shawl-knitting factory. Yearning to study Talmud, a practice frowned upon for women, she managed on her own – and by standing in the women’s gallery upstairs while listening to the men studying below. After her husband died, and when she felt the men were spewing nonsense, she would call down and scold them.


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