Jewish Life in Iran
By: Professor Harold Gellis
The forlorn sand-colored brick structure with the green dome in Hamadan is in danger. After having withstood waves of hostility for five centuries, it now needs a Divine miracle. It needs a miracle similar to the Divine miracle that took place here once before – two and a half millennia ago. Here in Shushan, now modern-day Hamadan, the Jews of Persia were saved by the Almighty from certain destruction. Now, it is the tomb of Mordechai and Esther, the protagonists of the Purim story, which faces possible destruction.
In late December, 250 militant Iranian university students demonstrated in front of the mausoleum housing the tomb of Mordechai and Esther in Hamadan. They surrounded the domed structure and demanded that it be torn down in retaliation for alleged Israeli excavations at the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem. Soon after, government officials removed a sign identifying the mausoleum of the biblical figures as an official pilgrimage site. The removal of the sign signified a downgrading of the site. Ironically, the Iranian government had, only two years before, added the tomb of Mordechai and Esther to its list of national heritage sites, and had assumed responsibility for protecting the site.
An Ancient Community in an Ancient Land
But Iran itself is a land of ironies. The land with the oldest Jewish Diaspora in the world is, still today, the country with the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel. Its 25,000 Jews follow a tradition of loyalty to the government and respect for the authorities that dates back thousands of years to King Cyrus of Persia, who authorized the rebuilding of the Second Temple.
In February 2009, Roger Cohen, a reporter for the New York Times, described an ancient synagogue in Esfahan located at Palestine Square, opposite a mosque called Al-Aqsa. There was a banner hung over the entrance of the synagogue which said: “Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, from the Jewish community of Esfahan.”
Other Biblical prophets are also buried in Iran. The shrine of Daniel is in Shush. The shrine of Habakkuk is in Toyserkan. It is told that when grave robbers attempted to steal the body of Habakkuk, they were astounded to observe that the prophet’s body had not decayed, despite the passage of thousands of years since his passing.
A History of Persecution and Unrest
Over the centuries, successive waves of conquerors occupied what is now Iran. The Babylonian Empire was succeeded by Persian and Parthian rule. This was followed by the conquest of Alexander the Great of Macedonia and then by the Sassanid Zororastrian regime. Ultimately, Persia was conquered by Islamic invaders and then by the Mongols. With the adoption of Shia Islam in the 16thcentury as the state religion, the position of the Jews became precarious.
The forced conversion of the Jews of Mashad in 1839, known as the Allahdad incident, stands as a watershed in Iranian Jewish history. After several hundred Jews in Mashad were killed in a pogrom, the surviving Jews converted en masse to Islam – though only superficially. The Mashadi Jews became the Marranos of Iran, adopting Islamic names and dress, but secretly retaining their Jewish identity. Eventually, they were able to emigrate to Israel and the United States. To this day, Mashadi Jews retain a distinct identity among Iranian Jews.
“The number of the Jews in Iran would have been much more if, in every generation, they would not have been persecuted and forced to convert to Islam,” says a knowledgeable source. After years of suspicion by the government, few Iranians are willing to go on record with criticism of the government or Islamic edicts out of concern for the wellbeing of family and friends who still remain in the country.
In the 20thcentury, with the advent of the Pahlavi regime, Jewish life in Iran took a turn for the better. Reza Shah Pahlavi prohibited the practice of mass conversion of Jews and liberalized repressive policies that had been in effect with regard to education, employment, and religion. But then, with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Reza Shah adopted discriminatory policies against the Jews, putting the sizable community in danger once again. Fortunately, Reza Shah was deposed by the combined Russian and British occupation of Iran in 1941, and the threat against the Jews passed.
Iranian Jews’ Golden Age
Over the course of decades prior to the declaration of the State of Israel, thousands of Iranian Jews made aliyah to Israel. Many of these Jews were very religious and not exposed to 20thcentury modernity. They trekked on foot and camel from small ancient communities such as Yazd, Esfahan and Shiraz, with names such as Cohen and Shamian.
Other, more secular Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel in the aftermath of the declaration of the State of Israel and became leading figures in the government and army - Iranian Jews such as former Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, and former Chief of Staffof the Israel Defense Forces,Dan Halutz. There are now approximately 47,000 Iranian-born Jews in Israel today, many in Netanya, and 250,000 Jews altogether with Persian ancestry.
In 1948, there were still approximately 150,000 Jews in Iran. Under the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Jews of Iran enjoyed a “golden age.” The gates of the country’s professions, universities, and commerce were opened wide, and many Jews became prominent businessmen, doctors, and college professors.
Relations between Iran and Israel, though unofficial, were close. There were regularly scheduled flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran. Israeli construction companies, such as Solel Boneh, embarked on major construction projects building the infrastructure of Tehran, some of which were later co-opted by the present government. To this day, a Star of David can still be seen on the roof of Tehran airport, a symbol of a past Israeli presence in the country.
Israel sold weapons to Iran and trained the Iranians to use them. In return, the Israelis received oil and other raw materials. Israeli experts also trained their Iranian counterparts in other fields such as agriculture.
During the reign of the Shah, much of the country – including the Jews – became more educated and secular, especially in Tehran. While many continued to attend synagogue services on Shabbat, some would drive there. In Shiraz, the “Jerusalem of Iran,” the Jews were more traditional and religious. To this day, millions of Iranians, including government officials, listen to the Voice of Israel's Farsi language broadcast to learn about what is happening in the world.
The Islamic Revolution
The golden era of the Jews came to an abrupt end in 1979 with the deposing of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews still remaining at the beginning of the Revolution, tens of thousands fled, mainly to the United States, to the enclaves of Los Angeles and Great Neck, and to other communities across the globe.
In the 1980's and 1990's, Rabbi Naftali H. Neuberger z.s.l, head of the Ner Israel Rabbinical Seminary in Baltimore, was personally involved in bringing dozens of Iranian Jewish boys out of Iran and enrolling them in the Rabbinical Seminary where they comprised a large percent of the student population. Many of these former students now serve in rabbinical pulpits in Iranian congregations in different parts of the United States.
Today, approximately 25,000 Jews remain in Iran. The vast majority of them live in the sprawling metropolis of Tehran, specifically in the northern neighborhoods of the smog-covered city which is surrounded by the magnificent Alborz mountain range. A small number live in Esfahan, Shiraz, and other cities.
In Tehran, there are still 18 synagogues, several kosher butchers, and a Jewish hospital with a mostly Muslim staff and clientele. Altogether, there are 25 synagogues in Iran.
The Jews of Iran can attend universities, and become doctors and dentists. They can celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but only in the synagogue. They cannot bring the Torahs outside and dance in the street on Simhat Torah. They can have mixed parties, which are forbidden for Muslims.
In return for their safety, the Jews must demonstrate hostility to Israel, keep their schools open on Shabbat, and not build any new synagogues. But despite these restrictions, the Jews view themselves as loyal citizens of Iran, and see Iranian Muslims as their good friends.
According to an Iranian Jew who speaks in synagogues, Persian Jews loyally love Iran. “In Iran, you won’t find Jews who do not have a lot of Muslim friends,” he says. “Despite what many think, a majority of Muslims in Iran today have no problem with Jews or Israel. However, much of the government, as you know by now, has a different opinion which is shared by some Iranians.” There is even a token seat reserved for Jews in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, in accordance with Iran's constitution. The post is currently held by Dr. Siamack Morsadegh, a prominent surgeon.
The spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Iran is Chief Rabbi Hacham Yosef Hamadani Cohen. He was preceded by Hacham Uriel Davidi Khansari z.s.l. (Khansar, Iran1922 – Jerusalem, Israel 2006), both of whom have commanded respect from the Iranian authorities.
Why do the Jews stay in Iran?
“It’s hard to sell your house and store,” says a former Tehran resident with family still residing in Iran. “Here, in America, you have to begin life from scratch. There they have everything. They get used to living there.”
And so the tomb of Mordechai and Esther continues to stand guard over the remaining Jews of Iran, a symbol of the miraculous survival of an ancient Jewish community and a reminder of the dichotomy that characterizes Iran’s relationship with the Jewish people.
“The Muslims of Iran recognize that the tomb of Mordechai and Esther is holy,” says a Jew whose family once lived in Hamadan. “Even if the authorities want to demolish the tomb, the ordinary people will never let it be destroyed.”
Harold Gellis writes and lectures on Jewish history, Jewish communities, and religious life, and is an expert on demographic and sociological trends in the Jewish world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org