Remnants of once flourishing community wonder how much longer they can hold out.
years might pass before a wedding takes place in the Jewish community here,"
said Haroun, who is one of the nearly 40 members of the Jewish community in
though the Jewish population in Yazd has decreased considerably over the past
few years, we try to keep the synagogues open and teach our children Hebrew and
educate them in the religion."
Iranian rabbi Yousef
Kohani Hamedani (left), at the wedding ceremony of Peyman Saketkhu
(center) and Sanaz Merivarzadeh at a synagogue in Tehran. (Photo:
of Iran trace their history back 2,600 years, when members of the tribes of
Israel were taken into captivity by the Assyrian king and exiled. The Giliard
region of Damavand, near Tehran, where some settled, still houses a Jewish
cemetery which is a sacred burial place to pious Jews.
young man from Tehran who with the help of his father raised money to build a
protective wall around the cemetery, said, "Sometimes they smash the tombstones,
and sometimes they write anti-Israeli slogans on them but the majority of
Iranians respect the Jewish culture and have no problems with the Jews."
has the largest Jewish population in Iran with nearly 15,000 people and 30
synagogues. The Dr Sapir Hospital, which is a Jewish charity, has predominantly
Muslim staff and patients and is highly respected. Jewish businesspeople also
run a nursing home, schools and kindergartens as well as a Jewish library, a
number of butcheries and a kosher restaurant.
of Iran have been best known for certain professions like making gold jewellery
and antique dealing, textiles and carpets. Most Shia regard Jews as ritually
unclean so Jews are unable to sell food.
the reign of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, when Iran-Israel relations were
amicable, Jewish people founded a number of important businesses like the Roghan
Nabati (vegetable oil) factory, Khorous-Neshan gum business and the Chitsazi-e-Tehran
textile firm and played an important role in the economic development of Iran.
World War Two, many Jewish people left the Tehran ghetto called Oudlajan, which
had become unsanitary. Today, the only inhabitants left are three men, Raheleh,
Shamsi and Behnam, who live in the Ezra Yaghoub synagogue, the city's oldest.
an elderly man from Kermanshah who cleans the synagogue, says the place stays
open only because Jews from other areas come to ensure that the quorum of ten
males needed for worship is maintained, "This is why Jewish people from the far
corners of north Tehran come here every week to prevent the synagogue from being
closed down. Jewish people show unique solidarity when it comes to protecting
their community and their religious and ethnic heritage."
Jews believe themselves to be the descendants of Esther, the wife of the Persian
King Xerxes, who helped save the lives of Jewish people in the vast Persian
empire that encompassed much of the Middle East.
buried in the city of Hamadan next to her cousin Mordecai. Every year, Iranian
Jews flock to their mausoleum on the Jewish festival of Purim, which celebrates
the deliverance. Some women make wishes there, believing she can work miracles.
King Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire, who released the Jews from captivity
in the sixth century BC - mentioned in the Old Testament as their deliverer.
Iran's history bears witness to the tolerance of Iranians for Jewish people, the
1979 Islamic Revolution spawned mixed feelings among Iranian Jews about their
identity and nationality, not least because of the Islamic regime's enmity
though Ayatollah Khomeini, in his first public speech in 1979, announced the
Jewish community would be regarded differently from Israel, Habibollah Elghanian,
head of the Tehran Jewish community and one of the wealthiest Iranian Jews, was
accused of corruption and contacts with Israel and was executed in 1979.
to a wave of emigration by Iranian Jews. Over the past 30 years, the Israeli
flag has been repeatedly torched and the Star of David desecrated in Palestine
Square in Tehran. The government has also funded the production of countless
anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli films and TV series.
arrest of 13 Isfahani and Shirazi Jews on charges of spying for Israel in 2000
brought fears of a new wave of repression. The accused, mainly clothing or shoe
salesmen, were finally released after international pressure.
Israel and Turkey, Iran has the third largest Jewish population in the Middle
East. However, the numbers, estimated to stand at 150,000 in 1979 when many had
important positions in society, have fallen to a nominal 30,000, though in
practice it may be far less.
Tehran, there are smaller populations in Shiraz (8,000), Isfahan (900), Sanandaj
(500), Kermanshah, Rafsanjan, Hamadan, Yazd and Kerman. All live in a permanent
state of fear given what has happened to their co-religionists in recent years.
with horror the story of how the Jews of Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam
in March 1839, in what is known as the Allahdad incident.
years, some felt so threatened that they chose to convert to Islam, but
continued to practice Judaism in secret - becoming so-called crypto-Jews.
the latter, Moshe Hakimi, from Mashhad, spoke to IWPR about this community's
newborn was told from his first years of life that we are living in times of
crisis and that they must lead a double life. They told us that we must not talk
about our personal lives in front of non-Jewish people. This absolute secrecy
became second nature after reaching puberty," he said.
"Therefore, all Jewish converts to Islam had two names: for example, my
grandfather's Muslim name was Sheikh Aboulghasem and his Hebrew name was
Benjamin. My father's Muslim name was Ebrahim and his Hebrew name was Abraham.
Outside they call me Mousa and at home, I'm called Moshe. In my father's
lifetime, many of the Jews had very Muslim names. They even went to Mecca on
pilgrimage and became Hadjis."
these crypto-Jews observed Islamic creeds more zealously than the Muslims.
Mozafarian and Froughi families are among the Jews who have embraced Islam in
the past 100 years and found important social and political status for
Makarem-Shirazi, one of the Shia Grand Ayatollahs, who is close to the
government, had Jewish ancestors. He is now known as a radical cleric. The
Asgaroladi brothers, influential figures in the Islamic Republic, are also of
Jewish descent. Habibollah Asgaroladi has for years been the secretary-general
of the powerful Islamic Coalition Party. His brother Asaddollah is a powerful
merchant, who is also the head of the Iran-Russia and Iran-China chambers of
motive behind such conversions might be seen as an attempt to lead a peaceful
life in predominantly Muslim Iranian society. Through such conversions, Jews
were able to get different jobs, interact, trade and live more freely.
Nevertheless, traditional Iranian society tends to look down on such converts.
Opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even spread a false rumour that he
was of Jewish origin to try to discredit him and arouse public opposition to the
having Hebrew names, Jewish Iranians use their Persian names in their
identification papers and do not practice their religious rites in public.
Unlike churches, which are clearly marked, synagogues are mostly located
anonymously in back alleys and side streets.
Jews, like Christians and Zoroastrians, have a representative in the Majlis
(parliament). But only in 2003 was the blood money for Jewish people and other
religious minorities made equal to that of a Muslim. Previously, blood money,
the compensation that relatives of a murder victim can claim in lieu of the
death sentence for the perpetrator, was half for the minorities.
efforts the Jewish community makes to remind Jewish people of their rich culture
include tours to important sites. Among these are Shush-Daniel, the presumed
tomb of Daniel located in Khuzestan province and the grave of Jacob's
granddaughter in the Lenjan cemetery in Isfahan as well as Queen Esther's
mausoleum. Visits to various cities across Iran as well as musical performances,
hiking and other activities all aim to promote solidarity among Jewish youth.
of this has succeeded in reversing the minority's trend towards emigration to
the United States, Israel and European countries in recent years.
a female Jewish student is both anxious about not being able to get married and
the problems her people face in general, said, "There are almost no educated
Jewish boys left in Iran to consider for marriage. Emigration is the last resort
that we must consider so that maybe we can experience a future free of
the author: Parvaneh Vahidmanesh is an Iranian journalist and expert in the
modern history of Iran. Her family includes Iranian Jewish ancestors forced to
convert to Islam. She is now based in Washington DC.
Vahidmanesh and Hasan Sarbakhshian - an Iranian photographer who worked for
Associated Press - have worked together for two years on a book about the life
of Iranian Jews.
view Hasan Sarbakhshian's photos about the life of Iranian Jews please visit
... Payvand News - 05/13/10 ... --