Persianrabbi profiles the late Rabbi Uriel Davidi of Tehran, who died in Israel last December. Throughout his youth in the village of Consair, the decades he served as rabbi in Tehran, and even during his final years in Jerusalem, Rabbi Uriel Davidi devoted his every moment and considerable talents to furthering the physical and spiritual well-being of his fellow Iranian Jews. (With thanks: Albert)
“Until the fall of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Jews of Iran lived like citizens of any Western country. But beginning on the winter day in 1979 when the Shah ran for his life, and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France to take over the reins of the country, life changed for the Jews.
“The new government expropriated many industries and properties. Extreme fundamentalist practices of Islam became law in all areas of religion and culture; all opposition was squelched. The Jews of Iran, who had grown accustomed to a westernized lifestyle, realized that while Khomeini might allow them freedom of religion, their lives were now bound by strict limits. Their footsteps were dogged; they were forbidden from emigrating, not to mention moving to Israel. Those who applied to the immigration authorities for passports were turned down outright, or instructed to fill out mountains of paperwork. For all intents and purposes, the Jews were hostages in their own country, held against their will, and all had to pledge their loyalty to the new establishment.
“Very quickly, the tzaddik Rabbi Uriel Davidi comprehended the new and confusing reality. The relatively good times under the Shah had come to an end. Now they had to submit to the whims of the fundamentalist government. Bar-Osher is sure that Rabbi Davidi was able to sense the oncoming revolution, but he didn’t think of himself. Instead, he expended all his efforts on getting Jews out of the country. It was Rabbi Davidi who enabled the Iranian Jews to deal with the new reality and with the new government. (…)
Life in Tehran presented Rabbi Davidi with endless dilemmas of this sort: what to do, what to say, when to say it, when to remain silent. As local rabbi, he had to deliver the community’s birthday wishes and New Year’s wishes to Khomeini. “At those two events we used to watch how he entered the lions’ den,” Rabbi Kahanian recounts. “He had an amazing ability to say suitable words of Torah which would find a listening ear in our enemy. He also appeared on Iranian television, alongside the Iranian ruler. Of course, the television’s mainstay was fundamentalist-religious propaganda. He often visited the Majlis, the Parliament, and delivered Torah-based lectures that entranced all the Parliament members and ministers.” Rachamim Yaakovian remembers the profundity of Rabbi Davidi’s words. “The Muslims would be openmouthed. How was it that the Jewish chacham was so learned and well versed in their own issues? We often heard them praising our chacham.”
“Menashe Amir, an Israel Radio commentator and expert on Iranian Jewry, feels that Rabbi Davidi’s effectiveness in this area stemmed from his familiarity with Islam, which enabled him to present Jewish ideals in terms familiar to Muslims, and allow them to gain an understanding of the essence of Judaism. “In this way, he made a tremendous contribution to the battle against anti-Semitism and against the negative image of Judaism that the extremist Iranian clerics presented. His lectures in the synagogues were formulated with Muslim listeners in mind, as well, because top government officials would visit the synagogue on Jewish festivals to bless the community.”
“Amir relates that when the Tehran community tried to open a kosher slaughterhouse, extremist Muslims opposed the idea. “There were some Muslims who viewed Jews as ‘impure’ and opposed the establishment of such a slaughterhouse near their own slaughterhouse,” he explains. “Rabbi Davidi discussed the matter with the authorities, and delivered a typically charismatic speech. Once again, he facilitated an understanding between the Jewish organization and the establishment, and the slaughterhouse was approved.”
(…) “Rabbi Davidi did everything he could on behalf of his flock, helping those who were entangled in difficulties with the government to “escape the hangman’s noose,” as his students repeatedly phrased it. He expended every effort to help Jews who were caught attempting to escape. These activities required a very fine balance and great diplomacy, in order to avoid conflicts between the government, with whom he maintained warm ties, and his flock, some of whom hoped to leave the country.”