It is not generally known that Persian Jews (like Bokharan and YemeniteJews) arrived in Jerusalem in the 19th century before the first aliyah of Zionist pioneers from Eastern Europe. They were very pious but desperately poor. Fascinating piece by Aviva Bar-Am in the Times of Israel (with thanks: Michelle; Lily):
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
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.
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.