“They are separate but equal, free yet
contained and the regime lets them know this with their perennial
outburst of Holocaust denial and unbridled anti-Zionism. Much like the
country in which they reside, they are a community full of
contradictions and with beauty and darkness in equal measure.”These are the words of Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Swedish journalist writing in Jewish News. Hers is an eloquent piece, but disappointingly superficial, perhaps because her government minder was with her at all times. (With thanks: Ralph, Michelle)
Annika Hernroth- Rothstein in the Abrishami Synagogue in northern Tehran
By the fourth stanza of Lecha Dodi, I
can feel the tears streaming down my face, and I quietly surrender to
the moment. The woman next to me puts a heavy hand of comfort on my
shoulder and we exchange a smile that is equal parts exploration and
The century-old Abrishami synagogue is
located on the second floor of an unassuming grey building in Palestine
Street in north Tehran.
The top floor houses a busy yeshiva and
in the basement there is a ballroom-style kosher restaurant often used
for the community’s many weddings and barmitzvahs.
Every day, there are two minyanim here
and, on Shabbat, the synagogue welcomes around 250 people, generations
of Persian Jews bound together by tradition and necessity.
I walk in right after sunset and
immediately all eyes turn to me, the 5ft 9ins blue-eyed oddity marking a
stark contrast to the otherwise homogenous congregation. I’m ushered to
the front by Dina, a short black-haired woman in her late 70s and, in a
mix of Farsi and Hebrew, she introduces me to the other women sitting
in the prestigious front row.
Farideh, Liora and Gilda immediately
start asking me questions in a hushed tone: am I married? Am I looking?
Would I consider staying put? And my answers are debated and the
information swiftly passed along down the many pews.
In so many ways it is just like any
shul – the chatter and bad ventilation, the obvious hierarchy and the
children running rampant, ignoring the older mens’ condemning stares. In others, it is unlike any place I’ve ever known.
I came to Iran to see for myself what
Jewish life is like behind a wall of dogma, having had it be a looming
presence in my religious and political life for quite some time. When I
applied for the journalist visa, I was blissfully unaware of what it
would feel like to get on that plane, armed with nothing but a siddur
and a newly purchased veil. Most of my friends and family urged me not
to go, sending me articles chronicling the atrocities I would encounter,
and when I was handed that ticket saying “Khomeini IKA,” I prayed they
Thirty minutes before we landed in
Tehran, I started tying my hijab, using the printed instructions I had
found online, tucking every strand of hair into the multicolored cloth.
Lastly, I took off my Magen David for the first time in years and I put
it in my purse between two pieces of paper.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I do
know it wasn’t what I found. In Tehran alone, there are 7,000 Jews
residing and the vast majority of them are Orthodox and highly
observant, and several smaller communities are still thriving in ancient
cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz, putting the total Jewish population
of Iran at approximately 15,000.
At the time of the Shah, it was seven
times as large, but the 1979 Islamic revolution caused more than 80,000
Jews to leave for Israel and the United States, never to return. During
the reign of the Shah, Jews saw little of worry, but the Islamic
revolution brought not only hatred toward Israel but also violent
anti-Semitism, resulting in harassment, repossession of assets and the
public execution of Jewish community leader Habib Elghanian, accused of
espionage for the Zionist regime.
It doesn’t take long for me to be
invited to several dinners, and after services we walk in a gentle pace
to the house of the community leader who has proudly won the bid.
Next to me is my assigned government
handler, staying close throughout the trip, and I can’t help but feel as
if I have somehow invaded their space and broken an unspoken rule.