Growing Up Jewish in Iran


Being Jewish in Iran

By David Jehud

I was born in Iran and lived there during the years of the Shah. My parents trace their ancestry back to the exile from the time of the destruction of the second Temple. There have always been Jewish settlements in Iran, even from the time of Purim.

My father was an accountant and worked for various large companies in Iran. He became the vice president of one of the large companies. During this time there was much freedom for the Jews.

We lived in Teheran which had a large Jewish community. There were many synagogues and several large Jewish schools. Some of the Jews were wealthy, and some were poor. There were different areas in Teheran that treated the Jews in different manners. The area in which I went to school had gangs of boys who would come to attack the Jews. It was difficult to fight against them, because if we would defend ourselves and beat up the attacking boys, they would come back the next day with many more of their friends to avenge their beating.

We never had good relations with our Iranian Moslem neighbors, although some of my Jewish friends said that they did have decent relationships, but they lived in a different part of the city.

One of the most famous incidents that happen in Iran was that concerning the Mashhadim. This were the Jews from the city of Mashhad to whom the Moslems came to and demanded that they either convert of be killed. The Jews asked for a few days to consider what to do. The wise men of the city decided that they should tell the Moslems that they would accept their offer to convert and, of course, live. The governor was both the religious leader and the political leader. So these Jews became Moslems on the surface, but they kept all of the mitzvoth secretly.

For Passover they would bake matzo in one or two of their houses in the middle of the night, then they would quickly destroy the ovens before the day break. They had dug tunnels under the ground to go from one house to another. They would ritually slaughter an animal and share the meat with the rest of the community. They would buy meat from the Moslem butcher so as not to arouse suspicion and then they would throw it in the deep wells.

They made an underground Talmud Torah where they would teach their children. They would open their shops on the Shabbat, but they would put a small boy in the store. If a customer would come, the boy would tell the prospective customer that his father was not there and the boy was unable to sell the merchandise to the Moslem.

They also would perform the brit milah (circumcision) in hidden places. When a girl or boy was born, the parents would make a match with in the first few months. This was to avoid a Moslem coming to request marriage from these Jews. They Moslems respected the marriage contracts made even though they were made at such an early age. From this community there was almost no intermarriage.

The ruler of this area decided he wanted a Jewish girl for himself. He demanded that the Jewish community (which had externally converted) provide him with a girl from (former) Jewish parents. The wise men told him that before we can give you a girl, we must think it over. They were frightened that if they did not provide this girl, there was a grave danger for the entire community. They decided that they would have to give him a sacrifice. They found a Jewish girl of six years old. They explained to this girl that because of the gravity of the situation they must give her to him, but she, nevertheless, must remain Jewish. He married her and she was called by the Moslems Hagiah, meaning the wife of the ruler. This girl would light candles every Friday night in a secluded place in their large home where her husband would not see them. She never missed a Friday night.

The custom was that if some one would die, the Jews would bring have to bring the body through a mosque before the burial. The body had to be covered in the Muslim manner. The Jews would first cover the body in the Jewish manner and afterwards in the manner of the Muslims. Once a Jewish lady died and the Jews wanted to bury her in the "new" Muslim burial grounds which of course were the area that these Jews used. Suddenly, a Moslem came and announced that he knew that these people put Jewish shrouds under the Moslem ones, and that these "new" Muslims were really still Jews who did not accept Islam and therefore should be put to death. So they went to check to see if it were true. But the Moslems were very strict in the laws of modesty and only a woman would be allowed to check. So they brought Hagiah, the Jewish wife of the Ayatollah, who was by then an adult. She began to scream that they should leave the room when she checked. She saw the Jewish clothes, but hid the fact. Instead, she began to scream at the Moslems that they were immoral people and cursed them until they left. She managed to save the entire Jewish community.

Once year she went to Mecca on the hag pilgrimage. She was an older woman then. Somehow she was able to escape from her husband and she made her way to Israel. She lived in out her life in Jerusalem as a pious Jewess and was buried in the cemetery in the Mount of Olives.

These Jews, the Mashhalim, continued to live like this for some twenty years. After this time they were able to regain their own religion. Eventually most of them left Iran and they now have their own communities in New York and in Italy.

The most terrible experience that I remember is about a Jewish friend that was 7 or 8 years old who lived near a very anti-Semitic Moslem family. One day this boy went to the grocery store and the son of the Moslem family asked the boy to come in to his house. It turned out that the Moslem boy took physical advantage of this young boy in a very indecent manner. The parents called the police, but in the meantime the attacker escaped.

A few of the Moslem families came out against the Jewish family in the middle of the night. I remember the screams in the middle of the night. It happened a few times. They were trying to force the father to cancel his report to the police. After a few beatings, the father had no choice but to tell the police that he did not want to press charges.

In Iran, when someone had a Yartziet, (the day of the passing of a relative) they would bring food to the synagogue to say blessings on the food for the merit of the deceased. I was a small boy, and I remember at this time that every one was in great sorrow. A few years later my mother told me what had happened.

It seems that a Jewish couple had young daughter, about eighteen years old. They had two Muslim gardeners that normally would take care of their garden. One night it was late so the gardeners asked if they could eat and stay the night by the Jewish couple. In the middle of the night, one of them got up and said that he had stomach pains. The couple made him tea. Then the Muslims took out knifes and killed both the mother and father. Then they raped the daughter and afterwards killed her too. Only a few days later, the relatives found them and realized what had happened. There was a rule in Iran that if some on kills another, then he is punished by death, but this does not apply if a Moslem kills a Jew.

The relatives were very upset and even wrote a letter to the Shah. They demanded that the criminals be punished. The Shah was upset because of the cruelty that had transpired in his country and offered a large reward for the apprehension of the killers. One of the killers when to a coffee shop where the custom is to smoke from the large hookah pipes, sip tea, and play shesh-besh. He was bragging to one of his friends how he had planned the murders and he was over heard by the other people in the coffee shop. The police were alerted and they were apprehended. Eventually they were hung - which was unusual in such circumstances- but it was the orders of the Shah.

Passover was a beautiful holiday. A professional baker would bake our matzo in the synagogue. There was no one from our community that did not observe Passover, even those Jews who were not religious. My grandfather would get up very early in the morning the day before Passover and boil water in a large pot. He would throw a burning hot stone in the boiling pot. Afterward he would kasher all of our vessels to make them fit for Passover. Some people would slaughter a lamb especially for the holiday, but we went to the kosher butcher and bought our meat.

I left six months before the fall of the Shah to go to college in America, but my family remained there for several years. Eleven years after my leaving Iran, my mother was able to escape Iran and come to stay with me in Israel. My father was unable to leave at that time and it took him six more years until he could sneak out and be reunited with the family.

Now life for the remaining Jews in Iran is mixed. Some who are living there have much difficulty and yet others manage with out many problems. The Jewish communities in the various cities are very small. They have mohels, ritual slaughterers, Jewish schools, and although some synagogues have been closed, some remain. Most people observe Judaism even more stringently than in the times of the Shah. Many of the people who leave Iran go to Yeshivot to continue their studies.

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