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Iraq. Jewish and Muslim traditions

have mixed, in some ways, where

Passover mimics the Persian holi-

day of Nowruz and the traditions of

modesty are in accordance with the

Muslim tradition perhaps even more

than Jewish


[modesty]. We

are Iranian Jews, and that means

Iranian first, and we are loyal first

and foremost to this country while

remaining Torah-true.”

The words flow from his mouth

with such fluency that I can’t help

but feel they are not only far too de-

liberate, but oddly well-rehearsed.

He speaks of loyalties and I can see

why he does so, as I have brought

an agent of the regime into his

somewhat protected space. Jewish

life here comes with carefully con-

structed rules and understandings,

and one of the basic tenets involves

separation from and defamation of

Zionism and Israel. Outbursts of

loyalty to the regime are expected,

whether in the form of volunteering

for a war or sharing an enemy, and

that aspect of Iranian Jewish reality

is something I as a European Jew

can relate to and fully understand. It

is clear that the Jewish community

lives with a constant level of suspi-

cion toward outsiders and insiders

alike, always fearing treachery and

infiltration; and much like in the

Soviet Union, people are trying to

weed out informants, unsure how to

tell friend from foe. In short, there

are no real answers, only truths in

the untold, and I realize that for this

man there may be a hefty price

attached to every word and every

answered question.

I ask him about Israel, even

though I know whatever answer I

get will be measured and made to

fit the party line, because I want to

know what the Jewish state means

to Iranian Jews and if the ban on

traveling there has really been lift-

ed, as was reported back in 2013.

“We are free to visit, of course,

and we can even move if we want

to, but we have our lives and history

here,” he says. “This is the second-

oldest Jewish community in the

world, and we are proud to be here,

and very proud of this country.”

Before I leave, Yoram asks me to

join him at his synagogue for Shab-

bat services the next day and then

dinner at his nearby home in order

to meet more members of the com-

munity. As I accept as profusely as

I have been taught is the custom

here, Yoram makes a point of invit-

ing my translator as well—as if he

is pretending that the man’s pres-

ence is optional and not a symbol of

the chains he cannot break.


An older black-haired woman is

waving at me from behind the



, the divider separating the

genders, and urging me to come

and sit down. As I approach, she

introduces herself as Yoram’s

mother, and within minutes I am

greeting all the women in what I

gather is the “honor row” where

elegant women of some seniority

are seated. The century-old Abri-

shami synagogue is located on Pal-

estine Street in north Tehran,

housed in a beautiful stone building

that includes a fine kosher restau-

rant, a ritual bath, and the busy

Tehran Yeshiva. Every day there are

two minyanim, and on Shabbat the

synagogue welcomes around 250

people, filling it with the same

warmth and airlessness that I know

from my temple back home. And it

is like home to a surprising degree,

down to the same music and char-

acters and faces: The nosy women

who immediately ascertain my

marital status, the off-key men

singing harmonies on the familiar

liturgy, and the beautiful children

running wild in the pews, much to

their hushing parents’ chagrin.


ife behind the



some much-wanted and rarely-

found protection from the eyes and

ears of the regime. It is there the

women and I speak beyond a whis-

per, and before the

Lecha Dodi

prayer, I feel a hand on my arm,

grasping desperately for my atten-


“Pray for us, will you, please?”

Her words are sad and real and

stark, and they break the wall put

up by her masters. I nod but fail to

answer; I see a glimpse of her life

but fail to fully understand; and I

know there is nothing I can do but

say a prayer and tell her story.

After services, my translator ush-

ers me out, and as the diners gather

we slowly make our way to the Ha-

roonian family home for Shabbat

dinner. I’m walking alongside the

women, and the natural physical

distance between the sexes offers a

rare opportunity to speak without

constraints. I ask them in broken

Hebrew if they are really allowed to

visit Israel or even make aliyah as I

had been told.

“We are allowed by law now,”

Yoram’s mother says, “but when

you leave the country you have to

put up collateral, often everything

you own, and usually there is only

one visa per family offered at one

time. So we can visit, if we do it

discretely, but rarely someone

leaves. The price would be too high

for the rest of us.”

Another woman in the group tells

me that Iran has the world’s highest

number of


— Jewish wom-

en separated from their husbands

but not allowed to divorce. I am

shocked at this notion, as it speaks

to a deep desperation — a husband

leaving his wife and family behind

to flee life in Iran.

The Haroonian home is warm

and colorful, overflowing with

guests wanting to eye the Swedish

Jewess who has traveled so far to be

in their midst. The grandfather pulls

out a bottle of wine, something

allowed for Jews under a religious

exemption from the general ban on

alcohol, and he makes Kiddush as

my Muslim interpreter looks at me

and smiles, as if unsure what to do.

The mood is surprisingly relaxed,

and the women all want to compare

notes on Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi

food as we are served overflowing

plates of

ghormeh sabzi

. They ask

me about my customs and the

world outside, and by the end of

dessert the forbidden subject enters

the conversation:

“Have you seen Jerusalem?”

“Have you visited Hebron?”

“Do you have pictures of the

Western Wall you could send us

after Shabbat?”

It is fascinating to see this 2,700-

year-old Jewish community that has

only related to Israel through text still

feels the longing for the land in such

a real and powerful way, and while I

answer their questions in vivid

detail, I am moved beyond words

by the innocence and curiosity

JEWISH WORLD • OCT. 28-NOV. 3, 2016 9

continued on page 11

Praying at the Yusefabad Synagogue in Tehran.

Photo: Charles


Iranians take part in an anti-Israeli rally marking Qods Day (Jerusalem Day), in

support of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation in Tehran, July 2016.

This 2,700-year-

old Jewish

community that

has related to

Israel only

through text still

feels the longing

for the land in a

powerful way.