22 May 2010

Iran: Keeping the faith

Keeping the faith - Judaism - in Iran has always been something of a tightrope walk. Easy at times, more difficult at others.

When we lived there, during the "golden age," everything was very open, as was the general culture. We returned to the US just before the revolution changed everything for everyone, especially the Jewish community, and the Persian diaspora was the result. The 1979 execution of the respected community leader Habib Elghanian stimulated that diaspora.

KansasCity.com has an article by an Iranian journalist - Parvaneh Vahidmanesh - who lives in Washington DC. It offers some insights to what Jewish life is like today.

"Ten years might pass before a wedding takes place in the Jewish community here," said Haroun, who is one of the nearly 40 members of the Jewish community in Yazd, Iran.

"Even though the Jewish population in Yazd has decreased considerably over the past few years, we try to keep the synagogues open and teach our children Hebrew and educate them in the religion," he said.

The Jews of Iran trace their history back 2,600 years. While Iran has had a history of religious tolerance for most of that period, conditions for Jews in the country became markedly more difficult after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

While Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini assured members
of the country's Jewish community that they would not be affected by the
country's open hostility to Israel, prominent Iranian Jews almost immediately
became targets after the revolution.

Habibollah Elghanian, a leader of Tehran's Jewish community, was executed in 1979 after being accused of corruption and having contacts with Israel.
Today, there are some 30,000 Jews (half in Teheran) across Iran, down from the pre-revolution estimate of some 150,000. It is the second-largest Jewish population in an Islamic Middle East - only Turkey's is larger.

The story mentions the Jewish hospital in what was once the mahalleh or old Jewish quarter. It still operates as a Jewish charity, although many staffers and most patients are not Jewish.

There are ways to make one's life easier: keep secret your religious and ethnic identity. Some have even gone underground, modern Conversos to use an Inquisition-era phrase, and converted publicly to Islam.

While this version of the story did not clarify the following quote - some versions have - it is obvious that this section concerns the Mashadi Jews who underwent a forced conversion in the 1830s, and went underground, living publicly as religious Moslems and in private as very religious Jews.
"Every newborn was told from his first years of life that we are living in times of crisis and that they must lead a double life," said Moshe Hakimi. They told us that we must not talk about our personal lives in front of non-Jewish people. This absolute secrecy became second nature after reaching puberty.

"Therefore, all Jewish converts to Islam had two names: for example, my grandfather's Muslim name was Sheikh Aboulghasem and his Hebrew name was
Benjamin. My father's Muslim name was Ebrahim and his Hebrew name was Abraham. Outside they call me Mousa and at home, I'm called Moshe. In my father's lifetime, many of the Jews had very Muslim names. They even went to Mecca on pilgrimage."
People still trickle out, to Israel, to the US and elsewhere and thus questions of social life and marriage become more important, as families try to immigrate or at least send their children out of the country for education and safer lives.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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