Mahmomir Cohen, a proud 80-year-old Iranian Jewish grandmother, clutched a notebook that included a Persian love poem she penned for her late husband. Her hands trembled as she recited the hand-written rhyming poem in front of a video camera on Sunday at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills.
Cohen was among nearly 100 local Iranian Jews participating in Our Legacy Project, an initiative sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish organization 30 Years After to record the community’s memories of life in Iran, from fond to painful.
Children and grandchildren accompanied many of the elderly participants who quietly entered Nessah’s banquet hall on Dec. 13. After filling out the proper release forms, each participant was taken to one of four cameras set up in different areas around the synagogue.
During the interview, participants were invited to share their life experiences prior to and during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, their interactions with non-Jews living in their former homeland and their journey of exile from Iran.
“I’m here to leave some sort of record for future generations of Iranian Jews living in the U.S. who will likely speak no Farsi and not have any idea of what difficulties we experienced as Jewish minorities living in Iran after the revolution,” said Manucher Cohan, a 65-year-old real estate agent and writer living in Woodland Hills.
Recording oral history is not a new endeavor for the local Iranian Jewish community. In recent years the L.A.-based Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, with the help of volunteers, conducted more than 100 video and audio interviews with Iranian Jews who had influenced Iran’s history, literature and culture in some way since 1906. In 2002, the group released “Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews,” a colorful book sharing the 2,700-year history of Iranian Jewry along with personal photos from community members.
Yet 30 Years After’s project is unique in that it encourages young Iranian American Jewish professionals to embrace their heritage by videotaping their own parents’ and grandparents’ often painful memories from life in Iran.
“We have been pleasantly surprised by the widespread willingness among our community to describe the anti-Semitism they experienced [in Iran],” said Sam Yebri, 30 Years After’s president. “They are expressing, sometimes for the first time, how painful it was to be called najes [ritually unclean] by their Muslim neighbors or forced to shout ‘death to Israel’ or ‘death to America.’”
Yebri said the video testimonials recorded by 30 Years After will be available on the group’s Web site. Additional tapings will be scheduled during 2010 at local community synagogues and senior citizen centers, and the group plans to use the videos in collaboration with established institutions like the Library of Congress, the Jewish Museum in New York and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.
Participants at Nessah Synagogue, which co-sponsored the event, became emotional when sharing vivid details of the random arrests and torture they experienced at the hands of armed revolutionary thugs.
Cohan wiped away tears when he recalled the mood of the Jewish community after its leader, the late “Haji” Habib Elghanian, was executed in May 1979 by the Iranian regime after being slapped with trumped up charges of spying for Israel and the United States.
“When they announced that Haji Habib was executed over the radio that morning it was as if the entire Jewish community of Iran had had a massive heart attack or stroke,” said Cohan, who served in the Central Jewish Committee, a national governing body for Iranian Jewry. “For two or three days Jews were in complete shock because they could not believe this man who had built mosques, hospitals, factories, buildings, and really helped Iran prosper, would be suddenly killed for no reason. Reality hit them hard because they were worried about their own fate in Iran.”
Cohan was arrested subsequently in 1985 on false charges of being a Zionist spy, then imprisoned for 269 days and sentenced to death by firing squad.
“I was given my last rites by a rabbi. I said goodbye to my wife and children, and had totally given up all hope of coming out of jail alive,” he said. “Luckily, due to the efforts of some brave French Jews and the United Nations, I was miraculously released. It’s an ordeal I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
During his interview, Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet recalled a terrifying day when he and other Jewish leaders were rounded up and taken to meet with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian regime’s newly arrived radical Islamic leader.
“About two or three miles from the place where Khomeini was staying, we were forced to get out and walk. When we arrived, the guards shouted at us ‘Everyone kneel before the leader!’ and we were all forced to kneel.”
Despite their initial willingness to open up about the persecution they faced before and after the Iranian Revolution, a few of the project’s participants displayed an uneasiness about releasing the footage that had just been recorded. Even after 30 years of exile from Iran, fear stemming from the brutal Islamic regime is still prevalent.
“Look, I don’t want what I just said on film about my participation in the Haganah 60 years ago in Israel to be shown in public,” demanded Masoud R., an Iranian Jewish man in his late 70s, who asked that his real name be withheld. “God only knows what lies the regime in Iran today would use this information for.”
Cohen also expressed some hesitation when speaking with The Journal about her late husband’s community activities nearly 50 years ago, even though he was a Hebrew school teacher. When asked for more details about her husband, she replied defensively, “It’s just not for publication, but I can tell you he helped the Jews of Iran and Israel during those critical years.”
Morgan Hakimi, Nessah’s former president and a psychology professor, said her community’s fear and anger over the circumstances of the Iranian Revolution, even after 30 years, is normal.
“There is no doubt that anger and sour memories are transferable to the new generation,” Hakimi said. “But I cannot think of any other immigrant Jewish group in the U.S. that has not had the same experiences of anti-Semitism from the countries they came from — so we are no different.”
For more information about Our Legacy Project, visit http://www.ourlegacyproject.org.