A few weeks ago I had stopped by to visit an old friend at his medical practice in Santa Monica when he asked me if I would help give a ride to one of his elderly Iranian Jewish patients. The man in his mid 80âs had no way of getting home as it was late and there were no buses left to return him to his Fairfax apartment. I warmly agreed to give this older gentleman a ride to his place and immediately his face lit up with tremendous joy. He began to shower me with praises in Persian because I was willing to help him out.
After helping him into my car and heading back toward L.A., we hit rush hour traffic. We exchanged small talk in Persian and he began to tell me the story of his life in Iran. He starting from his childhood while living in the “Mahaleh” or the Jewish ghetto in Tehran. âYou know youâre very lucky,â he said. âWhen we were living in the Mahaleh, we never had enough to eat, we lived in extreme poverty and we were regularly beaten and constantly harassed by the Muslimsâ. As he slowly relived his memories in the car, this older gentleman began shedding silent tears and then weeping. I tried to comfort him and he apologized for his breakdown. âI used to have a large pharmaceutical company in Iran, we made millions—and overnight they took it all away from me,â said the older man. âAnd now look at me, Iâve come full circle and Iâm living in poverty again!â
This older gentlemanâs story was just one of hundreds Iâve heard from various older Iranian Jews living here in Southern California and New York over the years. Still after nearly 30 years, many of them have not overcome the depression and trauma they experienced following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. After struggling to make ends meet, these older Iranian Jews were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and out of the Jewish ghetto in Iran. The Pahlavi dynasty in Iran created an atmosphere of tolerance for religious minorities in Iran and as a result, the countryâs Jews were able to educated themselves. They soon gained prosperity through commerce and trade without the fear of harassment by certain Islamic groups. It was a special time or as one older Iranian Jewish man to me, “a Golden Era of the Jews”. By the 1940âs Iranâs Jews began moved out of the Mahaleh in Tehran and other cities. With the help of the French “Alliance Israelite Universelle” schools, this generation of Iranian Jews soon became successful professionals and captains of industry in a country that was on the verge of modernization in the 20th century.
Yet just as they were beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labor and set aside the painful memories from the Mahaleh, the rug was literally pulled out from underneath them in the late 1970âs. With the collapse of the Shah of Iranâs government and the rise of the radical fundamentalist Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a handful of Iranian Jews were executed as supposed “enemies of the state”. The executions and confiscations of Jewish property by the new regime created a great fear among Iranâs Jews who fled the country by the thousands. Some were able to salvage their assets by selling them at the start of the revolution or by having assets outside the country. Yet the majority was forced to sell what they owned at bargain prices or just leave everything. I still cannot fathom how difficult it must have been for these Jews who had come out of the Mahaleh and attained prosperity, to just walk away from their homes, businesses, and livelihoods that they had spent lifetimes creating.
Unfortunately the story of Iranâs Jews is tragic and not much different than that of Jews from other countries. The revolution of 1979 radically changed the fabric of Iranian Jews many of whom have now been able to readjust to new lives in the U.S., Europe and Israel. Yet the older generation who once lived in the Mahaleh, is still struggling to survive and cope with aftermath of the revolution.