Jewish Journal

Oldest Jewish immigrant from Iran has an incredible story

by Karmel Melamed

March 30, 2009 | 1:52 am

(left to right; new Iranian Jewish immigrant Manouchehr Tabari and his 102-year-old mother Heshmat Elyasian, photo by Karmel Melamed)

It’s not often I get the opportunity to chat with an individual in the Iranian Jewish community who has personally witnessed a century of our community’s existence in Iran, but I had that rare honor when meeting Heshmat Elyasian. She is the oldest Jewish immigrant to arrive in the United States from Iran and my piece regarding her incredible long life appeared this past week in the Jewish Journal.

Elyasian’s story is particularly important to us as Iranian American Jews because she symbolizes the remarkable transformation our community has made over the last century. Her father and uncles played music for the Nasser-al-Din Shah Qajar, one Iran’s monarchs during the late 19th century. This profession of music was indeed unique for Jews of that era because Muslims according to Shiite Islamic laws were prohibited from playing or listening to music. Of course, Nasser-al-Din being the supreme leader of the land could do or listen to whatever he desired—so he brought Jews to his court to entertain him with music. Many of our families have gone from living in poverty stricken slums and ghettos in Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan and Hamadan where we were treated as second class citizens nearly 100 years ago to now living in luxurious mansions in Beverly Hills and in Great Neck, New York. Elyasian’s story is nearly the same as ever other Iranian Jewish immigrant to the United States. Leaving a familiar land where our ancestors lived for many centuries and starting over in America, a new country full of new opportunities and hope. More importantly I believe Elyasian’s immigration earlier this year reflects the reality that despite the idiotic comments of some news pundits such as Roger Cohen, there are still Jews leaving Iran after 30 years. While they may not be fleeing the country in mass waves as was the case in the late 1970s and 1980’s, they are still trickling out because they realize their children and grandchildren have no real future as Jews in Iran.

On a side note, I found Elyasian’s son Manouchehr Tabari, to likewise have an interesting story on his own since he worked in the film industry as a cinematographer in Iran. Tabari created a number of unique documentaries about domestic life in Iran and one award winning documentary about the “darvishes” of Iran, a famous clan of nomads who have lived away from modern technology with their own ways of life. In addition Tabari has been a part of a number of other television documentaries over the years for Iranian television and even traveled to Southern Lebanon during the late 1980’s where he filmed then P.L.O. leader Yassir Arafat.

Elyasian’s historic immigration gives me hope that Iran’s remaining Jews have not lost hope, are gradually finding their way out of that broken down country and are finding new freedoms in America and the West.

Heshmat Elyasian, photo by Karmel Melamed
Heshmat Elyasian, photo by Karmel Melamed
photo of Elyasian’s father and uncles at Nasser-al-Din Shah’s palace circa 1900, photo courtesy of Manouchehr Tabari.
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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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