September 20, 2007
Let us travel to Iran
(Page 2 - Previous Page)For the next several centuries, the Jewish community in Persia flourished. The biblical books of Jeremiah, Ezra, Daniel and, of course, Esther (the Purim story), all make reference to the Jews of Persia. Scholars recorded the oral law in the form of the Babylonian Talmud -- a text studied to this day. Jewish poets, scholars, philosophers all made their home in Persia.
Beginning in the second century, as Zoroastrianism grew in popularity, minority groups in Persia, including the Jews, suffered attacks and prejudice. However, it was the conquest of Iran by Islam in the seventh century, when Jews and other non-Muslims became second-class citizens called "dhimmis" and were forced to pay a special tax. Over the next millennia, the fate of Persia's Jews waxed and waned, suffering massacres, forced conversions or persecutions under certain rulers, while being given greater freedom by others.
In 1925, conditions changed substantially for the Jews with the advent of the Pahlavi regime, under Reza Shah. Non-Muslims were no longer considered "unclean," and he abolished the restrictions on Jews, such as the ghetto. Nonetheless, anti-Semitism flared occasionally, particularly at such moments as when Iran sided with the Nazis and at the time of the founding of the State of Israel.
In 1941, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate, following an Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. Nonetheless, his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi succeeded him as shah and by 1953 consolidated his power. He launched a series of actions to modernize Iran, while at the same time increasing his power and repressing dissent.
The shah's regime was an era of unparalleled freedom and prosperity for Iran's Jews as they rose to positions of prominence in many fields.
Under the shah, Jews came to believe, as they have in every society where they have been allowed to be free, that they were Iranians, same as everyone else. History proved otherwise.
With the benefit of hindsight, the experience of the successful, wealthy, assimilated Jewish Iranians of the 1960s and '70s was a rare historical moment. Their rise in Persian society throughout the Pahlavi dynasty -- from the slums and ghetto of south Tehran to the highest ranks of society -- could be seen as comparable and as rare as that of the Jews in Vienna around 1900, in Berlin in the 1920s or Budapest or Warsaw in the 1930s. Those eras were not paradise for all Jews, but they now seem fleeting memories, nonetheless.
The shah was deposed in 1979. It is estimated that 85 percent of Iran's Jewish population has fled the country since then. There are today more Iranian Jews in Los Angeles (approximately 35,000) than there are in Tehran (an estimated 25,000).
The Persian community are double exiles -- forever contained in their exile first to Babylon and then from Iran. Perhaps that is part of why they are so special.
Living in Los Angeles, as I do, one of the added benefits has been getting to know members of the Persian Jewish community, as well as being exposed to Persian culture and cuisine (Javan is on our speed dial for home delivery).
Los Angeles and Beverly Hills have their share of wealthy Persian Jewish families living in a world some have dubbed "Tehrangeles."
A few years ago, my wife and I were invited to a party at a Persian home (where the husband, coincidentally, is a successful gem dealer). The party was called for 10 p.m. Most guests didn't show up before 11 p.m., and when they did, there was wonderful food served on large platters, with even more amazing sweet desserts and mint tea.
The men were all in suits, the women were all dressed elegantly, coiffed, in makeup and wearing serious jewels. The dance floor was crowded; there was a disco ball and a DJ playing dance hits sung in Persian.
Among the couples I spoke with, I found a great warmth and a certain detachment, which I understood. This is the language of exile; these are the immigrants and the immigrants' children, the first and second generations, who have come from an older culture to one that at times finds them foreign.
One other thing: The displays of wealth -- the enjoyment of wealth -- which is sometimes seen among Persian Jews is something that I recognize, as well. It is no different from the way the wealthy German Jewish families I knew in New York pretended to take their wealth for granted or the affection of Hungarian Jews for chandeliers in their homes.
To me, this is just a secular form of "hidur mitzvah," which roughly translates to beautifying the deed -- the Judaic Martha Stewart-like concept that beauty in presentation enhances the ritual -- that, for example, ornate tabernacles, well-decorated sukkahs, a beautifully set table, even dressing well for synagogue, are all pleasing to God.
Which brings me back to the Persian Jewish novel.
Its time has come because writers, as well as readers, are always looking to reclaim the world that is no longer. From the last century, one thinks of Stefan Sweig writing about Vienna or Joseph Roth writing about Berlin in the 1920s or Giorgio Bassani writing about the "Garden of the Finzi Continis" (Sofer did a segment for NPR's "All things Considered" and talked about how well she relates to that novel). Sweig called his memoir, "The World of Yesterday," and there is always the compulsion to record how it was, particularly when world history convulses personal history.
Beyond that, when a writer asks him or herself that crucial series of questions: What is mine? What is the story I know better than others? What is the best story I know, what territory or landscape is mine and not others? What is unique? -- they often find themselves drawn back to their childhoods or, as Irving Howe put it, the "world of our fathers."