Photo: Orly Azoulay
The Mahariv synagogue in Tehran
Photo: Orly Azoulay

Iran: Journey to the past

Exclusive: Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent joins Tehran's Jewish community for Friday night prayers

TEHRAN - "What do you want?" asked a suspicious and angry elderly local, as I entered the Mahariv synagogue in Tehran on Friday night.


When I explained to him that I was Jewish, and asked to join the prayer service, he was incredulous.


"We haven't seen Jews from outside of Iran for 30 years," he said.


On my first day in Tehran, I asked my cab driver to take me to the local synagogue. I didn't have an exact address, only the name of the neighborhood.


After circling the area for a while, we arrived at a two-storey building on Street 15 in Tehran. Blue Hebrew letters decorated the front end of the building. The gate was locked, and our attempts to reach someone through the intercom went unanswered.


The driver sensed my disappointment.


"If you would like to see the Jewish cemetery, I can take you there," he said. "It will be interesting for you. The grandmother of the president of Israel is buried there."


I asked him who the president of Israel was.


"Moshe Dayan," said the cab driver. I didn't rush to correct him. It seemed to me that in the heart of Tehran, on a road that connected the synagogue to the Jewish cemetery, accompanied by an unknown driver, it was preferable not to reveal familiarity with Israeli affairs.


Red hilltops


We were soon on our way. 50 kilometers north of Tehran, on the road to the Caspian Sea, perched on red hilltops, spectacular in their beauty, is a small village by the name of Damavner. The dirt road leading to the grave stones was blocked with enormous concrete blocs.


The young driver suggested that we leave the car on the main road and climb up on foot. Children playing soccer in the neighborhood pointed us towards a winding road, littered with rocks and wild thorns. The cemetery had no fence, and lacked a gate, or guards. I walked through the graves and searched for a stone with the name Katsav.


Some of the graves date back hundreds of years, while others were dug only 14-15 years ago. A section of the plots were amazingly well looked after, with Hebrew and Persian inscriptions. Others had deteriorated into a sorry state.


There were almost no Jews left in the village. The elderly were buried on the hilltop, and the young people had left for central Tehran. Local residents told us that the road leading to the cemetery was blocked because of thieves, who made a living from selling grave stones for very high prices.


The authorities had decided to restore the dirt path and to build a fence around the graves in order to protect them. But the building program has been accumulating dust in a draw for a number of years, due to lack of funds.


According to estimates by sources in the Jewish community, 30,000 Jews live in Iran today, mostly in the large cities: Tehran, Ispahan and Shiraz. The Iranians estimate that there are 100,000 Jews. An exact figure is hard to find.

Ban on alcohol


Despite the complete ban on alcoholic beverages in Iran, the Jewish community is allowed to acquire bottles of wine for the Kiddush prayer. In the heart of Tehran there is also a Jewish school in which students learn Hebrew.


On Friday evening, I decided to return to the synagogue. From the outside, it seemed that the house on Street 15 was abandoned. The inside of the building, however, revealed a beautiful synagogue: Dazzling lights hung above the Holy Ark, and on the stage lay silver instruments decorated with blue ceramic, enclosing white flowers.


"What do you want?" An elderly man turned to me with anger and suspicion.


He was the only person who spoke English. I explained to him that I was a Jewish visitor to Iran, and I asked his permission to take part in Friday night prayers. He sounded as if he did not believe me.


"We haven't seen Jews from outside of Iran for 30 years," said the old man, explaining his suspicion.


He told me that he has family in a kibbutz in Israel, as well as relatives in the United States. He had once succeeded in visiting them, and even attended an ulpan (Hebrew course) in Israel. But a few years ago, the authorities had confiscated the passports of Iranian Jews, and it has since been difficult to leave the country.


Matchmaking on the Internet


My visit to the synagogue in Tehran coincided with the Iranian elections. The elderly man whom I spoke to told me that he had not gone to vote. He said he believed that his friends had not voted either. When I asked him whether one of the candidates attempted to reach out to the Jewish community in order to win votes, he fell silent for a long moment.


"Its very problematic," he said. "I don't want to talk about this. Politics and authority are only problems."


The Jewish community, like other minority groups in Iran, has a representative in the Iranian parliament. The current delegate is Morris Mutamandar, who is, as far as the Jews I spoke to were aware of, a supporter of the current regime.


At 7 p.m., people began to enter the synagogue. Elegantly dressed women filed into the first floor of the synagogue, and across from them sat the men - the elderly men sat on the left side of the hall, and the young men on the right.


There is a reason for this: The young women, those that have not yet married, sit on the second floor above the section reserved for married women, and are therefore positioned to exchange glances with the young men, and to search for a match.


"All of our events take place in the synagogue - weddings, memorial ceremonies, and matchmaking also happens here. It's not easy for young Jews to get married here. The community is so small, and it really is a problem. But now, many are searching for a match on the Internet," a very pretty woman, with a golden kerchief around her head, told me.


Passing the test


At first she too was suspicious when I told her that I was Jewish. She asked with hesitation whether I speak Hebrew. When I answered in the affirmative, of course, she placed a prayer book in my hands and asked me to read the first page, the prayer of Minchah. I read out loud and when I had finished, I asked her with a smile whether I had passed the test.


With a radiant look, she nodded her head, and invited me to her home after the prayer service to have Friday night dinner with her family. First they would bless the wine, produced at home, and then she would serve all of the food that she had made with her sister.


Nearly 300 people took part in prayers. The experienced ones held the prayer book, and became lost in themselves, as they mumbled silent Hebrew words, a forbidden language in the streets of Tehran outside of the confines of a synagogue or a Jewish school.


Before I left, I showed the old man who met me photos I had taken at the cemetery in Damavner. I asked him whether he knew the place.


"I haven't been there, but you know, for us, it’s the last stop," she said. "From here we will all go to Damavner. I just hope that before that, I'll be able to visit Israel one more time, and to see my family that lives on a kibbutz."


פרסום ראשון: 06.20.05, 16:46
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