Treading cautiously

Treading cautiously

By SABINA AMIDI
September 26, 2009 11:31
3 minute read.

In Teheran, the unmarked buildings that vaguely resemble synagogues are packed during Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Their outer facades are not adorned with stars of David or menoras, showing no indication of the Jewish congregants inside. Kippahs are always taken off before leaving the building. As one of several non-Muslim minorities in Iran, Jews face discrimination. But aside from concealed prayer services, the Jewish community can freely and openly celebrate its traditions - without necessarily standing out in the Islamic regime - under the guise of conforming to mainstream Iranian customs. By doing many of the same things during the Jewish holidays as Muslims do during the coinciding Muslim holidays, Iranian Jews in many ways blend into the social fabric of society as their Jewish identity is very much intertwined with their national heritage. The Jewish community has adopted certain aspects of Iranian Shi'ite culture which date back to pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian times. One example is the burning of aspand - dried capsules from a plant native to the Mediterranean region - meant to ward off the evil eye. As this is done, the fragrant smoke from the plant is circled around the heads of those who have been exposed to the gaze of strangers. In Iran, this ritual is sometimes performed in social gatherings by both Jews and Muslims if one is exposed to the eyes of strangers, or as grandmother would say, exposed to "a person with sour eyes." On Rosh Hashana, which falls around the same time as Mehregan - a pre-Islamic festival that is widely celebrated throughout the country - Iranian Jews welcome the New Year by setting a decorative table with dates and honey (symbolizing sweetness), pomegranates (symbol of unity), broken leeks (connoting failure of idol worshipers) and beans (symbolizing abundance). The 'seder' has become an essential part of the Rosh Hashana meal, as the symbolic foods are passed around when prayers are recited. This practice mirrors the Mehregan tradition of setting the table with fruits, like pomegranates and apples, nuts and sweets. On Yom Kippur, Iranian tradition is to break the fast with tea and a basic apple salad made of julienned raw apples, sugar, a hint of lemon juice and rosewater. Most religious celebrations, however, are cut short for Jewish children and students, who are required to attend school on Shabbat and on all Jewish holidays, including Yom Kippur. Purchasing wine for Shabbat and holidays is a privilege that the Islamic government grants Jews, even though the consumption of alcohol is illegal according to Shari'a law. This was one of the concessions granted by Ayatollah Khomeini, who recognized the Jews as the "People of the Book." In Teheran there are six kosher butchers, about 30 synagogues, and many libraries containing works written in Hebrew. Although Iranian Jews are recognized citizens under Islamic law, the 25,000-member Jewish community, which traces its roots back 3,000 years, lives as a permanent underclass that must constantly prove its loyalty to the regime. Jews have little influence on decision making and are not allowed to hold senior posts in the army or in bureaucratic institutions. But they are permitted to elect a representative in parliament, establish charities funded by the Diaspora and travel freely, including to Israel. Even the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made contributions to a Jewish hospital in Teheran. Still, Jewish communal leaders tread carefully to appease the Islamic theocracy and "moral ideology," portraying themselves as ordinary Iranians, facing the same problems, and with the same national pride. Although Israel guarantees every Iranian Jewish family $60,000 to settle in Israel, among many other generous financial incentives, the Society of Iranian Jews rejects such offers. One Jewish leader made the infamous comment, "If you think Judaism and Zionism are one, it is like thinking Islam and the Taliban are the same, and they are not. "The identity of Iranian Jews is not tradeable for any amount of money. Iranian Jews are among the most ancient Iranians. Iran's Jews love their Iranian identity and their culture, so threats and immature political enticement will not achieve their aim of wiping out Iranian Jews." Sabina Amidi reported for The Jerusalem Post from Teheran during the recent elections.


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