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On my first Friday evening here, my friends took me to the large synagogue in Yosefabad, in the center of the city, a neighborhood that is home to a large Jewish population. I found the sanctuary packed. Inside the main gate there were ads for Hebrew lessons and family activities sponsored by the Jewish Association.
There was an Iranian policeman on guard outside, but with the exception of the signs in Farsi, the Hebrew-Farsi prayer books and the style of the women's hair coverings, this could have been an Orthodox synagogue in America.
Excepting Israel, Iran boasts the Middle East's largest Jewish community. The capital contains around 10,000 Jews as well as Jewish schools that serve 2,000 students. Teheran also has a Jewish retirement home with 50 residents, and its Jewish Association owns a number of buildings, including a large library used by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Why are the Jews still here? Answers differed across the generations.
For many older people like my host Fayzlallah Saketkhoo, the vice president of Teheran's Jewish Association, Iran is simply their home. As the owner of a successful carpet and souvenir shop, Saketkhoo has provided well for his three children, and devotes a good deal of time to Jewish Association activities. At his home on Friday night after services, where he showed me his collection of Kabbala books and a large tapestry of Moses splitting the sea, he told me about how he had traveled around the world only to learn that nothing was better than home.
Asked about the future of the Iranian Jewish community, he replied: "Did you see how many children were there tonight?"
He was right. It was hard to concentrate on praying in the synagogue, where at least 300 people had come, because of all the children running up and down the aisles and chattering outside.
But there is a difference between children and young adults. Peyman, Saketkhoo's 27-year-old son, was fond of saying, "Everyone in Iran has a problem," meaning that everyone - Jewish and non-Jewish - wants to leave.
It's not just the political situation, he said, but the fact that with the rise of Ahmadinejad, the economic situation has worsened and poverty has deepened. For college graduates, it is hard to find jobs in their field; Peyman is an architect by training but works in his father's shop. As he and other young Iranians attest, both the political and the economic situation are getting harder to bear.
On the issue of Jewish/non-Jewish relations, Iranians of different ages, Jewish and Muslim, pointed to a unifying national idea.
Iranian culture dates back nearly 2,500 years, to the days of Cyrus the Great and Darius, founders of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty mentioned in the Bible. Throughout Iran, citizens of all religions are proud of their national history, and of the various pre-Islamic leaders and dynasties. Many parents even name their children Darius or Cyrus.
This pre-Islamic culture, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, is still respected and unifies Iranians of different backgrounds.
Most indicative of this tacit acceptance of religious diversity is a huge picture on the side of a building in north Teheran. Like many pictures in the capital, it commemorates Iranian soldiers who fell during the 1980-8 Iran-Iraq war. But this one is different. It is dedicated to the minorities who served their country, and depicts five Iranians of various religions and ethnicities. Four represent Assyrian and Armenian ethnicities and members of the Christian and Zoroastrian communities. Right in the center is an Iranian Jew, with his name spelled in Farsi and Hebrew.
I found great tolerance when I told people I was Jewish. Israel, however, was a different matter...
(Seth Wikas's full report from Iran will appear in the Yom Kippur supplement published with Sunday's Jerusalem Post.)
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