"Do you want a bracha?" I've been asked this question before, at the various synagogues I have attended in the United States and Europe. The shamash comes around and asks if someone would like an honor during the Torah service.
But this time was different; I was in a synagogue in northern Teheran.
It was a bright Shabbat morning, and about 50 people had gathered in the small synagogue to pray. I had been invited by the vice president of Teheran's Jewish Association.
As I looked around the auditorium, sparsely decorated aside from a large Magen David at the front and the bima in the middle, my host Fayzlallah Saketkhoo asked again if I wanted to say a blessing over the Torah reading. After numerous pleas I went up to the bima, where the Sephardi-style Torah scroll stood upright, and said the prayer before and after the Torah reading with my American Ashkenazi Hebrew.
Men and women were seated on opposite sites of the room. There was no mehitza (partition separating men and women), but all the women had their hair covered.
As an honor to his American guest, Saketkhoo next asked if I wanted to read the haftara, and I assented. Following the service, he asked me to recite kiddush for the congregation.
When I grew up in the 1980s, Teheran was synonymous with violence and terror. Having been born just before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, I knew Iran only as America and Israel's great foe. It was not until I was in college that I learned it had not always been this way.
As a kid, it seemed that not a day went by without some news about the evil regime that kidnapped American civilians and preached hatred against the United States, the Great Satan. Things certainly haven't improved since, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad preaching hatred against Israel and the Jews via a relentless campaign of Holocaust denial.
So it was a great surprise when, on my first Friday evening in Teheran, my friends took me to the large synagogue in Yosefabad, in central Teheran, a neighborhood that is home to a large Jewish population, and 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. While there are no accurate numbers, 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 Saketkhoo, 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.
"Don't you want to leave?" I asked.
"Of course, but I have a problem," he said.
His particular problem is that he did not serve in the military. Before Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, Iranians could pay money rather than perform military service, and Peyman paid for such an exemption. But now this practice has been canceled, and only those who have completed military service can travel abroad.
"So why don't you just serve in the army?" I asked.
Peyman demurred, saying that two years - the service requirement - is a long time, and he makes a decent living working for his father; leaving his normal life for two years is out of the question.
"But is there any social life here? Don't you want to marry someone Jewish?" I asked.
Social life in Iran is limited, as bars, dance clubs and other non-Islamic establishments are illegal. Peyman talked about meeting people - including women - through friends, and noted that there are social activities arranged through the Jewish Association and the synagogue.
WHAT WAS most interesting about our conversation was that Peyman's friend Arash, a Muslim and a member of Teheran's police force, was in the room as we spoke. When I asked Arash about friendships between Jews and non-Jews in Iran, he considered it a non-issue, preferring instead to lambaste the regime.
"With Ahmadinejad," he said, "the police force has become political and corrupt. Many people who have joined are more concerned with politics and religion than with protecting the people."
As Arash saw it, there were no problems between Iranians on a religious basis. On the issue of Jewish/non-Jewish relations, other 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 (ca. 600 BCE) 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.
Following the advent of Islam in the seventh century, the Persian language adopted Arabic characters but remained distinct from Arabic. National holidays that existed before Islam are celebrated by the Jewish community as well. This past spring, Iranians celebrated Norouz (New Day), the Persian New Year, which begins on March 21, and the rabbi in Yosefabad spoke about Norouz in his sermon.
The Jewish Association's calendar begins not on January 1, but on March 21. 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. My friend's uncle, a mullah and professor of theology, said "We like Jews, but we hate Zionists."
My tour guide in Shiraz, in southern Iran, compared the Israelis to the Arabs, recalling the Arab conquests of the seventh century, saying the two peoples were invaders and occupiers.
Hajar, a university graduate with perfect English, asked, "Do you think Israel is a real country?"
Most of the Iranians with whom I spoke, when asked about Israel, saw it as an occupying entity that had displaced the Palestinians and did whatever it wanted with American consent.
Iranians, especially in the capital, are constantly reminded of this narrative. Pictures on the sides of buildings encourage martyrdom, and downtown, near the old Israeli Embassy (now the Palestinian Embassy), is Palestine Square. At the center is a large sculpture of Israel, flanked by masked men throwing rocks while crushing a Star of David under their feet, and a mother holding her fallen, martyred son.
I asked the leaders of the Jewish community what they thought of Ahmadinejad's relentless proclamations that the Holocaust was a myth and that he wanted to "wipe Israel off the map."
The president of the Jewish Association, a successful businessman, told me he had written a letter to Ahmadinejad denouncing the president's statements and retorting that if the Holocaust was a myth, then the Israeli killing of Palestinians must also be a myth.
Nourani, a Jewish shop owner in Shiraz, says this of Ahmadinejad's statements: "It's all just talk. It's just propaganda to make people forget about their problems."
Nourani sells kitchen appliances in the town, which is home to Iran's second-largest community of Jews, numbering between 6,000 and 8,000. Shiraz was Persia's capital 250 years ago, and is famous for its wide avenues and beautiful gardens. Many Jews own shops in Shiraz's commercial district, and conduct business undisturbed. Some even have Hebrew prayers or pictures of rabbis tacked up behind their registers.
Nourani and I talked about Jewish observance, but when I asked him if he celebrated the festivals, he looked at me as if insulted.
"The Jews of Shiraz are very religious - much more religious than the Jews of Teheran," he said.
"On Pessah, what do you do for matza?" I asked.
"Would you like to see?" he answered. We left his shop and went for a 15-minute walk across town. On the way, Nourani said he had actually lived in Israel in the 1970s, but came back because he didn't like it there. "The Israelis don't appreciate what they have. Iran is a better place to be an observant Jew," he asserted.
We walked down a number of alleys and finally reached what looked to be an abandoned ranch house on a barren plot of land. As we got closer, I saw a sight one might have expected in Monsey, New York, or Deal, New Jersey, but definitely not in Shiraz. I saw men and boys in kippot, boxes printed with Farsi and Hebrew, and heard the machinery, but couldn't believe it. Shiraz has a matza bakery.
I couldn't actually comprehend what I was seeing, but it was there: One room contained the mixers needed to combine the flour and water, and the other contained the oven and conveyor belt. The prayer said when ritually removing a piece of dough from the mix was written on the wall in Hebrew and Farsi. One of the older men there, Qudrat, spoke fluent Hebrew. He had learned it in Iran, in religious school, and since I didn't speak Farsi and he didn't speak English, we spoke in Hebrew.
LATER IN the day Qudrat invited my friend and me for a picnic with his family. The 10 of us all went to a public park and ate a feast of Iranian stew, vegetables, Iranian sweets and tea. Perhaps most amazing was that Qudrat wore his kippa in a public park, where dozens of religious Muslim families - including women covered head-to-toe in black - were also picnicking.
Everyone at our picnic asked if I was Orthodox, if I kept kosher and if I observed Shabbat. Qudrat's children and grandchildren had been to Israel. His 12-year-old granddaughter, Sepideh, said she liked Eilat best but added, surprisingly, that Jerusalem was "too religious."
Qudrat's son-in-law Farshid, who was looking to leave Iran for the United States to find work, was also very interested in my level of Jewish observance. He, like many other potential migr s, hopes to move to Los Angeles which, with its large Iranian population, is well-known as Teherangeles.
Following our picnic, Qudrat took me to one of Shiraz's 13 synagogues to pray. We came to a large courtyard in the neighborhood of Rabiazadeh, and there were about 40 men assembled, ready for the afternoon service. I wonder how many cities there are in the world where a community of fewer than 10,000 Jews have a synagogue and can assemble 10 men for daily afternoon prayers.
Even more incredible was the fact that after we left, another group of worshipers came in. I was told that there are at least three shifts that come every morning and four or five every afternoon.
"Do you like it here?" someone asked me as I walked out.
"It's a very nice country, and it's nice to see so many Jews," I said.
"Well, you know, I was one of the 13 Jews put in jail," he said.
N. (to protect his privacy), along with 12 other Jews from Shiraz, had been arrested in 1988 on charges of being Israeli spies. Despite international pressure, 10 of the 13 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 13 years.
N. still doesn't know why he was put in jail.
"We'll never know," he said. "I was a government employee and was honest. I never took a bribe. I spent 17 months in solitary confinement, yet at one point all 13 of us shared a cell."
N. was finally released in 2002, but still can't leave the country and was reticent about the circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment. The government, he said, has limited what he can say to foreigners.
All he would say was: "You never know what will happen. In Iran, you never know what will happen."