This is the story of a haredi Jew who braved Iran last month to gain firsthand
knowledge of its ancient Jewish holy sites and cemeteries, as part of his
ongoing global quest to raise awareness of Jewish sites and preserve what can
still be salvaged.
Rabbi Israel Meir Gabbai returned to Israel last
Tuesday after over a week in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where he visited and
prayed at the sites believed to be the burial places of biblical figures such as
prophets Daniel and Habakkuk, Daniel’s contemporaries Hanania, Mishael and
Azaria, and local Jewish heroes Mordechai and Esther.
Gabbai’s quest into
this contemporary lion’s den began in Paris, where he applied as a Frenchman
through the Iranian consulate to get a visa into President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s
domain. Although he had given up his Israeli passport years ago to enable such
endeavors, Gabbai had not changed his distinctive haredi garb and beard, and was
initially refused. However, after an official request by members of the Iranian
Jewish community with whom he was in contact, the Iranian authorities allowed
Gabbai to enter the country as the community’s guest.
This was not
Gabbai’s first journey into hostile lands with rich Jewish history and holy
sites. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, he established the
Israel-based Ohalei Tzadikim organization “with the goal of locating, restoring
and preserving Jewish cemeteries and kivrei tzadikim [burial sites of righteous
people] throughout Eastern Europe” that were largely “desecrated, vandalized and
hidden during the Communist regime,” according to the organization’s
While the bulk of Gabbai’s efforts has been in those parts, in
recent years he has ventured into Syria, where he was an official visitor of the
regime; Yemen, where the open hostility of the locals was more than worrying;
and northern Iraq, which he fled after getting too close to a war
Upon landing in Teheran, Gabbai met up with his local Jewish
The next day, the host was called in for questioning at the
local internal intelligence agency – the first time he had ever been
Though Gabbai was naturally apprehensive before arriving in
Iran, it was mainly after the questioning – in which the details of his
itinerary were shared with the security forces – that he began to feel fear, he
told The Jerusalem Post
Nonetheless, Gabbai took off from
the capital to the southwestern city of Susa, where tradition says Daniel is
buried. Islam accepts the Jewish prophets, and their burial sites are considered
holy to Muslims.
Daniel’s burial site serves as a place of worship for
local Muslims, and Gabbai described a beautifully preserved place of prayer. Out
of respect for him, the local guard allowed Gabbai special proximity to the
From there, Gabbai headed to Hamadan, where Mordechai and
Esther are buried. Muslim students had threatened to damage that gravesite late
last year, but no harm has been inflicted upon it.
“The gravesite is one
of the most ancient sites in all of Iran, and it is preserved by the local
authorities with the dignity and sanctity it’s due,” said Gabbai.
nearby city of Toyserkan was where Gabbai prayed at the gravesite of the prophet
He eventually returned to Teheran, traveling from there to the
gravesites of Hanania, Mishael and Azaria in Qazvin. Gabbai described the Qazvin
complex as rare in its exquisite beauty and immaculate preservation, as one
would expect of a site holy to Muslims as well as Jews.
It was not only
the watchful eyes of the regime that followed Gabbai on his journey. Ohalei
Tzadikim director Levi-Yitzchak Gvirtz told the Post
on Thursday that in one
instance, locals began asking Gabbai for blessings after the word spread that
his prayers were answered.
“In Hamadan, a gentile Kurd approached him and
asked that Gabbai pray for the benefit of his sick mother. Gabbai agreed, and
said a few phrases from Psalms,” Gvirtz said.
“A short while later, the
same man rushed up to Gabbai and excitedly told him that his mother had just
called to say she was feeling better,” he related. “The exhilarated man started
telling the locals that Gabbai possessed special powers.
quickly, and wherever Gabbai went, he encountered Muslims asking the rabbi’s
Although it was one of the motives for his visit, it is not
the fate of the burial sites of Mordechai and Esther that has Gabbai
“Those are famous; people on the street pointed the way there,
they appear in the local hotel’s prospects,” he said of the Purim heroes’
gravesites, and similar sites holy to Muslims.
“The problem is the
regular Jewish cemeteries,” he said, such as those in the cities of Yazed and
Isfahan, some of which are in ruins or have completely vanished since buildings
were constructed over them.
“[The Iranian authorities] must know that
people are following the fate of the cemeteries,” he said. “They must
realize that they can’t just build buildings on top of such sites. They must
mark and preserve such places.”