Abraham Berookhim was born in Tehran, Iran in 1948 to a traditional Jewish family whose records date back to the Babylonian exile. Abraham’s grandfather was educated through Alliance Israelite Universelle and eventually opened a bookstore. Later noticing the lack of translation dictionaries, he financed the publication of three major dictionaries from Farsi to English, Hebrew and French. The dictionaries were used throughout the entire country; the first step in establishing the prominence of the Berookhim family name.
Several years later, Abraham’s grandfather went on to open luxury hotels. The hotels were called Sinai and Royal Gardens Hotel to make known its Jewish affiliation; the grand ballroom was donated for Jewish weddings. The Berookhims remained influential and philanthropic within the Jewish community as their notoriety expanded.
Still, despite the Berookhim’s wealth and celebrated family name, Abraham’s memories of childhood in Iran are saturated anti-Semitic discrimination, as some Muslims met his family’s success with resentment. Unfounded rumors against the Jews were normative, and Abraham remembers the common narrative amongst Iran’s mullahs being that the Jews must be either converted or killed.
Abraham personally experienced anti-Semitism regularly. Even at his own family’s hotels, the Muslim kitchen staff sometimes tormented Abraham, insisting that if he intended to inherit the hotel he must first become a Muslim—only then would they agree to eat off his plates. Abraham resigned to lying that he had converted to Islam. It worked; from then Abraham was treated only with kindness.
The time leading up to the Iranian revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic ushered an unprecedented degree of anti-Semitism. Abraham was deeply shaken by the capture of his uncle, Ebrahim Berookhim, who was falsely accused of spying on behalf of the United States. In 1979, Abraham’s uncle was executed in prison without a trial. The Berookhims demanded an explanation for his murder, but the Iranian authorities maintained they had meant to capture and kill a different man. However, the Berookhims knew that his execution was meant to send a message to the rest of the Jewish community. The prison guards even requested compensation for the expense of the bullet.
At the hotel one day, Abraham received a call on the hotel telephone. On the other line was a Muslim employee who believed that Abraham had converted to Islam. Abraham recalls the employee pleaded that he flee the hotel for safety. The employees then said that the hotel would hereby belong to the country of Iran, so as to sever all Jewish and Zionist affiliations. Abraham obeyed. Looking back, he realizes that had the employees not thought that he was Muslim, they surely would have let the police capture him. In a way, they saved his life.
Abraham was already in hiding by the time of the Iran hostage crisis of late 1979, during which the American Embassy was taken over and six hostages escaped to the Canadian Embassy. Abraham received a call from the U.S. government, who knew of his location through previous hotel dealings. They requested that Abraham provide food and support to the hostages in hiding; Abraham drove to his hotels’ kitchens and filled his car with food, which he personally delivered to the American prisoners.
Abraham’s departure from Iran was complicated as he was forced to leave his wife and newborn son behind, along with every last possession with his bodyguard. Abraham carried only an empty suitcase, a fake Muslim passport and his best Turkish disguise to avoid all ties to his true identity. As soon as the plane crossed Iran’s borders, Abraham shed his disguise and basked in his new freedom.
Abraham spent the first portion of his new life with his Japanese business partner before he moved to Israel without a penny to his name. Four months later, his wife and son joined him. Once in Los Angeles, Abraham slowly rebuilt his life by selling radios and eventually returning to the restaurant industry.
Today, Abraham says he would like to return to Iran in order to visit his bodyguards and friends who had saved his life—and also to visit the hotels he so carefully helped build. It is painful that his family left behind their hard-earned fortune and no compensation nor formal apology for the execution of Abraham’s uncle. But Abraham recognizes he is not alone.
JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.