Persian Jews in Jerusalem

Having made the arduous journey from Iran, these immigrants faced a whole new set of obstacles when they arrived.

P’tahiya synagogue in Jerusalem (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
P’tahiya synagogue in Jerusalem
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Traditionally, Iranian Jews auction off the rights to synagogue honors, and the highest bidder wins.
But at Ohavei Zion synagogue in Jerusalem’s Neveh Shalom neighborhood, there was one exception.
When worshipers began sparring for the right to open the Ark during the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur, the auctioneer would pound his gavel and yell “Sold!” as soon as Meir Banai offered 50 lirot.
No one minded, even though the honor was worth a lot more than 50 lirot. They knew that Banai, a fruit and vegetable vendor, was not a rich man and that this particular honor was his. During the War of Independence, when his son Avraham was wounded and captured by the Jordanians, Banai had made a vow.
Should Avraham come back to him, he had sworn, he would buy this particular honor every year as long as he lived. Six months later, his son returned home.
Last week I joined a tour titled “Persian Jews in Jerusalem.” Leading us through the earliest Iranian neighborhoods in Jerusalem was the multifaceted Tal Chenya: lecturer, tour guide and master storyteller.
During our jaunt, he regaled us with fascinating stories about the Persian Jews who made the difficult trip to the Holy Land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
We learned that they came here with little but the shirts on their backs but with an immense love for Israel in their hearts.
This week’s Street Stroll follows much the same route and takes you through charming little lanes with structures that are more than a century old. Begin on Bibas Street, near the bottom, western portion of Agrippas. Just past 12 Bibas Street, turn onto an alley that soon becomes Chelouche Street.
The first wave of Iranian immigrants reached Jerusalem in 1886, inspired by revered Rabbi Aharon Hacohen. Most of them came from the city of Shiraz and had made the month-long journey to the port at Bushehr by foot, on camels and atop donkeys, women and children riding in pack saddles on either side of the same beast. Once they arrived, they waited for a ship that would take them to their yearned-for destination.
After disembarking in Jaffa and kissing its holy ground with gusto, they traveled to Jerusalem. The city’s two established communities – Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe and Ladino-speaking Sephardim from Spain and Portugal – had a hard time believing that the newcomers, with their strange language, exotic customs and dark skin, were really Jewish. While Ashkenazim and Sephardim had already set up bustling neighborhoods for other immigrants, they felt no obligation towards these newcomers from the East.
Too poor to buy property or to build homes, the Iranians squatted on an empty plot next to Mishkenot Sha’anamim (the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls). But their shacks and tents created such an eyesore that they were soon evicted, and they ended up in this area in a makeshift transit camp.
Penniless and lacking building materials, they took enormous empty tin gasoline cans, separated the sides, smoothed them out and stood them up to form walls. That is why this neighborhood, officially called Shevet Tzedek, is known far and wide as the Tin Neighborhood. It was a vibrant, crowded quarter teeming with life and a characteristic Eastern aura.
More modern housing has replaced the tin shacks in the neighborhood except for one: the structure across from 19 Chelouche Street. Imagine living inside, walking on a dirt floor and sleeping in beds made of wooden crates pushed together. Your mattress would consist of rags and tattered clothes, which you would use as bed covers when it got cold.
And although tin is fairly good at keeping out the rain, the roofs were so leaky that one former resident remembers his mother stretched out over him all night to keep him dry.
Poverty-stricken or not, Persian Jews were deeply devout and needed a synagogue where they could pray in their own special style and hear sermons in Persian. Follow Chelouche Street until it ends, then turn right, to be back on Bibas. Take that to a major intersection, then immediately turn left to face P’tahiya, the first Persian synagogue in Jerusalem.
P’tahiya was built in 1894 as a simple hut whose permanent walls were added one by one whenever the destitute residents were able to come up with a donation. Tiles for the roof were bought on a payment plan from the Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin. There was no money for a floor, so they stood on a layer of dirt. But they did acquire a 400-year-old Torah scroll. And after finding a box with a velvet interior and cloth on the outside, they had an Ark.
The first caretaker (gabai) of this synagogue was Ben-Zion Mizrahi, who worked for months in the Old City to earn enough money to put himself through carpentry school. Much of the woodwork is his creation, from the Ten Commandments to the chair for the prophet Elijah and the bridal ledge under which a prospective groom would sit the Shabbat before his wedding.
Years later, Mizrahi’s son Moshe became caretaker. Known to Jerusalemites as “the legendary Moishele,” he was obsessed with making sure there were always 10 men available for morning worship.
Moishele regularly woke people up at three or four in the morning. When the police were called, he borrowed their bullhorns to do the job.
Shevet Tzedek was a temporary home not only for Iranian immigrants – although they were the majority – but for other Eastern sects as well.
Before you continue, look across the intersection to see a colorful mosaic wall depicting the Kurdish immigration to Israel. Then follow Barashi Street to reach Nissim Bachar Street.
You are about to enter the first permanent neighborhood in Jerusalem built by Persian Jews for Persian Jews. Established in 1900 and called Neveh Shalom, it consists of only a few streets and a couple of alleys. Yet it contains five Persian synagogues – evidence of the Iranians’ immense spiritual needs.
Cross the street to the Shauli and Kashi Synagogue, which dates back to 1907. The Entertainer’s Courtyard was next door. Here, long ago, dozens of Persian Jews spent their Saturday nights listening to Eliyahu Ya’acov Banai – grandfather of the famous Yossi Banai – spin intricate tales. The stories would go on for weeks because whenever he reached a high point in the suspense, he would stop talking.
Iranian synagogues feature more than one Holy Ark, as you will see if you enter Shauli and Kashi.
The explanation is simple: Iranian law decreed that if you have an Ark in your synagogue, it must hold the Koran. So Iranian Jews built at least two Arks in each house of worship – one to hold the Torah and the other for the Koran.
Take Beit Tzur Street, near the synagogue, to Yosef Haim Street. Turn left and ascend Halhul Street on your right. Go right again on Ovadia Somech Street and stop at No. 11 – the Beit Yitzhak Synagogue.
It was named for a rabbi who left Shiraz with his family but never made it to Israel. Two nights after they set sail, Rabbi Yitzhak Kalifa died on the deck of the ship during a terrible storm.
Neveh Shalom residents were very poor, so everyone had to contribute toward building the synagogue. Indeed, the walls and even the light fixtures are covered with their names and the sums they donated. One of them, Agababa Ben-Yitzhak Ben-Raful Shemesh, dug a cistern and sold water to the Arabs. For every tin of water, he got a chiseled stone in return.
The women’s gallery had a double purpose: It also served as a kind of absorption center for new Iranian immigrants who had nowhere to go and had no idea how to get started. At night they slept on mattresses on the floor, which were put aside at the start of the morning prayers.
At the end of the road, turn left onto Rama Street. Head left, again, on Shiloh Street and stop at No. 23: Ohavei Zion Synagogue.
As the 19th century came to an end, more and more Persian Jews flocked to Jerusalem. While girls stayed home and learned how to become good housewives, boys ran ragged in the streets, getting into all sorts of trouble. Worried that ignorance would be the downfall of the Iranian community, an organization called Ohavei Zion determined to deal with the problem. In 1906 a combination synagogue, absorption center and school appeared here, with Rabbi Ya’acov Melamed – grandson of the rabbi who led the synagogue you will see next – in charge of education.
Knowing that each family had only one multipurpose basin for washing clothes, dishes, teeth and people, he added a shower to the school, complete with soap and towels. He provided food to fill his students’ stomachs and even built a platform for drama classes and performances. It was here, in 1937, that Yossi Banai sang his first solo.
Visitors can enter the women’s gallery around the corner.
The Ohavei Zion Synagogue is unusually spacious and modern, for it was expanded and renovated in 1963 with a must-see olive wood pulpit and Holy Ark designed by Ze’ev Raban, one of the fathers of Israeli art.
Farther down the street, enter the courtyard at 18 Shiloh Street and climb the stairs to the Sha’arei Rahamim Synagogue.
What makes this humble house of worship unusual is its location inside a yard that housed half a dozen large families from Shiraz, including that of Rabbi Rahamim Melamed and his amazing wife, Esther.
Among other pursuits, Esther manufactured rose water, removed the intestines from koshered cows and opened a women’s tallit-knitting factory. Yearning to study Talmud, a practice frowned upon for women, she managed on her own and by standing in the women’s gallery listening to the men studying below. After her husband died and when she felt that the men were spewing nonsense, she would call down and scold them.
Frequenting market restaurants that offer meals cooked on old-fashioned kerosene stoves is currently the rage. But the practice began long ago, right here at 12 Shiloh Street. That’s when the Menagan family opened a small eatery with victuals prepared on a kerosene stove and sold at rock-bottom prices.
Descend the steps on your left, turn right onto Ovadia Somech Street and descend Halhul Street. Then cross over to the Sha’arei Rahamim Synagogue, home to Jerusalem’s mekubalim (mystics). The structure was originally built as a vineyard by a supremely successful Parsi in 1903 who lost his vast wealth during World War I. In 1934 it was purchased by Rahamim Aharoni, who turned it into a synagogue that was popular with mystics like Mordecai Sha’arabi, famous for cursing the nearby – and financially luckless – Eini building.
Ashkenazi synagogues sell High Holy Day seats to their members; Iranians, however, sell honors to their men, and the right to clean the synagogue to their women.
Miriam Kanum Halevi, considered one of the neighborhood’s most virtuous women, bought the right to make Sha’arei Rahamim sparkle. According to her daughters, who went along to help, she would tell stories about the synagogue, including the tale of the old man who used to sweep the floor with his beard.
Rabbi Sha’arabi, whose students included Ovadia Yosef, valued Miriam highly. So highly, in fact, that he bought cemetery plots for himself and his wife right next to the grave of Miriam Kanum. That way, he said, they could be together with this good woman in the next life.
From here, return to Halhul Street and follow it up to Agrippas Street.
Many thanks to our wonderful guide Tal Chenya. Read more about him on his website: