My Story: Conversations with my father

A Jewish Iranian expatriate novelist reflects on the meaning of Hanukka.

iran jew story 88 224 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
iran jew story 88 224
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
During most of my adult life in Iran, I dreamed of leaving, finding a place where the words "Jew" and "woman" were not derogatory terms. My father, however, loved Iran. He never imagined a day that he would have to abandon the country of his ancestors. We had heated debates in Iran and later in his new home, Israel. Last year, he passed away on the last day of Hanukka, still dreaming of Iran, his views shared by many other Iranian Jews both in Israel and in the United States. Here are my conversations with my father. Once upon a time, my daughter, after a brief journey, you and I yearned to return to Shiraz. Through the arched gateway adorned with blue tiles, passing underneath the holy book of Koran, we entered our forefathers' homeland for over 2,500 years. There was a time, my daughter, that your eyes, like mine, sparked with joy to see our city of roses and nightingales, the city of poets and writers. Once upon a time, my father, winter came, the ground froze, the trees died; ice caps dropped on your city's mountain tops. I felt the familiar invisible yellow patch on my chest for being the daughter of my mothers' religion. The holy book nested on top of the gate to Shiraz did not give us, the Jews, security. My daughter, scant were those who scorned our beliefs. People of Iran were decent and God-fearing. There is always the good and the bad wherever you go. I saw kindness, respect; I was somebody in the land of my fathers. Don't forget that an Iranian king, Cyrus the Great, freed us from our bondage in Babylon. Our forefathers remained in Persia because we felt safe under the king's benevolent rule. Cyrus was a second Moses; Persia, our new Promised Land. We entered its borders as free men and not slaves. Baba, didn't you tell me of dark nights of pogroms in the Jewish ghetto of your youth? Returning from his synagogue one rainy Shabbat morning, your white-bearded father, the community rabbi, was beaten bloody for daring to walk outside the walls of the ghetto. Those were the old days of ignorance and fanaticism, of melee and mayhem - and even in the dark days, the kindness seeped through. A Muslim mullah brought us warm blankets, hot tea, bread and grapes after a long night of bedlam in the ghetto. My daughter, don't look at the ugliness. We were better off than the European Jewry, where the so called civilized Germany murdered six million of us. Baba, we were not allowed to become six millions. We suffered in silence. Our history not recorded and publicized, our murdered ancestors die repeatedly in the elimination of their names, their stories and their faces. The Jews of Tabriz, men, women and children, were decimated in the eighth century. The Jews of Mashhad were forced to convert in the 17th century. Baba, don't help erase the past because you still yearn for your farms and orchards in Shiraz, because after such a long period of emotional and financial despair, you became a prosperous landowner under the shah's rule. My orchard was paradise on earth. I created it from dust and boulders, from a land untamed and dry. I invested all my money, my time, my sweat, my love. Such amazing endeavor! Don't tell me about your adopted country America being the land of opportunity. I had it all in Iran. Baba, and then the tornado of the Iranian revolution shattered your life, your farm, your house and your respected status. Fleeing in a hurry, you left them behind. You forgot that as Jews you must not invest in property that you cannot secure in your pocket, in the hem of your daughters' dresses. How can you long for your life in Iran? Yes, I suffered during those years of revolution and chaos. I suffered under a regime that tortured me and took my livelihood away, a government that reduced me to the broken man you see today, but I didn't suffer alone. The Muslims, the Baha'is, the Christians, the Zoroastrians suffered as much if not more. I am not the only displaced and wandering Iranian. Don't criticize me for having felt comfortable in my own country. Have you not bought a piece of your America? Have you not trusted your money to its banks? America has its own history of bigotry and anti-Semitism. Aren't you afraid of an uprising against the Jews? As you have allowed yourself to grow roots in your new country for just a few decades, I gave myself permission to invest in the land of my fathers for millennia. They have been other perilous times for Iranian Jews, but we survived them. Do you remember the story of Purim? Mordecai and his niece, Esther, saved us with their wisdom and their words. Iran bestowed upon us its protection for centuries. Baba, a story of 2500 years ago doesn't testify to today's Iranian Jewish history. From 100,000 Jews, there are only 25,000 left in Iran today - a token kept under the thumb of another Haman, another powerful Iranian, a Holocaust denier with an impending atomic bomb to destroy Israel - the country that sheltered you. Baba, you talk of Queen Esther's story as our story, of the story of Iranian Jews. You are right, it exemplifies our position in Iranian history, as a people who had to tread gingerly around our rulers as Iranian Jews do today. The king bestowed upon Haman the power to annihilate a powerless people. Esther, even though a queen, approached the king trembling in fear. Baba a part of me prefers the story of Hanukka over Purim. I can't imagine Iranian Jews being brave enough, like the Maccabees, to rise up against those who try to annihilate us, to assimilate us, to kill our traditions. My daughter, Hanukka is not our story as much as Purim is. We conquered and survived through words and not swords. In your adopted country, Hanukka competes with Christmas, a commercial holiday. Don't forget that you are Persian. Baba, I remember you lighting the Hanukka candles in the corner, where no one could see from the outside. You mumbled the prayers so that no one could hear you beyond your family. I light my hanukkia by an unobstructed window. Let the candles light, growing more intense every night for eight nights, brightening my house, and the faces of those walking by the window. Let the neighbors and passersby know who I am - a Jew, no longer afraid. And, for you, my father, I do add an additional prayer when I light my hanukkia. I pray that once again the Iranian Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha'is and Zoroastrians will have the opportunity to share your vision of a free Iran - a light unto other nations. The writer is the author of Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman.