A whole new world

After spending their childhood growing up in Iran, Jewish sisters Elena and Sivan Pashaiy finally succeeded in moving to Israel and now defend the country they were taught to hate.

Sister soldiers 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Sister soldiers 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Sisters Elena and Sivan Pashaiy spent their childhood years growing up in Kermanshah, Iran, around 500 kilometers southwest of Tehran. The girls, along with a third sister, attended a traditional religious Muslim school like the other children in their city. Their father owned a clothing store in the center of town while their mother was a stay-at-home mom.
However, as they got older, through their education and the government controlled media, the girls were fed an increasingly steady diet of anti-Israel propaganda, which was typical for schools guided by curricula introduced under the ayatollahs. “We were taught that Israel is a place that just kills Arabs,” says Elena, “which, as a child, I had no reason not to believe.”
From anti-Zionist tirades delivered by their teachers and through monthly anti-Israel demonstrations they were forced to attend with their classmates in town, life became extremely uncomfortable for the Pashaiy children and their parents, who lived in Iran as practicing Jews, and it became time to consider fleeing the country where their family had lived for several generations.
For some it may be surprising to learn that there are Jews living in Iran today, but the latest census from 2012 indicates the Jewish population to be around 8,700.
According to Dr. Heshmat Kerman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, the Jewish community in Iran has a rich history that can be traced back to 733 BCE. However, he says that “the last 500 years have witnessed a noticeable decline in the status of Iranian Jewry.” With the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish population dropped from 100,000-150,000 to around 80,000. It fell another 75 percent after the shah was overthrown in 1979. The latest census is significantly lower than previous statistics, which indicated there were around 20,000 Jews still there around the turn of the century.
In 2006, 12-year-old Elena and 15- year-old Sivan along with their family, under extreme bureaucratic duress – a process that took over a year to complete – finally succeeded in making it to the Jewish state and settled in Ashdod.
Not only did the girls thrive in their new country, quickly learning the language thanks to ulpan and assimilating into Israeli culture, but now, several years later, both are proud members of the IDF and are defending the very country they were taught as children to hate.
Eighteen-year-old Elena is currently an anti-terror/infiltration combat soldier, who monitors one of Israel’s borders, while 21-year-old Sivan is an accomplished officer in the Israel Air Force.
In two separate conversations with The Jerusalem Post, both women reflect on their difficult childhood growing up as Jews in Iran and on their happiness living freely in Israel.
Elena says she started to realize she was different at a fairly young age, when she was forced to sit outside the classroom or wander around the school during classes on Islam. “I had friends in my school at first,” she says, “but when they realized that I wasn’t participating in religious classes, many backed away and others expressed outright hatred towards me. While I had several friends who were not bothered by my Jewishness, I remember periods when others would lock me out of the classroom on a regular basis since I was Jewish.
I also felt the resentment from my teachers,” she says, “This was clearly anti-Semitism.”
Elena also has memories of being cursed for being Jewish, and shares stories of other kids including a cousin being beaten by other children for being different.
Sivan says she didn’t start feeling as much persecution until high school. “It was in 10th grade when we were in the aliya process, that things started to get bad for me,” she says. “I remember being called a dirty Jew.”
The process of making aliya from Iran is much more difficult than from countries in the Western world.
Elena says that after the decision was made by the family that they wanted to leave the country, the authorities confiscated their passports and spent over a year interrogating the family about their intentions. “The police thought we had the intention of being spies for Israel,” she said. “We had to explain that we had family in Israel [grandparents and others], and our plan was to settle there permanently.” Elena says that only after her family promised they would never return – albeit under the threat of imprisonment or worse – did the authorities finally return their passports and allow them to leave.”
Both girls immediately noticed the differences of living in a democracy where women and girls have equal rights. “In Iran,” says Sivan, “there is a lot of discrimination against women and it’s very hard to advance. Everyone always seemed suspicious of girls.”
Elena cites the difference in what girls are allowed to wear in the two countries.
“Here, people can dress as they please, but growing up in Iran, we were always fully covered,” she says.
While the family says they are grateful that in Israel they are able to observe Judaism in a traditional manner, it was much harder in Iran. “Shabbat was a regular work day,” says Elena.
“While it isn’t forbidden to observe Shabbat, there really wasn’t an option for my father not to go to work.” Both girls say that now in Israel, the family is able to observe Shabbat and holidays according to custom.
Sivan has completed three out of her five years of service in the air force, finishing her officers’ course after the first year. She plans on continuing as a career officer or perhaps going to school to study business management and economics. She says the army experience “has given me a great sense of independence and maturity, and it’s a different life altogether [from civilian life].”
Elena, on the other hand, is only four months into her service. Originally she was considering entering one of the intelligence units due to her fluency in Farsi, but is very happy in her position keeping the border safe. “Not a lot of people realize this position even exists,” she says. “But this is in fact a large division in the army, which does include a lot of women.”
Elena also hopes to become an officer and says that she has no plans to leave the army any time soon.