Iranian Jews in U.S. recall their own difficult exodus as they cling to heritage, building new commu

NEW YORK — The Israelites fled Egypt in haste, but well packed: They began their Exodus with their flocks, herds and unleavened bread dough, as well as the jewels and garments of the Egyptians.

When Soraya Masjedi Nazarian left Iran in 1979, she left behind almost all of her possessions.

"I didn't have even my wedding picture to show my children until nine years ago," when she was able to get a copy from relatives in Israel, said the mother of three.

"Thank God I brought my children and family out," Nazarian said recently in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

"And that is everything. Family is everything."

The Nazarians were one of thousands of families compelled to start their lives from scratch outside of Iran following the 1978-79 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah.

Although some Jews originally supported the revolution as an agent of democracy, some 70 to 90 percent of Iran's Jewish population — estimated at anywhere between 70,000 and 120,000 — has since left the country, driven by fear of persecution under the sometimes violently anti-capitalist, anti-Zionist regime.

The majority of them went to Israel, but some 50,000 to 55,000 Iranian Jews now live in the United States, mostly in Los Angeles and on Long Island, N.Y.

"There are interesting parallels between the experience of Iranian Jews and the Israelites" who left Egypt, observed Raymond Iryami, a third-year law student from Great Neck, N.Y. As a fifth-grader in 1989, he came to visit relatives and never returned.

Both communities, he said, had to uproot themselves quickly. But he sees at least one significant difference.

"When you hear stories of migrations, you look at these people who are taking everything with them. You look at the things they're taking with them, but look at all the things they're leaving behind."

Most of the Iranian refugees abandoned not only property, careers, close friendships, family graves and even elderly relatives, but also the language and familiar rhythms of daily life in the comfort of tightly knit communities that have existed in Iran — known as Persia until 1934 — for over 2,500 years.

With an estimated 12,500 to 35,000 Jews remaining — exact numbers are difficult to pin down — Iran is still home to one of the largest diaspora Jewish communities in the Middle East.

Having lived among Muslims since 641 C.E., when invading Arabs introduced the religion to Persia, Iranian Jews maintained a strict adherence to their separate way of life "in order not to let it be forgotten," said Nazarian, who is the governing cabinet chair of Hadassah Southern California.

Of her childhood in Tehran, one of Nazarian's most vivid memories is of her grandmother's preparations for Passover.

"After Purim, we started to clean every single thing," from the closets to the dishes, she said.

"Grandma used to have a big pot of boiling water" into which she put a small stone "and they would dip all the pots in there and say a special prayer."

Nazarian, like many Iranian-born Jews living in the United States, is working again to maintain an identity she considers distinct from that of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.

The first Iranian woman to sit on the executive board of her synagogue, Nazarian initiated a cultural exchange at the congregation, Temple Sinai, where the rabbi estimates one-third of the congregation is Iranian.

One of those programs includes a Persian-style Passover seder. Students learn the Iranian custom of whipping one another with the green tails of scallions during the singing of "Dayenu," an act meant to mimic the Egyptian slave masters.

Beyond family bonds and social networks, Iranian Jewish Americans have established synagogues, Persian chapters of national Jewish organizations and organizations devoted to the community's needs.

In Los Angeles alone, Nazarian counts anywhere between 12 and 28 Iranian Jewish groups. One group, the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, represents a concrete attempt to preserve and interpret the Iranian Jewish experience through an archive of hundreds of interviews, bilingual publications, documentary films, international academic conferences and programs showcasing young talent from the community.

The center is now creating a coffee-table book of photographs from as early as the 1800s.

"We have almost 1,000 photographs, an amazing feat," said Debbie Adhami, a real estate manager in her 20s who helped establish the center in August 1995. "People who left with only suitcases had these photos."

The images show a range of events such as weddings, births and funerals, Adhami said.

Adhami's parents came from Tehran to Los Angeles as students in the 1960s. But her interest in Iranian Jewish culture, she said, grew with the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Newcomers would come to her parents for guidance in navigating American life. "I was hearing the stories over and over," Adhami said in a recent telephone interview. "And it was always the same themes — everybody's pain and loss."

Nazarian may have been unable to take her wedding photos with her out of Iran, but she retains recollections of life there.

In addition to her strong memories of Passover, Nazarian remembers a different kind of seder. She wrote and translated from Farsi, the Persian language, the text of a Rosh Hashanah seder, a singularly Iranian Jewish custom.

In addition to apples and honey (for a sweet year), seven symbolic foods — pomegranates, dates, beets, zucchini, black-eyed peas and the head or tongue of a cow or sheep — are blessed and eaten, each representing an aspect of health and good fortune.

Nazarian was inspired to create the English-language seder guide for the children of Iranian immigrants raised in America.

"If they cannot read and write Hebrew or Persian," said Nazarian, "they're not going to have a seder. This is our tradition. We have to keep all the holidays."