On a busy street in the city of Hamadan about 200 miles west of Tehran, behind a high gray fence, is a heavy stone-slab door leading to a 14th century tomb tower. Traditionally, this is considered to be the burial site of Esther and Mordecai. Marked by a pair of large stones like the types that sealed off graves in ancient Israel, the tombs are much older than the tower.
After I rang the bell, 80-year-old Rabbi Rajad appeared, handed me a kippah and opened the heavy door into the tomb. For some 2,000 years this tomb has been a spiritual focal point for the Jews of Iran, their most important Jewish pilgrimage site. Some of the Hebrew inscriptions have been repainted so often — by people who likely didn’t understand them — that they now appear as Hebrew-looking gibberish.
During a visit to Iran in 2014 and on a return in December 2016, I met descendants of this rich, 2,500 year-old Persian Jewish heritage. With estimates ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 Jews, Iran has the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country with the possible exception of Turkey.
The communities in Tehran and Shiraz are both centered around their k’neisah, or synagogue, a gathering place for their communities and where children often come for breakfast and Jewish studies before heading to school.
Surprised to learn that I was Reform and Ashkenazi, the Iranian Jews I met with understood “Reform” not as a movement but rather as a way to describe all non-Orthodox observance. Reflecting their curiosity and ignorance of the subject, I was asked: “Why do so many Reform Jews marry non-Jews?” “Do Reform Jews light Hanukkah candles?” “Is it true that Reform Jews put tefillin on dogs?”
Each evening at 6:30 p.m. except on Shabbat, many Jews are able to get news from Israel on Israel’s Farsi-language radio station.
In Tehran, at the well-maintained Yusef Abad synagogue, Saturday services were so crowded and had so many boys chanting from the Torah that the Torah readings were occurring on two separate bimahs. When each boy finished his chanting, ululating and the tossing of candies came from the proud mothers in the women’s section.
The Saturday I was there happened to be Muhammad’s birthday, a national Iranian holiday, so all the children had a school holiday. This enabled them to come to services when they normally would only attend in such large numbers on Friday night.
In Shiraz, at the Rabizadeh synagogue, Friday night services were filled with young and old, some looking in from the courtyard. One of the most enduring memories I have is of the chanting of “Lecha Dodi,” led by the children and chanted loudly by all. There was a spot in each verse where the children’s voices, raised in unison, seemed to shake the walls.
Walking home with the same family I had met two years earlier, I arrived to the aromas from the prepared food in the small kitchen and from pots on the living room steam heater. After welcoming Shabbat with “Shalom Aleichem” and Kiddush, we ate a meal of fruit, nuts, fresh greens, grilled trout and flatbread, all eaten by hand. We drank homemade raisin-based vodka and wine; we danced, sang and drummed on kitchen pots.
A few times during my visit, I was asked about Donald Trump.
On Saturday morning, I was given an aliyah and, following the Torah chanting and my blessing, the four other men on the bimah started chatting. They spoke in Farsi, but I was able to pick out one word: Trump. I looked at the speaker, turned away and made a motion of being sick to my stomach.
I shared the first and second nights of Hanukkah with my “family.” I found it interesting that, while oil is lit and prayers recited each night, in both the synagogue and in the homes, my experience did not include special foods, nor was oil lighting necessarily a time for all family to gather around. In the synagogue, the menorah was lit in a corner as a brief break during the evening service.
I’m regularly in touch with my friends in Shiraz on WhatsApp and hope to be able to visit again.