By Linda Briskman
During the summer of August 2014 I entered a Tehran store, where through the window I had observed the vendor wearing a kippah. Despite his minimal English and my imperfect Farsi, he warmed to me as a Jew visiting Iran. His wife was less convinced. She brought out a book of Hebrew writing, which I stumbled over, as it seemed like almost a lifetime since I attended Cheder in Melbourne. To convince her of my authenticity I recited the Shema and then all was well. I treasure the Magen David I purchased from their small shop.
In the ten visits I have made to Iran for academic purposes, I have been curious about its Jewish community, estimated at 20,000. In August of 2015, I decided it was time to satisfy my yearning, and I visited one of Tehran’s numerous synagogues. There I was informed about the life of Iranian Jews in that city, indistinguishable in many ways from communities throughout the world. I heard of kosher restaurants and butchers, sporting clubs, interfaith gatherings, Hebrew lessons for children, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs and a Jewish hospital open to all. There are also active Jewish communities in other parts of Iran. I learned of the good relationships between Jews and other Iranians, echoing what my Iranian Muslim friends tell me: all Abrahamic religions are important in the Islamic state. And there is a Jewish member of parliament, the Majlis, in accordance with constitutional guarantees of representation of the minority religions of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism.
Later I was privileged to attend a Friday Shabbat service with around 300 people in a Sephardic shul. As the only foreigner present, I was greeted with buoyant Shabbat Shaloms and with the warmth that all Iranians show in reaching out to strangers in their midst. I could have been anywhere in the world but this was Iran. Men were praying; women were praying and chatting; and children were participating in the service and running about. I joined in timeless and universal prayers that bind us through common heritage. Judaism has been preserved throughout various Persian eras during the 2,700 years of its presence in Iran and, as elsewhere, is both an ancient and living religion.
I left feeling spiritually nourished and grateful for the experience. A family approached me. ‘Come’, they said, ‘visit our home to join us for a Shabbat meal’. In their observant home embraced by the warmth of this extended family, I experienced Iranian Jewish traditions, enjoying the combination of Iranian food with Jewish blessings. The allure that is Iran glows with hospitality. It is people that draw me back again and again and this night was a new highpoint, experiencing shared humanity across time, faith, nation and identity.
My visits to Iran are significant in opening my eyes to a world that most Jews in the diaspora have only heard about through negative imagery and words. It’s a constant struggle to explain to fellow Australians that Iran is a safe, intellectual, engaged and vibrant society that is in sharp contrast to the relentless propaganda perpetuated against it. Many do not know that Iran comprises a unique web of minority groups, cultures and religions. This visit to Iran was evocative, occurring within weeks of the sealing of the nuclear accord. Even the doomsday forecasters – right-wing Republicans, Netanyahu and his followers included – could not take the shine off what it means for Iran to be recognised for its international diplomacy and for the scourge of unjust sanctions to be close to an end. Everyone has suffered from sanctions, and now Jews and other minority groups will be able to share with their fellow Iranians in the prosperity and opportunity that we in the sanctioning world take for granted.
Linda Briskman is Professor of Human Rights at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.
This article was part of Just Voices #9 – Freedom/Oppression , the AJDS newsletter for April 2016.