By: Akiva Herzfeld  | 

From the Commie Archives (November 11, 1997; Volume 62, Issue 5) — Rabbis and Ayatollahs: Students From Iran

Editor’s Note: For the past two months, protests have raged across Iran following the arrest and eventual death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was punished for incorrectly wearing her hijab. The government has responded forcefully and violently, killing and arresting hundreds of people. 

Several thousand Jews still reside in Iran today. In light of the current situation in Iran, below is an article published in 1997 which highlights Iranian students at YU. 

Iran: Demonized by the media, vilified by government officials, enthusiastically condemned by both the political pundit and the common citizen, it stands prominently among those nations that Americans most love to hate. Liable for bombings, assassinations, and other sinister schemes, Iran has assumed a diabolical role in American politics; the moniker of the "Great Satan" is reversed, and applied to the Islamic Republic itself. 

With all the feuding between America and Iran, it sometimes becomes easy to forget that people actually inhabit Iran However, as of the last census, 60 million people actually live there. 40% of these 60 million persons are under the age of 15. An estimated 10,000 persons, of these 60 million people, are Jews still populating Iran. 

On the uptown campus of Yeshiva University, there are about twenty students whose families emigrated from Iran. In separate interviews with The Commentator, some of these students spoke of the situation in their former home. One student, whose family left in 1979, told The Commentator how his family escaped. The other students, who have all left Iran in the past three months to three years, discussed politics in Iran, the cultural differences between the United States and Iran, and the life for Jews in present day Iran. 

A Melamed Tells His Story 

Today, for the follower of Mid-East politics, it sounds implausible that Jews and Iranians share anything in common. However, there is a pronounced link between the rich histories of these two peoples. Thousands of years ago, King Cyrus, after terminating Babylonian rule, permitted the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the sacred Temple. Until the year 642 C.E., the Jews living under the Sassanids probably enjoyed considerable freedom in life, work, and business. Even after this, when Moslem rule was established, Jews, such as Rashid-ad-Din, were employed as court physicians or political advisors. While European governments either expelled or persecuted Jews, in Iran, Omar (636 - 646) had established a set of fairly moderate rules regulating the relationships between Jews and Moslems. In 1948, under Reza Shah Pahlevi, the state of Iran gave de facto recognition to the state of Israel. Under his son's reign, the agents of SAVAK and those of Mossad worked together. 

When confronted with this historical data, Ofer Melamed first pointed out that "It is Persia that has a long history, not Iran. It is Persia that treated the Jews well." Melamed then told The Commentator how deeply interconnected his own family's history is with that of Persian Jewry. 

Ofer Melamed himself is the JSS president, a pre-med student, a Roth Scholar, a financial analyst, and a proud crusader for the cause of all Sephardim. The history of his family in Persia and the story of how they emigrated to the US are especially interesting. 

For generations, dating back to the early 1400's, the Melamed family had been teachers, chachamim, and general community leaders of the Persian Jewish community in Teheran. Ofer's grandfather, the principal of Alliance University in Iran, following in the tradition of his ancestors, became a teacher as well. However, Massoud Melamed, Ofer's father, chose another occupation, deciding to become an engineer. Massoud was successful, and he ascended the ranks of Persian engineers, becoming one of the Shah's chief men. 

In 1979, Massoud and his family's tranquil state of affairs ended abruptly. The status of those who had worked for the Shah deteriorated. February 1, 1979: The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exiled in France, returns to Iran. October 14: Khomeini is appointed faqih - the Supreme Jurisprudent. November 4: Fundamentalist students invade the American embassy in Teheran and take fifty-two hostages. Amid the chaos, Khomeini's followers compile hit lists of their enemies. Foremost among these enemies are men who worked for the Shah. Massoud Melamed is on one of these lists. 

Yet, fortunately for the Melamed family, Massoud had decided to vacation in Israel for this time period. As hundreds of the Shah's men were butchered, Massoud was saved by G-d's will, Massoud set about rescuing his entire family from the calamity back home. Rescue them he did, but with only five thousand dollars left to their name, the Melamed family suddenly found themselves in the age-old unenviable Jewish predicament: they were refugees - and this, after 500 years of service to the Teheran community! But, similar to waves of Jewish immigrants in the past, the Melamed family came to the US and reestablished themselves on foreign soil. And, similar to past Jewish immigrants, a child of the Melamed family, Ofer, is studying to be a doctor. 

Ofer's family escaped from Iran in 1979. Since then, Iran has been ruled by Ayatollahs for 18 years. The Commentator interviewed six other Iranian students at YU's uptown campus. They have all come to America within the past three years or three months. These interviews shed light on the politics of a nation where no YU student has vacationed, they describe Jewish life in a nation where the Jewish presence is dwindling, and they detail the predicament of a new immigrant to the United States. 

David Balakhaneh and Shahin Agharahmanian 

David Balakhaneh and Shahin Agharahrnanian each left Iran over three years ago. Interviewed separately, they disagreed on certain issues. 

Commentator: What is it like for a Jew to live in Iran?

David: "Most Jews in Iran are merchants, restricted from higher-level jobs … they (the Iranian people) would not directly say, ''You're a Jew, leave,” but you felt it. Different places such as Teheran (there) wasn't so much anti-Semitism, but inside themselves, there were non-metropolitan cities, like Isfahan that were more anti-Semitic. Still they were throwing stones at the synagogue windows; and when the Jews were davening, they would come and distract. Even when they were outside, they were standing by to bother and using phrases to tease Jews. It was preferable to not be individualized and recognized as a Jew in the place you're living. 

Shahin: Sometimes you are not treated the same as other citizens, sometimes. You are not protected by the law, sometimes. You would not feel comfortable to tell other people you are a Jew. You would not wear a yarmulke. You would not wear tzitzit. 

C: Do you hate Iran? 

D: It wasn't so bad, even though you were a little bit afraid; it is still one’s country, and the place you were born, and because of this you like it. The reason why these Jews are leaving Iran is because they cannot have a higher education, or a higher level job in that country … 

S: Iran is good. Many of the things people say about Iran are lies. For instance, that movie "Not Without My Daughter," that had many exaggerations. 

C: Has the government in Iran changed since you left? 

D: No. The leaders of the government in Iran, they always keep the people hungry, so they have the people busy … 

C: Who are these leaders? 

D: In Iran, if the guy has passed the sixth grade, the sixth grade! he could become the Ayatollah. This is the education needed for the religious leader. Everything goes under the religious thing, and they control people. And all the government is under the control of the Aqhundes — uneducated, and not thinking of their own people … Before now they were giving promises to people that they would sell oil and other goods to help people, but none of this is happening today. They have the price of oil in Iran up by ten times the amount when they started. And this is their product. This belongs to.whoever lives there — to whoever lives in that country … If someone says something against them, whatever they want to be, will be. 

"Five years ago, the son of Khomeini, stood up and said: 'All of the problems are all the fault of the aqhunde, that the prices keep rising, that there are no jobs. Don't blame America!' he said. 'It is none of their concerns. It is you that is not cooperating.' The next week, he had a heart attack. After a month he died … the day after he died, his doctor is hit by a van. This was Khomeini's son, who had the heart attack. This was an important guy. What they could do to others, you could see."

Together in Iran, Austria, and, now, YU: Roommates reflect on wondrous changes.

In 1996, Arash was studying computer engineering and Payam was studying in medical school at universities in Iran. Now, the two of them are both at YU majoring in Biology, with each one adapting to the different climate and the different culture. 

In Iran, they had limited options. Although Payam was in medical and veterinary school in Iran, he could not work as an obstetrician, gynecologist, or as a doctor in any field dealing with women, nor could he serve in the dental profession. Jews in Iran are barred from entering other professions as well. Today, many of the Jews in Iran are self-employed as shopkeepers, factory owners, or other similar professions. The limited opportunities for advancement contributed to the decision of Arash and Payam to leave the country. 

The decision was by no means an easy one. If they left Iran, it meant that they might not ever see their parents or grandparents again. It meant that they would be leaving their homeland for a foreign culture, which they were not guaranteed to understand. 

Once having made their decision to leave, Arash and Payam had to find a way to get out. Payam told the authorities that he was going to a veterinarian conference abroad. He received permission to go abroad for three months, but had to pay a deposit of 1,000,000 tomans, equivalent to 2,000 dollars, which his family could retrieve when he returned from the conference. Arash said his family obtained a fake passport. Details beside that, he would not provide. 

After separate departures, they reunited in Austria. After a period of six months in Austria, they were allowed into the USA — just in time for the first day of the semester at YU! 

Payam left in the middle of the interview, so Arash spoke at greater length concerning the various differences between the two countries and the challenges he has faced. Both students asked that their last names be withheld, because they feared possible consequences for their parents in Iran. 

Commentator: What is the situation for the Jews of Iran today? 

Payam: The prospect that the community has for the Jews in Iran is very bad — they don't stay inside. So many people today are leaving. 

Arash: In Iran, they don't care about Jews —  in school, they don't like you. You have to attend school on Shabbat. You have to write on Shabbat. 

P: A Jew in Iran is a person without Judaism. Yes, he is, because we do not have Rabbis, and we do not have many other things also; but in Iran everyone is religious. 

C: Can you discuss some cultural differences between Iran and the USA? 

A: The way the teachers behave in Iran is much different to us. In Iran, you have to get permission to leave class. In Iran, you cannot chew gum in class. Here, you can chew gum in class. Here, people bring restaurant to class. 

P: It is very strange to us. The students act in whatever way they want to toward the teacher. And the teacher sometimes ignore the students … Are they listening? Don't they listen? Here, you go to some class, and all the teacher does is teach. If there are students in the class, if there are no students in the class, there is no difference to the teacher. Then, there are students who sit in back of class and talk.

C: Is it true that music is illegal? 

A: Everybody has music, but, just, it is not in public; it is not legal. Everybody has the songs- of EBI, or Googoosh, or Dariush. Everybody has these. It is very popular … Googoosh is a woman: very beautiful. Everyone has her picture, her tapes, her records — everything! But no one knows what has happened with her since the Shah's time. She disappeared .. 

C: Are there any clothing restrictions on men in Iran? 

A: Yes. This is a good question. You cannot wear shorts. Once I was talking to one of my friends. I was standing outside the house by the door, and he was inside  the house. Then, two policemen come by and they say 'What is this? Why are you wearing shorts?' He was inside the house! They start making trouble for us. He (the friend) says, ‘o.k. I’m going to change.’

“Another time, I am wearing a T-shirt written in English on the street, (Arash pulled out the T-shirt. It read, “Of Course Money Cant Buy Everything That’s Why There Are Credit Cards.”) and a policeman stopped me. He says, ‘Don’t wear it. Don’t wear it anymore. This is not our culture.’ I did not want trouble. I did not wear the T-shirt anymore.” 

Each day in America Arash and Payam learn something new about American society. For example, last week, Arash learned that males in America do not hold hands when they walk down the street, as is done in Iran. Arash is also beginning to overcome his problem of mixing up the pronouns “he” and “she.” Farsi does not differentiate between the sexes in the third person singular pronoun. For Arash, being a student at YU means more than having to memorize monotonous, inconsequential facts, it means having to do so, while trying to understand a whole new culture and grasp an entirely different language. 

Brothers Discuss Life For Jews In Iran 

After Khomeini secured power, one of the first things that he did was reestablish ancient Islamic laws and practices. One law reinstated said Jews could no longer build any new synagogues. Two brothers, Armin and Pooya, in their second year at YU, discussed what life is like for Jews in present day Iran. To leave Iran, Armin and Pooya paid a deposit and never returned. They lived in Vienna for six months, and have been living in America for almost two years. They refused to give their last name to the newspaper out of fear that should an Iranian official see this issue of The Commentator, there might be possible repercussions. 

Commentator: Do Moslems try to convert the Jews to Islam?

Pooya: They give many advantages to people who convert to Islam. In Iran, a female gets half a share of inheritance. But if she converts to Islam, she gets a full heritage. But, on the other way around, if a Moslem converts to Judaism, he is going to be killed. 

C: How do Jews fare in Iranian business? 

P: Jews usually can’t get very high in companies or anywhere. Wherever they are working they are trying to get rid of the Jews, so that indirectly they are trying to send them out — they don’t want the Jews to have any power. 

C: What is the structure of the Jewish community in Iran today? 

P: Since, many Jews have moved out from Iran, the Jewish community is lacking in good leadership. For example, the beit din does not have any power, almost. We had a big rabbi, but he moved out also … Kosher meat, ritual needs, are very difficult. Also, tefillin (phylacteries) are very expensive, because it is very hard (to find). But yet, many of the Jews are still religious. And on Shabbat they all close their stores. 

A: A lulav and etrog are difficult to get. Each shul has only one or two, and everyone goes up and says a bracha (ritual blessing). 

C: What differences have you noticed between the Ayatollahs of Iran and the rabbis at YU? 

P: The first important and amazing thing that we saw was such a big Jewish community at YU, and the authority that they had. They are running a whole university here at YU, all the students are Jewish, and all the secular classes are based around the Jewish. There are no secular classes on chagim, you have off. 

A: We really enjoy it. In Iran, if you want to get off Yom Tov, you have to explain to them what it is. It is not very easy. 

P: Saturday is the beginning of the week, which means it is the busiest and most important day of the week. In Iran, I had to go to school on Saturday. I had teachers who expected the students to take notes and would get angry if one wouldn’t. 

With so much space devoted to the opinions of the Iranians at YU, the question remains as to what other students think of them. One thing is certain. On a campus that often appeals stale and homogenous to many, the Iranians, like other unique ethnic groups on campus, infuse an element of vitality into YU. The cackle of their foreign tongue enriched the sounds of the dormitories and library. Their features add color to an otherwise bland campus. They are an entity unto themselves: an entity a YU outsider might not notice, but one a YU student himself does.


Photo Caption: The Commentator Archives

Photo Credit: The Commentator