Roger Cohen's recent editorial in the New York Times about Iranian Jews continues to reverberate. Below is a reflection by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (pictured below). Rabbi Gottlieb led a delegation to Iran last April and visited again in December. A Middle East Program Associate with the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, she will be visiting Iran again this August.
Reading Roger Cohen's piece in the NY Times confirmed my own experience in Iran. I have had the pleasure of meeting the ancient community of Jews from Esfahan, Shiraz and Teheran on two separate occasions. I attended services in each of the cities, met with the official representatives of the community twice in Shiraz and Teheran and had several private conversations in hotel lobbies and private homes for hours on end, with youth and elders. I was also surprised at the depth of study of Jewish sources by Muslim scholars at Mofid University who quoted Maimonides, Rashi and Torah with ease and were anxious to learn more. As in any culture there is a diversity of attitudes. The condition of Jews is really no different than the condition of others who are in the 'reformist' camp. There is a need for interfaith civilian diplomacy so that those relationships can be explored and nurtured.
The Jewish community of Iran has been present in their society for nearly 3000 years. They object to the attitude by non Iranian western Jews that we want to save them, or educate them, or in any way interfere with their cultural and religious life. Before we make assumptions about what they need or who they are, it would be well to acknowledge that they are the oldest ongoing community of Jews in the world continuously associated with one place. They are not Jews of exile. They are deeply rooted in the land of Cyrus. They can visit the graves of Esther and Mordecai, Daniel and Habbakuk. They possess a Torah that is over 1200 years old. The Jews of Esfahan have their own language! The Jews of Iran are deeply proud of their own heritage, even though they, like other Iranians, may struggle with the limitations imposed by the Islamic Republic on freedom of expression.
The second delegation I led to Iran in December 2008 composed of 10 Jewish participants and four non-Jewish participants, included two rabbis, a rabbinic student, and six other members who identify as 'religious' Jews. During our visit to Yusef Abad, the largest of approximately 22 synagogues in Tehran, I was invited to speak from the bimah (for the second time). Like the first time, people clapped and shouted in appreciation for our visit. When I identified the members of our delegation and asked them to stand, and pointed out that Sarah Bassem was also studying to be a rabbi, the congregation cheered again. Many people came up to me and began asking me 'rabbinic' questions, regardless of my gender.
Obviously, there are limitations on life for non-Muslims. There are limitations on life for minorities in the States as well. Still, the Jewish community is extremely proud of its heritage, and views the Iranian American Jewish community as somewhat lost. They point to the increase in divorce and inter-marriage as an example of the impact of assimilation which they do not feel in Iran.
The idea of Israel attacking Iran is an anathema to the Jews of Iran. Certainly, it would endanger them. We should cease and desist all bellicose language that threatens military action toward Iran immediately. For those of us in the Jewish community who have had the pleasure to visit the Jews of Iran, we understand the preciousness of that community. Any actions taken by Israel that would put the Jews of Iran in danger is a travesty.
Finally, I look forward to my next visit which will occur this coming August. I pray that the gates will remain open, and I will have the profound pleasure of deepening my experience with this ancient and honorable community.