Celebrating Sabbath in Iran

Iran is home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. Jan Schneider visited the Jewish Musazadeh family in Tehran to share in their Sabbath celebrations

By Jan Schneider

It is Friday evening and a Jewish family’s preparations for the Sabbath, the holiest day of the week, are in full swing. In the living room, everyone has gathered around the big table for the traditional celebration as tantalising aromas of hot food drift through from the kitchen.

The youngest son breaks the unsalted bread, then reads from the Tanakh as the father pours the obligatory glass of red wine to be passed around the table. Although it may look very like the kind of typical scene to be found in thousands of households across Israel every weekend, there is one important difference here. This one is happening in Iran.

The last rays of winter sunshine are just dipping out of sight behind the Alborz mountains on this cold January day in Tehran. It is the last day of the week, which in Iran begins on Saturday. There are no major buildings – and certainly none of a religious nature – to punctuate the skyline in this part of town with its plethora of small kiosks and supermarkets.

There is no doubt that things have changed since the revolution. Prior to 1979 there were ten times more Jews living in Iran than there are now. Despite the troubled relationship with Israel however, Iranian politicians and clergy are always at pains to stress that they have no quarrel with the Jews, only with the state of Israel. As Ayatollah Khomeini put it shortly after the revolution: “We recognise our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists”.

It is a quote that is still to be found today on every Jewish prayer house. Something that the Iranians, no matter which religion they belong to, have internalised. In contrast to the situation in German-speaking countries, Jewish institutions in Iran do not require any security arrangements. Iran has not seen a single attack on a Jewish building.

Everyday freedoms

After several major waves of emigration, the number of Jews living in the country has now stabilised. According to Israeli statistics, only 1100 Jews migrated to Israel from Iran between 2002 and 2010. For those who remain, prospects are surprisingly positive. They have been granted official minority status, a permanent seat in parliament and freedom to practice their religion. They have their own butchers’ shops, their rabbis are permitted to conduct weddings, and the community can produce and drink its own wine for the Sabbath – and that, even though alcohol is otherwise subject to strict prohibition in Iran.

Jews in the Sukkot Shalom Synagogue in Tehranʹs Yusuf-Abad district (photo: DW)
Im Viertel Yusuf-Abad steht die größte Synagoge Irans, sie ist – wie alle im Iran – von außen nicht als solche zu erkennen. Und doch sieht ein findiger Besucher genau, dass er sich am richtigen Ort befindet. Jeden Freitag, immer zum Sonnenuntergang, strömen die Gemeindemitglieder in die Synagoge. Es ist viel Verkehr auf der Straße, und Parkplätze sind immer rar in der iranischen Hauptstadt mit ihren etwa 12 Millionen Einwohnern.

“We love Iran and we are able to live in freedom here,” says Eliyan, the Musazedeh family’s eldest daughter. The 24-year-old lives with her family near the centre of Tehran, the only Jewish family in the apartment block. “Our neighbours know we are Jews, but it isn’t an issue. The society here in general does not have problem with us being Jews.”

Although Jews in Iran are not allowed to hold leading positions in state institutions such as the army, police or secret service, their lives are otherwise as free of restrictions as that of other Iranians.

A memorial was erected to Jewish martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war by President Rouhani, and for some years now, Jews have had the right to take the Sabbath (Saturday) off. “There have been a couple of occasions in the past when I have been looking for work and didn’t get the job after saying at the interview that I was Jewish,” Eliyan admits. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to hire a Jew, but rather because they knew they would be legally obliged to give me Saturday off if I wanted it.”

So, if a Jew in Iran does not get a job, it’s not because of their religion, it’s because the law is on their side and employers are obliged by law to give them an extra day free per week if they want it, she explains. “There is no anti-Semitism in Iran. Iran is a multi-ethnic and very diverse country and Iranians are proud of that diversity and history.”.

"Too fat, too old, or both"

As the eldest daughter, the pressure is now on her to start thinking about a future marriage partner. “My father is always trying to find potential candidates from families we know, but I turn them all down. They are all well off, but either too fat, too old, or both.” Eliyan’s dilemma is compounded by the fact that, as eldest daughter, she must marry first; only then will her two sisters Nazanin and Yasaman be allowed to date men.

The Musazadehs celebrating the Sabbath on Friday evening (photo: Jan Schneider)
Wenn die Musazadehs am Freitagabend Sabbat feiert, so tun sie dies meist zuhause. Die Familie geht nur selten in die Synagoge, obwohl diese nur wenige Straßen entfernt liegt. Zum heutigen Sabbat sind drei Cousins von Eliyan zu Besuch: Rafael, Ariel und Avraham. Die Mutter Anita hat alles bereits am Nachmittag gekocht, da gläubigen Juden am Schabbat jegliche Formen von Arbeit, Feuer oder Elektrizität verboten ist.

Friday evening Sabbath celebrations are usually at home. Although it is only a few streets away, the Musazadeh family rarely goes to the local synagogue. Three of Eliyan’s cousins, Rafael, Ariel and Avraham have arrived for today’s Sabbath celebrations. Mother Anita has been busy preparing and cooking the food all afternoon because any form of work, or use of fire or electricity, is forbidden during the Sabbath.

Despite that, Anita will cook the rice in the evening. “I can’t serve cold rice for dinner,” she says – a sentiment that no Iranian would argue with. The only family member who is regularly allowed to ignore religious laws is the father, Shahrokh, who runs a small business selling women's shoes and bags. He spends Sabbath evenings on the couch, zapping his way through the Iranian satellite TV channels, while mother Anita is kept busy between the kitchen, her three daughters, youngest son Ariyan and the family dog, as well as seeing to the food.

It is at times like this that it becomes clear why the Iranian Jews are Iranians first and Jews second. Like most Iranians, the Musazadehs have an almost unconditional love for their country. Like other Iranians too, however, they also find the economic situation hard to bear. “I would like to go abroad, to Europe maybe, or Canada,” says Eliyan. “You cannot find any well-paid jobs in Iran anymore, and the situation is getting worse every year.” 

No future in Iran

It is a view shared by many young people in Iran. Many no longer see a future for themselves in the country and are keen to go abroad, at least temporarily, for work or study. “Neither America nor Israel would be an option for me. A relative of ours once went to the U.S. and she hated it. She didn’t take to the culture or the fast pace of life at all.”

One of Eliyan’s aunts, who died last year, also visited Israel for medical treatment. “As Jews we have the opportunity of emigrating to Israel, and even receiving around 15,000 dollars from the Israeli government for going. But if we went there, we would have to speak Hebrew, something we only ever do in religious contexts. That would be very strange for us and I would not feel at home there. Iran is our home.”

Siamak Morasadegh, Jewish member of the Iranian parliament (photo: DW)
Siamak Morasadegh, jüdischer Abgeordneter im iranischen Parlament: "Juden sind im Iran eine anerkannte Minderheit, wir können unsere Religion also frei ausüben. Es gibt mehr als 20 aktive Synagogen allein in Teheran. Generell kann man sagen, dass es den Juden hier im Iran immer besser ging als denen in Europa. In der Geschichte unseres Landes gab es nämlich keinen einzigen Tag, an dem alle Iraner die gleiche Religion, die gleiche Rasse oder die gleiche Sprache hatten – deshalb gibt es viel Toleranz. Juden und Muslime respektieren einander, wissen aber auch, dass es Unterschiede gibt."

As the food is brought to the table, father Shahrokh brings out another bottle of homemade wine. Everyone takes up a glass while Ariyan, the youngest son, reads a prayer. The meal consists of salad with pomegranate seeds, the obligatory Sabbath fish, Iranian Barbari bread, and Gondi (chicken and chick-pea dumplings) a dish that is particular to the Iranian Jewish cuisine.

Despite the positive circumstances for Jews in Iran, tens of thousands of them seized the welcome opportunity provided by the 1979 revolution to turn their backs on their homeland forever. Eli Hoorizadeh, an uncle of the Musazadeh family, seeing little prospect in Iran of realising his ambition of becoming a rabbi, left the country in 1980, shortly after the revolution. Today he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and 13 children. “He is happy to have left Iran and has no interest in coming back. Israel has become the home for him that Iran could never have been,” says Eliyan.

As the long evening draws to a close, and another pot of tea brews in the kitchen, the family sit together in the living room engrossed in the Iranian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”.

The idea, propagated by the West, that Iranian Jews are suffering under the country’s government is something Eliyan has little patience with. When asked about her hopes for the future, she answers: “If I as a Jew could request anything of the Iranian government, I would ask for some nice, handsome Jewish boys, so I could finally find someone to marry.”

Jan Schneider

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ron Walker