Global, Justice

Shabbat at a Tehran synagogue; a conversation with an Ayatollah

I want to paraphrase what I said to commentors in the initial installment of guest poster Cascadian’s travelogue to Iran. Immediately, comments appeared committing a classic Jewish prejudice regarding Iran: because Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and regional warmongerer could never — NEVER — implicate all Iranians. They underscored the very purpose of Cascadian’s amazing and incredibly risky trip. Against a Jewish mythos which claims that Jews will be lynched in the streets, Cascadian is taking a potentially life-threatening chance doing what most Jews would never do: see if for themselves. It behooves us to hear everything about his trip, simply to honor the risks he may (or may not) be taking in cross-cultural dialogue.
In these two installments, Erev Shabbat and Yom Shabbat, Cascadian spends the good day with Iranian Jews who, to his own incredulous ears, tell him that Ahmadinejad is “good for the Jews” and walk the streets with their kipot openly.  The second correspondence gets into the politics of what Iranians think of themselves, Hezbollah, and nuclear weapons. Tehran is more than meets the eye, and the echo chamber of Jewish villainizing viz a viz Iran has fallen, unsurprisingly, as only half the truth. –KFJ
Iran Two: Erev Shabbat
Last night I fell in love.
It all started when a group of us were going for a walk. I decided to keep my kipah on, because we had Leila with us, who grew up in Iran, so speaks perfect Farsi. This is relevant, because if someone had a question about what is that thing on my head, she would be able to explain, and also understand if the questioner was hostile.
“Are you a Jew?” a passerby asks incredulously to me. I have the current distinction on the trip as the only visible Jew; among the four Jewish men I am the only one who wears a yamika in non-ritual situations.
After being momentarily taken aback, I realize that he too is wearing a kipah. A thin black one, the kind plentiful in the basket at the entrance to a synagogue. And so is the man next to him. Their hands, and attentions, are full of kids. Rubin and Robin. Rubin tells me that Robin is “very, very shomer shabbat.”
My gamble paid off! A short three blocks from the hotel where we are staying, I ran into a  couple of guys during pre-shabbos, watching the kids while their wives go shopping. We talked a little in broken Hebrew and English, and Leila was able to communicate more complex ideas to and from him. Although we already had plans to attend a different synagogue that evening, we left making a promise to come by his place in the morning, for the service that starts at 7:30. He scratched his name and contact info onto a piece of paper, and directions for reaching the synagogue.
I bought a SIM card for my middle eastern phone (I now have an Iranian phone number! Me. A Jew from Olympia) for thirteen bucks and used it to try texting a few people. The one to Israel didn’t go through, unsurprisingly. It’s kept the time well, even while I don’t have a plethora of people to call in Iran.
Yesterday afternoon, around 3:45, our group rounded up and prepared to head to Abu Yosef synagogue, the largest synagogue in Tehran. Our visit was pre-coordinated, and there were dignitaries and government representatives to greet us there. This was not entirely out of place at the synagogue: the Majlis, which is kind of the Parliament of Iran, has representation from some minority religions, including Jews.
The driver of our rad bus, complete with fake fur on the dash, stocked with water bottles in the pockets of the seat-back, with a black/white image of a stylish woman’s face upholstering the driver’s seat, drove us the half hour to reach Abu Yosef. We passed through the gate towards the massive front doors, and outside was a poster avertising a flashy Jewish singer giving a concert the following Thursday, an event sponsored by the local Young Jewish Organization.
As we passed through the front doors, the impressive synagogue is laid out in front of us, hundreds of seats arranged Sephardi-style (people on the sides facing in towards the center.) The vaulted ceiling could have been 100 feet high. Everything was polished and shiny, the chandeliers that abound in this part of the world were twinkling with compact fluorescent bulbs of various colors and sizes (which make up 95% of the light bulbs that I see here.) The center platform (bima) was a beautiful wood structure, the Persian rugs in concordance with the gold-colored ornamental metal placards that covered the surface. Still some hours before sunset, there were already dozens of people there, including some of the prayer leaders.
As people started afternoon prayers, I did my best to keep up in the little Hebrew (with some Arabic) prayerbook set on the table before me. It was perfectly fine for me to talk with my neighbors during the prayer, there was an echoing murmur throughout the sanctuary. With hearty handshakes, I made the acquaintance of several Jewish men, from their late 20’s into their 50’s. With their spotty English (but quite passable), I got clarifications on what was going on with the service; heard about their lives in Iran, and some of their lives in the US; was goaded about why I wasn’t married yet; and was always, always welcomed so so warmly. The prayers got rolling, there was an amidah (silent prayer), we drifted into something else that I couldn’t follow that happened between Mincha and Ma’ariv, and meanwhile the place was packed! On a regular Friday night, no holiday in sight, there must have been 300 people in this place.
The melodies were middle eastern and mostly chanted in deep-voiced, rich monotone, with an Arabic-sounding trill at the end, not particularly any songs or compelling melodies save a few (one of the gentiles from our delegation recorded the Lecha Dodi, I’m hoping to learn the melody.) The prayers were familiar, orthodox Sephardic prayers, the same customs related to the amidah, the kaddishes, and the aleynu, more-or-less. A very high literacy rate, ie congregational echoing along with the prayers, definitely beating out any synagogue that I’ve been a member of.
This was not a synagogue that once had grandeur, and now is well-endowed. It is absolutely the most vibrant synagogue I have ever been in! Complete with children running about during services, the local rabbi shushing the congregation for several minutes before starting to introduce our delegation.
Rabbi Lynn was asked to come up to address the crowd, and Leila translated from Lynn’s English to the community’s Farsi. She said so many right things: what a blessing it was for us to be there, what an honor, she bestowed gifts on this community (a yad, a mezuzah, a spicebox), she told them that not only was she a woman rabbi, but that there are over a thousand women rabbis in Europe and North America. The upstairs balcony, where many of the women and girls were seated, had many more faces peering intently over the edge to catch this marvel than could be seen during the regular service. At the same time pushing her truth, and honoring the welcome.
Next Rabbi Brant went up, and told some words of Torah– this week’s parsha being Toledot, he told of Rivkah’s pain in her belly knowing there were warring nations within, to close that although it may seem we are destined to be estranged from each other, indeed when Jacob and Esau met after Jacob wrestled and become Yisrael, Jacob wept into Esau’s neck; Jacob (Yisrael) witnessed G-d’s presence in the face of the other (his brother.) And so might we find G-d in each other.
The service closed, and a twenty-something challenged Brant on halacha (jewish law), since Brant and Lynn hugged each other after they were invited up. They argued progressive judaism vs. orthodoxy for a little while; Iran hasn’t seen, doesn’t too much know what to do with progressive judaism.
Okay, not entirely true: a man approached Rabbi Lynn after the service and asked her for a blessing. “What do you want?” she implored. “That my daughter should become a rabbi!” this Persian man replied. Later, over dinner in a restaurant, Lynn recounted this experience with a Shechiyanu, a prayer commemorating amazing events (ie miracles and first-time experiences.)
After the service, many many young men came up to me, inquisitive: what did I think about Ahmadinejad? How do I like Iran?
Playing it safe, I reflected the first question, about Iran’s president, back at the asker.
“He’s a good leader; I think he’s good for the Jews,” he told me– in all seriousness. That was a line I didn’t expect.
My women-friends reported more cynicism from their side of the room (there wasn’t a mechitza, there was just sort of an informal understanding about the areas that the women sit in), some of the women were complaining about the political situation they were living under.
But just to confirm, with your shaking-head disbelief, I really *do* believe that the young man who thinks Ahmadinejad is good for the Jews *really believes that.* He’s not a gov’t agent, or paid off, or whatever. Needless to say, there is an intense internal fragmentation of identity and narrative, one which makes the government’s relationship with Israel practically unrelated to their personal relationship with the government, as a Jew.
“It makes me so glad,” I was told, “that you have come here. It is so good to see you.” This young man was near tears. I held his grip back as firmly as he held me, and looked into his eyes, feeling great love and sadness, and told him that I too was so glad to be there with them.
Enough for tonight, friends. More soon.
Shavua tov, may we feel as connected to the world as if it were a village!
[Cascadian] Iran Three: Just Another Saturday
Hello lovely receivers. I’m writing more than I said I would! I don’t know how much internet access we’ll have over the next few days as we travel south to Qom, Isfahan, and then on to Shiraz.
On Friday evening, a man named Habib who wrote the screenplay for a movie about his experience as a young person in the war between Iran and Iraq fielded questions from our group. I started nodding off at some point, and realized that besides providing a good target for rib-nudging I wasn’t really any use hanging out trying to stay awake. I excused myself with a hand gesture, and went to bed sometime after 10 pm.
I woke up around 5 am, and hung out at the hotel, reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I appreciate having the book along with me as a continuation, a reference point, to the world that I was in just a few days ago. Grabbed a snack at the breakfast buffet, met up with some folks, including Medea and Anne from CodePink’s delegation, to walk together to Shacharit (morning) services, at the place the guys invited us to who we ran into on the street yesterday.
We didn’t know where we were going, and short on time, so we eventually hailed a couple of cabs, which took just as long as it would have taken to walk there (had we known the way), as they wended their way through the crowded city streets, negotiating one-ways and round-abouts. Eventually, they let us off on a street corner that was “near” where we were going, although we didn’t actually know exactly where our building lay. The first person who we talked to on the street shepherded us in through a gate towards a synagogue.
Just then, Rubin from the street came into the courtyard, to pull us back out: that’s a different synagogue! Ours is across the street! That synagogue is made up of Jews from the northeast of Iran. Nothing against Northeastern Iranians, we followed our contact to the synagogue we had been invited to. It was on the second floor of a Jewish school-building, the room decked out in synagogue fashion, but nothing elegant about the structure of the space. It was a floor on the office building.
Same deal as the night before: no mechitza, women in a further-back section. We arrived around 7:45, about 15 minutes after they expected us; we needed to leave at 8:30, so this would be just a short visit. The service was sweet, the siddur easy enough to follow, with translations in Farsi on opposing pages. I was the only man who went to service that morning, they sat me right in front next to the other machers of the Jewish community.
Pretty much the same melody styles as the night before, people wrapped their tzitzit in preparation for the Shema, there was a kohanim service. Right before we needed to leave, they auctioned off aliyot: people pledged 5, 10, 20 bucks to recite blessings over the Torah. Even the “going once, twice, three times, sold!” except this time it was “Yek, Do, Se. Zahar!” They gave me the fourth aliyah, and I was so disappointed that we had to leave just then. These were people who I wanted to stay with for shabbat, go to lunch at someone’s house, meet their kids, but a real connection in a way that these short visits don’t allow.
We walked back to the hotel, after realizing it would take a comparable amount of time, and then headed out to meet with an Ayatollah, to hear what Islam could teach us about interfaith dialogue. This particular Ayatollah (there are several thousand in Iran, it’s about equivalent to a PhD in Islam & general philosophy) taught at a couple of Universities, and used to be the head of the Islamic Court.
He began to address us by saying that all Abrahamic faiths are equally regarded, that within Iran a person is judged according to the system of the religion to which they belong. While the reality must fall short of this in cases, the fact that their system includes laws which don’t apply universally is something that I’m unfamiliar with any country learning enough about minority religions to even attempt to incorporate into their own system. Besides marriage, one place this comes into play is placement exams for university: before your exam, you tell them what religion you are; if you are Muslim, the theology section will quiz you on Qur’an; if you are Jewish, you will be tested on the Torah.
He was a very curious, warm, sweet man. The snacks were served in abundance (I so far have somehow managed to not consume any caffeine since being here). On the bus before arriving, we spent a bit of time in small groups coming up with questions which he could address. Only about 30% of the time did he actually address the question, due to a mixture of mistranslation and general misunderstanding of each others’ frameworks. For example, the question about “What does Islam say about violence towards women, like rape for example?” turned into his explanation of how, under the Qur’an, there is no real difference between men and women. That all people have the capacity to submit their will to G-d, to acquire knowledge, and to choose goodness. Within Iran, transgender operations are patently legal, ie condoned by the religious authority, while homosexuality is not (Iran has the highest number of transgender operations in the middle east.)
He talked about the fatwa (religious ruling) against nuclear weapons by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which more or less holds weight in the Islamic Republic. Similar fatwas kept Iran from using chemical weapons against Iraq during the 8-year war between their countries.
He also claimed, in response to a question about capital punishment, that no punishment whatsoever will happen to a person who is regretful of what they have done.
Many questions unprovokedly got him talking about women within Islam, Hizbollah and Israel, perhaps chemical and nuclear weapons. The trip has been such a continuum of a conversation it’s hard to keep straight what was said when with who. About Hassan Nasrallah, he has known him since he was a little boy, and considers him a very reputable person; while he acknowledged the incorrectness of earlier acts of violence carried out by Hizbollah, he sees them now as an upstanding organization dedicated to the protection of Lebanon.
Let me color this in a little bit more. First, we have several topics (most of which were discussed with the Ayatollah) that we basically aren’t supposed to bring up in our meetings with representatives of various kinds; the people accompanying us on our visits who work indirectly for the government create incentive for our speakers to not be the most open possible when discussing things like: minority rights (including the rights of Bahai), gay/lesbian issues, Israel, there’s more. Those are big ones though.
Next, being thrust out of my own situation and listening to the world painted by the Ayatollah, it’s somewhat compelling. While I recognize that there is a good amount of sugar-coating that accompanies the explanations I am hearing, that a lot of his narrative is hopeful at best– I like the ideas informing the decisions. Yes, there are still public hangings, and an intensely oppressive society towards gays and lesbians. Yet I trust the Iranian society and government more than I do my own to be a relatively benign presence in the world.
While my mind combs over whether or not a power-hungry Iranian leader would indeed develop nuclear weapons in contradiction to Khamenei’s fatwa, we in the United States have stockpiled a neat 5,000 nuclear warheads, and are the only people to have actively used one.
On reflection of our Q & A section, a lot of what came out of his mouth fit neatly into talking points: the Jews here are doing fine, ie people in general are doing fine under Sharia law, women have in many ways more power and more roles within religious society here than in the US, and most of all, a high level of concern about the situation in Gaza.
Those of us on the trip, as peace activists committed to nonviolence, resonate with his concern about that situation; still it’s very telling that Gaza is his *primary* issue that he wants us as citizens (and Jews) of the United States to go back and talk to our governments about. For better or worse, Israel/Palestine is on everyone’s mind here.
Of course there’s more to write about, but I need to go to bed. Lots of time on the bus tomorrow! Maybe I’ll write.
Catch me on the next installment!
Love from Tehran,

19 thoughts on “Shabbat at a Tehran synagogue; a conversation with an Ayatollah

  1. I think that this is great, and in fact, the fact that Iranian Jews do indeed feel – much of the time, as long as the subject of Israel doesn’t come up- safe in their country and a true part of it, I have trouble actually believing that I saw this line:
    Yet I trust the Iranian society and government more than I do my own to be a relatively benign presence in the world. WTF?
    I don’t believe that Iranians are any eviler than we are, but that’s truly… astonishing. Perhaps a clarification is in order?

  2. “Okay, not entirely true: a man approached Rabbi Lynn after the service and asked her for a blessing. “What do you want?” she implored. “That my daughter should become a rabbi!” this Persian man replied.”
    *smirks* and they say Sephardic Judaism isn’t receptive to progress!

  3. Oh wow, the Iranians tolerate Jews therefore they are the bestest human beings evah.
    How indifferent must you be toward your felllow Jews in Israel that the threats toward it mean so little to you? The man throws a few crumbs of tolerance toward you and you mistake it for a banquet.

  4. I am truly grateful for Cascadian’s work and words. His writing is concise, colorful, and informative. In terms of the comments about Iran vs. the U.S.’s benign presence in the world, I think the source of Cascadian’s comfort or trust comes from speaking to the people themselves. An important and old question: Why does a country’s government (often) not represent the values/views of her people?

  5. FM, no one’s telling you not to take this with a grain of salt. Certainly, the “everything’s all right” Guantanamo Bay tours (I will NOT violate Godwin) come to mind. Even so, it’s not unreasonable to assume that attitudes on the ground don’t exactly match the (grossly exaggerated) threats made at the top.

  6. fm- it should also be pointed out that there has never actually been a real threat leveled at Israel. Any threat of attack has been couched in diplomatic talk of reprisal. Any statement of “wiping off” of maps was taken out of context, as he continually made reference in such statements to the USSR, a nation that was wiped off the map with no bombs dropped. I don’t think anything Cascadian is writing is candy-eyed or what have you, seems properly at odds with what American and Jewish media outlets seem to purport.

  7. KRG–could the statement that you have a problem with be in reference to the fact that the US disturbs global security pretty often (take two full-scale wars in 7 years, plus dozens of unknown and unseen wars around the world) as opposed to Iran which is not directly involved in conflict as a government (not that we don’t all see its influence in terror), but in that way, perhaps the US is less “benign”?

  8. “Against a Jewish mythos which claims that Jews will be lynched in the streets, Cascadian is taking a potentially life-threatening chance doing what most Jews would never do: see if for themselves.”
    Uh wait a sec. It’s a silly “myth” that “Jews will be lynched in the streets” of Iran, yet Cascadian is “taking a potentially life-threatening chance” by visiting Iran. Which is it?
    In any event who on earth claims that Jews are lynched in the streets of Iran??? Furthermore what connection would that even have to Iran’s nuclear weapons development program?

  9. “Potentially” life-threatening because he won’t know if the myths are untrue until he’s seen it, right?
    Plenty of people make sweeping statements about anti-Semitism in the fundamentalist Muslim world, in which Iran plays a cheif villain. Somehow Iran’s regional power ambitions involving a nuke always hinge upon it’s (“it” being Iranians in general, of course) desire to launch such a weapon at Israel. And the reason, of course, why Iranians don’t understand the concept of fallout, radiating the Dome of the Rock, and the Palestinians right along with the Israelis while invoking world rage and the wrath of the United States, NATO, the UN, the other Muslim countries, et al is because they’re crazy, batshit, fundamentalist anti-Semites. Crazy enough to kill a Jew on sight.
    I think reality is a little bit more friendly towards the Iranians than such a claim.

  10. Am I the only one who sees a little too much Orientalism/”White [Wo]man’s Burden” in this scene?
    Rabbi Lynn was asked to come up to address the crowd, and Leila translated from Lynn’s English to the community’s Farsi. She said so many right things: what a blessing it was for us to be there, what an honor, she bestowed gifts on this community (a yad, a mezuzah, a spicebox), she told them that not only was she a woman rabbi, but that there are over a thousand women rabbis in Europe and North America. The upstairs balcony, where many of the women and girls were seated, had many more faces peering intently over the edge to catch this marvel than could be seen during the regular service. At the same time pushing her truth, and honoring the welcome.

  11. KFJ,
    I think maybe there is a bit of confusion. What I think Eric might mean (and I agree with him if so) is that either Iran is a very dangerous place to be Jewish, in which case this blogger is taking great risks by walking the streets with a kipah…or Iran isn’t such a dangerous place to be a Jew, in which case this blogger isn’t taking great risks (it’s not some secret that there are tens of thousands of Jews living without much trouble in Iran, including a Jew in that parliment, so it’s a bit confusing why there is some idea that this blogger is taking great risks walking the streets in a kipah.)
    I’m no expert on Iran, but many of us have always been under the impression that Persian history is a rich and glorious one in many ways, and that Jews have lived fairly compfortably in Iran, even after the Revolution.
    And, no doubt, there exists much panic in the American Jewish community about the Iranian nuclear threat–and much of that panic, along with that threat, does not seem very justified.
    But I think it would be helpful if some of the posters here might explain more fully what the “Jewish echo chamber” villifying the Iranian people is. Becauase, frankly, this is news to some of us.

  12. Jonathan, perhaps the average Jewschool reader knows more, regardless of right/left political persuasion. And I’ll have to write a longer post about the communal echo chamber another day. But in the meantime I’ll just say this as a relative newcomer to Jewish communal employment:
    The newsletters, newspapers, publications and listservs that constitute the Jewish communal discussion are (to me) frighteningly self-referential. And the ignorant things people say in everyday conversation that pass as educated conversation in New York, at least, are incredible. Even among my liberal friends. This is the echo chamber. And man, it’s a small world in here. We gotta get out more.

  13. If this is the case, then it’s very disappointing to see such ignorance in the American Jewish community.
    (In the long-run, Iran is Israel’s natural alley, along with Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq. But, that’s a subject for other posts.)

  14. Oh, well I see the concern, but I did think Cascadian expressed that the rabbi wasn’t pushing it hard, but was trying to sensitively put herself on display.
    That being said, I’m sure the distinction is small.

  15. Great post, KFJ! I admit that I am a little put off by your moniker, but what you have to say it right on. I traveled to Iran about a year ago with an FOR delegation, and I thought we got a lot of insight by talking to people we met on the street as well.
    Most of the women in my group dressed in conservative Iranian clothes, which I think influenced some peoples responses to us in interesting ways. It was sort of the opposite tactic you took, but in both cases, we invited people to empathize with us, and they responded in an honest and forthright manner.
    I think there is something ingenuous about the response of a person on the street, as opposed to someone selected to meet with you. Both perspectives are necessary. But on the street, we are free to engage with ordinary people who reflect the mindset of of the population at large.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.