Far before the 1979 revolution and chants of “Khomeini” swept through the streets of Tehran, Jews in Iran lived comfortable lives alongside their Muslim neighbors while practicing their religion under the shah’s reign.
Some cities had large Jewish populations, including Mashad and Shiraz, which Congregation Netzach Israel Rabbi Yehuda Boroosan says had 10,000 Jews and 13 synagogues.
Regardless of their location, Jewish Persian families used traditions to help preserve their identity. Now a member of Atlanta’s Orthodox community, Rabbi Boroosan recalled growing up in Shiraz during the 1970s with a strong connection to Judaism.
Although many Jews were not shomer Shabbos in Iran, Rabbi Boroosan said they strove to keep Shabbat and High Holidays to the fullest extent. “The customs and rituals were the same as there was no discrepancy between one shul and another, and everyone respected the main authority.”
Many people attended minyan in the morning before work and returned home in the afternoon for Kiddush before leaving again for work. Everyone attended shul on Friday nights and recited the same prayers.
“You could really feel the coming of Shabbat and Yom Tov throughout the community, and although we weren’t yeshiva students, you could feel our connection to Judaism” Rabbi Boroosan said.
He said Shiraz had two Jewish elementary schools, one middle school and one high school run by central organization HaTorah, which oversaw Sephardi schools throughout Iran, Tunisia, France and Morocco. But while some families enrolled their children in private Jewish schools, others sent them to public schools because of the shah’s push for secularism, affecting the community’s ties to the religion.
“We had wonderful teachers and rabbim who were truly devoted to the kids,” Rabbi Boroosan said.
Although people practiced their religion freely before the Islamic revolution in Iran, Jews still faced challenges when age-old practices clashed with the modern mainstream. Despite observing Shabbat, for example, people had to work or attend school on Saturdays and fend off religious Muslims seeking to press Islam on them.
Many Jews feared the attention they would attract by wearing yarmulkes.
“We were allowed to have shuls, kashrut and schools, but the general population or religious Muslims did not wish to see individuals display their Judaism,” Rabbi Boroosan said.
But the Jewish community put a high value on continuing the religion through practices such as marrying other Jews, Rabbi Boroosan said. “People understood that this was our religion and used traditions to help keep it alive. We did not have a choice to cut corners or help accommodate individuals by making it more applicable.”
After the revolution, many Jews sought refuge overseas as religious fundamentalism rose among Muslims. But Rabbi Boroosan said Ayatollah Khomeini held Muslims accountable for acts of oppression targeting Jews.
The rabbi said the ayatollah actually strengthened the Jewish community.
The Islamic government required Jewish boys and girls to get a Jewish education with a religious curriculum and mandated tests covering Jewish subjects.
“It’s really amazing as we now possess a stronger community throughout Iran, as the children are more involved, whereas they may have been mere spectators in the past,” Rabbi Boroosan said.
While he is not living in Iran, so he can’t offer firsthand observations of the state of the Jewish community, Rabbi Boroosan said he believes that Jewish observance has increased and said he learned from his brother, with whom he reunited a few years ago after 37 years, that Jews can live normal lives within Iranian society.
“People observe shomer Shabbat, businesses are closed, and the government does not interfere,” the rabbi said.
After immigrating to the United States in the early 1980s, Rabbi Boroosan, like other Persian Jews, faced challenges being accepted into American Jewish society.
“We didn’t know what to expect upon arriving in America; however, we discovered that the community was by and large welcoming,” he said.
The younger generation had greater difficulties assimilating because their American peers were not always friendly, Rabbi Boroosan said. “They always made fun of our accents and often refrained from becoming roommates within yeshiva dormitories. It took a long time to integrate and was a process.”
The Persian Jewish community responded by pulling closer together, he said. “We all felt the strains of finances, the imminent possibility of deportation and unfamiliarity associated with the Ashkenazi community,” which little by little helped the Persians find their way.
Many Persian Jews struggled with the decision over whether to remain in the United States or return to Iran, he said. “It was not easy, as we were far from our families and could not rely on an inheritance to get by, yet we sought to establish ourselves and move on despite the constant feeling of loneliness.”
The established Jewish community “eventually embraced us and helped uphold our religion, which will always be a part of our identity.”