Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More Persian Jews in the News

A female Iranian producer becomes the first Iranian Jew to win an Emmy. Go Lila!
Roya Hakakian had a great op-ed in the NYTimes recently discussing the strange dynamic of being rendered "obscure," rather than singled out for being Jewish as an Iranian Jew living in Muslim Iran. Since the piece is now accessible only for Times Select readers, I'll quote some of it here:

Of all the pain that Muslim Iranians have inflicted upon the Jews, the most persistent is obscurity. We have always been admired for being ''completely Iranian,'' the euphemism for being invisible, indistinguishable from Muslims. We speak Persian. We celebrate the Iranian New Year with as much verve as the next Iranian. Our kitchens smell of Persian cuisine. At our Jewish festivities, we dance to Persian music. In the United States, we have often angered our American counterparts for not wishing to pray in their temples, because we insist on conducting our services in Persian.

Yet Muslim Iranians, even those who have loved and befriended us, have never known us as Jews: in our synagogues, wrapped in prayer shawls, at our holiday tables recounting the history of our struggles. They lack even the proper vocabulary by which to speak about the Jews: ''What shall I call you, 'Kalimi' or 'Johoud?' '' they sometimes ask. These words are the Persian equivalents of ''Jew'' and ''kike.'' And occasionally, as if to inflict punishment, they ask: ''Do you consider Iran your real homeland?''

Four years later, the regime did its best to instate policies and practices hostile to religious minorities. Water fountains and toilets at my high school were segregated, some marked with signs that read ''For Muslims Only.'' But by and large, Iranians were not receptive to such bigotry. We crisscrossed among the stalls until the signs became meaningless.

The post-revolutionary regime has had the misfortune of ruling a people reluctant to embrace its radical message. That is why Iran remains home to the second-largest community of Jews in the Middle East -- second only to Israel.

So is Hakakian suggesting that being indistinguishable has preserved the Jewish community in Iran? The situation is the same in Turkey, where most of the Jews I lived with had a strong Turkish identity and prided themselves on their national allegiance. Perhaps that is the fate of minorities living under Muslim rule, there is "peaceful coexistence" but not without compromising pluralism, and one's own religious identity. It's interesting to note that Iranians were less receptive to bigotry, than say, Eastern Europe in the 30's, but it's still disconcerting when the President of the country repeatedly evokes Nazism and anti-Semitism as a rhetorical device, and the world doesn't do anything about it.

When will Iran, once an example of cultural progress, a beacon in the Middle East for things other than religious extremism, return to its lofty heritage of civil society, accomplished in the worlds of arts, politics, and science? My mother would disagree with Hakakian's portrayal of nostalgia for the homeland. My family never yearns to return to the Caspian coast, they do miss the intense taste of the produce, the vibrant flora, the fragrant spices. But ultimately, they have nothing to return to in Iran, and until I can take a bus from Tel Aviv to Tehran, neither do I.

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