From the land of Purim, Jews with complex identities
For many American Persian Jews, self-identification can be complicated. Whether they were born in Iran or they are first-generation Americans, the culture and patriotism of their parents’ homeland can clash with their lives in America. This inner conflict has been exacerbated by the ongoing political tensions between Iran and the United States. Mix in some public musings on the possibility of war with Iran from Israel, and Persian American Jews (or are they Jewish Persian Americans? American Persian Jews?) are effectively being pulled in three directions.
The Persian Jewish community in American remains quite insular, concentrated in a few close-knit enclaves, including one on Long Island. And while the western label Orthodox doesn’t quite apply, Persian Jewish religious practice certainly has more in common with contemporary Orthodox Judaism than it does with any of the liberal streams. Because of all of these factors, Yeshiva University, the Modern Orthodox university with its various schools scattered around the city of New York, has a particularly high concentration of Persian Jews.
“I feel an internal conflict,” admitted Sarit Bassal, a student at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. Bassal’s family is the paradigm of this cultural potpourri: Her father is from Iran, and her mother from Israel, but she and her siblings were born in New York. The possibility of a war involving two or all three of these homelands has left Bassal feeling a bit lost.
“It’s really sad when we hear that the country our parents grew up in wants to destroy the country I identify with, the Jewish homeland,” explained Bassal.
At the time of the interview, Bassal was holding down a booth in a lobby at Stern advocating for women’s rights in Iran. Another Persian student, Sarah Mansher, sat next to her. Mansher said she feels less conflicted about the situation, although both feel strongly enough about their parents’ homeland to fight on behalf of citizens there whom they’ve never met, Jewish or not.
“There’s barely any Jews there,” Mansher, who lived most of her life in Israel, said with a shrug. Yet when asked about her connection to Iran, she recalled stories from her parents’ childhoods. “They remember the times when the neighbors would all be friends — Muslims, Jews, it didn’t matter. But the country is very different under Ahmadinejad.”
Jews have been in Iran for about 1,500 years, making Judaism one of the oldest religions in the country. In fact, the Purim story, documented in the Book of Esther, takes place in Iran. Currently, about 25,000 Jews remain in the country. The Jewish people have plenty of history with the country, so it’s not surprising that the Persian community in America feels such a strong connection to it — even if the current administration in Iran is now gaining infamy, making headlines across the world.
Benjamin Khadem was born and raised in Iran, only moving to the States five years ago to live in the strongly Persian Long Island community of Great Neck. Khadem, a Biology student at Yeshiva University, lives with family, although his parents are still back in Iran.
Khadem believes that “Iran would not impose war on anyone,” but when asked whether the potential for war made him nervous, his assured demeanor slipped.
“I’m very nervous for my parents,” he admitted. “And they are very nervous.” His parents have thought about leaving the country, but it’s difficult for them to leave their jobs. “Everyone thinks it’s so easy to just move. It’s not.”
One fear that Khadem and others share is that Israel might attack Iran and kill some of the Jews still living there. Even if they manage to avoid that, Khadem pointed out that a war between Israel and Iran would make the Muslims of Iran angry and potentially violent toward Jews. “If there is a war, it will be very bad for the Jews in Iran,” Khadem said.
Leora Ohevshalom, a senior at Stern, agreed that Iran is a bad place for Jews to be, especially right now. Ohevshalom was born in America, but both her parents hail from Iran. She has an aunt and cousins still living in Iran who she’s never met. They Skype, however, and she feels particularly connected to the situation there because of this personal contact. “The situation with Israel is much more dire than people realize,” Ohevshalom warned. “I think all the Jews should leave [Iran].”
Ohevshalom said that most people she meets outside the Jewish community are confused by the idea of an Iranian Jew. “I was at Rutgers [University] last week,” she said. “And one girl asked me ‘Wait, you’re a Jew and you’re from Iran? Doesn’t that mean you hate yourself?’”
Another girl, a religion major, was bewildered as well. “She asked me again and again, ‘Are you sure you’re not a Muslim?’”
Despite this call for Jews to leave Iran, Ohevshalom stressed the impact of Iran on her Jewish heritage, and the importance of maintaining this aspect of their culture even outside Iran. Though “Iranian Jew” may sound like an oxymoron to many, Ohevshalom explained that both cultures run deeply in her family.
“The Persian culture is very important, and it’s distinct from religion,” she said. “It affects the food, and even our personalities. For instance, Persian women are taught to be very strong-willed. My parents consider Iran their real home, and I wish they could go back and visit, but that’s just not possible.”
Persian students certainly feel strongly about Iran, its culture, and its politics. Nevertheless, the news revolving around the country is just as complicated and bewildering to them as it is to the average American.
“I’m severely confused about the political situation in Iran,” admitted Elana Betaharon, a sophomore at Stern whose parents were raised in Iran. “Some people say Iran isn’t a threat, some people say it is. There are all kinds of things coming out of Iran, so I’m not sure what is going on.”
In the meantime, the American Persian community is keeping a close eye on all the developments with Israel, Iran and the United States. Recent announcements from Israel outlining their plans for missile defense are a source of some comfort to many, like Khadem. He has seen Iran’s power up close and he knows the sort of military strength they can wield against a small country like Israel.
Simi Lampert is an Orthodox Jew with an unorthodox brain. She is a senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Beacon. She also has a horrid habit of publicly correcting other people’s grammar.