How many Jews are there in Iran

Shabbat with its own wine: Iran is Israel's archenemy and at the same time home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world

An estimated 10,000 Jews still live in Iran today. Like the Musazadeh family, they do not feel discriminated against. This has above all to do with the founder of the republic, Khomeiny, who placed the minority under protection.

It's Friday evening and a Jewish family is preparing for the holiest day of the week. The smell of warm food floats from the kitchen into the living room, and the family gathers around the large table to celebrate the Shabbat in the traditional way. The youngest son breaks the unsalted bread, and the father pours an obligatory glass of red wine to serve around the whole table while the son reads from the Tanach. What sounds like a perfectly normal scene, as it happens in thousands of households in Israel every weekend, in this case takes place in Iran.

In Tehran, the last rays of the sun have disappeared behind the Elburs Mountains on this cold winter day in January. It is the last day of the week that starts on Saturdays in Iran. Between small kiosks and supermarkets, no building stands out, especially none that serves a sacred purpose. The largest synagogue in Iran is located in the Yusuf-Abad district; like all other synagogues in the country, it cannot be recognized as such from the outside. And yet a resourceful visitor sees exactly that he is in the right place. Every Friday, always at sunset, the parishioners flock to the synagogue. There is a lot of traffic on the street and parking spaces are always rare in the Iranian capital with its roughly 12 million inhabitants.

Iran is in the unique situation of being seen politically as an archenemy of Israel. The revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei and other high-ranking politicians even deny the Jewish nation its right to exist. At the same time, the Shiite-Islamic country is home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world, estimates are around 10,000 Jews. The Musazadeh family, who celebrate Shabbat on this day, are part of this congregation.

Synagogues without security guards

The revolution has undoubtedly left its mark: before 1979 there were ten times as many Jews in the country. But although there is a dispute with Israel, Iranian politicians and clergy emphasize at every opportunity that the problem is not the Jews, but the Israeli state. "We recognize that our Jews have nothing to do with these godless Zionists," said Ayatollah Khomeiny shortly after the revolution. This quote can be found in every Jewish house of prayer today. The Iranians have internalized this, no matter what religion they belong to. In contrast to German-speaking countries, there is no need for security guards at Jewish institutions in Iran, and Iran has never seen an attack on a synagogue.

After several large waves of emigration, the number of Jews has stabilized. According to Israeli statistics, only 1,100 Jews migrated to Israel between 2002 and 2010. Those who remained have a surprisingly positive perspective. They are recognized as a minority, have a permanent seat in parliament and enjoy freedom of religion. They have their own butcher shops, their rabbis hold weddings, and the community is allowed to make and consume their own wine for Shabbat. And that although alcohol is otherwise strictly forbidden in Iran. "We love Iran and we can live a free life here," says Eliyan Musazadeh, the eldest daughter of the Musazadeh family. The 24-year-old lives with her family in central Tehran, they are the only Jews in the house. «Our neighbors know that we are Jews, but there are no problems. Society has absolutely no problem with us because we are Jews. "

In Iran, Jews cannot hold leading positions in state institutions such as the army, police or secret service, but otherwise take part in social life just like other Iranians. The rights of the Jews have been strengthened by the state over the years. A memorial to the Jewish martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war was built under President Rouhani, and for several years Jews have had the right not to go to work on Saturday Shabbat. "I looked for work a couple of times, and when I answered yes to the question whether I was Jewish at the interview, I was rejected," says Eliyan. "Not because they didn't like that I was Jewish, but because they knew that because of the law they would have to give me leave on Saturday if I wanted to."

If Jews in Iran do not get a job because of their religion, it has to do with the fact that the law is on their side and the employer has to give them an extra day off a week if they wish, she says. «There is no anti-Semitism in Iran. Iran is a very multi-ethnic and colorful country, and Iranians are proud of their diversity and history. " As the eldest daughter in the family, it would be Eliyan's turn to choose a fiancé soon. “My father keeps introducing me to applicants from families who are friends, but I refuse all of them. They are all wealthy, but either too fat or too old or both. " The problem is that Eliyan, as the eldest daughter of the family, has to marry first, only then are her other two sisters Nazanin and Yasaman allowed to date men.

First Iranians, then Jews

When the family celebrates Shabbat on Friday evening, they usually do it at home. The Musazadehs rarely go to their synagogue, even though it is only a few streets away. For today's Shabbat, Eliyan's three cousins ​​are visiting, Rafael, Ariel and Avraham. Mother Anita cooked everything in the afternoon, since believing Jews are forbidden to do any work, fire or electricity on Shabbat. Anita still prepares the rice fresh in the evening. "I can't serve cold rice for dinner." A sentence that any Iranian woman would agree with. The only family member who is regularly allowed to ignore religious laws is the father Shahrokh, who runs a small sales company for women's shoes and bags. Without much ado, he sits on the couch on Shabbat in the evening and zips through the channels of Iranian satellite TV, while mother Anita walks through the kitchen between the three daughters, the youngest son Ariyan and the family dog ​​to prepare the meal.

At moments like these, it becomes clear why Iranian Jews are first Iranians and then Jews. Like most Iranians, the Musazadehs love their country almost unreservedly. Nevertheless, like other citizens, they also find the economic situation to be stressful. «I would like to go abroad, maybe Europe or Canada. You can't really find well-paid jobs in Iran, and it's getting worse every year. " This also connects her with other young people in Iran: Many see no future in their country and would like to go abroad, at least temporarily, for work or study.

“America or Israel would never be considered for me. A relative of ours visited the United States once and thought it was terrible. She didn't like the culture and the hectic life there at all. " An aunt of Eliyan, who died last year, was also in Israel for medical treatment. “As Jews, we would have the opportunity to emigrate to Israel, and the government there would even reward it with around 15,000 dollars. But there we would have to speak Hebrew, a language that we only use in a religious context. It would be strange for us and I wouldn't feel at home there. Iran is our home. "

15,000 US dollars is a lot of money in a country that is so dependent on the economic abyss and where the minimum wage is around 100 US dollars a month. “We read the Tanakh and religious texts in Hebrew, but our language is Persian. In Israel, like in any other country, we would have to learn the language first, ”Eliyan explains. When the meal is served, Shahrokh's father puts another bottle of his own wine on the table. Everyone holds a glass as the youngest son Ariyan reads a prayer. There are salads with pomegranate seeds, the fish that is obligatory for Shabbat, Iranian barbari bread and gondi, a dumpling made from chickpeas and chicken, which is only eaten by Iranian Jews.

Even the devotional items that make the apartment recognizable as the home of a Jewish family are all made and sold in Iran. Tehran even has a shop right next to the British embassy. In the shop, whose name “Baba Moses” is emblazoned in large Latin letters on the window, hang business cards of almost all current and former ambassadors of the country who have already shopped here. “We are a Jewish family from Isfahan, there is a community of around 1,000 Jews. It is completely normal for us to see Hebrew letters and stars of David in our shop window. This business has been around since the time of the Shah, and we never had a problem with the state or our neighbors here, ”says one of the three salespeople. Above him on the wall hangs a painting of a Jewish wedding next to a photo of Imam Ali, who is worshiped by Shiite Muslims.

Star of David and Imam Ali

Despite the good situation for the Jews in the country, the 1979 revolution was a welcome occasion for tens of thousands of them to turn their backs on their homeland forever. Eli Hoorizadeh, an uncle of the Musazadeh family who wanted to become a rabbi, left Iran behind shortly after the revolution in 1980 because he had no future for his career. He now lives in Jerusalem with his wife and thirteen children. “He is happy not to be in Iran anymore and has no interest in ever coming back. He has found a home in Israel that Iran could never be, »says his niece Eliyan.

After a long evening the family is sitting together in the living room, everyone is excited about the Iranian edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” While they are having tea in the kitchen. Eliyan also contradicts the Western notions that the Iranian Jews would primarily suffer from their government. When asked about her wishes for the future, she replies: "If, as a Jew, I could make a wish to the Iranian government, then I would like some nice, pretty, Jewish boys so that I can finally find someone to marry."