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The Designated Jew (An Iran Story)

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I was the designated Jew on our visit to the synagogue.

We were there on a mission for peace. I kid you not. Though every time I say it, I feel like John Belushi as a Blues Brother in dark sunglasses, "You don't understand, we're on a mission from God."

I had wanted to go to Iran for a long time.

It was a combination of two things.

One was the revolution. The sudden emergence of a theocratic state at the end of the 20th Century. It was as if mankind had been swirled backwards by a demented djinn into an epic
dream a thousand years old, from the time when Islamic warrior swept East and West, spreading the Caliphate across half the world, while armored knights clanked out of the forests of Europe with maddened peasant mobs alongside them, to meet in convulsive blood-lettings at the borders of their faiths.

The other was Ali Reza Sheikholeslami.

Reza was the holder of the Soudavar Chair in Persian Studies at the Oriental Institute in Oxford University and a fellow at Wadham College at the same time that I was there as the Raymond Chandler/Fulbright Fellow.

Each was a wonderful endowment. I can't say what Reza actually did for his, but as for me, I played squash for my college and dined at high table.

Reza, who was among my best friends at the college, seemed to embody all that was the other side of Iran. He was Persian. He was sophisticated, urbane, international, genial, and sensual, with a succession of entrancing wives. In the brief period I knew him, there were two, Shirin and Shahrzad, both quite beautiful, both with those communicative, distinctly Persian eyes.

I was at Wadham in the mid-nineties, when many of the excesses of Islam were shocking the Western media, in particular, execution of women for adultery, sometimes by beheading and sometimes by stoning, as called for in the Koran.

After the public execution of a Saudi princess, Reza said to me, "We are really not so uncivilized as we appear. The law is that there must be four eyewitnesses to the adultery, and they must endeavor to pass a golden thread between the two parties, and only if it does not pass between them, can they be found guilty." Which is a perfectly Persian solution to an onerous and outrageous law against human nature: accept it, since it comes from God, or God's spokespeople, or whomever is running things at the moment, but make enforcement sufficiently impossible that it doesn't matter all that much.

It's a genial and elegant way to cope with the world, but insufficient when the fanatics are in charge.

There was something those two warring impulses, God's law vs. humanism, Iran's revolutionary fervor vs. two thousand years of Persian live and let live, that I felt was worthy of a novel. I decided I wanted to visit the world's first Islamic Republic and went down to London to apply for a visa.

My application was shipped off to Tehran and never came back. Why? No one can say.

My interest, and desire to go, remained. I continued to try to imagine the book I would write about a place that had emerged from Scheherazade's 1001 Nights to become the fierce, dour, black clothed and bearded land of the Ayatollahs.

It continued to be difficult for Americans to get visas to Iran. To get a journalist visa you usually have to be with a major media outlet. Even then they are granted or rejected in fairly arbitrary ways. To get a tourist visa, it's necessary to book a tour with an Iranian tourist agency. I read about them and immediately nicknamed them KGB tours. They sound exactly like visiting the Soviet Union in the bad old days: you see the seven selected sites, you have to stay with your group, and you presume that your guides are employed by the state security services.

I was in the midst of contemplating such a tour.

Then, at our Tuesday night poker game, Jeff Cohen, (founder of FAIR, Donohue producer, and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media), said, "Hey, I'm going to Iran with Scott Ritter."

I said, "Awesome. Can I go too?"

He was set to travel with an organization called Fellowship for Reconciliation, he figured that it was too late for me to go along, but he could help set me up for the next one, in February. I figured that only real danger in going to Iran would be if the US started bombing the place. I was relatively certain that an attack would be scheduled for it's impact on our domestic elections. So mid-winter seemed well within the window of safety, and I said it would be perfect.

As it turned out, he and Scott never went -- because the Iranian's wouldn't give him a visa -- but I did.

By the way, you can too. Put on your dark glasses, practice saying, "We're on a mission for peace," and contact www.forusa.org.

So there I was, in Shiraz.

The FOR tour was two weeks long. It was organized in co-operation with an Iranian government agency, the Center for Interreligious Dialogue, a part of the Organization for Islamic Culture and Relations, which made it the standard KGB Tour Plus. In addition to Persepolis, the great square of Esfahan, and an authentic Iranian meal at an authentic Persian restaurant, we had official meetings with mullahs, ayatollahs, the Armenian Christian prelate, and an official stop with a group of Iranian Jews.

Shiraz is known as a place of poets. The tomb of Hafez, which is very like a religious shrine, with pilgrims who treat his poems as sacred prayers, and the tomb of Saadi, are both there. It is place of sunshine, famous for its gardens, its orchards, and intermittently, between Islamic prohibitions, for its wine.

We spent a pleasant day there.

Then, at night, we went out to meet the Jews.

We got in two small vans. I have no idea where we traveled, but it was outside of the center, and we entered a poor people's country, low and dusty. Not miserable and full of beggars and cripples, not hopeless, but certainly poor, a place where people worked hard, at two jobs or more, for their two hundred dollars a month.

We parked alongside an alley.

We walked down the alley. It had high walls on both sides, and no lights. Then we entered a door in the wall on our left.

We walked into a courtyard. There was a giant poster of the Ayatollah Khomieni which quoted him as saying, "Iran is a country of all races and monotheism is a religion shared by all, and we are one nation."

The condition of the Jews in Iran is a matter of political significance. If they are oppressed and threatened, it is fodder for the pro-war lobby. If the Jews are safe and well-treated, it makes Iran almost civilized, a country that might be negotiated with.

Jews have been in Iran since at least the Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BC. When the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel and ordered the rebuilding of the temple. Darius the Great ordered its completion.
Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia at the time, transformed Judaism and became the foundation for Christian concepts of good against evil, God against Satan, an afterlife and judgment day.

But just to show that nothing goes totally well for God's chosen people, soon there was a plot in Persia to exterminate them. It was foiled by Queen Esther, a story vividly reported in the Old Testament, celebrated by the Jews as the feast of Purim, and always featured in Bible story books for children.

In any case, many Jews remained. Over the centuries, over the millennia, they were sometimes full citizens, sometimes second class citizens, sometimes prosecuted and murdered.
In 1925, Reza Shah, who rose from stable boy, to gunnery sergeant, to general, overthrew the old Qajar dynasty with the help of the British.

He was a "strong man," a military modernizer in the style of Kamal Attaturk, who was transforming Turkey at the same time. At first that was good for the Jews.

However, the trick for any ruler of Iran in those days was to play off Britain, their primary exploiters, against Russia, their greatest threat. When Britain and Russia became Allies, Reza Shah became pro-German. Things got bad for the Jews.

The Americans and the British kicked Reza Shah out in 1941 and replaced him with his son, Mohammed Reza Shah. Things got better again.

At the end of the Second World War, in 1945, there were about 150,000 Jews in Iran.

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, about 40% of them left.

Under Mohammed Reza Shah -- especially after 1953, when he briefly was pushed out of power by a democratic parliament, then restored to the throne by a CIA coup -- things were quite good for the Jews. Iran was even close to Israel.

Then came the Islamic Revolution, in 1979.

At that point, there were about 80,000 Jews in Iran. Some 20,000 left immediately and more thereafter. Today, there are about 40,000 Jews in Iran.

Their status, like everything else in the Islamic Republic, is complex and ambiguous.

The tour was somewhat disorganized. Plans would be made, then fall through, and new ones would pop up.

This was one of those last moments. We left the community center and we were led around the corner to a Synagogue.

Twelve of the fourteen members of our group were Christians.

Indeed, many of them were very Christian, of the liberal, idealist, Jesus was the Prince of Peace persuasion. One of our leaders was an Episcopal nun who had gone on to also become a priest, once female priests were permitted. Our other leader was a Mennonite who'd worked for their missions for years and was now working for the Quakers. We had a minister who looked remarkably like Charlton Heston, but was for gun control.

Sister Ellen approached me and asked if I would be willing to be introduced as the group's Jew. She felt that their group would be much more comfortable if our group had one.

My own relationship to being Jewish is this:

My father was an atheist. His older brother was a moderate believer. His older sister never mentioned religion that I can recall. Neither of them said anything, at least not to me, when I wasn't bar mitzvahed. My mother was an atheist. I never met her parents, but reportedly, they were too. Their general attitude was that religion was old world superstition and we were lucky to have come to America where we could get away from it, along with all the other forms of oppression.

At the same time, we knew we were Jews. The Holocaust was not far away. The whole history of the Jewish people was not far away. The way I thought of it, as a kid, and explained it to others who asked me about it was, "I'm not Jewish. Until they come to kill us again. Then I am."

I grew up in Brooklyn. A land of ethnic groups. It was clear, from my daily experience that there was such a thing as ethnic identity that affected how people thought, acted and lived. When I lived and traveled in Europe, where Jews are often in the closet, I would find myself making friends with people, connecting with them in a special way, to be surprised, years later, when I found out that they were Jews. Which told me that this cultural or ethnic thing, whatever it was, was deep and subtle and traveled around the globe and through the centuries.

These were, for the most part, amused observations. The kinds of things that travel writer take note of.

So I said to Sister Helen, "Sure, I'll be happy to our Jew."

Once again, we entered a walled courtyard.

It was winter, so the trees were bare. Past their trunks and branches, there was a two story building. There were large windows along the entire that faced out toward us. Inside, there was a Jewish service taking place.

Then a remarkable thing happened to me.

I was overcome with emotion. If I had been alone, I would have wept. But I was in public, and I'm a guy, and I'm cool, so I don't cry in public. I kept myself back and moved into the shadows while I fought to control the tears that welled up inside, that wanted to pour forth and go wailing down my cheeks. These were my people. Here. Surrounded by these millions of others. My people, willing to publicly declare who they were and what their faith was and who their people were. Though they were surrounded by all these others. Who sometimes tolerated them, sometimes were their friends, and sometimes were not. This was not America. Where it was safe to be a Jew. Where it was fun to be a Jew. Where it was easy to be a Jew.

Officially, as Khomeini's poster said, Jews are supposed to be a protected people in Islam.

When Mohammed came along, he saw himself - or was told by the Angel Gabriel, who was "on a mission from God" to transmit his message - that monotheism was the thing. There was a tradition from the Jews to the Christians, and now to him, in which the final word was being given, cleaning up any mistakes and corruptions in the old texts, and get it right one final time.

The polytheists were the enemy and not to be tolerated. Christians and Jews were OK because they were monotheists. But not totally OK, because they didn't get that the new and improved version was the really true version. So they could be citizens, but pay an extra tax and barred from a few things.

In the 1400 years that followed, this rule of thumb has been followed in widely varying degrees. Certainly, there was a period of about 1350 years in which Jews normally fared better in Islamic countries than in European Christian countries. It has been mainly (though not exclusively) in the last fifty years that the reverse has come to be true.

Islam is different in different countries, as well as in different historical periods.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, outside of Israel.

There used to be a big Iraqi Jewish community. But they were almost entirely driven out after 1948. There are no Jews in Jordan. There are virtually no Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, and except for Bahrain, they are not welcome there. The once large Jewish populations in Egypt and Iraq almost entirely driven out. The Jews of Lebanon are mostly gone.

Turkey is a separate case, as it's officially, and sometimes adamantly, a secular country, part of NATO, and has good relations with Israel. Still, many of the Turkish Jews were driven out, first in 1941, then in 1955. About 26,000 remain and live freely.

They Iranian Jews have a seat reserved for them in parliament. They, like the Armenian Christians, are allowed to have wine for their services. My immediate thought upon hearing this information was that would have put them in an advantageous position to be Iran's bootleggers. But that doesn't appear to be the case.

The Jews in the synagogue stared out us through the window. Quite as much as we were staring at them. But whereas we were watching as spectators in a museum, they were wary and a little bit edgy.

It was not the sort of synagogue that shows up in tourist brochures or even web stories, jeweled and polished. This was little more than a warehouse, with benches. It was orthodox. The women were seated separately, upstairs. Just as Islamic women must sit separately from the men in the mosques.

We went inside.

Someone from our group, or our guides, had told people in the congregation who we were, and although the services were going on, calls and responses, speaking and reciting, we were stared at and speculation and rumor about our identity rippled up and down the rows and back and forth.

Finally, at some point, an announcement was made. Our identity officially and clearly established.

They mostly settled down and went on with the business of worship. But in what seemed to me a distinctly casual Jewish way. Still chatting with each other, looking around, kids going back and forth.

When the service was done, we were introduced. Yes, of course, they asked, did our group have a Jew?

There I was. People came over, to look at me, to speak to me. I moved into a group, and found someone, a young man, who spoke English.

"Are you really a Jew?" he asked.

I thought about it, about what to say, how to answer, how controversial I was willing to be. Finally I said, "Yes, but a non-practicing one."

"What is that?" he said, as if he'd never heard of, never imagined such a thing.

"Being a Jew is two things," I said. "It's a religion, and being part of people, a culture, a tradition. Well, I'm not religious, I don't belief, but I'm part of the people."

He smiled. That was fine. That was okay. A little incomprehensible, but it was okay.

I asked what they were. Jews come in four flavors, reform, conservative, orthodox, and sects like the Hasids. All the Jews in Iran, they told me, were orthodox, wearing yamulkas, observing the traditions, keeping kosher and keeping the women up in the balcony.

I asked about what they did. About business. How it was to live in Iran.

In answer to that question, an older men said to me, "It is good. We are Iranian. We are perfectly free. Free to practice our religion." Two others joined in, "We are free."

It seemed too adamant, as if they been told or urged to tell us that, but at the same time, it didn't sound false either. It sounded Iranian, complex and ambiguous.

With the service over we all moved outside.

There was a crowd around me. A memory drifted through my mind, something my father told me. He'd been in the infantry in the Second World War, fought in Italy and in France. In the liberated territories, some few Jews came out of hiding, and when they met my father, they were thrilled to see, probably for the first time in their lives, "A Jew with a gun."

I was nothing so profound as that. But I was from America, a land where Jews don't have to be uneasy, don't have to look over their shoulders, and wonder how long the truce will last. To a degree that embarrassed me, and I kept hidden, I continued to be overwhelmed by a sense of being with "my people."

Another member of our group, Cara Ong, from the Center for Arms Control came over to me. She'd been upstairs, with the women. They were less sanguine about life in Iran. Among other things, they said, their rabbi had been arrested as an Israeli spy and sent to prison for seven years.

Armed with that bit of information, I asked, "Where's your rabbi?"

"He went to California," someone said, like he'd gone around the corner for a cup of tea. "Five years ago."

"So what do you do for a rabbi?" I asked.

"We take care of things ourselves," was the answer. "And if we have a question, we call him on the telephone."

Then the questioning turned back at me. This thing about being a non-practicing Jew still didn't seem quite right. "Do you go to temple?"

"No, not really," I said.

"Not even on Yum Kippur?"

Well, my shiksa wife believes in traditions and rituals. She felt our children should know what Jews do. So, yes, on the high holy days the four of us went to our local temple. That is, until one year we got there and found that the front row seats - mind you these were folding chairs in a tent - were reserved for contributors and official members of the congregation and after that we never went back.

The honest answer was, therefore, "Sometimes."

"Ah," he smiled, pleased and satisfied.

As the group was breaking up, he sidled up to me. He asked a question. It included a phrase that back in America I'd only heard as a punch line for a joke, but here it was very serious indeed. "This group," he said, meaning the people I was with, "Is it good for the Jews?"

Larry Beinhart is the author of Wag the Dog, The Librarian, and Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin. All available at nationbooks.org

His new novel: SALVATION BOULEVARD will be published in September, 2008, by Nation Books

Responses can be sent to beinhart@earthlink.net