Iranian Jewish Community

By Lawrence Norden

When Pary Yaghoutiel emigrated from Iran to New York in 1981, she had no choice but to attend an “American” synagogue. She found her fellow Ashkenazi (Jews of European ancestry) congregants to be “exceptionally friendly and so very good to me.” Twenty years later, she remains friends with many of them.

For a young woman who lived through the tumult of the Iranian revolution and relocation to a new and often bewildering city and country, there was much comfort to be found in attending religious services and finding a welcoming Jewish community. But the practices of this community were not always familiar. “The prayer books were different,” Yaghoutiel recalls. “The Iranians have more books that we pray with.”

The differences were particularly pronounced during the holidays. For Ashkenazi Jews, eating rice over Passover is simply not allowed. But for Persian Jews like Yaghoutiel, rice is a staple of most Passover Sedars. “Almost all of our dishes are rice based,” she said. Hannukah also offered some surprises: while many American Jews and non-Jews assume that Jews the world over play dreidel on Hannukah, this is almost exclusively an Ashkenazi practice.

Today, there are many more Iranian Jews in New York. Yaghoutiel estimates that there are five or six Iranian yeshivas in New York City alone. Unofficial estimates put the Iranian Jewish population in the greater New York City area at 15,000, with many living in Great Neck, Queens and Brooklyn. They are part of a greater Sephardic Jewish presence in New York that has grown in the past 25 years and diversified a Jewish population that mainly traces its roots to Europe. Iranian Jews share many traditions with Afghani, Buhkarian and Iraqi Jews who have also arrived in New York in the last several years. In addition to these groups, there have been large numbers of Syrian, Moroccan and Egyptian Jews to settle in the metropolitan area.

Yaghoutiel works with Iranian Jews who are still migrating to the United States and New York.. She believes there was a sharp drop in the numbers of Iranian Jews coming to New York in the past few years. At least part of this may be due to the difficulty that all people from Islamic countries like Iran are having in getting into the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, Yaghoutiel has detected an increase in Jews from Iran arriving in the last few months.

Openly practicing Judaism is not easy in Iran.

According to Yaghoutiel, Jewish religious schools are forbidden and people going to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays “must be very careful.” Conditions for Jews in Iran became particularly difficult in early 1999 when the Iranian government arrested a group of thirteen Jews and accused them of spying for Israel and the US. Western governments and human rights groups universally condemned the prosecutions as “show trials” and shams, but ten of the thirteen were sentenced to prison. The last of the prisoners were recently released.

Iranian Jews arriving in New York today will have a very different experience than Yaghoutiel had twenty years ago. Not only are there several Iranian yeshivas and synagogues today, there are also several kosher Persian restaurants in Manhattan, Flushing and Flatbush.

This is not to say that the Iranian Jewish community has separated itself from the greater Jewish community in New York. “We’re a close community, but we’re not closed,” Yaghoutiel says. She adds that these days -- especially during the High Holy Days --, “American” Jews are welcome (and often do attend) Iranian yeshivas and synagogues, just as she was welcomed by the “American” Jewish congregations she encountered when she first arrived in New York twenty years ago.

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