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.
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.
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
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,
she was welcomed by the “American” Jewish congregations
she encountered when she first arrived in New York twenty years
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