Wandering through the stalls of the Jerusalem International Book Fair held a few weeks ago my eye fell upon a display entitled ‘Lavi Publications,’ where copies of just one or two volumes in Hebrew were on display. The modestly dressed elderly lady in attendance at the stall was eager to show me her wares when I stopped to leaf through the book.
“It contains the stories of Jews who emigrated to Israel from Iran,” she told me. “And I was one of them. My story’s in there. On page 68,” and so saying, she deftly inserted a bookmark into the relevant page.
“What a good thing it was that you came to Israel,” I said, adopting an encouraging tone.
“Yes, but my husband died…” the woman’s eyes clouded over, and I could see that she was fighting to hold back tears.
At that point, of course, I felt morally obliged to buy the book (which was edited by Pierre Lavi). In addition to containing the personal accounts of some eighteen individuals and families, classified by the towns from which they came (Isfahan, Teheran, Hamadan, Shiraz, to name but a few), the book also provides photographs of the individuals concerned and several pages of recipes for main courses, rice dishes, soups, pies and desserts from the Iranian-Jewish cuisine. This last was the clinching factor in persuading me to fork out my hard-earned cash and buy the book.
“And this book comes free with it,” the saleslady said, thrusting a small volume entitled ‘The Dream-Weavers of Teheran’ into my hand. That book describes the tragic story of how the author, orphaned at an early age, was kidnapped in Teheran, imprisoned in dreadful conditions in the basement belonging to a carpet merchant and forced to weave carpets for him by day and by night.
Muslin bags of coloured sweets were also given away with every book, and so I came away feeling I had made a good bargain.
Leafing through the book describing individual journeys from Iran to Israel I found many tales describing a comfortable existence in Iran that had come to an end after the Ayatollahs’ rise to power there, impelling people to leave their homes and embark on a long, expensive and often dangerous journey. This generally involved taking a plane to a town near the border with Pakistan and then meeting a local smuggler at an agreed spot. From there some individuals crossed the mountainous border on foot, while others were picked up by truck and driven along treacherous roads to cross the border. Once inside Pakistan their troubles were not always over, and it was only after they had reached Karachi or some other large city where the Jewish Agency could meet them that they were given shelter and documents, and enabled to leave for Israel.
As well as abandoning their property, many of those departing Iran were obliged to take special measures such as wearing soiled clothes and shoes to avoid being stopped by the police and revolutionary guards who were constantly on the lookout for Jews and anyone else seeking to leave Iran illegally. The book contains many cases of hardship, in some cases with a fatal outcome, in the endeavour to leave the country. For thousands of years Iran provided a safe haven for Jews, who had prospered in many parts of the country, but under the rule of the Ayatollahs this was no longer the case.
The book also contains an introduction by David Nissan giving an outline of the history of the Jews in Iran, a history that goes back to their manumission by Cyrus the Great, the story of Queen Esther, and their period of prosperity under the Shah and the Pahlevi dynasty. One cannot but admire the resilience of those Jewish communities that endured hardship, discrimination and even forced conversion to Islam throughout the centuries, and yet survived and prospered. Most of those have now moved to Israel and other countries where they are able to live in freedom.
The saleslady’s story is indeed a sad one. Her grown-up children were already in Israel when she and her husband were finally able to join them, but her husband died of heart failure just before they were due to leave. The only thing she could bring with her as a memento for her children was a small bag of earth from his grave. No wonder there were tears in her eyes when she recalled her story.