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Persian rabbi in N.Y. ‘I’d be in prison, too

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GREAT NECK, N.Y., April 18 (JTA) — It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, which is lucky since rabbi and student have been forced outdoors while their small Sephardi shul is being cleaned for Passover.

The rabbi, in the black hat and traditional garb of the fervently Orthodox, opts for a concrete bench nearby. He and his young student resume their reading from a Persian-Hebrew prayer book.

The 12-year-old boy is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. A few yards away, three younger boys in dark velvet kipot and peyos kick up a racket with a dirt bike and a water hose.

Such open expression of Jewish dress, tradition and faith is unthinkable in the rabbi’s native Iran, he says. There he would never have worn a full beard and kipah or black hat on the streets.

Sure, Jews in Iran are free to practice Judaism, he says, as long as they keep it quiet and behind closed doors.

But the scene on this day is nothing out of the ordinary in Great Neck, N.Y., where the 6,000 to 8,000 Iranian Jews constitute the second-largest such enclave in the United States after Los Angeles.

With the coming of Passover, which commemorates the liberation and exodus of Jewish slaves from the yoke of Egypt’s pharaohs, this is a time for the middle-aged rabbi to reflect on his own flight from Iran nine years ago.

He was then a leading rabbi and teacher in Shiraz, a city said to be far more conservative religiously for both Muslims and Jews than the capital, Tehran, located 400 miles to the north.

Shiraz is also home to many of the 13 Iranian Jews who now stand accused of spying for Israel and the United States. If convicted, they could be executed.

The trial officially opened April 13 but was quickly delayed until May 1, well after Passover, apparently a public relations move masked as a good-will gesture.

Several of those on trial were close personal friends of the rabbi.

But the rabbi and other Persian Jews here say the only crime committed by the accused was to teach Hebrew and Judaism, hold religious discussions or request that their shops be allowed to close on Saturdays.

“If I were still in Shiraz, I’d be in prison with them,” says the rabbi, who, like most interviewed, requested anonymity out of fear it would endanger his relatives still living in Shiraz.

“I would have been guilty of the same activities, because I wouldn’t have known that speaking about Judaism is illegal.”

But the rabbi’s comments are tinged with sarcasm. He and other American Jewish observers suspect that politics are the real reason behind the imminent trial of the “Iran 13.”

Iran’s hard-line, fundamentalist clerics resist all efforts by reformists to liberalize society and thaw relations with the West.

The case has spiraled into a highly politicized one that has further soured Iran’s relations with the world.

“We have an expression in Persian: Those who are in Iran are like a cooked chicken — they can be eaten very easily,” says the bearded, bespectacled rabbi.

“The government can do whatever they want, and there’s nothing people there can do about it. Iran is one big prison, for both Jews and Muslims.”

In fact, since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, 17 Jews have been executed on various, allegedly trumped-up charges, including espionage.

All of which raises the question: why would Jews remain in Iran?

Persian Jews trace their roots back 2,700 years.

By 1979, at the time of the Islamic revolution, there were roughly 100,000 Jews in Iran. Today the community has shriveled to somewhere between 25,000 to 27,000.

Some suggest that everyone who remains has at least one or two relatives in the United States. However, while those who left generally had the financial means to do so, those who remain are said to be either too poor, too old, too complacent — or simply too stubborn to sever a long tradition.

Many here wax nostalgic and express great fondness for their homeland, although they are not optimistic about Iran’s prospects for reform.

Instead, they have gone ahead and recreated certain aspects of their traditional communal life in places like Great Neck and Los Angeles.

One segment of the community, which originally hails from the eastern Iranian city of Mashad, followed the lead of a few prominent families and was transplanted virtually en masse to Great Neck.

A day visit to this affluent peninsula on Long Island, 15 miles east of Manhattan, offers a snapshot of a community that may be among the most prosperous emigre communities in the entire country.

Some are doctors and lawyers, while others work in real estate or retail, selling carpets, garments or jewelry. A number of them reside in palatial homes.

In Great Neck’s quaint tree-lined, red-brick downtown, an array of kosher shops — catering to the town’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews — are doing brisk business on this Sunday before Passover. In the residential areas, vacuums whir inside both synagogues and homes.

All the Persian Jews here follow developments in Iran, some more than others. The older generation is particularly tuned in, receiving its daily dose of news from a Persian-language radio program broadcast from Los Angeles.

Yet, regarding the Iran 13, the Great Neck community has been far less vocal than the Persian Jews of Los Angeles, who number about 30,000. Great Neck’s community is said to be more religious and conservative, and thus, less visible.

Indeed, in interviews, few of them are willing to be identified by name. Not only are they anxious not to bring additional harm to their brethren back home, there is also a widespread helplessness expressed — typical of a people conditioned within undemocratic, authoritarian regimes — that the Davids stand no chance against the Goliaths of this world.

In the year or so since the Iran 13 were arrested, the Great Neck community has dutifully adhered to the “quiet diplomacy” of various American Jewish groups negotiating for the prisoners’ release. At the same time, the handful of Persian congregations here have been praying for their well-being.

It was only on April 12 — well after these same groups had launched a higher profile — that Great Neck’s Persian Jews held their first public prayer vigil for the accused. Several hundred people showed up.

“There is a feeling among some in our community that we should let the rest of the Jews make waves, but that Iran would be upset to see Iranian Jews in America making noise,” says Edward Nassimi, a Great Neck resident and president of the United Mashadi Jewish Community of America.

“There is also this conspiratorial Old World view that individuals are powerless, and that the powers are making all the decisions behind the scenes.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, some 1,000 people demonstrated Sunday on behalf of the Iran 13. Only one-quarter of the crowd were believed to be Iranian Jews. The rally ended with some young Persians chanting “Let My People Go!”

Still, many Iranian Jews are uncomfortable with any form of political activism. In fact, an older emigre in Great Neck noted that when living in Iran he had never even bothered to vote, because “it was better for Jews not to be seen as aggressive.”

Though the 66-year-old man attended the April 12 vigil, he says he wondered, “Why wake sleeping dogs?”

“The Jews there are like hostages, so we don’t need to further antagonize Iran.”

Even many in the younger generation are cautious about how best to express their frustration with Tehran’s handling of the Iran 13.

“We see on TV here that things get done through protest,” says Don, a Persian Orthodox man in his late 20s who emigrated here when he was six.

“But this is not a democracy we’re dealing with,” he says. “What can we say over here that will change their minds over there? All we can do is pray for the prisoners.”

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