On Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) brought together Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the CJF, and Arash Abaie, an influential Jewish leader in Iran and a visiting lecturer at the University of Religions and Denominations in Tehran, for an exchange about the state of being of the Jewish community in this most ancient part of the world. The conversation was part of the celebration of Shushan Purim.
In his introductory remarks, Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, David Mitzner Dean of CJF, noted that cross-conversations like these fulfill the call by Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, to practice Torat Adam, nurturing the “wisdom and the growth that emanates from appreciating the distinctiveness of others even as we celebrate our shared history and a deep commitment to the values of our tradition.”
Rabbi Schacter and Abaie have known each other since 2003, when they met at a conference in Glamsta, Sweden, under the auspices of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Under the astute questioning of Rabbi Schacter, Abaie drew a picture of Jewish life in contemporary Muslim Iran that is shaped by how Islam, after the 1979 revolution, accommodates the three other religions in the country—Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism—by insisting that every religious practitioner, regardless of the faith, be an observant practitioner committed to strengthening religious understanding.
As Abaie pointed out, if every religion is strong, then there is a basis for what he called a “peaceful coexistence” and “interreligious dialogue.” That dialogue, as Abaie described it, runs the gamut from conversations about the concept of a savior coming at the end of history to exchanges about butchery practices and why Saturday is a workday for some and not for others.
While the population of Iranian Jews is not large—Abaie estimates it at about 10,000, with half of that living in Tehran—the Jewish community has created a vibrant life for itself, with schools, cultural institutions, bakeries, butcheries and kosher restaurants: “Society in Tehran has almost all the elements of a standard Jewish community.”
This includes the celebration of Purim, which Rabbi Schacter asked about specifically. Abaie described a practice that was quite different from the United States. The tomb of Esther and Mordechai is at Hamadan, about a six-hour drive from Tehran, and in pre-COVID times, travelers would go there to read the Book of Esther and pray, and that subdued and religious approach to the holiday is the Iranian norm. No noisemakers and no costumes, but there is halva, Abaie pointed out, a combination of flour, sugar, oil, rosewater, and spices stirred together and cooked in a heavy-bottom pan until brown and thick.
Rabbi Schacter thanked Abaie for sharing his insights and memories with the Zoom audience and wished him, his family and his community great success.