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Author speaks on untold history of Iranian Jews

The author of a book about Jewish history in Iran spoke about the history of Iranian Jews and the community’s present impact on the global Jewish community.

Lior Sternfeld is the author of the book “Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth Century Iran.” He is not an Iranian Jew himself. Sternfeld comes from an Ashkenazi Jewish background and studied the Middle East at Ben Gurion University in Israel. Initially he had no intention of being academically invested in the studies of Iranian Jewry, he said. However, his interest in how Iranian Jewish voices during the Iranian Revolution impacted history started the path he is on now.

The presentation consisted mainly of a rundown of Iranian Jewish history, as the title of the talk, “Revolutionary Jews: The Politicization of The Iranian Jewish Communities In The Twentieth Century,” described. He began with a focus on the lack of information available surrounding the Middle East and Jews from the Middle East outside of Israel. He presents results of searching for literature on Iranian Jewish history in the 20th century, as opposed to other regions such as the US, Germany or China. The results are significantly small in number, prompting Sternfeld to delve in further.

An ongoing component of the discussion involved Iranian Jews and the historically growing conversation around Zionism. The movement emphasizes the re-establishment and protection of a Jewish homeland. In modern terms, this refers to the present states of Israel and Palestine.

The discussion of Zionism is one of several major points Sternfeld presents to tie together the strong identity many Iranian Jews had historically, and presently, with their personal homeland: Iran. Politics within the country did not go against this idea; many individuals understood it, kept overall positive ties with the later established State of Israel and, with all this in mind, decided to remain in Iran.

As Zionism and other movements gained footing, Jews from Iran often made their connection to Iran clear, said Sternfeld. Though Israel may be a historic homeland for the Jewish people, they make a point to separate this from what they see as truly familiar and as a home.

Sternfeld focuses on many aspects of Iranian society—both before, during and after the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s—and how the Jewish communities within Iran contributed to history. This included newspapers such as Nissan, Tamuz and Bnei Adam; all words found in Hebrew but written in Persian, the language spoken in Iran.

One significant contribution Sternfeld includes in his presentation is the importance of Sapir Hospital in Tehran, a Jewish hospital recognized as pivotal especially during the Iranian Revolution. Along with the traditional Persian writing on the front of the hospital, a well known Hebrew phrase stands out on one corner of the building.

The Hebrew phrase “ve’ahavta le’raecha kamokha” translates to “love your neighbor as yourself.” These words stand out in the context of Iranian Jewish history. Sternfeld segways from this into a quote from a memoir titled “Journey from the Land of No” about a young girl in Iran growing up before and during the Iranian Revolution.

The quote describes the central figure in the story at a Passover seder in late 1970s Tehran. The person “dreamt of the land of milk and honey,” or how Jews and biblical texts refer to the land of Israel, “but wanted to wake up in Tehran.” This quotes brings the deep feeling of identity and belonging to Iran home for the global community of Iranian Jews.

Sternfeld went on to present the difficulty many scholars have with differentiating what is Middle East Studies, and not Jewish Studies. His main point is that Iranian Jews specifically have a history reaching beyond their relationship to Judaism, to include geography, culture and personal identity as Iranian Jews.

Sternfeld ended his talk and Q&A with stating that “we’re about to see the revisiting of Jewish Iranian history.” Sternfeld described the LA, California, and Great Neck, NY, regions as ones with prominent Iranian Jewish communities, and said that this group is significant within the global Jewish community.

Sternfeld began and ended his talk with the idea that Iranian Jewry is something worth analyzing and paying attention to. Furthermore, Sternfeld states that while it is not currently easy to be Jewish in Iran, the community has remained stable for the past few decades. This speaks volumes for the resilience of Iran’s Jewish communities, ultimately contributing to global Jewry, along with the ability to sustain complex histories even when not fairly represented in history books, he said.

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