A few weeks ago, during the holiday of Sukkot, I was wandering through Israel’s National Park in Ramat Gan looking for a meetup of drone enthusiasts.
But the park is vast and it was getting dark. Suddenly my eyes catch a group of mostly middle-aged people who are laughing and chatting. There is something appealing about them.
“Golpayegans,” reads a sign on a tree near their picnic.
I approach, and ask, “What does Golpayegans mean?”
“We are the remnant of the ancient Jewish community of Golpayegan, Iran. This is our reunion, which occurs every five years. Who are you?”
“I am a reporter, I am looking for a drone event.”
Several of the Golpayegans laugh.
“Come sit down,” urges one of them. “It is no accident that you are here. You are meant to tell the world about our community.”
The Golpayegans immediately ply their guest with exotic treats, including a caramelized sugar brittle.
Emanuel Mottahedeh, a pediatrician who lives in Modi’in, says he was one of the last handful of Jews in Golpayegan before his clandestine escape to Israel in 1990.
“At one point there were 3,000 Jews in Golpayegan. The Alliance [Israelite Universelle] even built a school there. That tells you about the importance of the community. They don’t build a school for no reason.”
Golpayegan — the name is Persian for fortress of flowers and land of tulips — is a town of 50,000 in the province of Isfahan, 102 kilometres (63 miles) southeast of Arak, the site of Iran’s heavy water nuclear facility. It is a place of magnificent views and ancient monuments, including a tower that sways back and forth and rock paintings by prehistoric shepherds.
The town’s Jewish community, which may go back as far as 2,700 years, no longer exists, and barely shows up in Google searches in Hebrew or English. What’s left of the memories of this ancient community are here, at this reunion in the park.
Farhad Moradian, a mathematics professor at the reunion, says the people of Golpayegan were so devout that each extended family had its own synagogue. Another person says the town’s Jewish cemetery was “two kilometers long by two kilometers wide.”
But according to several accounts, both the synagogues and cemetery have been razed to the ground. David Menashri, a professor of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, tells the Times of Israel that he visited Golpayegan in 1975.
“I wanted to visit the cemetery where my grandfather was buried, but they told me it had been ploughed over.”
In Israel, there are several hundred former Golpayegans out of a community of over 100,000 Jews of Iranian descent.
“It was not one of the important communities of Iran,” says Lior Sternfeld, a professor at Penn State University and expert on Iranian Jewry, who was surprised to hear the Golpayegans even held a reunion.
“It’s really neat that they’re preserving the heritage. Even when Golpayegans moved to Tehran, they lived close to other Golpayegans; even in the city there was a brotherhood of Golpayegans.”
Asked what he knows about the community, Sternfeld recalls:
“In the 1960s and 1970s, there were several missions by the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to open community institutions there.”
It is an exceptionally beautiful place, he adds. “The Jewish community in this part of the country dates back 2,700 years. They came after the Babylonian exile.”
Golpayegan, Sternfeld points out, is in the county of Iran’s former capital of Isfahan, which had a large and illustrious Jewish community.
“Isfahan used to be called Yehodiya, the city of the Jews. It’s possible that in another park there would have been a meeting of former Isfahanis that was 20 times bigger.”
Doctors to the shahs
When asked what made the Golpayegan community special, many mention the proliferation of Jewish doctors, some of whom served as physicians to Iran’s shahs.
“That’s true of all Iranian Jews,” says Lior Sternfeld. “In the 1970s, Jews accounted for less than half a percent of the population and were 10 percent of doctors in the country,” he said. But Sternfeld doesn’t rule out the possibility that there was a particularly high concentration of doctors in Golpayegan.
“My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all doctors,” Farhad Moradian states. “But they didn’t practice university medicine, it was ancient medicine.”
Moradian remembers studying his grandfather’s medical books as a teenager; they were handwritten on deer parchment.
“There were black-and-white drawings of plants accompanied by explanations. There were descriptions of diseases. If a boy was sick, it said the father should taste his urine. It was a kind of lab because they didn’t have labs.”
“Do you know how they checked blood sugar?” asks Noa Homa Shalom, a naturopath who spent two months organizing the reunion and inviting all the guests. “Someone would pee on the floor and if ants came there was too much sugar in their urine. We didn’t have pharmaceutical medications. But it was real medicine.”
Moradian no longer has the manuscripts.
“Think how valuable they would be. But we didn’t manage to take them when we left Iran.”
Escape from Iran
Yasmin Mottahedeh met her husband in the early 1980s; he was a young Jewish doctor from Isfahan who had been sent by the government to Golpayegan to serve locals in nearby villages. By then, only four Jewish families were left in Golpayegan. Most had left before and immediately after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“He heard we were a Jewish family. He came to visit a few times and started to flirt with me. I was 19 when we got engaged.”
Yasmin says she did not suffer from anti-Semitism following the Islamic Revolution.
“Khomeini said not to hurt the Jews, that the Jews are our brothers. The fact is, they did not. Iranians were nice to Jews.”
But there were other difficulties.
“We had less freedom than before. Life under a religious government is not an easy life. Imagine if someone like [Israel’s late Sephardic chief rabbi and Shas party spiritual leader] Ovadia Yosef became prime minister. We had to dress modestly.”
In addition, Yasmin’s father, who was a real-estate developer, had built a beautiful mall in Golpayegan, she says, but after the war, squatters came and took over the stores and there was nothing her father could do about it.
After their first two children were born, Yasmin and Emanuel made the decision to move to Israel, but it was impossible for Emanuel to get a passport — because he was Jewish as well as a doctor. Doctors were in high demand in Iran.
‘There are 14 million Jews in the world. Ninety eight percent are living in places that are different from the places where their ancestors lived 120 years ago’
The couple used their entire savings to buy passports and documents. Yasmin and the children bought a round-trip ticket to Turkey, then never came back. A few months later, Emanuel made his way to the border with Pakistan, and in the middle of the night, ran across. On the other side he paid a smuggler to take him to Karachi, where he met someone from the Jewish Agency who put him on a flight to Switzerland, and from there to Israel.
“We came with nothing, just a single suitcase of clothes,” says Yasmin. “We started from scratch.”
Talk turns quickly to politics
Asked what they think of the recently signed nuclear deal with Iran, the Golpayegans at the reunion pull no punches.
“It’s treason,” says Emanuel Mottahedeh. “Carter betrayed the shah and the Iranian people and now Obama has betrayed the people once again. With Gaddafi in Libya, Obama said you need to stop now. To Hosni Mubarak, he said, you must step down now. But when 2 million people were protesting against the Iranian government in the streets (following the elections in June 2009), why didn’t he utter a word?”
“I don’t think this deal will last,” says Yehoshua Bahadat, one of three brothers at the reunion. “It doesn’t suit us, it doesn’t suit Israel.”
“You have to understand the Persian mind,” his brother Coresh chimes in. “The Persians see themselves as a great power. Cyrus ruled over 120 countries, so this regime wants to conquer a few countries like Yemen and the Muslim parts of the former Soviet Union. That’s why they want to be a nuclear power.”
A third brother, Darius Bahadat, says that the protesters were unable to topple the government in 2009 because “it’s a strong regime, brutal and without mercy.They hold the population on a very tight leash. They tell people to sit quietly and don’t get involved with politics and we’ll let you live. Otherwise, it’s death for you.”
Nevertheless, all three brothers agree that the chances that Iran will actually use a nuclear weapon are very small.
“Just as we’re afraid they’ll use it, they’re even more afraid we’ll use it,” says Yehoshua. “They will not endanger themselves. But they can still use their proxies like Hezbollah to do us harm.”
Ingathering of exiles
Haim Ghiuzeli, director of databases at Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv University, is not from Golpayegan. He is from Romania, but he explains that such reunions, where people from specific towns in the Diaspora gather, are a time-honored Israeli tradition.
“People from a certain place will create an organization and hold activities and have a newsletter. But in 2015 this happens much more on the Internet than in person.”
Diaspora communities that came to Israel in the 1950s, like those from post-Holocaust Europe or Iraq, are no longer very active, he says.
“What can you do? Time moves on and most of these people are no longer with us.”
For the most part, the second and third generation of diaspora communities do not continue to get together in person, with surprising exceptions, like the community of Zamosc, Poland, which held a standing-room only meeting at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April.
But when it comes to communities from Iran, whose members immigrated more recently, “they’re still active and young enough to remember, so we can still document things,” Ghiuzeli says.
The great migration
Speaking to Ghiuzeli, one begins to understand the magnitude of the Jewish migration that occurred over the last century.
“Today in 2015, there are 14 million Jews in the world. Ninety-eight percent are living in places that are different from the places where their ancestors lived 120 years ago.”
In 1880, says Ghiuzeli, the Jewish people were mainly European. Today, he says, there are fewer than a million Jews in all of Europe, including Russia.
“Ninety percent of all Jews in the world live in two places — Israel and North America, with all the rest spread throughout the world.”
Look at the shores of the Mediterranean, says Ghiuzeli, with the exception of Israel. This is where Jews have lived since the time of the First Temple, for thousands of years. If you look at how many Jews live there today, the biggest community is in Marseille, France. There are about 150,000 Jews in the south of France, including Nice, Toulon, Montpellier.
But in place after place where Jewish communities existed for thousands of years, they are gone.
“There are almost no Jews in all of North Africa, very few in Italy, very few in Turkey, even fewer in Greece. There are none in Syria, none in Lebanon, none in Egypt, Libya or Algeria. Maybe there are 1,000 left in Tunis. And that’s it.”
In fact, says Ghiuzeli, it’s easier to name the places where Jews do still reside in the same place as their ancestors.
“There are small communities in Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, maybe 50 Jews left in Yemen and 2,000-3,000 in India. In Alsace you’ve got a few people who were there for many generations and in Holland there are a few old-timers left.”
Ghiuzeli attributes these changes to three factors: first, the massive emigration of the Jewish people due to persecution, economics and Zionism; second, the establishment of the state of Israel; and third, the Holocaust.
When asked why there is so little information about Golpayegan’s Jewish community on the Internet, Ghiuzeli says that the Jews of Iran are known as “the black hole of Jewish Studies.”
“Compared to other communities, there is little scholarship on them.”
Remembering the Jews of Golpayegan
While the Museum of the Jewish People did put together an exhibit on the Jews of Iran a few years ago, for Farhad Moradian, this is not enough.
“There are a lot of things we don’t know, a lot of things getting lost. Each person at this reunion has a collection of memories and mementos. You talk to someone, you find out about a particular person who lived, about another piece of history. It’s a pity not to document this. I’ve started gathering the photos of Iranian Jews in all cities in Israel.”
Moradian plans to build a website devoted to Iranian Jewry as well as a museum exhibition.
“But I need money to pay for it,” he tells the Times of Israel. “Maybe there is someone who wants to help me.”
Moradian recalls visiting Golpayegan in the 1970s. He visited two synagogues, one that belonged to his father’s family and the other his mother’s family. He was struck by an elaborate painting his mother’s uncle had created on the synagogues wooden ceiling, surrounding verses from the Torah.
“I asked a blogger from Golpayegan what had happened to the synagogues. He said most of them have been turned into parking lots.”
Moradian attributes this act to the intolerance of the Islamic Revolution. He compares the government’s actions to those of the Islamic State. “There is a desire to destroy things that don’t belong to Islam. The current government in Iran are zealots. They don’t want any remembrance of another religion.”
Nevertheless, Moradian has fond feelings for Iran. He belongs to a classic Persian music ensemble called Bondar — which in Persian means a man who is faithful to his roots. In the video below, Moradian is the vocalist.
“Persian culture is very rich. As soon as I came to Israel I was determined to preserve it and at the same time to learn Israeli and Western culture. When you compare and contrast, it broadens you.”
And he thinks Iranians have something to teach Israelis. For instance, when he first immigrated to Israel, he was shocked by some Israelis’ rude behavior.
“Patience and generosity and treating others in a civilized way were a very strong aspect of Iranian culture at the time. That was before the revolution. But many Iranians still behave that way.”
As if to underline what Moradian is saying, the Golpayegans at the reunion continue to ply me with treats. They chat loudly in Hebrew and Persian, laugh and even sing together.
The Golpayegans seem to be some of the world’s nicest people, I venture. “Well,” says Yasmin Mottahedeh, “each city has its own characteristics. People from Shiraz are laid back. People from Isfahan are known to be hardworking and clever.”
“As for Golpayegans, our reputation is that we’re honest people who will never hurt anyone.”
Emanuel Mottahedeh says that when he first arrived in Golpayegan, he was struck by the temperament of Jew and non-Jew alike.
“I noticed the people were relaxed and nice. It was a quiet town with beautiful nature and great abundance. I think that impacted people, it made them good. We’re proud to be Israelis, but we have wonderful memories from Golpayegan.”