One day in A.P. U.S. history class three years ago, my teacher looked at us with a brazen smile and said that we were wrong if we thought that our parents immigrated from Iran for religious freedom. Looking in the eyes of many Persian Jewish students, my teacher claimed that the real reason they immigrated was to protect their wealth.
Little did he know about the sacrifices our families made to continue practicing their religion, whether it was pretending to be Muslim or, after the 1979 revolution, leaving their possessions behind and being smuggled into Turkmenistan in the middle of the night. While wealth may have factored into the decision to immigrate, it’s not the whole story. Rather, the story of Persian, particularly Mashadi Jews is one of tragedy, bravery and the value of community. It’s time the teachers and students at Great Neck North High School, and anyone who has made offhand remarks insulting our culture, finally learn it.
The Persian Jews of Great Neck hail from various Iranian cities, including Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad, where my ancestors lived. The Jews who became Mashadi were sent there in the eighteenth century, when the king needed somebody to protect jewels he’d gotten from invading India. Anti-Semitism reached a climax in 1839, when some 40 Mashadi Jews were killed in a pogrom and survivors were forced to convert to Islam.
For almost 100 years thereafter, Mashadi Jews were Muslim—that is, as far as the city’s Shia leaders were concerned. Secretly, they continued to practice the religion of their ancestors, no matter how much extra work it required. Underground tunnels linked their basements together so they could always gather a minyan to pray while somebody stood guard upstairs. The shopkeepers kept their stores open on Shabbat, but they jacked up the prices so high that nobody would buy anything. My ancestors made the hajj and then took a detour on their way back to visit Jerusalem. And because they feared that Muslim men would demand their daughters as wives, they had their children get engaged at very young ages, often to their cousins, the only people they felt they could trust. In the early twentieth century, they stopped pretending to be Muslim, and in the 1940s they moved to Tehran, where they still encountered anti-Semitism, but to a lesser degree.
The survivalist instincts Mashadis exhibit today go back to their time as crypto-Jews in Iran, where isolationism was their only chance at self-preservation. For better or for worse, the desire for self-preservation is not unique to Mashadi Jews; it is the guiding and most basic principle of all humanity, heightened in the Jewish psyche and passed down with the memory of pogroms and genocide.
Some people criticize Mashadis’ tendency to go to nearby public colleges or to not go to college at all. They should consider that historically, Jews have started their own businesses when they did not have the connections necessary to enter industries dominated by more established ethnic groups. Relying on their entrepreneurial spirit, Mashadi Jews achieved enormous wealth in the U.S. with, in some cases, a high school education or less, proving that a fancy education was not necessary for financial success. Going to a nearby college is also a matter of self-preservation, as staying local is necessary to ensure the survival of the community.
High school is notoriously painful for people of all backgrounds. Once, when I told a guidance counselor I was upset, they assumed it was because of my Mashadi community, implying that I come from a sexist culture. Actually, it was because of the sexist culture at Great Neck North, where I was sexually assaulted multiple times while walking down the hallway, where my teachers often made vulgar and sexist comments and disgusting boys talked shamelessly about the “bitches” they hooked up with. Nothing like this ever happened to me at synagogue, and yet my family’s community is somehow believed to be the more sexist one.
My Mashadi community is far from perfect. It is too insular and often ignorant. These things are true and must be said. But before you begin to criticize, remember that those aspects of our culture you are criticizing are rooted in a history of anti-Semitism through which Mashadis have fared pretty remarkably.
Lauren Hakimi is a Great Neck North High School graduate who studies English and history at college.