In May of 2008, some fifty years after I had left "Sarechal", my beloved Jewish neighborhood in Tehran, I returned to see it again. I had been told by friends and relatives who had visited the place a year or two ago that much had changed in Sarechal and that I should not expect to find my old home or any familiar places there.
I do not know why I had not visited Sarechal during the few business trips I made to pre-Revolutionary Iran between 1973 and 1975. I guess I was too involved with my role as a banker trying to establish a Chase Manhattan joint venture in Tehran during those years. So when I went this May, it had been thirty-three years since I had been in Iran, and just about fifty years since I had left my neighborhood, Sarechal, to move to the Seyede Khandan district in the north of Tehran.
On Saturday morning May 10, on my second day in Tehran, my wife and I were brought to Sarechal by Ramin Farahani, a dear friend who knew the neighborhood, its history, the locations of the its two functioning synagogues, and some of the Jews associated with them.
We entered Sarechal from Cyrus Street. As we walked through the alleys and talked to various people, many things hit me hard, I saw places that I recognized, homes that I looked for now appeared shrunken or had disappeared, and shops that I had known for their food and various memories, were now converted into small factories of various products. I heard the beautiful sound of Allah-o-Akbar coming from a mosque near where my old house had been, and, in the old alleys, I smelled the new odors which had replaced the ones I remembered.
But what struck me the most was the shopkeepers’ attitude toward me. The entire neighborhood of Sarechal is now occupied by Muslims from all parts of Iran, all of whom know that they are working and living in an old Jewish neighborhood which now has very few or no Jews left in it. The change that none of my friends or relatives had noticed or mentioned to me, and which surprised and enlightened me the most, was in the attitude of these Muslim shopkeepers. As soon as I informed them that I was a “Yahoudi” (Jew) that used to live in the neighborhood and had come to visit the place, the shopkeepers gathered around me, welcomed me, shook my hand, asked questions about the place, and, most importantly, invited me to join them for tea in their homes, which had once been the homes of my friends or relatives.
Some told us stories about the Jewish friends that their parents had had when they were younger. Others were interested in where we had gone and what we had done after leaving the neighborhood and why we had not come back there more often. One was very happy and excited as he explained that his water and electricity bills still come to his house under the Jewish names of the residents from whom he had purchased the house some thirty-five years earlier. He loved the idea and did not want it changed. He was proud that he had kept the original account all these years.
Another unusual event occurred on the way to the synagogue. I was looking at a familiar mosque and showing it to my wife, who had heard so much about my childhood in Sarechal surrounded by beautiful mosques. As I discussed the beauty of the mosque, the mosque keeper approached us and inquired who we were. Again, I introduced myself and explained what I was doing in his neighborhood. My name, Eshagh Shaoul, leaves no doubt in any Iranian Muslim’s mind as to what my religious background is. The mosque keeper, like the others, invited me into his beautiful mosque. After we had taken off our shoes and entered the mosque, filled with Persian carpets, pictures of prophets and beautiful chandeliers, he told us all about the Jewish friends his mother had had in the neighborhood when he was young and how much he missed them, mentioning some of their Jewish names. One of the names was the same as my mother's name, at the mention of which I burst into tears and had difficulty controlling myself. Fifty years before, under the Shah's regime, we would not have dared enter this or any other mosques in my old neighborhood. Now, with the Islamic government in power, I was welcomed to a mosque as a Jew and as an old neighbor. Now, I no longer needed to hide in a dark corner, an intruder, one of the unwanted Jewish children of the Iran of the 1950’s. Now I was at home.
I could not be sure what had happened during fifty years to produce the change in the attitude of the Muslim people in my old neighborhood. Was it the revolution that caused the change? Was it the Iranian Jews who had changed? Was the change due to the very popular TV mini-series, Madar e Sefr Darijeh, (Zero Point Orbit), which is about the Holocaust in Europe and the love affair between a Muslim and a Jew. I am still searching for the answer.
We finally left the mosque and went to the Ezra Yaghoub Synagogue, one of two functioning synagogues in Sarechal. It was located at the end of a long alley. The door, decorated with many Stars of David was open. We walked to the threshold of a small and clean inner room and were greeted by a woman. one of two sisters who take care of the synagogue. We could see a row of shoes outside the door, so we removed our shoes before entering, as we had done at the mosque.
The Sabbath service was over when we entered the synagogue. Mr. Haroon Yashayaee, the former head of the Jewish community in Tehran and some 12 to 14 Jews wearing skullcaps were sitting around a table in one corner of the synagogue and eating the traditional “tokhme morghe shabati” (hard boiled eggs), along with fried eggplant slices and bread prepared for the Sabbath. My Muslim friend Ramin had been in the synagogue many times while filming his documentary, “The Jews of Iran” and knew Mr. Yashayaee and the two caretaker sisters. Ramin, my wife and I were invited in with all the usual warm hospitality we had seen among other Iranians.
I joined the group at the table, while Ramin and my wife sat by a window observing and taking pictures. I briefly introduced myself and joined the discussion with some members of the congregation, others were joking and laughing while a few were seriously reciting their after-lunch prayers. Food and drinks in abundance were proffered towards me and the other guests.
The small synagogue could have accommodated 150 to 200 people, but I was told the attendance averaged 15-25 during the weekly services. It was well maintained and looked nice. I didn’t remember this synagogue from my childhood in Sarechal. The synagogue that that I remember going to on many Friday nights and Saturday mornings when I lived in Sarechal 50 years earlier was gone. It must have been among those synagogues on “Kooche Haft Kenissa” (Seven Synagogue Street) that had not been attended or maintained and was eventually demolished. The street was now called “Bombast e haft Masjed” (Seven Mosque Alley), but, despite its name, it had neither synagogue nor mosque, just empty lots and partially demolished buildings.
While leaving Ezra Yaghoub Synagogue with the congregation, I noticed that they all kept their skullcaps on and mingled with the Muslim people in the alleys on their way home. Fifty years earlier we would all take off our skullcaps, not to be noticed as Jews when we entered a Muslim neighborhood. This experience inside and outside the synagogue made me feel that if I were living in Tehran today, I would no longer have to hide my religion or my ethnicity.
During my second visit to Sarechal, I was accompanied by my cousins Moussa and Ehteram, who visit Sarechal often and knew many of the families who had purchase their family ‘s home and the homes of other Jews. Ehteram and Moussa were anxious to show us more of the old neighborhood we used to share and give us a more detailed tour. Ehteram knocked at the doors of many homes which we both remembered from childhood. In all cases, women in hejab opened their doors and let us into their courtyards even though they were alone and there were two men in the party We were welcomed and offered the usual kind and warm hospitality. As we stood chatting, I was overwhelmed by memories of my childhood friends who had lived in these homes and the days I had spend playing with them in these courtyards.
Our next visit, to the Jewish Hospital on Cyrus Street, showed us an important aspect of neighborhood history. The hospital was crowded with people waiting for treatment. While still managed by a Jewish organization, and with a Jewish woman as its Chief Administrator, the hospital serves the Muslim community of Sarechal as well as the Jews of Tehran. This hospital was the main hospital of the Mahaleh when its residents were Jewish, and it now serves that same function for the Muslim population that replaced us.
The visit to the Hamam-e-Keshvari (Keshvari Bathhouse) on Cyrus Street near the hospital was another enlightening experience. The bathhouse, which fifty years ago was the only modern structure in Sarechal and was envied by the neighboring Muslims, is now old and has lost its allure. The large public bath hall has been closed, but the small private rooms are still functioning, and the shopkeepers around it still utilize it on a limited basis. We stood outside the bathhouse, chatting with some local shopkeepers to learn more about the bathhouse and the neighborhood. As soon as they knew who we were, they went out of their way to show us their friendship. One very tough-looking Muslim man in his fifties, tried to show his cordiality to us, his old Jewish neighbors, by singing a Hebrew melody, "Hava Nagila", for us. His friends told us that he had been to Israel and knew plenty of Hebrew songs.
On this second visit, I found the shopkeepers I had met the first time even friendlier, more hospitable and more anxious to chat and to socialize. Fifty years earlier, I had left the neighborhood to free myself from disturbing insults because I was Jewish or because I was from the Jewish neighborhood which most Muslims in the south of Tehran found dirty (“Najess”) and unacceptable. In May of 2008, not only was I not insulted by anyone, I was actually welcomed again and again, held and hugged, offered food and drink. Most importantly, I felt that the people of this neighborhood were showing me the same true friendship they offered to any of their Muslim friends. Seeing for myself the change in the population of Sarechal from 100% Jewish to almost 100% Muslim was shocking to me. But the change in the population’s attitude toward the Jews was even more astonishing and was the highlight of my trip to Iran.
At the end of my 3-week tour of Iran, I knew that two days in Sarechal was not enough to satisfy my curiosity and reacquaint myself with the new Sarechal. I knew I had to return there soon and stay longer.