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Middle East Monica Dispatch

A Jewish Pilgrimage…to Iran!
April 22, 2000

Tight! That's how you could describe the Jewish community in Hamadan, Iran "There are 450,000 Jews in all of Iran," claims Rabbi Nedjat Rassad, who is busily welcoming the trekkers to the synagogue. "At one point there were only 10 families - 35 individuals -- here in Hamadan, but now there are more," says Rabbi Rassad.

The rabbi opens the stone door and invites us into a special small room that's been converted into synagogue space. Further inside, once we duck our heads and pass through a small entrance, is the most holy Jewish pilgrimage site in all of Iran. Similar to the Imam Reza Shrine Complex for Muslims of the Shi'ite sect, this synagogue is also a final resting place. We look inside and there in front of us are the legendary tombs of Esther and her uncle Mordecai, draped with embroidered cloths. Esther and Mordecai's stories are retold every year during the Jewish holiday of Purim, when Jews remember their history, their continuity, and the bravery of Esther, who used her status as queen to save her people.

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larger view
"These tombs dates back 2352 years ago." explains the rabbi, and both Kavitha and I have to ask him to repeat himself a few times (he's speaking in French, which we haven't used since West Africa. "Deux milles trois cent cinquante what?" Kavitha and I keep questioning, until finally he writes it down). The story of Esther and Mordecai goes back to the 5th century BCE, in the time of King Xerxes, during the era of the Achaemenians. Brian can share with you more about the Achaemenians through our visit to the ancient center of Persepolis. In the Purim story, Esther, the Jewish queen of King Xerxes, uses her resourcefulness and courage to keep the Jews safe from Harm. Her tomb rightfully becomes a pilgrimage place, although our guidebooks warn that this particular gravesite is more probably the burial site of a later Jewish queen.

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As we look around, we see Stars of David on the walls, as well as Hebrew script everywhere. It's the first Hebrew we've seen in a while, and it reminds us of our time in Israel, when Trekker Kevin was first learning this language. It is strange to see so much Hebrew on the walls. Nowadays, many years after the time of Esther, the Middle East faces much difficulty because of the tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State of Israel.


Era - A period of time
Documented - To support with evidence….from
Professes - Declares, follows
Emblazoned - Adorned
Sarcophagi - Stone Coffin

Tensions run at a high level, as well as on a personal level. The Jewish population, says our guidebook, has "fallen sharply since the Islamic Revolution," and only 0.3% of the Iranian population professes Judaism in this overwhelmingly Islamic country. During the revolution, many Jews fled. For example, my middle school classmate's father, a Persian Jew, left Tehran that year. He settled in the United States and hasn't yet returned. There are large Persian Jewish communities in Los Angeles and New York who now continue to hold tightly to tradition, regardless of how far away they are. They celebrate Jewish holidays like Purim, as well as Persian holidays like No Ruz! Officially, Iran tolerates other religions like Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Small Jewish communities exist here in Hamadan, as well as in Tehran, Shiraz and Esfahan. When Kavitha asks the rabbi how it is to be Jewish in an Islamic country, he says, "The government does not get involved with us right now."

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On the wall next to the two tombs is a carving with the Ten Commandments emblazoned in golden Hebrew letters on it. The rabbi pointed them out and said we could take a photo. The Ten Commandments are part of the Judeo-Christian belief system, and you can find the story of how they were handed down to Moses in the book of Exodus. Here are the Ten Commandments:

1. Anochee Adonoy: I am the Lord, your God.
2. Lo yeeheh: There are no other gods.
3. Lo teesah: You shall not take My Name in vain.
4. Zachor et: Remember the Sabbath.
5. Kabayd et: Honour your father and mother.
6. Lo teertzach: You shall not kill.
7. Lo teenaf: You shall not commit adultery.
8. Lo teegnov: You shall not steal.
9. Lo taanneh: You shall not bear false witness against your     neighbour.
10.Lo tachmod: You shall not covet your neighbour's house.

Relevant Links

Comprehensive site about the Jews of Iran ranging from history to modern day links.

Find out more about the Iranian Jews from the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History

We continue our walk through the synagogue and he points out that the actual tombs of Esther and Mordecai are 4 meters below the big, ornately carved ebony sarcophagi above. Enayatolla Touserkari designed the sarcophgi 200 years ago: when we look closely, we see a small bronze plaque marking the tomb of Mordecai.

A documented, tightly-knit Jewish community has been here in Hamadan eating the same kinds of foods, telling the same kinds of stories, and sharing a mutual history, since the 5th century CE. As the trekkers head out, we notice it is almost dusk, and we see some individuals waiting for the Rabbi near the entrance. We realize the time has come for us to go and for the Sabbath to begin. The rabbi excuses himself, but asks us to write him or send a small memento:

Nedjat Rassad, Rabbi
Tombo Ester Mordekahy
Ave Cheriati


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Life is not a Picnic
Abeja - Islamic Law: A First Hand Experience
Abeja - A War with No Winners: Visiting the Iran-Iraq Border
Kavitha - Welcomed into the Folds of a Kurdish Village
Jasmine - Achaemenians: In the Beginning...
Team - Earth Day: a Celebration and a Reminder

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