Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hanukkah in Iran, land of the Unfree

Isaac Yomtovian and his wife light the Hanukkah candles

If the practice of Judaism was boxed in under the Shah, the box has shrunk a good deal in the Iran of the Ayatollahs, Isaac Yomtovian, an Iranian Jew now living in the US, tells The Chagrin Valley Times:

In the United States, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, with tradition and festivity. Children play with dreidels -- tops with Hebrew letters -- gifts are exchanged and candles are lit on a menorah for eight nights with prayers and songs.

Observed this year starting sundown Dec. 11, Hanukkah is about religious freedom and miracles. According to the Talmud, when the Jews recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, they found only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days.

"The true meaning of Hanukkah can be celebrated in the United States," said Isaac Yomtovian, of Pepper Pike. "We thank God for the miracles -- the miracle of being free, of being part of a flourishing and freely practicing Jewish community and being able to practice 'tikun olam,' which means repairing the world. Yomtovian, who grew up in Iran under the shah, said that in the United States, "This holiday provides a chance for Jews to feel proud -- all over the country large menorahs are lit by major Jewish and non-Jewish community leaders. Many of the menorahs are laid on public land, next to Christmas trees.

"Hanukkah to me means the celebration of freedom of mind, thoughts and ideas; freedom of social and economic practices; freedom of politics and choice." He said the holiday reflects "true democracy. The miracle of Hanukkah is as internal to me as it is external."

For Mr. Yomtovian, childhood memories of the holiday's observance are different from his celebrations with his family in the United States. Still, they are pleasant memories. He said he has more concern for his relatives who remain in Iran today under the Islamic republic and are allowed a much more limited practice of Judaism.

"During the shah and Islamic republic, Jews have been able to practice their religion and study the Hebrew language," Mr. Yomtovian said. However, the level of tolerance has changed, he said.

"Under the shah, you could be any Jew you wanted to be," -- Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, Mr. Yomtovian said, "and you could have an Israeli flag. Now the Jews of Iran are under the laws of Islam." Boys and girls are separated, he said, and Orthodox-type behavior is the only religion that is tolerated. In public events, he said, "You have to be extremely careful about the selection of music, holding hands and dress code. If it's religious music, it's OK.

"With the shah, there was a 'box,' but a much bigger box," he said about practice of Judaism. "We had candles that we put in the window at Hanukkah. Now they have to be lighted inside the house. You have to be a lot more careful.

"A meaningful celebration and practice of Hanukkah in Iran is impossible, since freedom of mind and behavior do not exist there," he said. "Hanukkah in Iran is only a wishful dream."

Mr. Yomtovian said he is concerned about his relatives who remain in Iran. With several satellite radio and television stations, he said, "We get broadcasts of what is going on in the streets of Iran as well as the Parliament of Iran. It is very clear what is going on."

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