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A Jew in Tehran

February 25, 2016 | by Annika Hernroth-Rothstein and Israel Hayom and

The Jewish community shared their lives and homes as if I was family -- because to them, I was.

I'm the only religious person in my family, and that can sometimes be a very lonely state. I returned to Orthodox Judaism and chose to live my life according to a certain set of rules.

By doing that I put a distance between my life now and the life I once knew. Nothing dramatic, not even almost a feud, just many tiny things that make a bigger difference than most people would ever imagine.

I remember walking into synagogue for the first time after becoming Orthodox, and more than anything I can recall the fear – fear of not being accepted and of not knowing quite what to do. But the scariest thing of all was the feeling of walking in on someone else's private party. It's not that they didn't know me; it was the feeling that perhaps they didn't want to, and I struggled with that feeling for quite some time until I felt I had earned my keep.

We are all guilty of it, of closing ranks and watching newcomers with silent suspicion, and in a larger sense I believe this reaction reflects the overall Jewish experience. I must confess that once I found my place I started doing it, too. Once I was one of them, I started seeing the "other," and perhaps forgot that fluttery feeling of not having a seat at the Shabbat table.

Last Friday, just after sunset, I walked into the Abrishami Synagogue on Palestine Street in North Tehran, eyeing the room for an empty seat. Their community of 7,000 Jews is closed to the outside world, so all I had were images and fantasies of what I expected them to be.

It turns out they were nothing like I imagined.

Within a minute, they had spotted me, and a tiny dark-haired woman pulled me by the hand from my seat in the back, insisting I come join them. The old women in the front, obviously the original crew, spared no time getting into my business: my parents, my siblings, my lack of a wedding ring – soon they knew more about me than most of my daily acquaintances do, and I knew that I had come home.

I had five dinner invitations before the Amidah prayer, and three elderly ladies insisted I come for breakfast. There were no tests, no huddling in a corner at Kiddush and no feeling of intrusion or lack of pedigree. This community had every right to be suspicious, to keep to themselves with a stranger in their midst, yet they opened up to me and share their lives and homes as if I was family – because to them, I was.

And that's the thing, right? We are all dispersed in the Diaspora, after all, and like metals drawn to a magnet we should be in search of each other and celebrate the moment we are found. But we don't, because we somehow misinterpreted what a community is. We need to remind ourselves that our community is not the people in our shul, not the peer in the pew, but the children of Israel, wherever we are.

The pressure of the Galut has changed us, I think, and made us fearful of inclusion. Some of that is survival instinct, whereas some is quite honestly snobbery, and in order to not lose sight of what we once were we must quickly make that distinction.

I still feel it, sometimes, the loneliness and the isolation. Walking into shul and seeing that everyone goes way back, whereas I just got back, all the way from assimilation. It's a hard thing to do, saying you wish to be included. What I learned from Tehran is that I should not make anyone say that ever again. Instead, I will go get them from the seat in the back and get into their business, being as annoyingly forward as only family can be.

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