Mark came to the United States from his homeland of Iran when he was a teenager, prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. His plan was to attend school in the States for a few years, then head home.
“But once the Islamic Revolution was happening, my father called and said, ‘Don’t even think of coming back,’” Mark recalled.
Mark is one of only a handful of Iranian Jews currently living in Pittsburgh, the majority of whom come from the town of Shiraz, located in the southwest of Iran on the Roodkhaneye Khoshk seasonal river.
Shiraz was once known as “the Jerusalem of Iran,” according to Mark. The city, which is the sixth most populous in Iran, had an estimated Jewish population of approximately 12,000 to 15,000 Jews in 1948, but by 1956, the Jewish tally decreased to about 8,000 after an emigration wave to Israel. The number of Jews now living in Shiraz is estimated to be about 5,000.
The last time Mark was in Shiraz, prior to the revolution, the town had a distinct Jewish flavor, he said. Many businesses in the town were owned by Jews, and they were all closed on Saturdays. There were several yeshivas and synagogues in the town. His father was a rabbi — as were most of his other male relatives — and served as the principal of a large Jewish school for more than 35 years.
But things changed for all Iranians, including Jews, after 1979. New restrictions, based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law were enforced, Mark noted, including one that prohibits a non-Muslim from holding any employment rank above a Muslim. His sister, who still lives in Shiraz because she could not get out prior to the revolution, was demoted from her position as the nurse unit director of a major hospital to work in the shadows of a less-qualified Muslim employee, he said.
While there are still synagogues in the town, Mark said, the Jews “are practicing quietly,” and there are no Jewish day schools left.
Mark still has several family members in Shiraz, but he cannot return to visit them for fear of execution; he is officially viewed as a deserter, he said, because he became a U.S. citizen before he served in the Iranian military.
While he does telephone his family regularly, Mark believes those calls are monitored; the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s scrutinizing presence is continually felt among his family there, with particular members of the guard assigned to each square mile of the country.
Based on his personal knowledge of Iran, Mark is not optimistic about the nuclear deal negotiated between that regime and the P5+1 countries.
He said there are precepts of Islamic law that hold that “any deal with a non-Muslim is a non-deal,” and need not be honored.
“This is one of the big issues that nobody wants to come out and say, why they can’t be trusted,” he said. “Look, whether they sign a deal or not, they’re going to make a nuclear warhead. Will this slow them down? I don’t know. They are technologically very advanced.”
One potential positive outcome of the deal, observed Mark, is the alliance that now may be formed between Israel and the many Arab countries whose governments are also concerned about Iranian nuclear proliferation.
“Arab countries are afraid of Iran,” he said, noting what he called a “traditional, deep-rooted hatred between Arabs and Persians.”
“In Iran, if a Persian wanted to insult someone, they would call them an Arab,” he said.
Jewish Pittsburgher Sion Ghanooni, who left his home in Shiraz in 1964 for the United States, said he does not trust the Iranian government.
“What they would say today, they would not do tomorrow,” said Ghanooni, who still has a brother, sister-in-law and cousins in Shiraz. He has been able to arrange visits with them in Israel over the years, as they are able to travel to the Jewish state via Turkey.
Several years ago, Ghanooni, who is a physician, was issued an invitation to give a lecture at a university in Shiraz.
“I was happy to go to Iran to see my relatives,” Ghanooni said. “But when I called my relatives, they said, ‘Are you stupid? If you want to go to Iran, it’s a one-way ticket.’”
While he did travel several times to visit his family prior to the revolution, he has not been back since, he said.
“During the time I lived in Iran, people were nice,” said Ghanooni, 83. “But after the revolution, they became a bunch of savages. The government is really bad. Anything you want, you have to bribe the government. Even if you want a death certificate, you have to bribe the government.”
Yehuda Kohanbash, also from Shiraz, has been in the United States for 42 years. He still has cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews in Iran, he said, but he has not seen them since he left, and does not talk to them because they do not have phones.
“And there are fears of listening,” he said. “I don’t want them to get into trouble.”
His parents, who live in New York, are still in touch with the family back in Shiraz, Kohanbash said.
“As a whole, the Jews are left alone,” he said. “But if they have money, they go after them. They label them as spies or terrorists.”
Kohanbash came to the United States in order to attend school here, he said, and intended to go back to Iran once his studies were completed.
“But I married an American, and there was no reason to go back,” he said.
He is wary of the new nuclear deal.
The Iranian government, he said, is corrupted and marred by “cheating and bribery.”
“It’s not just bad for Jews,” he said. “It’s bad for Muslims too. Nobody trusts them.
“And the deal is definitely bad for Israel,” Kohanbash continued. “Hezbollah and Hamas are proxies, and as soon as they get their hands on a bomb, they will use it against Israel. Iran may never attack Israel, but they will definitely give the bomb to the terrorists.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.