The last time I saw my grandmother alive, she was sitting in a wheelchair at an elder care hospital in Israel. She wore a little silk scarf over her hair and spoke to me in a perfect mix of Persian, French, and broken Hebrew. My grandmother's first name was Iran. Yet she lived in Israel. And that about captures the complex relationship that Iranian Jews have with their native country and their ancestral homeland.
I'd like to believe that there was no Iran in Israel until my grandmother arrived there.
She was a product of the dilapidated Jewish ghetto of Tehran, born in the 1920s to a world without Ahmadinejads, nuclear weapons, old ideologies and new terrorists. And without a modern Jewish State of Israel and Jewish oversight of Jerusalem. A time when praying at the Western Wall was as much a dream as a man landing on the moon. Before she passed, my grandmother told me that when she was a little girl in Tehran around the time of Passover, she would affix as many pieces of matzah as she could together, line them up against a window, press her face to the solid surface, and pretend that she was at the Western Wall–a pipe dream for practically any Jew in the 1920s; a Travelocity ticket away for me in 2012.
Some sixty years later, her wish came true when she and my grandfather escaped Iran after the Revolution and moved to Israel. From then on, she found a way to make it to the Kotel, first by bus, then in a car driven by her grandchildren, and finally, with a cane. When I asked her why she kept going back in her fragile state, she lovingly admonished me:
“What do you mean?! BECAUSE I CAN!”
I had never thought about it quite that way before. Despite the fact that I too was born in Tehran, albeit after the Revolution, I am a product of a more self-serving generation. Less because I can and more because I want to and because it makes me feel good.
Five years ago, I committed myself to an amazing cause. “>Civic Action Conference on October 14th in Los Angeles at the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel. Almost 35 speakers and over 60 different co-sponsors will be there, including ambassadors and diplomats (keynote speakers will include Ambassador Dennis Ross), congressmen and elected officials, academics, brilliant rabbis, stellar authors, the 2013 candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles, and representatives from both the Obama and Romney campaigns. A full conference schedule may be found on the link above.
There are many reasons why I am so proud to belong to 30 YEARS AFTER, yet they're all fueled by an underlying motive. And it's the same reason why I take advantage of the PCH on a winter's day, enjoy a beer during a Lakers' game, and sing the Israeli national anthem of Ha'Tikva: because I can.
Where I was born, Ha'Tikva is never sung. Israel's flags are not displayed, and even the sale of all “Zionist” goods and products are banned. There is no Israel in Iran, except for the government-fueled depiction of a heartless false state and its faceless, soulless citizenry of occupiers. I can still remember our first grade chants of “Death to Israel” each morning at school. The fact is that Jews that remain in Iran today (roughly 20,000)–the same kids that were in classrooms with me back in the 1980s–cannot sing the words of Ha'Tikva, though the song belongs to them as much as it belongs to American Jews, French Jews, or Iraqi Jews. This is all the more reason for me to take Ha'Tikva more seriously.
You see, when you realize that you are holding the voices of 20,000 additional Jews on your shoulders, including everyone that you left behind in Iran, you feel a certain responsibility and even privilege…to sing just a bit louder. To enunciate the words and to consciously understand that you are somewhere that allows you to congregate in a room full of Jews and actually sing Israel's national anthem without fear of being arrested, tortured, and even “>Civic Action Conference on Sunday, October 14th in Los Angeles. One of our most talented young members will also be singing the American national anthem. Her family escaped during the Revolution, too. The third national anthem, that of imperial Iran (pre-Revolution)–an emotionally loaded piece for most of us– will be sung by legendary Persian singer Andy, who fled Iran 30 years ago to settle in Los Angeles. The Revolution has made it impossible for him to sing in his native country ever since, but he packs sold-out venues in concerts all around Iran's borders–from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates. In addition to the imperial anthem , he will sing his 2009 hit with Bon Jovi, “Stand By Me,” in support of the people of Iran. That means a lot, folks.
Everyone is welcome–and we expect many members of the greater Los Angeles Jewish community as well–whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi.
I hope that you join us on October 14th, and if you find yourself compelled to sing, that you recall whose voice you are shouldering…the ones that have since passed, or the ones that cannot be there to experience the eternal unity of a national song, and the sacred gift of free expression. Why would you invest such time and energy? Because we would love to have you. Because this signifies a moment in time. And maybe, just maybe, because you can.