Three Jews walk into a Starbucks

I was sitting in the Starbucks in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., listening to two men talk about a three-day hike through Israel’s Arava desert, when Bayaaz Khanoom appeared.

It was day two of the American Jewish Committee’s three-day Global Forum. I was there to write about the event for this publication, and the going had been great: nearly 1,300 men and women of all ages from 50 countries; speakers such as the foreign ministers of Germany, Canada and Brazil, White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew and Israeli author and journalist Ronen Bergman. And the wonderful thing about it was, people were allowed to express a range of opinions about matters relating to Israel. There was an Iranian neocon who thought the United States should effect regime change in Iran and let the rest — such as a replacement — take care of itself; and then there was the American analyst Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who thought we should all cool it because Iran doesn’t have the expertise and the capability to get the bomb. There was an Israeli who said that Obama has done more for Israel than any American president before him, and also a Frenchman who warned that Nazism is alive and well and disguised as Islamic militancy in Europe.

It should go without saying, and maybe once upon a time it did, that a diversity of opinion is a positive thing; that it should be cultivated, or at least tolerated; that you learn nothing by listening only to the echo of your voice and teach even less by preaching to the choir. I don’t know what happens in other parts of the world, but healthy disagreement is a dying breed in this country. We hear what we want to or we change the channel, yell in unison or stop talking to one another. For a minute, while Ronen Bergman was saying that Obama has been a better “friend” to Israel than George W. Bush, I held my breath and feared that he would be booed off the stage. But he spoke, and people listened, and the ceiling did not cave in over the auditorium. I even managed to have a whole 10-minute conversation with the neocon without living to regret it: He asked me if I’d been “inspired” by Bush, and I said yes, I was inspired to want to hang myself every time I heard him speak, and once that was settled, we moved on to more topical issues.

Just as refreshing as the range of perspectives was the sound of different languages and the array of foreign accents when English was spoken in the halls and elevators. In front of me in the line at Starbucks that afternoon, two Russians were engaged in a spirited conversation peppered occasionally with English words. The older man was Yury Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress — booming voice and salt-and-pepper beard and the kind of who’re we kidding? candor that allowed him to introduce himself as an oligarch, as if that were a profession.

Matvey Chlenov, the younger man, pulled out a brochure and showed me the names of two dozen other Russian Jewish oligarchs, and then we sat down and started to talk about the Jews of Russia, who they were and what they became before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, and that’s when Bayaaz Khanoom materialized, all feisty and resolute and refusing to suffer fools, dead for a decade and still making the floor shake under her boots as she marched the distance between the wood and velvet salon of our house in Tehran and the marble and glass foyer of this hotel.

Chlenov was talking about the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, who came from Persia and settled in the Caucasus Mountains in the fifth century C.E., remained observant even as other Jewish communities became secular under Soviet rule, retained their Persian heritage even as they migrated to big cities in the 1990s. These days, they own most of the shopping malls in Moscow and occupy high places on the Forbes very-very rich list. Chlenov attributed their success to their strong ethnic character.

In front of me, Bayaaz Khanoom sat at a massive dining table across from my grandfather. Behind her, daylight poured in from the French doors overlooking the yard. 

“I used to know a Mountain Jew,” I said, but Chlenov did not believe me.

Still a young woman, Bayaaz wore widow’s black and handled herself like the matriarch she had had to become since she’d lost her husband years earlier. She was from Baku. She had married one of my grandmother’s brothers — a Jew from a prominent rug-trading family in Kaashaan — and followed him to Tehran. My grandmother had 17 brothers and a few dozen nieces and nephews. She spoke to them in the language of the Jews of Kaashaan, which was incomprehensible to my grandfather, who was from Tehran, or to anyone else other than Kaashaani Jews.

“That’s impossible,” Chlenov said. “Mountain Jews keep to themselves.”

So did the Jews of Esfahan, or of Hamedan, or Shiraz, I wanted to say. They each spoke a distinct language, ate different foods, held the others in varying degrees of contempt. So do the Jews in Los Angeles. So, to hear my new Russian friends tell it, do Jews from different provinces in their country.

I asked Kanner what he thought distinguishes one Jew from another. He thought for a long time, then he said: “When I read Isaac Bashevis Singer in Yiddish, I see myself in the stories, because that’s the language of my childhood. When I read the same story in English, I don’t recognize the story or the man.”

I don’t know if Bayaaz Khanoom ever learned Kaashii, but she never did blend in with her husband’s tribe. She had a resonant voice when the others spoke in whispers, an independent mind when everyone else fell into line. Perhaps for this reason — because she was unlike the others, not better or worse, but simply different — she was one of the few family members whose company my grandfather welcomed. One of the few whose memory remains vivid so long after everything else has faded or died.

The sound of all those languages spoken by one people, the force of so many points of view converging around a common goal, two Russians, a Mountain widow and an Iranian Jew sitting in a Starbucks a mile or two away from the U.S. capital — this, to me, was AJC’s biggest achievement last week in Washington.

Gina Nahai is professor of creative writing at USC. She can be reached at