Every nation is many nations

I’m sitting with three other people in a narrow booth in a bustling cafe in Manhattan. It’s the week of snowstorms and icy weather that most Angelenos dread but that I like so much, even if it does hurt to breathe outdoors, the cold air stabbing the brainstem like the sharp tip of an icicle.  

My lunch companions are email acquaintances that I’m meeting in person for the first time. There’s a longtime Wall Street banker-turned-food-writer, doe-eyed and exuberant, who lives with her art collector husband and two gorgeous sons in a loft in Soho. There’s a dark-haired, arrestingly beautiful young woman who’s a teaching fellow and doctoral candidate at Fordham University; she is also the research director at a nonprofit that supports the cognitive development needs of children in New York City. And there’s a blue-eyed, soft-spoken fashion writer who just left a 15-year stint at Women’s Wear Daily to become editorial director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The banker graduated from the London School of Economics and Columbia University; the soon-to-be professor delivered the commencement speech at NYU; the fashion writer studied comparative Literature at Brown University and, later, at the University of London. 

They’re the kind of people you’ll meet once and never forget, not because of how much they know or what they’ve done, impressive as that is, but because of the ease and candidness with which they connect with a near-stranger, their openness and honesty and absence of judgment. But ask them who or what they are, how they identify and where they feel they belong, and they’ll each describe a “no-man’s land” of mixed histories and hybrid values that has left them more conflicted than convinced, more “apart from” than “of”: They were born and grew up in Germany (one even had a German mother) but were taught they’re not German; they went to international schools but were raised to live close to home; they’ve made their home in the United States but miss Germany; speak and eat and sometimes even feel Persian but don’t quite know— being Iranian — what that is. The best they can tell you is that they’re children of Mashadi Jews, which, to hear them tell it, explains everything and nothing about them at once.

Mashad, for the uninitiated, is a major city in northeastern Iran, the capital of the province of Khorasan and the site of the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, which draws millions of pilgrims a year. Situated along the ancient Silk Road and home to the poet Ferdowsi, who wrote the “Shahnaameh” — ancient Persia’s equivalent of  “The Odyssey” — it’s the second-largest holy city in the world, capital to many a king and dynasty, including Nader Shah Afshar, the “Napoleon of Persia,” who spent a lifetime waging (mostly successful) military campaigns against neighboring countries, including India, where the ruling monarch surrendered to Nader the keys of his royal treasury, home to 700 million rupees’ worth of precious stones that Nader’s troops had to haul away on the backs of thousands of elephants. Among the bounty were the storied Kooh-e-Noor (793-carat white) and Darya-ye-Noor (182-carat rare pink) diamonds, and, of course, the Peacock Throne. 

Perhaps because he wasn’t especially religious or a die-hard Shia, or because he recognized some native ability in his Jewish subjects, Nader Shah established a Jewish presence in Mashad by inviting 40 families to relocate there from Qazvin. Over time, the community grew, settled into the Eydgah ghetto, and became known for its trading skills and ethical business ethos.

On the eve of Passover in 1839, a blood libel sent a mob of angry Muslims to burn down the synagogues and destroy Torah scrolls in the ghetto. Many were killed, and the rest, given the choice to convert to Islam or die, took the oath that made them instant Muslims. 

From then till the 1920s, when the constitutional revolution gave Jews equal rights with Muslims, these jadid-al-Islams lived as crypto-Jews, who would have been executed if discovered. They went to the mosque and participated in ritual mourning on Shia holy days, bought meat and bread in Muslim shops, became Hajjis (a Muslim who has successfully made the pilgrimage to Mecca). But, at home, they did their own shechita, baked their own bread and made their own Shabbat candles. To make sure their children would not marry Muslims, they promised the kids to other Jews at birth or soon after. Parts of the community migrated to Tehran and Israel as well as pre-czarist Russia and Herat and, in the early 1950s, Hamburg. But no matter where they lived or how successfully they navigated the cultural and religious tides of their places of exiles, Mashadi Jews maintained their very distinct, very separate identity — even from other Iranian Jews. 

I had always heard this — that they’re loath to “get mixed up” with other Iranian Jews, preferring that their children marry other Mashadis even now, 37 years after they’ve settled in the United States, mostly in Long Island. In Great Neck they maintain their own, independent synagogue and cultural center, socialize mostly with other Mashadis (as opposed to the 10,000 or more other Iranian Jews in the neighborhood). The children marry in their early 20s, mostly to other Mashadis, the men are mostly businesspeople and real-estate developers, most people are very observant. 

More than anything else, their position on intermarriage has made Mashadis a source of curiosity and wariness for other Iranian Jews. In Great Neck, Ashkenazi Jews don’t know what to make of a people who who don’t want to mix except with a few thousand others from the same town. Here and there, voices from within call for (and sometimes win) greater inclusion. And still the community holds on — following the example, they say, of the Syrian-Jewish community — to the certainty of otherness. 

I don’t know the source of this fervent interest in remaining separate even in the United States, or what Mashadi Jews have had to give up and what they’ve gained because of their insularity. As with most close-knit communities, I imagine there’s great warmth and emotional sustenance, as well as a good degree of intolerance and a certain “our way or the highway” mentality. 

I can count on two hands the number of Mashadi Jews I know. Every one of them is impressive by any measure, the kind of individual you’d be proud to have represent your community. This is not to say that other Mashadi Jews are any less accomplished or praiseworthy, only that the ones I know and admire seem to have broken a boundary or two in terms of embracing the bigger world and welcoming differences. Yet, by their own estimation, they’re outliers who nevertheless continue to maintain a tenuous bond: The women are either unmarried professionals or married to non-Mashadis; the men are gay, or nonobservant, or married to non-Jews. They don’t live in Mashadi hamlets, they visit family once a week for Shabbat dinner, but they don’t go to shul regularly. For them, as no doubt for some other foreign-born Mashadis, there’s also the constant tension between a very international, the-only-real-boundaries-exist-in-one’s-mind worldview on the one hand, and a keen awareness of the limits of individual freedom and distinctive identity on the other. 

“For us,” the soon-to-be professor summarizes, “there’s no ‘me and me alone.’ Everything I do will affect many more people than myself.”

To belong, they must measure the resonance and repercussions of their individual actions in their community against their personal gain. To separate, they must be willing not only to abandon those they love, but also to break faith with a fundamental part of themselves. It’s the age-old question of the wisdom of assimilation versus maintaining one’s identity, a question that becomes increasingly urgent in today’s world as more nations are displaced and fewer boundaries remain. 

They’re successful and attractive because of their multinational background and broad-minded, cosmopolitan outlook. To achieve this, they’ve torn through fences and crossed borders.

And yet, paradoxically, they owe their multinational background and their awareness of what else is possible to the same insular mentality that prevented their ancestors from dissolving into the Muslim mainstream, encouraged them to travel to and settle in foreign lands, brought them out of Iran and to Long Island and Manhattan and Los Angeles. To prevent assimilation, Mashadi Jews traveled ever farther into the big, wide world. 

Once upon a time, their story may some day go, there lived a people who were at once Jewish and Muslim, Iranian and German and American, traditional and modern, insular and integrated, brave and reticent, proud and private. They endured adversity by holding fast and refusing to bend, outlasted the tides of history by relenting to change and adapting to circumstances. 

It’s a very Jewish story: To survive, you need the foot soldiers as much as the rebels. 

Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”