Being a light unto the Jews

My father-in-law, Yaghoub Shofet, is a Persian Jew who was born and raised in Iran. He is from a rabbinic family. His father, and all his ancestors on his father’s side, were rabbis. His older brother, Chacham Yedidia Shofet, was the Chief Rabbi of Iran during the reign of the shah.

Throughout his adult life, my father-in-law was a “loan broker.” He would introduce individuals who needed to borrow money to those who had money to lend, and would make a commission in the process. His clients included Jews and Muslims, both as lenders and as borrowers.

In 1978, a prominent Muslim merchant in the Tehran bazaar named Haji Agha Reza Aminiha needed a loan for his business, so he asked my father-in-law for help. My father-in-law, who had known Haji Aminiha for decades and had faith in his integrity, introduced him to two Jews who agreed to lend him money. My father-in-law also lent some of his own money to Haji Aminiha. Haji Aminiha executed a proper promissory note, and the money exchanged hands. The note had a due date of mid-1980, with an interest rate of 16 percent per annum.

By early 1979, however, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was in full swing. Jews started leaving the country in large numbers. They left behind untold numbers of properties and assets, certain in their belief that soon they would go back and reclaim everything when things calmed down. Among these Jews were the individuals who had lent money to Haji Aminiha.

In early 1980, my father-in-law planned to take a “short vacation” and go to Israel for a few weeks. He wrote a letter to Haji Aminiha informing him of his upcoming trip. He also reminded Haji Aminiha that upon his return, the promissory note would become due, and included in his letter the amounts he would owe to himself and the two other Jews. He dated and signed the letter, and had it delivered to Haji Aminiha.

However, my father-in-law and the other two Jews never returned to Iran, and no one ever bothered to contact Haji Aminiha about the loan. Relative to all other assets left behind, the amount of money loaned to Haji Aminiha was insignificant. My father-in-law finally settled in Los Angeles, the other two Jews moved to Israel and New York, and the loan was quickly forgotten.

Thirty-three years passed. Then, in November 2011, my father-in-law received a phone call at his home in Los Angeles. Someone from Iran was calling him. The caller introduced himself as Mohammad, the son of Haji Agha Reza Aminiha. Mohammad explained that his father had recently passed away, and going through the files and papers in his father’s desk, he had come across a letter from 1980, signed by my father-in-law. He now was calling to find out if his late father had paid off his debt to his three Jewish debtors before passing away.

My father-in-law told him that the loan was not paid off, but that there was no longer anyone to claim the loan — the other two Jews had been deceased, and my father-in-law did not expect any payment. He gave his condolences to Mohammad and wished him well.

But Mohammad would not give up. He insisted that his father’s soul would not rest unless this loan was paid back. He assured my father-in-law that this was simply an oversight by his late father and accepted full responsibility for paying back the money. He asked my father-in-law to contact the children of the other two Jews and explain the circumstances, in the hopes that they would accept payment on their deceased fathers’ behalves. He also insisted on paying 33 years’ worth of interest, as required by the promissory note. In return, Mohammad asked that all three families “forgive” his father’s soul for this infraction.

The son asked for one last favor from my father-in-law: He explained that he is an employee in an office with an average income. He is married with three children, and also supports his divorced sister with four kids. He asked my father-in-law if he would be kind enough to allow him to pay back this debt in several installments.

We Jews have always been proud of being a “light unto the nations.” The prophet Isaiah comforted the people of Israel as they were being exiled from the Holy Land, promising them that their descendants — that is to say, us — would be a standard of ethical behavior for those of other faiths and creeds to emulate.

But there are times when the tables are turned, and those of other religions act as examples for us. It has become an unfortunate symptom of our duty to “enlighten” other nations that we are sometimes blind to being enlightened. Mohammad is a Muslim man deeply rooted in his faith and his belief in God. Even though he was born and raised in a country steeped in anti-Semitism, somehow Mohammad has found the strength to rise above his cultural norms and upbringing, and sanctify the name of God. That single quality is one we can all learn from, regardless of the form or function of our religion.

Being a decent human being is something that transcends religions and geographies. My father-in-law once told me a story of his childhood. He explained that as a 12-year-old boy growing up in Kashan, Iran, he was responsible for manning the cash register at the shop of a local Muslim merchant. The merchant not only trusted him with the money, but asked him to empty the cash register each evening and take all the cash home so that the money would be safe overnight. The merchant chose this 12-year-old not because he was skilled with money, but because he was the son of a holy man and an honest boy. The Muslim man chose a Jewish child for his honesty, because that is a value we all recognize as universal. It is a lesson we can all learn, and not only from Jews.

Behrouz Soroudi was born in Iran and attended the USC School of Architecture. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children, and constantly struggles to teach his kids that decency transcends religion.