When local Iranian Jews gathered to honor Elias Eshaghian, a pivotal educator and director of many Jewish schools throughout Iran during the last century, Temple Beth El in West Hollywood was filled to capacity.
Treating him like a rock star, the crowd mobbed 70-something Eshaghian, seeking an autograph or photo op during the May 20 launch party for his Persian-language memoir, “A Follower of Culture.”
The book is a chronicle of the history of Jewish education in Iran during the 20th century, an effort that was supported by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a French Jewish nonprofit education and cultural organization.
“In Farsi we have a proverb from Saadi, the great poet, that says, ‘Attend to people’s needs and cure their pains, so that they will elevate you to their leadership,'” said Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist. “Mr. Eshaghian is a living testimony to the correctness of this ageless saying. His vision and his style of leading by example, if embodied within the present generation, will guarantee the continuation of a high quality social work among our future generations.”
Eshaghian’s inspiration to record his experiences of educating Jews in various cities in Iran came from his 20-year bout with lung cancer. He didn’t want the community to forget the important role AIU played in their family member’s lives.
“If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today,” Eshaghian said. “They went from constantly being harassed by the Muslim majority in Iran to becoming among the most educated and respected in the country.”
Iranian Jewish professor Goel Cohen, a faculty member at Teheran University, who helped research and co-write Eshaghian’s memoirs, said the book was a milestone in the community’s history because no other scholar had previously researched the dramatic impact of education on Iran’s Jews during the last century.
“You can see from this book that just within three decades, Jews in Iran went from being among the poorest students to becoming among the highest level of specialists in medicine, engineering, social sciences, pharmacology and education,” Cohen said. “When we as Jews have the right to learn and opportunities in a free society, we definitely do our best to contribute to society.”
For centuries, Jews in Iran were prohibited from receiving any form of education and restricted by Iran’s monarchs to live in poverty-stricken ghettos because of their religious impurity, according to “A Comprehensive History of The Jews of Iran” by Dr. Habib Levy. It was not until the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) that Jews and other religious minorities in Iran were granted greater individual freedoms, permitted to leave their ghettos and attain higher levels of education.
The AIU was only able to establish its first school in Tehran in 1898 with the special permission of the country’s then-ruler, Nassir-al-Din Shah. During the early 20th century, subsequent AIU schools were established in Hamedan, Esfahan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, Nahavand, Kermanshah, Bijar, Borujerd, Yazd and Kashan.
Eshaghian said he had tremendous difficulty as an AIU school director in initially attracting Jewish students in the different Iranian cities, where young children typically worked in their family businesses.
“I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools — many of those children today in the United States are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community,” he said.
Yazd’s Jewish community in the 1950s didn’t have a single doctor and most youth didn’t continue their education beyond the seventh or eighth grade.
“When I asked the Jews of Yazd why their children did not go to school after seventh or eighth grade, they told me that fervent anti-Semitism from the city’s Muslim majority made it difficult for their children to study and travel about. They believed the Jews were najes, or ritually unpure, and made it impossible for them to lead normal lives, let alone seek any serious high education,” Eshaghian recounts in “A Follower of Culture.”
Cohen and Eshaghian said they collaborated on the book to help future generations of Iranian Jewry in America understand their roots.
“I wrote this book only with the goal of educating future Iranian Jews about what circumstances we lived under in Iran, how we educated ourselves and pulled ourselves out of poverty,” Eshgahian said.
Cohen also said that despite the tedium of researching and interviewing, he was grateful to Eshaghian and Eshaghian’s family for their time, as well as their willingness to record an integral part of Iranian Jewish oral history before it was lost forever.
Eshaghian has been successfully waging a battle with lung cancer for the past 20 years. Where others might have long given up, the educator dedicated his time to community activism. Eshaghian said he has drawn tremendous strength to continue his battle with cancer by focusing on activities that directly benefit the local Iranian Jewish community.
“About eight years ago they elected me chairman of the [Iranian American Jewish Federation] and I told them I honestly could not with my health, but they told me it was a good idea because it would move my focus away from my illness,” Eshaghian said. “I must admit now they were right about it.”
Cohen said that there are plans to eventually translate Eshaghian’s memoirs to English.
“After 60 years of my life’s work in this community, I finally realized the fruits of my labors with the publication of my memoirs,” said Eshaghian, who began the project three years ago. “My goal with this book was for our young people to truly understand the tremendous obstacles we had to overcome as Jews trying to educate ourselves in each individual city in Iran.”
Read Karmel Melamed’s extended interview with Elias Eshaghian by visiting his blog, jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.
For more information, visit followerofculture.com