January 22, 2019

I used to be an ‘impure’ Jew, too

Last week, an Israeli family vacationing at the Aparthaus Paradies hotel in Arosa, Switzerland, came upon a sign at the entrance of the hotel pool that read:

“To our Jewish guests

Women, Men and Children

Please take a shower before you go swimming and although [sic] after swimming. If you break the rules, I’m forced to cloes [sic] the swimming pool for you.”

Another sign on the refrigerator in the hotel lounge addressed “our Jewish guests” and stated that the refrigerator would be open only from “10 to 11 a.m. and from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. I hope you understand that our team does not like being disturbed all the time.”

It did not take long for news outlets ranging from The Jerusalem Post to CNN to report the incident and a flurry of outraged social media posts from Jews worldwide to decry that the signs were clearly anti-Semitic. Some people did not initially believe that the story was real.

Addressing various Swiss and Israeli media, hotel manager Ruth Thomann insisted that the pool sign was misunderstood, explaining that she had put it up because “some of these guests went swimming with clothes on, with T-shirts, and didn’t take a shower.”

I can only assume that she was referring to more observant Jewish guests who entered the pool wearing T-shirts in observance of their modesty restrictions.

As for the note, Thomann added that since the establishment regularly accommodates Jewish guests who wish to keep their own kosher food in the hotel’s refrigerator, she was only trying to clarify matters for the kitchen staff.

“I used the wrong words,” she concluded, boasting, “We have lots of Jewish guests, and they have been coming here for 40 years. I would not take Jewish guests if I had a problem with them.”  

Her attempted clarification could have been more comforting if not for that last assurance.

The signs have since been taken down, and Thomann said that she understood why they sparked accusations of anti-Semitism, saying, “I made the [pool] sign without sensitivity and now I am paying for it dearly.” Still, she promised, the hotel “will have lots of Jewish guests next year.”

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely called the incident “an anti-Semitic act of the worst and ugliest kind.”

I am not certain of either Thomann’s innocent intentions or that the signs displayed anti-Semitism at its “worst,” and that is only because I was born a Jew in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Identity is a filter, and I read and process every news story related to anti-Semitism, whether in Switzerland or Virginia, through the lens of an Iranian Jew. And like most Iranian Jews, I know about the concept of impurities, or nejasat, and specifically, of Jewish impurity, because it has existed in Iran, whether as state law or in the ugly psyche of an anti-Semitic citizen, for centuries.

I have always found the physical concept of the literal dirty, impure Jew to be much more stinging than other anti-Semitic notions, because it paves the way for very real physical humiliation, separation and, in many cases, violence. No one wants to walk the earth as a seemingly contaminated or polluting force.

In a chapter titled, “The Impure Jew” in the acclaimed book “Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews,” Hooshang Ebrami expounds on a series of nejasat laws against the Jews of then-Persia beginning in the 16th century that included the following unbelievable restrictions, most of which are unknown to Jews around the world today, including American Jews in Los Angeles who never may have asked their Iranian-Jewish friends or co-workers about anti-Semitism in Iran. These restrictions included, but were not limited to:

• Jews were not allowed to use public baths.

• Jews were not allowed to open shops in the bazaar or city streets.

• Jews were not allowed to leave their homes on rainy days, lest their impurity mix with the water and touch a Muslim’s skin.

• Jews were not allowed to purchase fresh fruits and certainly were not allowed to touch any goods at Muslim bakeries.

• Jews were forbidden from painting their homes white, because the color signified purity. They were also forbidden from riding white donkeys.

• The street-facing doors and the walls of Jewish homes had to be shorter than those of Muslim homes, so that Jews literally had to crouch in a humiliating fashion when they entered their dwellings.

It is important to note that violations of these restrictions were punishable by death.

Most American Jews today also are unfamiliar with the tremendous impact that European anti-Semites, most of them spies who were disguised as citizens ranging from merchants to teachers and had entered Persia in the 16th century and beyond, had on convincing thousands of Muslim Persians that Jews were physically contaminated.

Ebrami notes that the impact of Spain’s Inquisition and “Purity of Blood” movement, which focused heavily on the impurity of Jews, was “unquestionable” regarding the Jews of Iran, “because in the period when European agents were extremely active in Iran, the most repulsive set of anti-Semitic regulations was issued by the Shiite clergy — regulations that drove the ‘impure’ Jews into progressively more wretched living situations.”

Of course, no religious or ethnic group with such seemingly dirty traits would have been totally free to live among and mingle with the general population, which explains why the Jews of most cities, including Tehran and Shiraz, lived in their own Jewish quarters, although some of them inevitably lived there even before the nejasat notions began because they understood that separation from Muslims also would aid their safety and survival.

At the beginning of the 20th century and the constitutional revolution of Reza Shah Pahlavi, laws relating to Jewish impurity diminished and the Jewish quarters of various cities shrank in size as more and more Jews felt a relative sense of freedom and mobility to climb social, educational and economic ranks. The last person in my family to live in the mahaleh, or those Jewish quarters, was my great-grandmother. Today, they are but mere narrow alleyways that echo the pain of memory and injustice. How I wish that I could return to Iran and visit the old mahaleh in Tehran carrying a Book of Tehillim and my precious American passport.

Yet, the concept of the najis, impure Jew was an idea difficult to remove from the minds of many Iranians, even as decades passed and Iran modernized under the shah’s son, who was ousted during the 1979 Islamic revolution.

As a 5-year-old in 1950s Golpayegan, a city in the province of Isfahan, my father once stood in the outdoor bazaar and ran his small hands over some supple grapes. When the shopkeeper saw this, he asked my father not to touch any fresh fruit or produce. When my plucky father asked, “And why not?” the man responded, “You know why not, boy.” It was a small community and most everyone knew who was Muslim and who was Jewish.

Twenty years later, while studying in the United States during the late 1970s, just before the revolution, my father lived near campus with a fellow Iranian who was a Shiite Muslim. Based on a hunch that the man was uncomfortable sharing physical space with a Jew, my father deliberately threw his “impure” status all around the apartment. In fact, each time that his roommate would step out of the shower in his towel, my father would give him a friendly slap on the back and ask him how he was doing. This would send the young man back into the shower to decontaminate himself. When he re-emerged, another “brotherly” slap awaited him, until he had showered three or four times. This happened on a monthly basis.

By the time I was growing up in Iran and entered the women’s public bathhouses with my mother in Tehran in the 1980s, no one bothered to ask whether we were Jewish, although I did notice that some merchants at the local bazaar seemed very uncomfortable when my mother squeezed the persimmons and apricots. The more they grimaced, the more she squeezed.

My parents are fantastic.

Of course, after the Islamic Revolution and as if on cue, the Ayatollah Khomeini made official statements regarding Jews and Christians, otherwise known as “People of the Book,” by decrying that “non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najis.

As mentioned, most Iranian Jews are familiar with the concept of nejasat. In her April 7, 2017, column for the Journal, author Gina Nahai recalls how in the 1980s in Los Angeles, she was seated next to an old, Iranian Muslim woman, who gathered her coat and tried to inch as far away in her seat from the contaminated Jew as possible. She goes on to say that in the 1990s, during a book talk in Portland, Ore., one female Iranian Muslim — a dentist, at that — confirmed that Jews were actually najis. They also have small tails, she declared, without repudiation from a single soul at the event.

The connection between Iran and Switzerland is not lost on me, although I am less interested in the authenticity of Ruth Thomann’s explanation and more energized by the outrage of the Jewish community. Ultimately, the incident in Switzerland points to a very real, valid and heightened sensitivity on the part of Jews worldwide against even the seemingly smallest acts of anti-Semitism, whether in Europe, the United States or most anywhere else, with the exception of the Middle East, where anti-Semitism is a sad given.

A part of me wants to believe Thomann, although I would be more convinced if, by next Rosh Hashanah, she actually set up a structure near the hotel pool that featured a kosher mikveh for the visiting Jewish men and women.

As for me, I am moved and relentlessly grateful for the little things, such as living my existence in America, running my hands over as many cucumbers as I like at Whole Foods, and walking tall and upright through the doorway of my home after a relaxing afternoon ride on my snow-white mule.

Tabby Refael lives, writes and walks in the rain in Los Angeles.