“When Khomeini came to power, they arrested Mr. (Habib) Elghanayan who was the head of the Iranian Jews and they killed him. After this matter, we (Jews) realized that if a person that was a great man like Elghanian, who was a member of the Chamber of Commerce in Iran and the head of The Jewish Federation, could be captured and killed, then it could happen to any other Jews at any time.”
In these difficult and unprecedented times, we look to our elders to seek guidance and inspiration. How have they survived and thrived in the face of life’s challenges? How do they find joy, embrace change, and plant roots for the future? What can we learn from them to help us confront and overcome our own struggles? Roots Radio is a new community-sourced podcast launched through our Federation’s Young Adult Initiative NuRoots, showcasing the voices, stories, and family histories of the generations that precede us. This project was generously supported by the Jewish Community Foundation of L.A.
As part of Roots Radio, NuRoots’ community member Daniella Kahen interviews her grandfather, Mehdi Bobof. His incredible story takes us from Iran to Israel to Los Angeles and teaches us the importance of perseverance and hard work.
Roots Radio: https://www.nuroots.org/radio
Download Danielle and Mehdi‘s Podcast: https://www.dropbox.com/s/e1h3rwygskrsoe9/Roots%20Radio%20Episode%203%20%5BPersian%5D.mp3?dl=0
Where were you born? Could you please tell us more about your family?
I was born in the Jewish ghetto in that time before Reza Shah (the king of Iran), which was the Qajar period (1785 – 1925). The Jews had only one area there, and they did not have the right to come out of the Jewish ghetto or buy a house in other streets. Because of that, this area always was full of Jews who were sick, because of the bad quality of water and streams of water full of rats and dead cats. At that time, a normal life expectancy was 40. The area of the Jews was near the part of town where all the trash of the city would be thrown (Sareh Chal) and the smell of that trash always lingered.
All the Jewish people were desperate and poor at the time and did not have a lot of money. They would walk around the streets to sell clothing and shirts or they may have had small groceries or butchery or carry things for people and businesses. The majority of the Jews did not have an education. If anyone had the ability to read, it was only about Torah and Hebrew that they learned from their rabbis. They couldn’t read or write in Persian.
Fortunately, when the Qajar king traveled to France, Alliance Israeli of France visited the king and asked for permission to open schools in Iran, and the king accepted. So, the French came to Iran and in Jewish areas started to build Jewish schools — one in Tehran, one in Shiraz, in Esfahan, and Hamedan — and they built these Jewish schools in other cities where Jews were living. The secret to Iranian Jews prospering during the Pahlavi regime were these Jewish schools that Alliance Israeli established in Iran. In these schools, they taught the children how to speak Persian, French, and Hebrew. And sometimes they gave the children clothes for free to help the poor.
At the time when we were there in the Jewish ghetto, there were eight synagogues. A big one was Ezra Jacob synagogue that has a big yard with a Tanoor (a big oven made with plaster and mud) for making matzah on Passover. But the other seven synagogues were in very narrow streets, where no more than two people could walk in together, to minimize attacks. The Jews in Iran were very orthodox and religious. They loved their religion and they observed Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and the other holidays very strictly.
But the great thing was that when Reza Shah was in power, he let the Jews freely leave the Jewish ghetto. And when we graduated from Alliance school, and universities opened at that time, the Jews who studied French and had a strong education entered the university as soon as possible. They mostly became physicians, pharmacists, and dentists and started working and opened their businesses.
The period where Reza Shah ruled Iran was the brightest period for Iranian Jews to be free. In 1320 (1941), the World War started, and England and Russia attacked Iran and exiled Reza Shah from Iran and then Mohammad Reza Shah (Reza Shah’s son) came to power at only 22 years old and did not have the charisma and strength of his father. His father started working with the Iranian military as a child until he became king. His father defeated the clergymen because they were the ones who controlled the education systems, Justice system, and even marriage and divorce. They would issue religious orders/laws that did not always make sense for people and would take bribes, but Rezah Shah stopped all of them and built schools, created a court system, and cut their off their power. But because Mohammad Reza Shah was very young and the time that he was king the county was occupied, and he did not have the power to force them, the clergymen became stronger again and took some controls again in the Pahlavi era.
What was your earliest relationship with the state of Israel?
When we were in Iran, before 1948 when Israel was established, Israel didn’t exist. But a short time before creating Israel, Jews in Iran started “khalootz” (pioneers), a movement at the end of the War that gave hope to Iranian Jews that Israel (a State for the Jewish people) will be created because many German Jews and Polish Jews were already moving to Israel with the intention to start to build Israel. When in 1948, Israel became a State, some people in Iran started to encourage Iranian Jews to move there and started to choose young people so they could work there. They didn’t let the elderly go at first. The first group that moved to Israel was a group of 20 young adults from the ages of 19 to 21 who volunteered to go help build Israel, and I was included in that group. At that time, there weren’t any flights between Iran and Israel.
Then we got an airplane with help from Zoochnoot and they took us to Cyprus, where we stayed for two days. After these two days, a small airplane for 20 people arrived and took us to Haifa. In Haifa, they made a camp of small tents for one or two people with a bed on the ground and nothing else. And there was a hall for lunch and dinner. They divided people into groups and gave them food. After 2-3 days, they moved the 20 of us to a Kibbutz in Kinneret, which was one of the best Kibbutz in Israel because it was close to the Lebanon border. There was a 4,000- person capacity there with a basement full of weapons. There were some people from the army, some colonels, and heads of army who came to check everything and to teach shooting and fighting to young people. They taught them to fight and stop enemies in possible attacks from Lebanon.
The Kinneret Kibbutz was close to Kinneret Lake. It was about a 10-minute walk to the Lake from our Kibbutz. Usually we went there with a car, and we swam in the lake sometimes like on Shabbat. When we went to the Kibbutz, we started to work from day one. They gave each of us something to do in a small wooden room. We were two to three people living together in one room, sleeping and working. Some of us picked potatoes, some tomatoes, some bananas. Some of us would feed the cows, some would clean, some would cook in the kitchen. They gave everyone a job to do but (18:00) because at that time we couldn’t speak in Hebrew and only knew Persian, they put four to five of us together in one place so we could talk and communicate together as we worked.
Living in a Kibbutz was a cohabitation. Nobody charged anyone, money didn’t have a significance there, everyone did his job in turn for others, and sometimes people who lived there for 20 years brought food for others and we’d eat breakfast there together. In the morning, around 5:00-6:00 AM, we’d work without breakfast but later, around 7:00, they’d serve us breakfast. After that, we were working again, until lunch. And then we worked for a total of about 8 hours. For me, since I had never done work like that before, it was so hard working there. One day, they asked me and a man called Elias Khodadad to unload a big truck full of potatoes in the storeroom. They put some timbers there so we can go up on the timber, and it was 40-50 pounds, he put it on my shoulder and sometimes I put it on his so we can go to the truck and bring potatoes down. It was 5 tons of potatoes for us two to take and unload. In the evening, our backs were all scratched up and because we weren’t used to this kind of work, it was so hard for us! All in all, we stayed there about two months.
How did you feel about Israel?
We all were full of feelings for Israel, otherwise we wouldn’t move there! After our group of 20, the institute in Iran was sending youngsters to Israel, and then they expanded to Jews in Kurdistan, where there were Kurdish people. The farmers were hard workers; they were sending them with all their families. At that time in Iran, there were 120,000 Jews. After creating Israel, 40,000 of these Jews moved to Israel. And after that, there were only 80,000 Jews in Iran. So right before the Iranian Revolution (1979), there were 80,000 Jews in Iran (since many moved to Israel).
Did you ever think that a revolution would happen to Iran?
A revolution is something that nobody thought would happen in Iran bThe period before the revolution was mostly a time of peace, calm, and comfort. People became very rich and wealthy and had everything they needed. There were many jobs, and many foreigners came to Iran to work including from Korea, the Philippines, and other countries. The most brilliant period of Iran’s history is the last years of Mohammad Reza Shah’s period. Most of the Jews became very wealthy because they had an upper hand in running the businesses, were in construction, and established many factories. Most of the Iranian Jews lived a comfortable life. And nobody imagined that a revolution would happen, because the Iranian army had 400,000 Members. They had police stations, and Iran had good and friendly international relations with other countries. People were rich, they were selling oil, factories were successful, Iran had high imports, good exports, so Iranian shoe factories were exporting shoes for millions of dollars to the Soviet Union (Russia), exported grains, exporting rice to Russia. Iran also exported so much food to other countries and nobody believed a revolution would ever happen.
What are you most proud of in your life?
Honestly, I have two ethics that I’m most proud of. First, I always do what I promise to someone, and I am always on time for whoever I promised. If I have an obligation or debt, I’ll pay it off on time. Second, I always help anyone who needs my help, and I don’t hesitate to help. If someone is sick, I will take him to the doctor. If someone is poor, I will help him out. If someone needs a job, I’ll give him a job. If it’s possible for me to guide someone, I’ll do it. If someone is in trouble or has a problem, I will be present for them. Anything I can do to give them peace and calm so they can move forward, I will do everything that I can.
What are your words of advice for the next generation?
My advice to them is that you should always have perseverance and keep trying. Always be honest, and do not lie in both businesses and life. Always fulfill your promises, and do not make promises to someone if you don’t intend to fulfill them. I believe religion is a good thing, but the best thing to do is help others. Sa’edi (a very famous Iranian poet) said, “Worshipping is nothing but serving people.” If someone worships G-d and then abuses people, it is better to not worship G-d, but serve people.