It was the evening of April 24, 1979, and it changed my family’s life, the lives of many in our community, and the lives of a group of teenaged girls we did not know.
The Persian Empire had existed for thousands of years. Somehow, Persia became Iran and the empire shrank, but it did endure into the twentieth century, so that in 1971 Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi declared and celebrated its 2,500th anniversary. There was splendor, glory, and the expectation that another 2,500 years might be in store. Alas, this was not to be, and a short eight years later, it all came to an end. There were riots in the street for months, and in January, the Shah went on “vacation” outside the country. On April 1, 1979, he was officially replaced by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
As a result of this revolution, Iran became a theocracy. Laws protecting the rights of women in marriage were declared null and void (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica), and the streets were taken over by religious “komitehs” (committees) that enforced codes of dress and behavior. Life also became much less comfortable for Iranian Jews, who had prospered under the Shah. They were not allowed to leave the country, but there was a loophole: It was possible to send children overseas as students, their parents remaining to ensure their return.
Before the revolution, Rabbi Herman Neuberger had been to Iran and had begun bringing boys to Ner Israel. They were supposed to return to Iran after their studies as rabbis, teachers, mohalim, etc., to strengthen the community. As it turned out, during the upheavals – through contacts he had made when times were good, and with the help of a non-Jewish couple named the Cassidys – arrangements were made to bring some teenaged Iranian girls to study in Baltimore. To support this, a community gathering was held in February 1979 at the Baltimore Bais Yaakov. The purpose was to find volunteer families to provide housing for the young women. My wife and I were curious, and we decided to attend to hear what was going on.
Rabbi Hirsch Diskind and Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg presided, and Mrs. Esther Tendler also took part. We were informed of what we already knew: The girls would be coming, and families were asked to host them. There were a myriad questions: When would they be coming? “We don’t know.” How many of them will there be? “We don’t know.” What will be their ages? “We are not sure but probably 12 to 13 years old.” Will they speak English? “We don’t know.” How long will they be with us? “Perhaps a few weeks, perhaps longer, or perhaps you will be adopting them!” Finally, we did get a definite answer to one question: What do they eat? All speakers agreed that they eat “a lot of rice.” (Nothing else? What about cholent??)
Most of the girls would be from Shiraz. (Where was that?) They would be Jewish but not well educated in Judaism. However, unlike American girls, they would be open to tradition and not at all rebellious. (Well, fast forward about six months or so, and … ahem!) We were told they should be integrated into our families and should share in the chores. We should be solicitous of their needs but remain in authority. We should try to preserve their Sefardi identity.
“How do we do this while integrating them into our families?”
“Next question please…”
* * *
That night my wife and I had a long talk. Well, baruch HaShem, we already had a wonderful family. Could we take anyone else in? We had financial obligations outside of our immediate family; could we afford it? This would truly be a leap into the unknown. I would like to say that it was a deep desire to help the young people that motivated us to say yes, but it was really something else. We had both learned Jewish history. We knew about the exiles, the pogroms, the aliyahs, the way that Jews have always helped each other. We remembered our grandparents’ emigrations from Eastern Europe and Operation Magic Carpet that rescued Jews from Yemen. A new chapter in Jewish history was about to begin. How could we not be part of it? How could we tell our grandchildren, “Yes, it was a special time, but we were on the sidelines”? My wife had always been amazed that these historic events were carried out by ordinary people, and we were certainly ordinary, so how could we say no?
We gave the committee a tentative yes, and then…nothing happened. Days went by, weeks. Were they ever going to come? In truth, I began to feel a bit relieved. Maybe it would all blow over. Then, one day, the world turned upside down. A phone call: “They are coming today!” What? So soon? Arriving in the U.S. today? “No, coming to Baltimore this evening! They are 15- to 19-year olds. Be at Rabbi Taub’s shul at 10:30 tonight so you can pick up your girl!”
My father was ill, and my wife had pneumonia (how do you spell that in Farsi?), but THIS WAS IT! No turning back!
After a long and complicated trip, which involved some time in Rome, the girls had arrived in New York. The plan had been for them to arrive in Baltimore on the afternoon of Monday, April 23. They would go through an orientation session at Bais Yaakov and then, through a careful and thoughtful process, be matched with appropriate families. Well it didn’t work out exactly that way. There was a short delay (about a day-and-a-half), and the girls arrived at about 10:00 p.m. the next night. The people in charge had rented a bus and asked the girls to contribute towards the cost. Apparently, coming from a Middle Eastern culture, it was necessary to bargain with them. This was difficult for the Western askanim, until a 14-year-old Iranian boy was brought in. He told them to pay. They paid. They were used to males being in authority and they deferred to one even when he was several years younger than they were. (After a few months in America, this sort of changed!)
* * *
I will never forget the scene at the shul that night. When I arrived (one of the first there) at 10:15, the girls were sitting around a table writing out sheets of paper with their names, ages, and a few other scattered pieces of information, such as whether they spoke any English. Although the original plan had been for them to arrive earlier so that proper shidduchim could be made, the late hour meant that it had to be done quickly.
A committee of rabbanim took the information they had written into a side room, and we family members were left alone with the girls. On one side of the shul stood the parents, all of them looking scared. On the other side stood the girls, looking even more terrified. Oh, there were attempts from each side at smiling at people on the other side, but everyone knew this was just nervousness. Our fear was heightened by the bits of conversation among the girls that we managed to overhear. It was some very strange foreign language. We had studied French or Hebrew in high school, but none of our schools had offered Farsi as an option. Eventually, a couple of girls who knew some English acted as translators, as some of the braver teenagers ventured questions, such as how many families there were or whether the families had children.
As the standoff continued, a girl in a blue dress stepped forward and asked to talk with one of the leaders. (We had leaders?) She seemed outgoing and confident and could speak some English. She asked if she could be placed in a family by herself, so she would be forced to interact with them and better learn English. I remember thinking: She is around 16, outgoing, confident, and pleasant – this is the girl I want! Another girl then came forward and asked the same thing. She did not make the same impression on me, and I hoped she would not be our new daughter. I was immediately disappointed in myself – how could I think that way? What was wrong with me?
Apparently I was not the only one with such feelings, however, since a few minutes later the parents began kidding around about whether those of us who came earliest would get first choice. I asked if it would be reasonable for any or all of us to present requests to the committee in the other room, and all agreed that there was nothing wrong with this. A couple of times, I walked towards the committee room intending to say, “If there is a choice, I would prefer the girl in the blue dress,” but in the end I did not. I guess I realized that this was not a meat market. These were frightened young women who did not know if they would ever see their parents again. How could I feel negatively about any one of them? I steeled myself to accept and care for (and love?) whomever it might be.
* * *
Meanwhile, the rabbanim worked on the “shidduchim.” It was a sobering feeling for all of us to realize that in a short time decisions would be made that would affect all of our lives greatly, yet there was little basis for intelligent choice.
Much too soon, Rabbi Steinberg (as I recall) came out with a stack of papers. We gathered around him, and each parent was given a slip of paper with their name at the top and the name of a young lady beneath it. There was also some basic information about her. The girl’s name was then called out, and the families were “introduced” to their new daughters (most of whom spoke excellent Farsi!). There was no time for formal introductions, just nervous smiles again, and the newly formed family units left to go home. Finally, my turn came: “Goldfingers – Azitta Sehatti.” Azitta came forward. She was the girl in the blue dress! I was elated! (I know that the Ribono Shel Olam does not give us challenges we cannot handle, and He had me well-calibrated as a person who needed an easy time). She smiled, of course, and greeted me in her somewhat limited high school English. Wonderful, we can communicate. But, then again, for months afterwards, our phone rang constantly as families asked Azitta to interpret for them.
I asked her if she would like to go “home,” since it was late. She said, “Okay.” (I guess she had a good English textbook.) I helped her with her luggage and noticed that it was of high quality. I also saw on the meager information sheet that her father was a physician in Shiraz. Was she from a well-to-do family? Would she be disappointed with our rather meager house and guestroom? (And the paint was peeling in the guest bathroom!)
Still in a state of high anxiety, I helped Azitta with her baggage, we got into the car, and started driving to her new home. Not knowing just what to (attempt to) say, I asked her “What do you like to eat?” Although she had a strong accent, I understood her when she replied, “Do you know what is pizza?”
Well, I thought, this just might work out!
From the Other Side of the Room
As told to Devora Schor
Rivka Cohen, wife of David Cohen of Kosher Bite, was one of the Iranian girls in the room on the night that Dr. Goldfinger describes. She left Iran in the spring of 1979, when she was 17.
The Shah had already left Iran, and Khomeini had arrived two weeks before. The country was in turmoil, with rioting in the streets. Some activists, including Rabbi Neuberger, z”l, from Ner Israel, arranged for Iranian girls to leave the country and come to Baltimore. All the girls who wanted to leave were encouraged to register with the rabbi of our shul, Rabbi Baal-Haness. (He currently lives in New York.) My four sisters and I registered, and then waited to see if we would get visas.
When we hadn’t heard anything for a while, we went to check with Rabbi Baal-Haness to see if our visas had arrived. For some reason they had forgotten to call us. I was the only one among my sisters who got a visa, and the plane was leaving the next morning at 7 a.m. I was determined to leave, even though there was no time to pack. My sisters and my mother just laughed, because they thought it was impossible for me to be ready to leave with such short notice. But I was determined, and I made it on to that plane. Sara Baalness, a good friend of mine from Iran, was on the plane with, me. She also lives in Baltimore now.
We arrived in Italy and stayed in a nursing home there for three weeks. We arrived in New York close to Pesach. Two organizations met us with buses to transport us to the homes of the families that would host us for the Yom Tov. Some of the buses were from the Agudah, and some were from Lubavitch. We did not know anything about either organization, but we ended up on the buses sponsered by the Agudah.
After Pesach, we came to Baltimore and met our host families at Rabbi Taub’s shul. My first hosts were Dovid and Linda Gottleib. After they made aliyah, I moved in with Lynn and Bob Kahana. I was too old to go to Bais Yaakov, as I had already graduated high school. We attended classes to learn English at Pikesville High School.
It was interesting to read Dr. Goldfinger’s article and to hear the perspective of our host families. Of course, we girls were very scared, because the future was completely unknown to us. But it seems that it was not so simple for the host families either.