After Reza Shah’s visit to Urmia, he renamed it Rezaiyeh, because he was enchanted with its beauty.
One hundred ﬁfty years ago, there were 120 Jewish families living in this city. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, many of them immigrated to the Promised Land, and some to the USA. Only 30 families remained. With the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty and Khomeini’s arrival in Iran, these families have also emigrated from Iran. According to recent reports, only two Jewish families remain in Urmia today.
On Shabbat eves, members of the Jewish minority of Urmia would come to the synagogue and pray. During the week the number of worshippers was less than ten, and unfortunately with fewer than ten people (a “Minyan”), it is impossible to say the Kaddish prayer and venerate those who have passed away.
Our rabbi not only gave sermons from the Bima (synagogue pulpit), but was also qualiﬁed to slaughter chicken and lamb, and sold kosher meat. We, the families, would buy kosher meat from him. We had another cantor, who would lead prayers in the synagogue, and on Shabbat would read the holy Torah (Book of Law) aloud for all the worshippers. He had seven sons, who all live in New York now.
The third cantor was Agha Penhasi, who would read the Shabbat afternoon prayer with his pleasant voice.
On Passover, we would perform the traditional spring house cleaning and prepare Matza — unleavened bread — which we had to eat for the eight days of the holiday. We would buy wheat, wash and dry it thoroughly, and then grind it to ﬂour. There was a Muslim woman who had an oven. She would make a batter with this ﬂour and eggs, and bake in her oven. It was delicious! I can still feel the taste in my mouth. In accordance with Jewish law, we didn’t buy anything from the marketplace: not milk products, not meat or poultry. During these eight days we would only eat things we had at home. They used to make a dish called Qaliyye, which was a mix of eggs, potatoes and meat. At the end of the eight days of the holiday, we would spread a tablecloth with cakes and pastries. The traditional table also held Samanu — a sort of wheat pudding, and some gold coins in a goblet full of water. We would dip our hands in this water to bless the house — that is, move the coins to and fro with our ﬁngers and ask the Lord to grant us good business. Samanu and coins in water are part of the traditional table Iranians spread in Nowruz, the New Year holiday, which is also a spring holiday.
Among the merchants, if anyone had gone bankrupt, everyone would gather and work together to bring him out of bankruptcy.
To make a long story short, the Jewish community of Urmia was tight knit and united like one big family.
Of course, there were also people who were ﬁlthy rich but never helped anyone, and everyone hated them.
I remember on Saturday afternoons when the weather was pleasant and it didn’t rain, we would go to a village near the city, with a river ﬂowing nearby. We would spread blankets, cool bottles of arak in the cold river water, and have a banquet with fruit, salads and various delicacies. The children would also play soccer. I had a car, a Paykan, which I would ﬁll with family members and go back and forth three times to bring my sisters and the rest of the family to the park.
Everything went with the wind at the beginning of the revolution in 1978. Most Jews either emigrated to Tehran or ﬂed, with great risk and difficulty, through the Turkish or Pakistani borders.