Murray Koppelman, a money manager who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, visited the Iranian city of Isfahan recently on a “pleasure trip,” went to the city’s main synagogue for Friday night Shabbat services and photographed this scene of Iranian Jewish life shortly before sundown.
At the bima, in the traditional Iranian sanctuary of the Yaakov Synagogue, one of three Jewish houses of worship he visited in Isfahan, stands a young member of the congregation.
Koppelman, a former president of American ORT, says the synagogue, like many Jewish sites in the predominantly Muslim land, keeps a low profile. A Muslim guide led him, and Alan Kronstadt, a fellow traveler, into a general store where they found the owner wearing a black yarmulke and selling a variety of handmade Judaica. Then the proprietor directed them, through a back alley, to the synagogue, which had no outward markings.
“As soon as we walked into the building, we saw the Star of David,” Koppelman says. “The two of us made the minyan, so they asked us to stay so they could start the service.” Afterwards, the worshippers made Kiddush over wine and cake. Although Islamic law bans alcohol, “Jews and Christians are permitted to have wine, which is brewed in people’s homes,” he said.
Isfahan, formerly the country’s capital, has a population of 3.5 million, the second largest Iranian city after Tehran, the current capital. About 10,000 of Iran’s 16,000 Jews live there.