Hanukkah not the big Jewish holiday in Iran.
Isaac Yomtovian, who now lives in Ohio, graduated from secondary school in Iran before the revolution and says, "Under the Shah and the Islamic Republic, Jews have been able to practice their religion and study the Hebrew language."
But, he says, "Under the Shah, you could be any Jew you wanted to be [whether that be Reform, Conservative or Orthodox], and you could have an Israeli flag. Now the Jews of Iran are under the laws of Islam." Boys and girls are segregated and Orthodox Judaism is the only acceptable form of Judaism in Iran, as it is the only accepted form in Israel.
"In public events," Yomtovian said, "you have to be extremely careful about the selection of music, holding hands and dress code. If it's religious music, it's okay."
He said the Shah had a "much bigger box" of tolerance for Iranian Jews. When he was younger, he was able to put his lit menorah in front of his window at Hanukkah. "Now they have to be lighted inside the house. You have to be a lot more careful," he said.
Hanukkah is a major holiday for American Jews, largely because it falls near Christmas and the gift-giving that pervades Christmas can be handled by Jews as a Hanukkah event. But, religiously speaking, Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday and is not a big event for Iranian Jews.
In Iran, however, the minor religious holiday of Purim is a very big event among Jews because Purim centers on the story of Esther, the queen of ancient Persia and, unknown to the king, a Jew. Esther was able to foil a plot by one of the king's aides to kill all the Jews in the empire.
Jews in Iran never had rabbis as defined in the West. "The teaching is done by 'learned Jews' who formed a committee in each town and would teach the children," Yomtovian told his home town paper, the Chagrin Valley Times.
Yomtovian said students graduate from their Jewish classes once a year and their graduation ceremony would take place during Hanukkah. A large table would be laden with gifts: "pens and pencils, albums, transistor radios and tennis rackets."
The best students' names were called first so they were able to get the prime picks of the lot. The students who didn't do so well in their Jewish classes usually ended up with the scraps--pens and pencils.
After the ceremony, the children would watch a Hanukkah play at the largest Jewish high school.
Yomtovian immigrated to Israel in 1966 and eventually attended the Technion Institute of Technology. He moved to the United States in 1971.