Moshe (not his real name, lest the wrong people read this) looks like any other religious Jewish man in Jerusalem — dark hair, dark beard, wire-rimmed glasses, poring over a Talmudic tome in a yeshiva. No one would suspect that he is the great-great-grandson of a former Shah of Iran.
Moshe’s life has had more dramatic twists than the Disney movie. He is a scion not of the Pahlavi dynasty, which was deposed by the Islamic Revolution after two short generations, but rather of the Qajar dynasty, which proudly ruled Persia for ten generations. He remembers visiting his great-grandmother, the daughter of Mohammed Ali Shah Qajar, whom they called the “Little Princess” until her death at age 99, who used to regale him with stories of growing up in the palace, in the shadow of the Peacock Throne. He also remembers escorting his great-uncle into a room of Persian expatriates in Europe; everyone bowed to his uncle and called him, “shazdejeun, great son of the king.”
It was the first of three times in her life that Mina would lose everything in a single night.
Moshe’s grandmother was married off to an aristocrat whose fiefdom was far from Tehran. “In great aristocratic families, it’s not good to work,” explains Moshe. “All his life, my grandfather didn’t work, but he gambled and did opium.” One fateful night, when Moshe’s mother Mina was nine years old, her father gambled away everything he owned — his palace, his landholdings, his stable of Arabian stallions. The family was cast out of their home with barely food to eat.
It was the first of three times in her life that Mina would lose everything in a single night.
The family retreated to Tehran and was given an apartment in the palatial home of the Little Princess, Mina’s grandmother. The family had lost its wealth, but not its prestige. “People in Persia are very proud of their origin,” comments Moshe. “People respected my mother because she was high-born. Even if you lost all your money, you are still respected. Persians are very proud, and if you are aristocracy, it’s even more so.”
But at age 17, Mina risked losing even her status. She fell in love with Charles, a European Christian living in Tehran. When she revealed to her mother that she intended to marry this man who was neither Persian nor even Muslim, her mother threatened to disown her. Mina did not back down. At the end of a raging argument in which her mother told her she never wanted to see her again, the door was closed behind Mina, leaving her on the street with a single suitcase.
Too chaste to go to Charles’s apartment, Mina sought shelter with a friend. The friend took her to a large house filled with women and gave her a room. After some time, a French man entered the room. It turned out that the place was a brothel. She escaped and fled to Charles.
Charles, at age 22, was a budding scientist and a man of eloquence and charisma. He went to Mina’s mother and eventually convinced her to accept the marriage. Although Mina had a strong belief in God, like most of the Persian aristocracy she was a lukewarm Muslim. She converted to Christianity and the couple had three weddings: civil, Christian, and Moslem.
Childhood and the Revolution
They lived in Tehran and Charles launched a company based on his scientific discoveries. In 1971, their second son Henry (later to become Moshe) was born. Strangely enough, his grandmother insisted on having him circumcised on the eighth day. He was also baptized as a baby. He was not given a Persian name, nor did his father permit him to learn to read and write Persian. Charles wanted his son to feel that the world was his home; his fate was to grow up with no home.
Charles’s business was successful, and Henry was raised in the lap of luxury: his own horse, skiing every weekend, vacations in European capitals, and an Occidental school attended by the upper class. He remembers the privileged precincts of North Tehran as “a paradise for children. People were extremely good and friendly, we had a huge family, and I watched English television.”
His idyllic childhood was ended by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. “People were killing each other in the streets.”
His idyllic childhood was ended by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. “People were killing each other in the streets,” Moshe recalls. “I used to go to my school in a school bus. One day one of the school buses was blown up by a rocket. All the children on the bus were killed. Two days later my brother and I were in Europe.”
They arrived in their new boarding school in the European countryside in a chauffeured Rolls Royce. None of the locals had ever seen such a sight. They thought the boys were from the family of the fleeing Shah.
During the first phase of the Revolution, Iranians across the political and religious spectrum were united in their desire for liberty and to get rid of the Shah. Had Mina been a Pahlavi, she would have been executed. Instead, she was from the revered Qajar dynasty. Like many of the aristocracy, she made an amiable alliance with the new government. A year later, she brought her sons back to Iran.
For Henry’s family, the national chaos was exacerbated by personal tragedy. Unscrupulous Western concerns had been trying to buy Charles’s innovative technology, but he had repeatedly refused. Finally, two Harvard men came to Tehran and over a period of a few months implemented a carefully plotted scheme to win Charles’s confidence. One night they plied him with liquor and got him to sign his business away. Overnight, the family lost everything. A broken Charles went to Europe, where he tried to start over again. A few months later, the family was notified that Charles was found dead, apparently of a heart attack.
Protégé of the Ayatollah
Mina was now alone, but undaunted. She approached a company that had been associated with her husband and asked to work for them. They offered her a lowly position as a salesperson. She converted a room in their small apartment into an office, and started from scratch. Her efforts, however, were undermined by rampant government corruption.
“Any time you have a problem, just call the office of Ayatollah Khomeini and he will take care of it.”
Mina went directly to Ayatollah Khomeini. Henry remembers the servants in his home during his halcyon childhood speaking of the coming of the Messiah. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Persia at the outset of the Revolution, virtually the entire populace regarded him as the Messiah. Mina, shrewd and secular, was an exception. But when she spoke directly with him to complain about government corruption, she became star-struck. Khomeini would not look directly at a woman’s face. Nevertheless, by the end of the interview, Mina had become his faithful protégé. Upon arriving home, she received a phone call saying, “Any time you have a problem, just call the office of Ayatollah Khomeini and he will take care of it.”
For the rest of Khomeini’s life, even during the most violent days of the regime, Mina enjoyed his personal protection. “The government feared my mother,” asserts Moshe. Several years later Mina had become a fantastically successful businesswoman.
Meanwhile the Revolution had entered a repressive phase. The religious zealots began to kill off all the other factions. Moshe remembers watching the movie Z in the home of the first Minister of Justice after the Revolution. Two years later, that Minister was murdered by Islamic radicals.
“Tehran became like the Chicago of the 20s,” remembers Moshe. “People with machine guns were gunning down other people in the streets. They closed the Occidental school my brother and I attended.”
Mina wanted her sons to become educated, cosmopolitan people. She decided that they had no future in the new Iran. A year after bringing them back, she again sent them to Europe, this time for good. Henry was nine years old when he bid his final farewell to the only home he would know until he created his own in Jerusalem.
The boys attended a Christian boarding school. They were completely alone in a foreign country. They had no contact with their father’s relatives, who had failed to attend Charles’s funeral; Mina had severed all ties with them. Mina visited two or three times a year, taking them on vacations to the United States, Vancouver, Hawaii, Spain, etc., but even on vacation her attention was on her business.
For high school, the boys attended the International School of Valbonne on the French Riviera. Known as “the school of geniuses,” it was the academy of choice for the sons of heads of state from every continent.
Throughout his teenage years, Henry engaged in a quest to find ultimate Truth. He read copiously in literature and philosophy. He dabbled in Spiritualism, Epicurean philosophy, art, and theater. He experimented with Zen meditation; after just a few months he attained “a sort of Nirvana.” With shoulder-length hair and all black clothing, he walked barefoot around Valbonne’s campus.
His quest for Truth did not take him to religion. Having been raised by monks in Christian schools, he did not take Christianity seriously. Having been exiled by Islamic zealots, he had no respect for Islam. His quest was intellectual, not religious, and God played no part in his life.
Then one day while he was in college, Henry had a mystical experience. He was suddenly, powerfully gripped by a consciousness of God as real and immanent. This state, which was not drug-induced, lasted a fortnight. After it ended, Henry wanted nothing else as much as to re-experience that God-consciousness. As an intellectual, he trusted his mind and knew that what he had experienced was an unadulterated dose of Reality. But where could he find God again?
One evening while in law school, some of his secular Jewish friends mentioned that they were going to a Jewish class that evening. Henry invited himself along. As Henry attests, “Everything the rabbi said, I felt, ‘This is what I have been seeking.’” His Jewish friends soon stopped attending the weekly class, but Henry continued. He resonated completely with the teachings. In a bookstore, he found some classic Jewish texts, such as the Kuzari and The Path of the Just. Reading them, he was overwhelmed by the sense, “Yes, this is what I want.”
The Path of the Just, an 18th century text describing the ascending levels of character refinement and spiritual attainment, became for Henry a map back to the God-consciousness he had known and lost.
After law school, Henry decided that it was not enough to study Judaism; he had to live it. He made up his mind to convert to Judaism, but when he tried to make an appointment to initiate the conversion process at the city’s Beit Din (Jewish court), he was ignored. Finally he phoned the Beit Din and asked to speak to the Chief Rabbi “about something very important and private.” The secretary asked what he wanted to speak about, but Henry insisted it was private. He was given an appointment, but as soon as he told the Chief Rabbi why he had come, the Rabbi told him, “I have ten minutes, not one minute more, to give you.” An hour later, he was still engaged in an intense conversation with Henry. At the end, the Rabbi told him, “Come back in one year. In one year, I will accept you.”
“For an aristocratic Persian, becoming a Jew is the most awful thing you can do.”
Henry understood that it was a test of his sincerity and persistence. The Rabbi did not know that he was dealing with the undauntable Qajar breed. A year later, Henry came back. After two years of studying how to be a Jew, Henry converted at the age of 28. Six months later, he married Noa, and they made aliyah to Israel, where he studies in yeshiva.
Converting to Judaism meant forfeiting his aristocratic prestige, his mother’s approval, and all connection to his extended family. “For an aristocratic Persian, becoming a Jew is the most awful thing you can do,” declares Moshe. “It’s simply unimaginable. It’s shameful.”
During the long conversion process, he never became discouraged by the prospect of losing all the privileges of his birth and upbringing. “I believed something,” Moshe attests. “I believed that Torah is the Truth, and I wanted to have it. I didn’t want to just learn about it. I wanted to reach the spiritual heights described in The Path of the Just.”
After his conversion, Moshe had a conversation with his brother. “Why don’t you convert?" Moshe asked him. "You know Judaism is true.”
Moshe’s brother replied, “I know it's true but I can’t convert. I love luxury and comfort too much.”
Sitting in his simple Jerusalem apartment, surrounded by his wife and children, Moshe ponders the trade-off he made in choosing truth over comfort. Did he get more than he lost? Moshe’s answer is a broad smile.