TEHRAN, Iran -- In this Islamic city, children are learning Hebrew.
Seated at tables in a synagogue, boys and girls diligently copy the alphabet into workbooks. A bright-eyed 5-year-old proudly announces, "aleph," as her pencil draws the first Hebrew letter.
Mothers sit at a long table nearby. Each holds a worn copy of a Hebrew prayer book, the body of divine knowledge and law of the Jewish people. They take their turn to read aloud the prayers of their ancestors.
Continuing the circle
"The Hebrew language is an entrance to understanding Torah," says Houshang Elyassian, the 58-year-old manager of the largest synagogue in Tehran. "They have to learn how to speak, how to write . If they do not, they will not be alive in the future. They must continue this circle."
The Iranian Jewish community is among the oldest in the Middle East. Most of the Jews of Syria, Iraq and other countries hostile to Israel have long since fled. But despite Iran's strong enmity toward Jerusalem, Jews here continue to live among their Muslim countrymen and practice their faith.
They worship in 40 synagogues across the country. They operate schools, bury their dead in their cemeteries, perform marriages under a wedding canopy, dine at a kosher restaurant and own a hospital and nursing home.
Iran's Jewish population numbers about 30,000 people, down from about 67,000 in 1970. Two factors encouraged emigration: the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the fall of the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The Islamic revolution led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni ushered in an era of drastic social change.
Regardless of their religion, women are compelled to conform to the Islamic dress code -- the tent-like swath of material known as a chador or a head scarf and long coat that covers everything from the hairline to the curve of the ankle. For 18 years, the Jewish women of Iran have been so attired in public.
Privately more open
But in private, at their religious celebrations, they are free to dispense with the rules of Islam.
Jews drink wine at a bar mitzvah, the ceremony at which a young man accepts the responsibilities of an adult. Women dance with the father of the bride at a wedding -- whether they are related or not. Their sons can discuss a Persian poet with teen-age girls at a meeting of a Jewish youth group.
If Islamic rule has restricted certain areas of life, it has strengthened some Jews' commitment to live more observantly.
"It got more important after the revolution," says Nahid Elyassian, who observes kosher dietary laws, walks to synagogue on the Sabbath and sends her children to Jewish schools. "My parents didn't feel the need to send me to Jewish schools. But I feel the need."
In Tehran, there are four Jewish elementary schools, four secondary schools and two high schools. But the Iranian Ministry of Education administers the schools, the principals are Muslim and the only Hebrew spoken is during the four hours of theology taught weekly by a member of the Jewish Society of Tehran.
Patients are Muslims
At the 110-bed Jewish hospital, most patients are Muslim.
"It's a big pride for the Jews to be providing for their fellow Muslim citizens," says Parviz Yashayaei, a film director who oversees the Jewish society.
The society is located on the third floor of a nondescript building that also houses an Iranian tax office. A mezuzah, an ornament containing a tiny prayer scroll, appears on the door posts in accordance with Jewish law.
"Although after the revolution, there was this hot subject of Israel and the relationship with Iran; from the religious aspect of the government, they have always been extra kind and considerate of the synagogues," says Yashayaei.
He presents a visitor with a letter sent to the head of the Iranian community from newly elected President Mohammad Khatami: "I hope that with the help of God and the friendliness and cooperation of all of the followers of the godly religions, we will be more successful in achieving the high goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Although Jews freely practice their religion, lay members lead the congregations. The last ordained rabbi who worked here left several years ago and has not been replaced. But all that is necessary for services is a group of 10 men, a "minyan."
The Jews have their own seat in Parliament -- the member takes the oath of office using the Hebrew Bible.
But their lives are affected in other ways because they live in an Islamic theocracy. Jews cannot hold a top position in the government. They can advance only so far in the civil service.
They faced similar restrictions before the revolution, Yashayaei says. And yet, he says, the real problems facing Jews may occur in the day-to-day dealings with the bureaucracy. Jews may have a harder time receiving permission to publish a book or receiving a speedy trial because of a Muslim's "own grudge, attitude or prejudice," he says.