- Purchase/rental options available:
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 49-65
[Access article in PDF]
The Jewish Shah
"The Shah of Iran is Jewish," my father would remind us whenever the paper ran a story about Iran, which was often in those days, the sixties and early seventies. One issue of Life showed a magnificent red silk tent supporting a chandelier over a resplendent array of emperors and ambassadors dining in the desert at the shah's celebration of 2,500 years of Persian history and 30 years of his own Pahlavi regime. "Just don't tell anyone," my father warned. "If the shah knew we knew his secret, he would send his police to bump us off."
I loved to hear the story. As far as I could tell, it was the only romantic part of my father's life. He had served in India in World War II. His best friend, Sidney Polivy, another Jewish dentist from New York, used to joke that he and my father should slip over the border to Iran and visit the shah, who happened to be his cousin. As Sidney told the tale, four of his uncle's sons fled Russia in their teens to avoid conscription by the czar. The fifth cousin went east instead of west, making his way over the Caucasus Mountains to Persia. He tried to earn a living as a peddler but eventually joined or was inducted into a troop of Cossacks. He hid his origins, became a Muslim, rose quickly through the ranks. There was a coup. He changed his name and declared himself the shah. At the start of World War II, he threw in with Hitler, and his brothers in America washed their hands of their black-sheep relative. But seeing as how Sidney and my father were in the neighborhood, they might as well stop by.
My father and his friend never made it to Iran. Victory was declared and the men were sent home. My father opened a dental practice in the Catskills, and Sidney in the Bronx. "We drifted apart," my father said. "We would correspond, but not as often." Sidney and his wife drove up to see my parents. "Then we had a falling out," my mother said. "They never came back." She wasn't sure why. [End Page 49]
It bothered my father that he and his friend had lost contact. "We were like two brothers." He shook his head. "But what can you do?" The years slipped by. My father was looking forward to seeing Sidney at their thirtieth dental-school reunion. "Your mother and I had just walked in when someone ran up to me and said, 'Your friend Sidney just died.' I nearly fainted. It hit me like a ton of bricks."
In the years after Sidney's death, telling the story about the shah must have been a way for my father to keep his friend's memory alive. Besides, he believed the story. I believed it too. I wanted to believe it. And in the fall of 2000, when I had a year off from teaching and a grant to do some research, I decided to find out if it could possibly be true.
No matter what his origins, the first Pahlavi shah, Reza Khan, was an extraordinary man. Poor, from an unknown family, he ended the brutal reign of the Qajar tyrants who had ruled Persia unchallenged from the late eight-eenth century. Although Mozaffar al Din Shah granted his people a constitution in 1906, his son, Mohammed Ali Shah, tried to subvert his father's reforms by shelling the Persian parliament. Defeated not far from Tehran, Mohammed Ali Shah abdicated in favor of his adolescent son, Ahmad, and fled the country for Russia.
The friendship between the Qajar shahs and Russian czars had been cozy for many years. On a trip to Russia in 1878, Naser al Din Shah viewed a parade of Cossacks and was so impressed by their efficiency that he asked the czar to help him form a similar force in Persia. The following year, the...