Iranian Jewish Culure
Maliheh Sapir – Kashfi

Maliheh Sapir – Kashfi

Philanthropist, Children's Welfare & Women's Rights Activist

Maliheh Sapir-Kashfi was born in 1918 C.E. to an erudite Jewish family in Tehran. She was the fifth child of the late Es-hagh (Isaac) Fat-h-ollah Sapir, a goldsmith in the Bazaar of Tehran, who owed his fame and success to his honesty and fairness. Her mother, Nosrat Khanom, came from the renowned Hakim family, who were revered for their public services. Nosrat’s father, Hakim Soleiman (Shlomo) was a skilled doctor of the court of Mozaffar-addin Shah, the King of Qajar, while his grandfather, Hakim Mashiach (Messiah) was the doctor to the court of Nasser-addin Shah of Qajar. The latter was also the founder of the Hakim Synagogue, as well as the Hakim Public Bath, dedicated to the Jewish minority, and the water reservoir in the Oudlajan Jewish neighborhood, which he donated to the Jewish community.

Maliheh Sapir-Kashfi received her elementary education at the Nour-e Sedaghat “Light of Honesty” School, and following her family tradition, he then completed her high school studies at the American School, even as she learned English, earning herself the Diploma in Child Education. Like her two brothers and two sisters, beginning with her school years, Maliheh’s interests lay in volunteering for social services and cultural endeavors. In particular, with the onset of World War II, Maliheh joined her brother, Dr. Rouhollah Sapir, as his activities were reaching their peak, and as a member of the Center for Iranian Jewish Youth, she did her utmost to provide and promote public hygiene. As such, she assisted the deprived sectors of the society who lived in the Oudlajan Neighborhood, the “Jewish ghetto”, who were at the imminent risk of a serious outbreak of such contagious diseases as typhus and typhoid.

The Oudlajan neighborhood suffered from extreme hunger and poverty, excessive contamination, the lack of medical facilities, and a negligence of hygienic principles. Such poor conditions could only be exacerbated by an influx of Polish refugees, as war-stricken children were placed in the Neighborhood House, while the war patients were taken to Kanoon Kheyr-Khah, “The Philanthropy Center”, i.e. the Jewish clinic. The typhus outbreak claimed scores of innocent lives throughout Oudlajan, and it did not spare the young doctor himself. While serving the patients up close, Dr. Sapir himself contracted the disease and passed away shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1943.

The untimely death of Dr. Rouhollah Sapir came as a major blow to the Iranian Jewish community, and no one took it harder than his youngest sister. Maliheh fell ill in bed, isolating herself for more than a year from the public eye. Shortly afterwards, with support from her husband Jamshid Kashfi, and joined by select friends, she set out to establish a relief organization to help the impoverished families, especially those of Oudlajan. Thus, with help from Jamshid Kashfi and the American Jewish Joint, she formed the Social Affairs Council, and for the first time, assisting the poor found itself an orderly organization. Under her directorship, a case was opened for each family in need, which at the time amounted to a total of 2000 files.

Photo: Maliheh Sapir – Kashfi with her brother, Dr. Rouhollah Sapir

Maliheh Kashfi’s philanthropic endeavors were motivated in part by her desire to pursue her late brother’s benevolent goals, and to keep Rouhollah Sapir’s name alive within the Jewish community. These could only strengthen her resolve to achieve her own humanitarian ideals.

Maliheh Sapir-Kashfi had married Jamshid Kashfi in 1935. The marriage had no doubt a major impact on the destiny of this benevolent couple, especially on Jamshid’s social activities. Dr. Sapir’s death only intensified this impact. Maliheh’s philanthropist instincts made her take on various social and cultural responsibilities, often assisted with her husband, who was by then the Jewish Community Representative in the Iranian National Parliament. Together, Maliheh and Jamshid made every effort to solve the social problems that faced the community; and the many meetings and seminars that they attended, and their many domestic and foreign trips, spoke of their commitment to the social affairs.

It should be noted that Maliheh’s presence next to her husband Jamshid Kashfi made her shine singularly in the history of Iranian Jewish women. Her name and image at the speeches given during the national parliamentary elections marked her significant contribution as a spouse, a partner in life, and a modern woman, in the contemporary Iranian political and social spheres.

In the aftermath of WWII, countless mothers and children were living in extremely difficult conditions, desperate for social, cultural, and hygienic assistance. Thus, in 1948, initiated by Maliheh Kashfi and her friend Shamsi Hekmat, and joined by the cooperative hands of a few other Jewish philanthropist ladies, The Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization was founded, an institution which would prove to have a tremendous impact on the fate of Jewish women.

Maliheh Kashfi was elected as the first president of the Board of Director’s of Women’s Organization, and in that capacity, she began her efforts by aiding the mothers and children in need. Started out with a handful of members, the movement was joined soon by a large number of Jewish women, so far as in less than a decade, the Women’s Organization would turn into one of the largest and most important of Iranian Jewish organizations. Thereafter, the fame of Iranian Jewish women in the larger history of Jewish women would no more be confined to a mere few names, such as Queen Esther, Queen Shushan-dokht, or a few philanthropist ladies. Instead, they could see their name shine as a sun that rose everyday brighter than the last and more fruitful than ever, in the skies of the Iranian women’s life.

In 1959, on behalf of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, Maliheh Kashfi traveled to the United States to participate in the National Conference of Jewish Women. Attending the seminars, she presented her own speeches, and offered radio and television interviews, through which she described Iranian Jewish condition to the American public. During her four-month stay, she learned from the example of American women organizations as she studied up-close one of the largest of such philanthropist committees, The National Council of Jewish Women. And she returned home with fresh and precious experience.

Upon returning from the United States, Maliheh established immediately the first preschool founded by the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization in the Oudlajan Neighborhood to be run by modern and progressive methods. Before long, the success of the Preschool made her open another one on Gorgan Street, Tehran, and two more in Shiraz and Isfahan. For ten years, more than 3000 children were nurtured in these preschool centers, which provided them with the best conveniences and hygienic facilities, and a warm meal per day. Years later, in 1983, the Yalda Preschool was opened in northern Tehran, although in the years between, the Women’s Organization had opened several other active branches in other Iranian cities to offer their services.

The unceasing humanitarian efforts of Maliheh Kashfi and other members of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, and the elevation of the Iranian woman’s rights and status in this organization, both in Tehran and in other cities, have been registered permanently as an important chapter in the history of Iranian Jewish women. Among her many initiatives, in 1960, and as Ha-Rav Levy was visiting Tehran, Maliheh Kashfi decided to establish a girl’s branch for Otzar Ha-Torah; and given her qualifications and experience in the field, she was granted the permit to establish the Girl’s Schools of Ganj-e Danesh, “The Treasure of Knowledge,” which opened at the beginning of the school year.

Maliheh Kashfi had a major role in reclaiming Jewish women’s repressed rights and helping them out of a pitiful situation, especially in regards to matters of inheritance and divorce. Together with Shamsi Hekmat, two friends who in so many ways complemented one another, they proposed and contacted directly the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Yitzchak Nissim, to whom she expressed the legal and social conditions of the Iranian Jewish women. Later on, when Chief Rabbi Ovadya Yosef visited Iran, she accompanied him to Isfahan and Shiraz and pointed out to him up-close the problems that befell the community. Indeed, after a thirty-year campaign, Maliheh Kashfi had managed to prepare the minds of the community for the promotion of women’s rights and the girls’ share of inheritance.

Following the Islamic Revolution, Maliheh Kashfi left behind 32 years of dedicated services, and together with her family, and against her deepest desires, she immigrated to Los Angeles. Past the prime of youth, she had left behind the fruit of decades of hard work in her homeland, yet she arrived at her new home with a basketful of invaluable experience. With help from old friends, Shamsi Hekmat in particular, she bravely continued performing her role in the society through the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization of Los Angeles, where for years, either as its director or a high-ranking member, she actively fulfilled her responsibilities.

In May 1998, the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization of Los Angeles celebrated Maliheh Kashfi for more than half-a-century of social and cultural services, and they offered her an Honorary Award through the hands of Prof. Amnon Netzer. That recognition came years after her husband, Jamshid Kashfi, had praised her selfless services toward the Jewish community in several of his verses. The verses, written for and dedicated to Maliheh, were included in his book, Rahnamay-e Sa’adat, “The Guide to Happiness.”

Maliheh Sapir-Kashfi died in March 2004, at the age of 87, due to illness. She lived in good fame, and she left behind a good name. Her social role and her many endeavors and campaigns appeared to be modest and were in earnest, far from any quest of fame. She never withheld help when she could offer one. With a heart full of love and compassion, she was one of those rare people who had everyone’s trust and respect. The manuscript of her short autobiography reads in part, “My way of life has always been and will remain to be about serving the people. With people I laugh, and with them I cry. My happiness is in the happiness of the others. I’ve always shared in the sorrows of my fellow human beings.”

Following her death, on behalf of her relatives and the Iranian Jewish community, a memorial plaque was installed in her name at the central library of the Tel-Aviv University.

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