Iranian Jewish Culure
Dr. Habib Levy

Dr. Habib Levy

Dentist, Historian, Philanthropist

Dr. Habib Levy believed that the main reason for the frailties of an individual Jew was his or her loose faith in Judaism and their deficient knowledge of it. And all through life, he carried the burden of his fellow Jews’ pains and suffering on his own shoulders.

Habib Levy was born on the 13th of Cheshvan 5656 of the Hebrew calendar, i.e. October 31st, 1895 C.E., to a wealthy Jewish family of the Sar-Chal neighborhood, Tehran. According to his notes, his birth almost coincided with the opening of the first Alliance Israélite School in Tehran (1898), the publication of The Jewish State by Theodor Herzl (1896), and the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, headed by Herzl (1897).

Habib Levy’s maternal ancestor, Hakim Yehez-ghel “Dr. Ezekiel” was a traditional physician of the royal court of Nasser-addin Shah of Qajar, while his grandfather Ezra Yaghoub was a philanthropist businessman who at the time had trade relations with Manchester, England, besides being at the forefront of public service. The Ezra Jacob Synagogue, the founding of a series of Talmud Torah classes, a water reservoir in the Sar-Chal “Oudlajan” Neighborhood, i.e. “the Jewish ghetto” of Tehran, which could hold a six-month supply of water for that Jewish community, were among the fruits of his philanthropic services, and all of which bear his name.

Habib’s father, Rachamim a.k.a. Rahim, had learned modern goldsmithery in Istanbul, Turkey, and he worked in the court of Mozafar-addin Shah of Qajar as one of trustees of the gold factory.

In 1911, no older than 15, having completed his studies at the Alliance Israélite of Tehran, the young Habib left for Paris to pursue his higher education in dentistry.

Upon arrival, Habib’s young age compared to the older students surprised most everyone. But the most important effect of this displacement was the chance he was offered to compare and contrast the new place with his birthplace Oudlajan, where oppression, suffocation, limitation and insult ruled, and where accepting such humiliation had become a life habit. Life in Paris, this cradle of civilization, was thus even more surprising to the young Habib, for at every corner, there were talks of freedom and equality. He enjoyed the equality of socializing with the French Jews, as well as the ample opportunity to read books, the press, or educational and cultural publications. The streets of Paris fascinated the young man, who felt as if he had walked into the promised Paradise. These early decades of the 20th century coincided with the flourishing of the European Jewry in political, scientific, cultural and economic areas. Great Jewish figures earned themselves names and ranks. Alliance Israélite grew vast across the globe, and people in the West grew more knowledgeable about the Jewish culture and history through speeches and in print.

As WWI came to an end, Habib Levy received his Bachelor’s degree in Dentistry and returned to Iran. At 22 he opened his first practice, and in 1921, following the successful coup by Reza-Khan Pahlavi, he was appointed as the Head of the Dental Services of the Military. He was the first and only Iranian Jewish doctor to be selected by Reza-Shah as his personal dentist.

In 1917 and as the Balfour Declaration went public, Soleiman “Shlomo” Kohan-Sedegh stepped forward to found an institution to teach the Hebrew language. Two years later, he invited Dr. Habib Levy to join him in this endeavor. Dr. Levy accepted to collaborate in the project, and given his knowledge of the experiences of the European Jewish movements, he played an important role in changing the name and nature of this new institution, The Central Zionist Association, and in shaping its new organization. While establishing a connection to the International Zionist Congress, he opened 18 more branches of the Association in several Iranian cities and was appointed for awhile as the vice president of the Association.

In 1931, to extend his cultural activities and to raise youth knowledge and awareness, he established the second educational center of the Jews of Tehran, The Kourosh “Cyrus” Elementary School. Before long and given his persistent efforts, the center expanded to include a high school. He also established the Sina Club and the Wiseman Cultural Association. In 1933, his fruitful cooperation with Dr. Goldberg led to establishing the Sochunt. In 1942, as the German forces advanced toward the Soviet Union, some Polish Jews managed to flee to Russia, and a number of them took refuge in Iran. Habib Levy and a number of his philanthropist friends planned and set up a camp to accommodate these homeless Polish refugees in Tehran. Later on, after providing them with necessary treatments and assistance, they took important steps to help them immigrate to the Promised Land.

Dr. Habib Levy was no doubt an exceptional figure with multifaceted talents and capabilities. Ever since a little child, he showed a deep love toward the Jewish culture and its customs. His gifts as a writer were directed more toward research and reflection. He loved to write, and since his days of youth to his last moments of life, he did not stop writing.

Besides publishing his breakthrough three-volume History of Jews in Iran, as well as The Codes and Commandments of Moses and My Memories, he wrote tens of articles and treatises, some of which were published in European publications under the title The Children of the Neighborhood (Ghetto). In recognition of his humanitarian efforts, and as a true Jewish person, a scholar, and a historian, Dr. Habib Levy earned numerous prizes, medals, commendations and honorary awards from cultural and academic institutions and universities around the world.

As a young man in Paris, Habib Levy read Heinrich Graetz’s History of the Jews, which led him to pursue research and writing in this field. Although the Iranian Jewish community at the time was feeble and in disarray, he braved to walk onto this vast and tumultuous field, unearth the history of his fellow people, search for their birthplace in the abyss of time, and shine a new light on their forgotten past. What gave him the miraculous energy to pursue this task were his love of Judaism and his faith in the teachings of Moses. Dr. Levy strived for over 40 years to collect relevant sources and references so far as he could. He travelled to 31 countries in four continents, went from one library to another, looked into the books, page after page, and searched for any chapter, paragraph, or a single piece about the history of the Jews of Iran. Patiently, he knocked on every door to shed some light on the dark corners of this history and make the unfathomable understood.

Finally, in 1956, the first volume of A History of Jews in Iran was published. It would take another four years to publish the final two volumes and complete this arduous project that had consumed 44 years to come to fruition. The cultural value of his Jewish history rose to the point that the greatest professional dissertations around the world considered Dr. Habib Levy’s writings as the only reliable source for the history of Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries.

With the onset of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Dr. Levy left the country and immigrated to the United States. He spent his years of retirement in Los Angeles on writing and doing historical research. In the 1980’s, Dr. Levy had to undergo surgery due to a thyroid illness. The surgery

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