Having been born in Iran, you might assume I am Muslim. If you know a little bit more about Iran, you would not be surprised to learn that I’m Jewish. I like to tell people that I am a descendant of Queen Esther who lived and stayed in ancient Persia even when the rest of the Jewish people returned to Israel. While there are more than a few of my relatives named Esther in my family tree, and my maternal ancestors come from Hamedan (the town where Queen Esther was buried), unfortunately I can’t back up this royal claim.
While I might not be a descendant of Esther, you’d probably still be surprised to find that I’m not only from Iran, and Jewish, but also a follower of Jesus… and I’m not the first of my family to believe this. Faith in Jesus goes back for several generations in my family. Not only was I born into a family surrounded by a community of Jewish believers in Jesus in Tehran, but the same was true later when I moved to and grew up in “Tehrangeles”. Although my Jewishness was inherited, true faith only came through a very personal journey.
This photo, circa 1910, is of the Persian maternal ancestors of Emmanuel. The man in the middle with the white beard is Ruben, Emmanuel’s great-great-great-grandfather. Back row: far left, Tallah, his great-great grandmother; middle, with hat, Mashiah, his great-great-grandfather. (Mashiah means Messiah.)
My maternal great-great-grandfather, Hakim Musah, was an elder in a synagogue in Hamedan, Iran, in the mid-1800s. One Sabbath day, a Russian missionary came to the synagogue and spoke to Hakim, who was greeting people at the door. He asked him, “Did you know that the Messiah you are expecting has already arrived?” and told him that Jesus was the Messiah. Hakim was so upset that he slapped the missionary in the face and threw him out of the synagogue.
Because Hakim was well known in the community, the missionary learned where he lived and went to visit him at his home. Because of Iranian hospitality, Hakim invited the missionary into his home and served him tea and something to eat. Sharing from the Hebrew Scriptures, the missionary showed him prophecies about the Messiah that he believed had been fulfilled in events recorded in the New Testament regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The missionary continued to visit Hakim until, over time, my great-great-grandfather came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish people.
My paternal grandfather, Azizolah Mebasser, was the son of Shimon, a rabbi in the city of Kashan, Iran. Azizolah came to believe in Jesus because he attended a very prominent high school run by Christian missionaries in Kashan. Until 1920, Iranians did not have last names. When last names became normalized, people often took on the names of the towns they were from to distinguish themselves. My grandfather, instead chose the last name “Mevesser,” which means “bearer of good news” in both Hebrew and Farsi. He spent his life telling others about Jesus, or “Isa1,” as we call him in Farsi.
Jewish faith in Jesus was passed on from generation to generation on both sides of my family, so my parents are Jewish Iranian believers in Jesus. I was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1978. The Islamic Revolution took place when I was three months old. My parents knew that Islam in Iran would bring trouble to Jews and Christians alike. So, we fled and moved to Los Angeles or, as the 800,000 plus other Iranians there like to call it, Tehrangeles.
Emmanuel celebrating passover with maternal grandparents, cousins, and friends as a child.
Not only was life in Tehrangeles an extension of life in Iran for my family, but we also held on to our Jewish traditions and identity. I grew up knowing what God meant to me because my family read the Bible and celebrated Jewish holidays together. Passover was my favorite holiday, but it wasn’t until later in life that I realized the Iranian Jewish celebration has a different flavor than it does for the rest of world Jewry. I was shocked that other Jews did not know the tradition during the singing of “Dayenu” of whipping one another with giant green onions—to the point of getting bruises!
Because of my parents’ faith, I grew up knowing who the God of the Bible is. I enjoyed a good life as an Iranian, and as a Jew. I tried to obey the commandments in the Scriptures, but I felt I was lacking something. This became evident in my life in public schools in Los Angeles, where survival was a major feat of sustained anonymity for me, from dodging gang wars and declining designer drugs, to ducking away from the sexually promiscuous culture of my classmates.
When people at school invited me to take part in any of the above, I told them I didn’t want to. When they asked me, “Why?” I responded, “Because it’s wrong,” and they called me a “goody two-shoes.” I really didn’t understand why I couldn’t do those things, except I knew the Bible said they were “sins” and that it would dishonor my family. On those rare occasions when I challenged my friends as to why I should join in with them, their only answer was “because you can.”
This surface-level morality was good enough for me to cruise along in life until the summer before my senior year in high school, when my best friend, a believer in Jesus, asked me to help him lead a Bible club at school. Until then, my faith, or what there was of it, was more my parents’ than my own. Now that my best friend was asking me to share my faith with my classmates and lead people in studying the Bible, I had to be sure I knew what I believed.
This became all the more evident when I began to talk with other people about Jesus, they would challenge my faith, questioning the validity of the Bible. They asked me questions like, “How could a loving God send someone to hell who’s from some remote land and has never heard about Jesus?” I began to ask myself, How can I really know and understand God if I don’t question Him and the Bible and find out for myself what is true?
I wanted to know that God was real and what He wanted from me. I began to ask people who seemed to have genuine relationships with God how I could hear from Him myself. They told me to read the Bible and pray and seek God with persistence, and He would reveal Himself to me. I took that challenge. Around that same time, the youth leader at my congregation, who taught my friends and me from the Bible, sat us down and asked, “How many of you know that if you died today, you would go to heaven?”
I searched my soul and considered the weight of his words. I had read through the entire Bible with my family, but when it came down to it, I really didn’t know whether God would accept me. One example of my doubt was from a passage in the New Testament I had read that Jesus would return to Earth to fulfill his Messianic role and descend from heaven, gathering his followers at the sound of the shofar (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). I often dreamed that I would hear that trumpet call and would start to ascend into the sky toward Jesus, but then I would hit my head on the ceiling of my bedroom and be left behind! Even in my dreams, I knew that I had not completely entrusted my life to Jesus.
So, on that day, when my youth leader asked me if I knew whether I would go to heaven, I told him I didn’t know. As we talked more, he reminded me of this passage in the New Testament: “… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). I prayed with him to acknowledge Jesus’ death as the atoning sacrifice for my sins. I knew in that moment that God had accepted me.
I chose to follow God with all my heart. I began to read the Bible again, not just as a portion of Scripture to cross off my checklist, but as the living and breathing Word of God. I knew that the faith of my forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and King David, whom God called a man after His own heart—was my faith too. I had found a greater calling in life, not just a list of rules to follow.
Upon this realization, I could now tell my friends in high school that the reason I would not take part in their rebellious actions was not just because the Bible said not to, but because those actions would hinder my relationship with God and distract me from my heart’s desire to follow Him.
People began to see a change in me and even respected me for my faith. While I was not looking for my peers’ approval, those who knew me—although they didn’t agree with my reasoning or my faith—defended me when others scoffed at me for not taking part in their sex/drugs/no rules lifestyle.
Moving into adulthood I didn’t really have direction in my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to study in college, or what to do with my life when I grew up. As I learned to seek God for direction, I realized that that the truths of life that God had revealed to me needed to be shared, and that I had a unique talent to be able to use art to share stories about God with others. This led me to getting involved with Jews for Jesus to create graphics, animations, cartoons, videos and evangelistic websites, with the aim to engage in sincere and open conversations about what it means to be a follower of God.
Because I took up this direction in my life, the faith of my forefathers—including my grandfather, who chose our last name Mebasser (“bearer of good news”)—has become a legacy I can proudly uphold. But life is a lot more than just an expression of God’s good news. It’s been many years since I dedicated my life to God, and life has taken many turns, but one thing has been constant, God has been faithful to His promises.
One way I saw God’s faithfulness was in my looking for a wife. I used to tell people that I wanted to marry an Iranian-Jewish believer in Jesus. I knew that the number of people who matched that criteria was really low, but if that’s what God wanted too He would bring the right person along. When I met the woman I would eventually marry, she was Jewish and had such a deep and beautiful relationship with God, but was not Iranian. I thought, maybe she’s not the one, but I quickly realized that all the cultural differences would work themselves out over time because for both of us, our priority was in loving and serving God.
Emmanuel celebrating Passover with the next generation of family.
Thinking back on my family story, my ancestors took it upon themselves to be ambassadors for God. I meet people from all different phases of life, and I see that they are all searching for something, whether it is a community or a shared belief, or just to know they are following a universal truth.
This is what the Jewish community has been looking for so long in with the promise of the messiah. As believers in Jesus as Messiah, my family has helped people find reconciliation in all aspects of life. And for me, whether it be with my wife, my kids, or my extended family, I have found that if I put God first and take my worries to him in prayer, that he has answered me time and time again. God promises in Scripture that He will do the same for you!
I know that the question, “Who is Jesus?” is a challenging one for our Jewish people. But the more I learn about the Hebrew Scriptures and my Jewish heritage, the more I see how God planned all along to send the Messiah Jesus as the eternal Yom Kippur sacrifice for our sins.
These words of Jesus really spoke to me when I was searching: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
Ask God today with an open heart if Jesus might be the Messiah and listen for His response. I know He will meet you just like He met me. If you would like to talk more, I would love to hear your story too. Catch me on our LiveChat on JewsforJesus.org or email me here.
1. The Quranic name for Jesus, Isa, is pronounced in Farsi as Eesaw. The name comes from Jesse (Eshai,) as in the Stump of Jesse as a name for the Messiah.