It is safe to say that most of us can look back at our lives with some surprise at the turns they’ve taken. It’s likely that few of us have followed exactly in the paths that we laid out for ourselves when we were kids, much less the paths that our parents fantasized for us when we were infants, all fuzzy and cute and entirely undefined.
But it also is safe to say that few of us, at 26, could have found ourselves as far from our expected places as William Mehrvarz, a slightly-older-than-typical Yeshiva University undergraduate. He started out not as William but Reza, born to an upper middle class family in Tehran, Iran.
To the Jewish world, he’s a nice Jewish boy. To the Muslim world, he’s an apostate.
How did that happen?
Mr. Mehrvarz will tell his story at the Clifton Jewish Center next Sunday. (See box.) But before that, he tells some of it here.
He was born on October 18, 1992 — that was the 21 of Tishrei, 5753, he said, and it also was Shmini Atzeret, a fact that gives him joy. He was born premature, his parents’ first child to survive childbirth, and his parents treated him with the care that a much-longed-for child can evoke and also can grow to resent. Both of his parents trained as attorneys; his mother became an elementary school teacher but his father practices law. “He is a successful lawyer, and he is a hero of mine,” William said. “He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war; he lost a leg and most of his arm. He’s been on crutches all of my life and most of his. He went through law school like that, and he fought his way through and built a career. I really admire that, and I really admire him.”
The family was religiously observant. “You could call them the equivalent of Conservadox, or maybe modern Orthodox,” he said.
When he was 13, William went to summer camp, “and like many others, I recall reading from the Torah for the first time then. But in my case I was not leyning from a great sefer Torah for my bar mitzvah. I was flipping through the pages of a Farsi-language Bible that an Armenian Christian friend at camp was showing me. I was perusing the Five Books of Moses, starting with Genesis.
“This was explicitly forbidden to me because I was born a Muslim.
“And it was love at first read.”
Part of William’s excitement was the chance to read a religious text in Farsi. The Koran generally isn’t translated out of its original Arabic; the most help readers get is when the vernacular is interleaved underneath the original. “It was very moving to me that I was connecting to a holy book in my own language,” he said. And he was fascinated by the stories, because they were both familiar and strange; Islam uses many of Judaism’s foundational stories, but changes them to reflect its own theology and history. That was why, he said, he was not attracted to Christianity, which was almost entirely foreign to him. It was the tension between the known and the unknown that he found in Judaism that first attracted him.
“I never felt connected to Islam, but I was attracted to this new thing and I wanted to study it,” Mr. Mehrvarz said. He felt both an intellectual and an emotional pull toward it. “But when I brought the idea home to my father, he was upset. That’s probably because Iran is a theocracy, and he didn’t want me to explore it because it was dangerous. The punishment for apostacy is execution.”
Does that really happen? “The Iranian government has no problem with killing infidels,” he said. It’s not immediate, and it’s not inevitable; the apostate is given some time, maybe six months, to repent and return. “But that means that you have to live a life full of lies.”
As for executions, Mr. Mehrvarz remembers passing by a body hanging on a construction girder. He was a little boy then; his mother tried to shield him from seeing it, but he saw it anyway, and it haunts him still. “The Iranian government doesn’t let women into stadiums to watch soccer games, but it does let him in to see public executions,” he said.
So he kept his interest in Judaism to himself. He didn’t tell his parents about it — but he was a normal teenager, and “why would I talk to my parents about it anyway?” he asked.
“But I continued to study Judaism in private. Sometimes I would talk to my cousins or my classmates about it, though. And eventually I also became interested in history, and I learned about the Holocaust.”
Because he mistakenly believed that Auschwitz was in Germany, he tried to go to Germany for high school. “My father didn’t want me to go,” he said. “He didn’t want to lose me physically, and we already were on precarious ground emotionally, so he made certain that I wouldn’t get in.”
That meant that he was in Iran in 2009, during the Green Revolution, when popular protests against what was seen as a corrupt presidential election ended in death and despair. “I witnessed the Green Revolution and its failure with my own eyes,” he said. “I cried from tear gas. I heard gunshots, and I saw people getting shot. It was traumatic.”
As a direct result, he dropped out of high school in his last year; he moved to Kish, an island in southern Iran. “I told my parents I needed some space,” he said. They did not abandon him, and he did not live as a hermit; they visited frequently. “And they found me a job,” he said. He’d taken some maritime courses, and was certified to work on ships. That’s what he did. He finished high school in Kish.
Then he moved back to his parents’ house in Tehran and went to college, where he studied French and linguistics.
He became involved in an international organization called AIESEC, a Montreal-based youth movement with a French acronym that “provides an international platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership skills. It sends us on international exchanges and summer leadership courses.” Those connections helped him later.
“I also did something that some millennials did,” Mr. Mehrvarz said. “I was very young, and it was very stupid.
“I got married.”
He and his, wife, like him a 22-year-old undergraduate, met online. “Not on a dating app,” he said. “On Facebook.” She also “had a secret,” he said. She came from a very conservative Muslim family “and she didn’t really believe any of it, but she had to do it.
“So because we both had a situation, we decided we should get married. We didn’t really think things through. We just did it.”
The pair married. Both their families were happy at their children’s apparently conventional choices. Their parents helped support them, and he also did some part-time work as the Iranian equivalent of an Uber driver. “But we ran into multiple problems,” Mr. Mehrvarz said. “We were both hiding so many things, not only from our parents but also from our relatives. Some of our friends knew, but I would always have to hide my Judaica — my menorah, my Shabbat candles. We were very overwhelmed.
“We thought that we could take our relationship to a different level. We decided to have a baby.” His wife got pregnant, and then, after three months, she had a miscarriage. The marriage also died.
It all exploded on the night before William’s wife’s sister’s wedding. The pair, who had decided to divorce but had not agreed on the timing, was staying with her parents, when they began to argue. They got louder and louder, until her mother, who until then had no idea that they were anything other than a happily married couple, heard them screaming about divorce. “So her mom was trying to calm her down, and she was yelling and shouting. I never expected her to say what she said — it was her key to getting divorced, and I didn’t think she thought it through — but she said ‘He’s not even Muslim.’”
Completely total betrayal.
He’d posted cryptic things on social media that made sense now that they knew of his apostasy, and his sister-in-law had followed him, so soon everything made sense to his wife’s family.
“Her sister said ‘You are a filthy Jew,’ and I felt a little bit of release because finally someone is seeing me as a Jew,” William said. “But I realized immediately afterward what that meant for me.”
Of course, he was not yet a Jew, but he didn’t really know it then, William said. It is far easier to become a Muslim than it is to become a Jew, and those were the rules that he knew then. He wasn’t then entirely clear about what he was.
“They took my phone and they took my bag and they locked the door of the apartment and they threatened to call the police and my parents.” His parents, who until then had thought “that I was a happy Muslim guy married to a happy Muslim girl.”
His in-laws did call his parents. “It was around dawn. And when they opened the door to my parents, I grabbed my phone and my bag and I pushed everyone away and ran through the door and I ran through the street and I ran for my car. I didn’t know where I was going but I knew that I had to leave.
“I drove as fast as I could back to my apartment. It was a 45-minute drive but I did it in 25 minutes. There was no traffic. It was right after I had visited Auschwitz” — he got there with an AIESEC trip — “and I had read those stories where people had very limited time and space to pack. The first thing I packed was all my warm clothes. I filled the whole suitcasae. And then I realized that I am not leaving to have warm clothes but because of my values. Because my Jewishness had been threatened. Because my identity had been threatened.
“So I took my Judaica — my books, the menorah — and my passport and birth certificate — and then I filled the rest of the space with warm clothes.
“My documents were in the safe, and when I went to get my stuff there I saw that our savings and her documents were gone, and I realized that she really wanted to end this. She had planned that part of it out. She did not want to go back to that house ever again.
“And I do not blame her. I don’t hold any grudges against her.
“Then I drove to the bus station, and thanks to AIESEC, which had introduced me to lots and lots of young people around the world, I went to Armenia, and then I went to Georgia, and then back to Armenia, and then, on November 9, 2016, I went to New York.
“I landed right after the presidential election. It was very stressful, because I was afraid that I would be sent right back.
“I had only $200 with me when I moved to the United States.” But the friends he’d made helped him; in fact, it was a friend who bought his airplane ticket.
Now, Mr. Mehrvarz lives in New York. His English is flawless and nearly accent-less. His name is now William, for a whole set of interconnected reasons. His father’s father, an interesting man with an interesting past, whom he adores, speaks English, and sometimes would call his grandson William, after Shakespeare, in honor of young Reza’s facility with the language.
“My Hebrew name is Liam Avraham,” he said. “Liam as a name comes from the book of Isaiah, where it says ‘lo yilmadu oh milchama.’” The words means “not learn war anymore,” and Liam is made of the first letters of those four words.
“I resonated with that,” Liam Avraham said. “And I also like that my story is connected with Abraham, who also had to leave home.” And of course Liam is the second half of William.”
Once he got to the United States, Mr. Mehrvarz realized that he was not Jewish, that longing for something does not make it so. But he remedied that. “I’m a double dip,” he said. His first conversion was Conservative, through the Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan; now he is working toward an Orthodox one.
He feels deep connections toward both movements, and is not ready to choose one over the other. He revels in the opportunity YU afford him to study Torah all day. And also “I am a feminist,” he said. “I love the fact that I have a congregation that is egalitarian.” So for now he lives happily in those overlapping worlds.
He is applying for asylum in the United States; it’s a long process, and it won’t be over until it’s over, but he feels some degree of cautious optimism. He needs documentation of the claim that he will face certain danger if he returns to Iran, but as an apostate Muslim-turned-Jew that documentation is easy to provide. He’s happy here. “As an asylum seeker, I am allowed to work, I pay taxes, I have a driver’s license,” he said. “I’m here legally.”
He has plans. “I have a very common aspiration among Jews,” he said. “I want to be a lawyer. I will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and I want to apply to law school.”
He’s also a public speaker, and he writes about his beliefs both on his website, www.williammehrvarz.com, and on his public Facebook page, called “From Tehran to the Torah.” He is clear about his love for Judaism, and the way that he thinks God guided him toward it, making it more and more obvious that the Jewish world always was meant to be his home. He is also clear about his complicated feelings about Iran and Islam, and his discomfort with having his very personal story recast as an anti-Islamic cautionary tale. It’s far more complicated than that, he writes.
He is passionate about human rights, about how hard it is to leave home, about how important it is to help people who have to leave home in order to be able to live. He is passionate about how helping asylum seekers find safety and hope is necessary if you are to live by either Jewish or American values.
He also is clear about his love for his parents, and his admiration for them, and he is clear-eyed about how his choices hurt his family. In fact, it is hard to talk to William Mehrvarz while always remembering that he is only 26. He seems to have lived many more lives than can be stuffed into such a short time. It’s astonishing to think about how much more he will do.
Who: William Mehrvarz
What: Will talk about his life, and the fight for human rights
Where: At the Clifton Jewish Center, 18 Delaware Street
When: On Sunday, February 10, at 10 a.m.
How much: It’s free if you register before February 6, and after that it’s $10. Donations are welcome
Registration: Is necessary for security. Call (973) 772-3131 or (973) 449-9117.