Born from Revolution
Mahnaz Shmalo’s Journey from Iran to Israel to the Classroom
We often make our boldest moves when young and full of ambition. Taking giant leaps toward independence while growing up as a teenage girl amidst conflict in the Middle East demonstrates an entirely different level of confidence and purpose. Mahnaz Shmalo, an alumnus of Touro’s Graduate School of Jewish Studies—and recently designated instructor at the Lander College for Women—was in high school when the Iranian revolution erupted in 1979. After graduating, she managed to escape to England and live with her sister, initiating a decades-long journey that would take her to Israel for 25 years and, eventually, America, where she now resides in Passaic, New Jersey. She has never returned to Iran.
“When you’re a teenager, you want to find a sense of identity,” she says. “We lived in an environment where, in comparison to other Arab or Islamic countries, women actually played a big role in the society. Still, in terms of the fact that I was Jewish, I was very limited. I could probably just have stayed there and even lived there until now, but I had a very strong yearning to get out. Within the traditional Jewish circumstances, Jewish education was limited, and that’s what was very important to me.”
After learning English during her time in the UK, Shmalo spent a summer in Israel and found what would be her second home. After briefly returning to her sister in England, she made aliyah back to Israel and embarked on a several-year career with the country’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. She soon met her husband, a teacher, and the pair would eventually have three sets of twins over the ensuing decade. The financial pressures mounted, forcing Shmalo—with family in tow this time—to relocate once again, to the United States. Her husband found work with NYU, while Shmalo focused on raising her children and worked part-time at the Bruriah High School for Girls in New Jersey. That’s when she began eyeing her eventual Jewish History degree at Touro. It was a revelatory decision, but the original assimilation into American life was a difficult one.
“After 25 years of Israel, coming to America was a huge step for me,” she remembers. “I had established a lot of very good friendships, basically most of my adulthood. I still have family there. I was very integrated. I felt very comfortable. It was really home for me. Leaving Israel was like coming to a place where I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself and how I’d be able to have the same impact on the people that I felt I had in Israel.”
As Shmalo continued with her studies at Touro, she also began a side-career in bridal counseling, which helped keep her connected to the community and gave her an outlet to share everything she’d learned in her travels. “I tend not to impose myself,” she laughs. “I don’t advertise about the things that I do. It’s basically from mouth-to-mouth. I definitely feel that, in that area, I have a lot to offer, and sometimes, certain things that I feel are very simple, for these girls it’s life lessons. I love to share my experiences. I love to share things I’ve learned, not so much in the classroom but just having gone through my life. Those are the things I’ve grown most from.”
And even if much of what Shmalo imparts to her neighbors and friends─and what she plans to pass on to her students in the fall─has been inspired by personal struggle and survival, her most basic advice to those at a crossroads is, in fact, quite academic. “At some point in my life, there was someone, I don’t remember who it was, said, ‘Education never goes to waste.’ And I think that was what did it. I always feel like where we are at in terms of learning, wherever we are at, there is a next step. Sometime, one way doesn’t work, but there’s always another way to turn.”