October 20, 2018

A Persian Artist’s Crowning Moment

Yosef Setarehshenas wants to revive and introduce Jewish Persian art to the world.

And on the Jewish New Year of 5764, he plans to do it through a unique Persian calendar that will incorporate four different calendars: The Hebrew (Jewish); the Persian (Solar); the Arabic (Lunar) and the English (Christian), with complete explanations of Persian Jewish events for the past 126 years.

"Even the dates Jewish soldiers were killed in the Iran-Iraq war are mentioned," Setarehshenas said.

The calendar will be published by Iranshahr Association, a subsidiary of Sherkat Ketab, the biggest publisher of Persian books and text in Los Angeles. The calendar will be shipped to Persian communities in New York, Europe, Iran and Israel — and Reseda’s Ben David synagogue has ordered nearly 500 copies, said Setarehshenas, 41.

Art — and Iran — are in Setarehshenas’ blood: He only arrived in Los Angeles two and a half years ago. The eldest of five children, Setarehshenas’ mother, Malek Molayem, played the tar, a Persian instrument, and she took up the hobby of rug weaving.

From a very young age, Setarehshenas has been involved in writing and drawing; his short stories appeared in children’s newspapers in Tehran.

"Art is endless," he told The Journal. "Life without art is like heart without love."

Setarehshenas obtained a graduate degree in industrial design, and in his spare time he wrote poetry and played guitar.

Setarehshenas started to use his talents to serve the Jewish community. He designed copper plates of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, and donated several of them to the Iranian Jewish community to honor Persian students. His name, which means astrologist in Farsi, got him interested in the subject of calendars, which is the subject of one of his books, "Conformity of Seconds" (he penned other Jewish books such as "Haftara Treasures," a review of Jewish history, culture and philosophy).

Setarehshenas began in earnest to revive Jewish traditional works of art. He designed and prepared a silver pair of rimonim — the crowns that adorn the Torah scroll sticks — for a Sephardi Torah decoration. It took him almost nine months to produce both one-pound crowns made out of 90-carat silver. Each are adorned with beautiful Persian silverwork, as well as a small Stars of David, combining Persian and Jewish art.

"I have had the best Persian artists make these rimonim," Setarehshenas told The Journal. "Some parts have been done by the best silver-making firms in Isfahan."

"In Iran when I wanted to start making the rimonim or other religious works of art, I would explain the Jewish meaning of the object to the Muslim workers and artists who were going to do the job … they did the job with great appreciation and respect. Even when they wanted to put a piece of work down, they considered it a holy object and would do it very carefully," Setarehshenas told The Journal.

Setarehshenas came to Los Angeles in 2001, joining his wife, Hayedeh, and their two children, Shahrooz and Caroline. He runs a business in the Valley, and still spends much time in art and writing — including contributing to various Persian publications in Los Angeles.

He wants to use the same style of the rimonim to make more traditional Jewish silver objects such as mezuzahs and wine jugs. His latest work, inspired by his mother, was a Persian rug using the copper plate sketch of the figure of Moses holding the Ten Commandments on the rug.

He will stop at nothing to produce Jewish Persian art.

"I want to introduce Persian Jewish culture to those who do not know about it. My wish is to keep the rich Iranian Jewish heritage alive and pass it on to the next generations," he said.