Posted by Karmel Melamed
On March 24th three members of the Israeli parliament held a press conference at the Beverly Hills offices of the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) a non-profit organization advocating electoral reform in Israel. One influential Knesset Member and Chairman of the Internal Affairs Committee, Ophir Pines-Paz was at hand to discuss new legislation he recently introduced in the Knesset on this very topic. His new bill is designed to create greater stability in future Israeli governments by having Israeli citizens vote directly for their representatives that will be directly accountable to them. Currently Israel’s governments are held together by coalitions of both small and large parties. If any faction is unhappy with the direction of the government, they can essentially bring the government down and call for new elections.
Also at hand in the press conference to discuss the need for electoral reform in Israel were Members of Knesset Yoel Hasson and Nadia Hilou. The purpose of the gathering was to inform the Jewish community here in Los Angeles about this new legislation that can potentially transform the landscape of Israeli politics.
CECI was founded by the very successful Iranian Jewish businessman and philanthropist, Parviz Nazarian. CECI is based in Israel and was established nearly four years ago with the objective of promoting more stable and effective governments in Israel through education as well as advocacy of the Israeli public. CECI is advocating for a change in the system of government in Israel where direct elections would be held for individual lawmakers in parliament rather than the current system where the public votes for a political party that later appoints representatives. Their belief is that such elections would create greater stability in the Israeli government and greater accountability of the elected officials to their constiutency. It gives me as an Iranian American Jew, great pride to see influential forces within our community such as Nazarian taking proactive steps to not only to support Israel financially but also in other facets. His organization is yet another example of the Zionism and the remarkable contributions Iranian Jews in America are making to Israel—a historical achievement considering the fact that only a few generations ago, Jews lived in ghettos and extreme poverty in Iran!
I had a chance to chat with Pines-Paz, Hasson, and Nazarian about this new legislation and the substantial support of Iranian Jews for Israel. My podcast interview with them can be heard here.
Here are some photos from that press conference…
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March 28, 2008 | 11:12 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
On March 27th nearly 600 Iranian Jews and Muslims from the Southern California area gathering at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills to honor the memory of Professor Amnon Netzer who had died on February 15, 2008 at the age of 73. The event was the Iranian Jewish community’s final farewell to a man who had opened their eyes and reintroduced them to their long lost history.
Netzer had dedicated a greater part of his life to the near impossible task or uncovering, analyzing and recording the literature, culture and 2,500 year history of Iran’s Jewry. After having countless works published, he slowly became one of the academic world’s giants not only in the field of Iranian Jewish Studies but also for Iranian Studies in general. The night’s memorial event was both a tribute to Netzer and the remarkable legacy/gifts he left his community. “He awakened our community about it’s roots and history that we had forgotten,” said George Haroonian, an Iranian Jewish activist speaking at the memorial. “It is our duty to remember and honor this man who spent day and night dedicating his life’s work for the benefit of our community”.
Special messages of condolences were also read at the memorial coming from letters submitted by Iranian Empress Farah Pahlavi, Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, and Israeli Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz. The Persian language news media based in the U.S. were also at hand broadcasting the gathering via satellite around the world and even into Iran, through the Voice of American television program. The popular host of Israel Radio in Persian language, Menashe Amir, had also flown in from Israel and spoke briefly about Netzer’s contributions to the program in its infancy during the 1950’s. “I don’t see this as an event honoring Amnon Nezter, but rather a gathering to honor our community,” said Amir who became emotional a number of times during his speech. Interestingly, Amir said Netzer’s work in the radio program during the 1950’s had helped foster the first cultural bonds and interactions between Israel and the government of Iran during the reign of the late Shah.
Yet praise for Netzer’s work did not only come from Iranian Jews, UCLA’s Director of Iranian Studies, Dr. Hossein Ziai, spoke of Netzer’s prominence in the field of Iranian Studies worldwide. What I particularly enjoyed about the memorial were the short video clips shown of Netzer’s speeches over the years where he spoke about his love for researching Iranian Jewish roots and sharing his findings with the community. In one video speech Netzer said that he was motivated in 1963 during his studies at Columbia University to take up the substantial task of recording Iranian Jewish history after reading Dr. Habib Levy’s book on Judeo-Persian history that had previously been lost or unknown to the community.
In 1970, Netzer returned to Israel where he co-founded the Iranian Studies department at Hebrew University and began his research on Iranian Jewish history as well as the ancient Judeo-Persian language. He not only authored scores of articles about Iranian Jewish history but helped compile, “Padyavand,” a rare and comprehensive three-volume book detailing various significant events in Iranian Jewish history.
What I personally found disappointing about the memorial for Netzer was the fact that the crowd that had turned out for the event was by in large in their 50’s or older. Aside from myself and Nezter’s close family friend Shireen Oberman, there were not too many younger folks at hand to listen to the speakers and to learn more about Netzer. What a shame it was that not more younger Iranian Jews were at hand to learn more about their history that had been uncovered by Nezter and translated into English. Despite this shortcoming, I was pleased to hear some local Iranian Jewish leaders calling for individuals in the community to donate funds in an effort to complete seven to eight uncompleted books Netzer had been working on prior to his death! Hopefully Netzer’s legacy and work will live on for future generations despite his exit from this world.
March 25, 2008 | 3:04 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Nearly two dozen Los Angeles area successful Iranian Jewish professionals in their 20’s and 30’s are turning heads in their community by participating in a new program matching them as mentors with Iranian Jewish teenagers. Specifically, the new Thirty Years After organization’s members and volunteers have partnered up with the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) to provide mentoring for these teens.
I’ve volunteered as a mentor myself because I’d like to share my own expertise and experience about the world of journalism with a Jewish teen. Many young professionals in Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community feel the need to educate and enlighten teens in the community of the other career options besides the law and medicine for them to consider. JBBBSLA is currently looking for volunteer mentors right now. Those interested in being mentors can contact JBBBSLA at: (323) 761-8675.
Our blogâs latest podcast on the new mentoring program among local Iranian Jews can be found here
Here are some photos of a recent gathering of potential Iranian Jewish mentors…
March 23, 2008 | 6:31 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Aside from the L.A. Jewish Journal’s editorial staff which has been tremendously wise and kind to permit my coverage of the influential Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles in their publication, very few other Jewish publications anywhere in the world have given regular coverage to news relating to Iranian Jewry. The Jerusalem Post based in Israel has been one of the few exceptions and I have noticed over the years that they have given on-going coverage of issues dealing with Iranian Jewry.
This article published by the Jerusalem Post magazine this week done my good friend and colleague Tom Tugend, is just the latest article by the Post covering Iranian Jewry in Los Angeles. Most reporters out there haven’t a single clue about Iranian Jews living outside of Iran when covering the community and fail to give historical background in their articles. However Tom has done an excellent job in this piece giving a very complete picture of Iranian Jews living in Southern California and has even quoted one of my past articles! Photojournalist and my other good friend Shelley Gazin provided some of the incredible photos of local Iranian Jews for this article. Her latest project for the past several years has been photographing Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community.
Here’s another brief news piece in the Post about Israel Radio saving it’s Persian language programming from being cancelled due to limited funds. The program regularly broadcasts news via short wave frequencies to Iran. It is perhaps the most listened to news broadcast in Iran by almost everyone in the country because it is the single most accurate and comprehensive source of information people in Iran have access to. Unfortunately the news broadcasted by Iran’s state-controlled fundamentalist Islamic media outlets is bias, chalk full of propaganda and B.S., rather than real or valuable information people can rely on. So for this reason, Israel Radio’s Persian language program is not only a god sent to all Iranians in Iran, but also a great resource for Israel to reach average Iranians within that country to change their hearts and minds. What more important resource than this program for Israel to make use of in a time when Iran’s leaders have repeatedly been calling for its destruction.
The Post in the past has even published one of my own articles about the only known Iranian Jewish Holocaust Survivor! That amazing story can be found here.
In essence, the Jerusalem Post editors deserve some praise for not forgetting about the very news-worthy Iranian Jewish community living around the world. Coverage of Iranian Jews should be a priority for all Jewish publications worldwide especially nowadays with Iran in the news as well as the numerous contributions of Iranian Jews to society at large.
March 20, 2008 | 6:37 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Purim has always had a special place in my heart as it is perfectly Persian Jewish. As a young person of Iranian Jewish background living in the U.S. and attending Jewish grade school among Ashkenazim, I was always exposed to the Ashkenazi traditions for each holiday. When Purim came along it gave me, a Jew of Iranian heritage very special pride as the events of Purim took place thousands of years ago in the land where my ancestors lived. Purim is the one holiday and most popular contribution Iranian Jewry have given to the Jewish faith. We has Iranian Jews are quite proud to claim the character of the Purim story—Esther and Mordechai among one of our own.
The following is a recently article I wrote about Purim that was published in the March 2008 issue of “Jewish Family” magazine based here in Los Angeles. This article sheds light on why Purim has such a special meaning for us Iranian Jews:
Purim, still a source of pride for Iranian Jews
Purim among Ashkenazi communities for years has traditionally been a holiday for little children to dress up in costumes, eat Hamantashan cookies and make noise with their graggers during the megillah reading. Yet the Jewish holiday has for centuries had a special meaning for Iranian Jews as the story of Purim took place in ancient Persia.
Jews of Iranian descent now living in Southern California look back on their celebrations of Purim in Iran prior to the countryâs 1979 Islamic revolution with nostalgia and a source of strength for them during difficult times.
âPurim was a big big event for Jews in Iran because it happened in the land were lived in and we were proud of it,â said Shirley Nowfar, a volunteer with the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. âFor Jews over the centuries that endured pogroms from the Islamic clerics in Iran, Purimâs story has always been a celebration of freedom and given them hopeâ.
Interestingly, Purimâs importance for Iranian Jews has even been enhanced by a non-Jewish holiday. Purim typically coincides with the festivities of No Ruz, the secular Persian New Year.
âPurim gets more focus in Iran from Jews,â said Nahid Pirnazar, an instructor of Judeo-Persian literature at UCLA. âItâs like Chanukah in the United States, which coincides with Christmas,â she said. âA lot of the traditions of No Ruz are reflected in Purim, like the idea of exchanging gifts.â
Purim fasts are broken at the conclusion of megillah readings, she added. Iran Jews traditionally eat special Purim cookies as well as halva, a dry or wet dessert made of flour or rice, sugar, oil and saffron.
Nowfar said Jewish parents and grandparents Jews in Iran typically gave gifts of gold coins or money to children in their families, as such gift were given by non-Jews to their children for No Ruz.
Within Iran, the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordechai has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. They are located in the city of Hamadan, and theyâve recently been renovated and maintained by Iranâs Jewish community.
âThe Jewish women of Hamedan and other cities, have visited the shrine of Esther and Mordechai during Purim,â said Frank Nikbkaht, an Iranian Jews and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. âThey would cover the wooden grave boxes with scarves or ornate fabrics, as gifts, praying and hoping that the Shrine would help grant them sonsâ.
Although Iranian Jews have long believed the tomb contains the burial sites of Esther and Mordechai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.
âThe great archeologist Ernst Hertzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there, but later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there,â said the late Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Thatâs not his only point of doubt.
âThe tombs of Esther and Mordechai had not been mentioned in any Jewish sources,â Netzer added. âThe first Jewish person who mentioned the existence of the tombs there was Rabbi Binyamin of Toodelah in 1167 [C.E.]. I wonder how come there are absolutely no mentions of these tombs in the Talmud or post-Talmud literature?â
Netzer said Jews in Iran have always been cautious in their celebrations of Purim because the Book of Esther contains unflattering depictions of non-Jewish Persians and also includes the tale of a slaughter of non-Jews.
âIf you read the book itself you will see that it says the Iranian Jews were permitted actually to massacre a lot of Iranians on a certain day and King Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, is pictured as a stupid king,â Netzer said. âSo these factors actually made Iranian Jews extremely careful not to have high-profile celebrations for Purim.â
Although some historians have their doubts regarding the Book of Esther, the experience of Jews in Iran embodies a consonance with events described in the tale. Over the centuries, Pirnazar said, Jews have narrowly escaped forced mass conversions to Islam by participating in communitywide days of prayer and fasting â similar to the fast carried out by Queen Esther in the Purim story.
One such Purim-like episode is identified in Vera Basch Moreenâs book, âIranian Jewryâs Hour of Peril and Heroismâ (American Academy for Jewish Research, 1987). In 1629, the Jews in the city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam with the succession of King Safi I of the Safavid Dynasty. Later, these Jews were permitted to return to Judaism after two Jewish leaders successfully interceded with the Iranian monarch â a scenario that parallels the Purim story.
As an often-oppressed minority, Iranian Jews have their own modern-day hardships to confront under Iranâs fundamentalist Islamic rule. Yet the Book of Esther, with its tale of triumph over hardship and evil, still conveys a message of hope to them and Jews worldwide.
March 19, 2008 | 4:45 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Frank Nikbakht is perhaps among the country’s top experts when it comes to issues of religious minorities living in Iran. Based in Los Angeles, Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist, heads the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran. Whether it’s Jews, Zoroastrians, Bahais, or Christians, Nikbakht has solid evidence and reports released by Iran’s regime on their policies toward these groups. I frequently use his expertise as a source when it comes to my own articles concerning Iran and Jews because he has some unique insights into the mentality of Iran’s radical Islamic leaders.
Recently FrontPageMagazine.com interviewed Nikabkht about the condition of religious minorities, including Jews, who are basically living as second class citizens under Iran’s totalitarian regime. The interview can be found here, but the following is a bone chilling depicition Nikbakht gives of the Iranian government’s unmerciful brutality:
“After the revolution, minorities were leaving the country in their thousands every month and it seemed that the regime was going to stay. Socially, I was witnessing the gradual acceptance by the Muslim masses of intolerance for others, which was and has been the main pillar of the regime’s ideology and propaganda, as tolerance or compassion became symbols of “dishonorable” character, in addition to being a sin and a hell bound way of thinking.
A lot of these zealous characteristics, which had been the basis for the persecution of women and minorities for centuries, had been gradually swept aside during the 20th century, when rulers were admittedly dictators but were overall secular rulers and modernists nevertheless. All my life I had experienced equality to some extent; now suddenly I was faced with the loss of all those rights with the tacit approval of millions of people to whom I had dedicated my life and for whom I had spent years of my youthful energy. This is why I am actively promoting equal rights for minorities in Iran and advocating it (painfully!) even among the opposition who still needs a lot of education in this regard.
At the time, minority communities were being scrutinized, our community properties, schools and centers were being confiscated, our professionals, teachers and scientists were being fired and an atmosphere of fear had replaced our previous feeling of belonging and security.
Hundreds of regime opponents were being executed each day or week and one by one my friends or people I knew about were being arrested and were disappearing. I would witness Hizbullah thugs mutilating women and young people in the streets for not adhering to Islamic codes, Revolutionary Guards shooting demonstrators, searching whole city blocks in search of opponents, books, arms, western music cassettes or alcohol and arrest groups of young students at the local park near the Tehran University.
As social dissent grew into mass demonstrations and riots, high ranking Mullahs and government officials announced that it was no longer necessary to arrest and bring to trial the opponents of the “godly” regime and they could be killed on the street or in their homes if their “kufr” or infidelity was known to the Hizbullah gangs or the revolutionary guards. I, like thousands of others, would be stopped and searched several times a day driving in Tehran.”
March 18, 2008 | 4:20 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Today will mark the final day for Iranian Jewish City Council member of Beverly Hills, Jimmy Delshad in his post as mayor of the city. In March 2007 he made history by narrowly winning re-election to the City Council and became the first Iranian American Jew to serve as mayor of a city in America. The post of mayor rotates among the Council members every year according to their seniority on the council.
There have been many articles written about Delshad in Jewish and secular publications, but they have failed to identify the true historical significance of his role in local government. His position on the Council is important to Iranian Jewry because for centuries Jews in Iran were prohibited from participating politics or elections. Here you have a representative of that same community (which a few generations ago lived in ghettos) now taking part in the incredible democracy of America! No doubt Delshad made splash during his time as mayor by introducing some unique measures dealing with 21st century technology being incorporated in city services as well as an Iran divestment measure. He has in many ways inspired the younger generation of Iranian Jews in Southern California serve in the public sector.
On March 10th he met with his Iranian Jewish supporters at Beverly Hills City Hall to thank them for their backing during his term as mayor and to recite a prayer of thanksgiving. Below are some photos of that gathering. Afterwards I had a chance to chat with Delshad about his activities and efforts as mayor during the last year.
Our blog’s exclusive podcast interview with former Mayor Delshad can be heard here.
March 17, 2008 | 8:49 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Some of the country’s top medical researchers were honored at a gala event on March 16th held at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, for their work by the Advancement of Research for Myopathies (ARM), a non-profit based in Encino. Close to 600 guests from various countries and backgrounds also gathered to help raise funds for additional research on a cure for “Hereditary Inclusion Body Myopathy” (HIBM), a progressive and debilitating genetic muscle disease. HIBM typically plagues Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry, including some Iranian Jews. Fortunately testing to determine if you are a carrier of the HIBM gene or disease is available.
One of the organization’s founders, Dr. Babak Darvish said ARM over the years has battled to remove the stigma the Iranian Jewish community has had in publicly acknowledging family members with HIBM. “My brother and I are both physicians, we were both effected by this disease—so we felt we had to take action and we first established ARM in 1997 in our living room,” said Darvish. Darvish said he had completed medical school and wanted to become a surgeon when he first felt the symptoms of HIBM. At that time, the two brothers decided to literally take on the disease, both as far as research and fundraising. I met both the Darvish brothers and discovered that they had helped diagnois this disease that had previously never been properly identified. I was struck by their strength of will, desire to fight this horrible illness and their passion to change the negative views some Iranian Jews have of openly discussing the disabilities of their family members. I can say for certain that it toke real courage for these brothers to outreach for help to in their community where many feel a sense of shame and fear in admitting their family member has any disease, let alone HIBM. Some mothers argue that their children will not be able to marry a person in the Iranian Jewish community because of the fear many Iranian Jews have of passing on the genetic disease. It is a sad reality, but no doubt with the Darvish brothers creating ARM and going public with the realities of HIBM, they have been able to gradually remove the walls of ignorance in the Iranian Jewish community over the years.
While the defective gene for HIBM has been located, an effective treatment for the disease has not been created, said Darvish. Even though HIBM primarily effects Middle Eastern Jews, some individuals of Asian and Caucasian ancestry also inherit the disease from their parents. For more information on ARM, visit their website here.