Persian Jews break with tradition to break through in Hollywood


The generation of Iranian Jews who escaped Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.

Whether it’s producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came last year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film, “Crash,” won the best picture Oscar and generated nearly $100 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special, but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 45, whose four production companies have produced 26 independent films in the last four years.

Yari made his fortune in real estate development but is no novice when it comes to Hollywood. After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film, “Mind Games,” for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until five years ago, when he returned as a producer.

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.”

Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 31, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group. His production company, Element Films, has produced seven films in the last three years and is slated to release three more this year, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.

Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a L.A.-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.

“Documentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,” said Haim, 45.

In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, this summer will release the independent film, “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton. The film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small Midwestern town.

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the late shah’s regime.

Young Iranian Jews have also achieved moderate success working behind the scenes in television. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences customarily honors the behind-the-scenes toilers, and at last year’s technical awards ceremony, Lila Yomtoob, a sound editor on the HBO documentary, “Baghdad ER,” became the first Iranian Jew to win an Emmy.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Yomtoob, who now lives in Brooklyn. “But when I saw that I was seated in the sixth row, I had a feeling I was going to win.”

“Baghdad ER” chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone.Bahar SoomekhAfter completing film school in 2000, Yomtoob worked as a freelance sound editor on a variety of film and television projects, including “Two Weeks Notice,” which starred Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, as well as for the HBO series, “The Wire.” Despite her recent success, she said her family did not initially approve of her career choice in Hollywood.

“I would say that my decision to get into the industry was met with skepticism,” Yomtoob said. “My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers. My father wanted the same for me, but I went ahead and did it anyway.”

The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.

“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, a 30-something L.A. resident. “It’s so different than anything else, because in the corporate world, you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition, and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.”

Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films, including last year’s “Mission: Impossible III” and the horror thriller “Saw III.” Last year she also played the role of Margo in the ABC television series, “Day Break.” She said she has been showered with support for her career from other Iranian Jews.

“Wherever I go, people I don’t even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community,” Soomekh said. “It’s unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me, ‘It’s always been my dream, and I’m living vicariously through you’.”

Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 17, was a regular in the 2005 season on the Fox television series, “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.

“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner, because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”

Ahdout made his acting debut four years ago in the acclaimed film, “House of Sand and Fog,” which was about an Iranian family in the United States, starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley. In 2005, Ahdout also played the role of Ike opposite Forrest Whitaker in the independent film, “American Gun.”

High Court Recognizes ‘Leaping Converts’


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After 22 years of living as an Israeli, Justina Hilaria Chipana can finally consider herself a full-fledged member of the Jewish state.

The 50-year-old native of Peru was one of 17 petitioners who won High Court of Justice recognition of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism on Thursday, in what the Conservative and Reform movements hailed as a breakthrough for efforts to introduce more religious pluralism to Israel.

Orthodox rabbis and politicians disagreed.

By a vote of 7-4, the High Court ordered the state to recognize “leaping converts” — so called because they study in Israeli institutes but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad — as eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

The ruling was a small step in a decades-long controversy in Israel over who is a Jew, who can turn a non-Jew into a Jew and who can decide whether that process was done correctly.

Thursday’s ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recognizing immigrants who arrive having gone through the entire non-Orthodox conversion process abroad; those immigrants are considered to be Jews and the Law of Return applies to them.

But the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy’s de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.

In response to a demand presented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an “explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people,” according to Ha’aretz.

The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel — including births, weddings and funerals — also cried foul.

“There aren’t two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. “Whoever doesn’t go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew.”

Yet with many Israelis increasingly concerned about the lack of a unifying religious identity in the country — where some 300,000 citizens are non-Jews from the former Soviet Union — the Conservative and Reform movement remained confident that their more lenient conversions would provide a solution.

“We believe that with this precedent, it is just a matter of time until alternatives to Orthodox Judaism are fully recognized,” said attorney Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, a pro-pluralism lobby associated with the Reform movement. “It could mean filing more High Court petitions, or just waiting for Israel to come to its senses.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform movement was unsatisfied that the court didn’t issue a more far-reaching decision, and plans to bring another petition in hopes of forcing the state to recognize Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The only way for the Orthodox to counter Thursday’s ruling would be to have a new law passed defining their stream as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel. But repeated efforts to mount such legislation in the past failed to muster majorities for even preliminary Knesset readings.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counts one Orthodox political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in his coalition, and he has been courting Shas. Still, it seems unlikely that either party would be able to apply enough pressure on the government to push through motions against the High Court ruling.

“We have no coalition agreement regarding this,” UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. “I’m sure there will be discussions about what can be done, but I’m not especially hopeful.”

The High Court ruling is immediately binding on the government. That’s a relief for Chipana and her fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.

“We are going to implement the decision in a crystal-clear manner,” Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. “I think that it provides an answer for many people who are living among us and are forced to go through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring, that causes many to lose hope.”

In the United States, reaction to the decision broke along denominational lines.

“As a Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that the High Court in Israel has mandated the recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis in America,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Law Committee.

“I’m very much aware that some segments of the Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, and the court’s decision will create problems in those communities,” he said. “I accept as valid any conversion that complies with halachic requirements, and conversions that do not, I do not accept.”

The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it is “deeply concerned” by the ruling.

“The decision of the court may eventually lead to the division of the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a group of halachically valid Jews and a group of people who are Jewish only by the ruling of the Supreme Court,” the union said in a news release signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “The consequences of this ruling will be tragic.”

For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a long-overdue relief.

“I always dreamed of really belonging to the country,” said Chipana, who first came to Israel in 1983. In 1993 she converted at a Reform congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in 1999. “Now perhaps it can really happen.”

But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-cycle events remains unchallenged.

That’s the way the UTJ’s Ravitz wants it. Asked what will happen if “leaping converts” apply for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, “I imagine they will be told to take a flying leap.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larger problem than the one the High Court addressed.

“The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor to Judaism or the State of Israel,” he said.

JTA Staff Writer Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this story.

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Entering the New World


Brave New World, here we come.

A Worcester, Mass., biotech company reported this week that it had created a human embryo directly from human cells. A cell implanted with adult DNA split into six cells, then died, stopping far short of the 150-plus needed to create viable stem cells, critical for gene therapy.

Though the experiment by Advanced Cell Technology was considered a failure, it was immediately regarded as a breakthrough, for good or ill. Governments may stamp their feet, refusing to fund the cloning experiments. But a free science won’t put its laboratories behind bars.

Maintaining free science is up to us. President Bush, responding to what The New York Times called a "storm of protest" and a Congressional call for cloning to be outlawed, promptly called cloning immoral. "We should not as a society grow life to destroy it," he said. "And that’s exactly what’s taking place."

Not to me. Exactly what I think is taking place is the grand possibility that life can be preserved and health enhanced through human ingenuity. I hope you see it that way too.

Didn’t Aldous Huxley have it wrong? Don’t you know someone whose family was enhanced by fertility drugs, let alone test-tube babies? Would you really close science down now, at the very portal to the healing world?

We must say no to the pessimists, the religious and political negativists who would use anything — the Bible, Frankenstein and fables of the Golem — to keep humankind in the grip of pain and fear. Science can be for the good. The human spirit of creativity is something to praise, not fear. A clone does not an evil Golem make.

What’s taking place, to me, is that scientists are continuing appropriate scientific inquiry into the beginnings of life. As Jews, we understand that humanity is permitted to learn from nature, and encouraged to use our knowledge to save lives. We’re getting there fast, but scientists as of this week have developed only a few cells equivalent to the first day or two of fertilization. Bush would close down the lab even before it creates a blastocyst large enough to be implanted in a uterus.

But Bush is wrong: The goal here is not to destroy life, but to save it. Though cloning may be controversial, the basic science upon which it is based is not new. Similar experiments into the origins of human life, and the capacity of embryos, were conducted in the preliminary stages of in vitro fertilization. Many failed embryos were created on the way to what is now routine: test-tube conception. Half a million test-tube babies have been raised in loving families — a testimony to how science aids the human heart.

I spoke on Monday with Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State University and an associate professor of social ethics and Jewish philosophy. Sounding quite astounded by the news of the newly cloned embryo, she said, "It gives one pause how fast we are crossing into the new era."

Many observers speak of cloning as a "slippery slope." Zoloth, however, believes it is possible — and necessary — to draw a boundary between "reproductive" cloning and "therapeutic" cloning to save lives. "I don’t believe we should ever implant these early embryos into a human," she said. "I don’t believe we should try to duplicate human life."

At the heart of the matter is what we think religion — and life — is for: a tool to liberate the spirit, or a way of controlling the future. In December, Zoloth will convene a panel of leading American and Israeli Jewish scientists and ethicists, including Los Angeles’ own Rabbi Elliot Dorff, to study problems of human genetics.

Stand strong. Defend pekuach nefesh. Save the living, not six cells. Free science and scientists. Pass it on.