Tehran cemetery Web site links local Persians to Iran

Nearly four years ago, Shahram Farzan, an Iranian Jew living in Los Angeles, traveled to Tehran to have a hand-carved marble tombstone placed on his father’s grave at the Jewish cemetery, which has been called “beheshtieh” by the city’s Jewry for more than half a century. (The word beheshtieh is Persian for “heavenly place.”)

After Farzan had photographed his father’s new tombstone, he was inspired to create a Web site — Beheshtieh.com — to share what he had seen. For the next two months, Farzan painstakingly cleaned and photographed nearly 80 percent of the graves at the 20-acre cemetery, so that the exiled Iranian Jewish community in Southern California could view their loved ones’ gravesites online.

“After the revolution, many people lost their ties to Iran and to the cemetery because it was not a priority,” said Farzan, 52. “I thought by taking these photographs of the graves, their relatives living in Beverly Hills would maybe see this and realize that the world is not just about money and power.”

For the past three years, Farzan, who owns a Los Angeles demolition business, spent his own funds and his spare time translating, cataloging and posting more than 10,000 photographs in preparation for the Web site’s launch last June. Each photo is accompanied by English translations listed beneath.

Many of the tombstones are made from white marble and have elaborate hand-carved designs, including Stars of David, menorahs and inscriptions in both Persian and Hebrew. Others are just mounds of earth without a proper headstone or identifying marker. And many of the tombstones have been damaged by poor weather and lack of upkeep, Farzan said.

“On the grounds of the cemetery, I saw a lot of used drug needles, roaming dogs, trash dumped everywhere, a greenhouse with shattered windows and some homeless people loitering there,” Farzan said.Despite the cemetery’s worn condition, Farzan spoke only praise for the remaining Jews of Iran who, he said, have not abandoned the site.

He was also appreciative that the Iranian government has not allowed developers to build on the site, as has happened in some non-Jewish cemeteries in the country.

“I think the Iranian government has been very respectful for keeping the cemetery and not demolishing it,” Farzan said. “Historically, from the time of Abraham, we are cousins with Muslims and must foster better relations with them.”

Not all the Jews buried in Tehran’s Jewish cemetery are of Iranian heritage. The cemetery is also home to more than 60 European Jews who escaped Nazi Europe for Iran in the early 1940s and died there, Farzan said.

The Jewish community in Iran has never had a mortuary business. Traditionally, Jewish volunteers donated funds and physically helped with preparations for burial of the dead; volunteers included some of the most affluent businessmen in the community.

Woodland Hills resident Yusef Hendizadeh, 80, who volunteered at the cemetery from the 1940s until the 1970s, is one of the original caretakers of Tehran’s Jewish cemetery.

“I was a very successful businessman in the fabrics business; they [community leaders] came to me and gave me the responsibility of helping the community with their burial needs,” Hendizadeh said in his native Persian tongue. “At that time, there was a difficult road to travel to the cemetery, so we had to carry the bodies by a horse-drawn carriage; later the community helped pay for a car.”

According to Dr. Habib Levy’s “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” (Mazda Publishers, 1999), the site for Tehran’s Jewish cemetery was also used as a temporary refugee camp, housing thousands of Iranian and Iraqi Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel. Many had fled their homes out of fear of being killed after Israel declared its independence.

Perhaps one of the best-known Jewish burial grounds in Iran is the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, located in the city of Hamadan. Although Iranian Jews have long believed that the tombs belong to Esther and Mordecai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.

“The great archeologist Ernst Herzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there,” Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Journal in 2005. “But [he] later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there.”

Netzer also said the tomb of the Jewish biblical prophet Daniel is located in the southern Iranian city of Susa, and is visited by both Jews and Muslims.

Local Iranian Jewish leaders said Farzan’s photos of Jewish gravesites also serve an important role in preserving historical records of Iran’s Jewry dating back more than 2,500 years.

“Some of these sites are older than the Talmud; some are as old as Queen Esther,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation. “In the absence of any other guaranteed alternatives, photographs may be the best option for preserving at least the memories of these sites.”

Farzan said he would like to return to Iran and photograph the graves at various other Jewish cemeteries in the cities of Esfahan, Kermanshah, Kashan, Rezaeh, Shiraz, Sanandj and Yazd.

Kermanian said local Iranian Jews are looking to help Farzan expand his efforts in photographing and recording various significant Jewish burial sites throughout Iran.

Representatives from the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, who control the cemetery, indicated in a written statement that there are plans to transform a chapel on the grounds of the cemetery into a small museum honoring those who helped establish the cemetery in 1933.

Farzan said he is seeking online donations from those using the site. The funds will be used for maintenance and new landscaping renovations for Tehran’s Jewish cemetery as well as to build a small memorial to Tehran’s Jewish cemetery at Groman Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills.

“We must pay our respects to the past generations lying in that cemetery [who] sacrificed by enduring hardship while holding onto their Judaism, which we still have today,” Farzan said.

The art of keeping a travel journal

I was going through some old boxes the other day when I found a beat up old notebook that contained a journal of my trip to the Philippines almost nine years ago. The journey had been my first to a tropical country, and thumbing through those wrinkled pages was like stepping into a blast of Southeast Asian humidity: The more I read, the more I began to feel the emotions I felt when I first wandered through Manila and Cebu and Boracay.

Admittedly, the prose in my old journal was far too purple and unfocused to submit for publication in the greater world, but it was a wonderfully vivid evocation of the trip, by myself and for myself — an author and audience of one.

My travel journals haven’t been quite so detailed in the years since I returned from the Philippines — mainly due to the professional demands of travel writing, which takes up most of my note-taking time on the road. Moreover, since a lot of my leftover travel perspectives have gone electronically into my blog in recent years, my pen and paper travel journals have been a bit skimpy in recent years.

Nevertheless, I believe that keeping a travel journal can be one of the most rewarding habits a person can keep on the road. Since I’m a bit out of practice, however, I got in touch with my old friend Lavinia Spalding — a Utah-based writer and travel-journal guru currently at work on a book titled, “Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Journaling on Vacation” — to winnow out some expert advice on keeping a journal on the road:

Rolf Potts: What are the benefits of keeping a travel journal? Why not just enjoy your experience organically without recording it?

Lavinia Spalding: Every traveler who keeps a journal does so for different and valuable reasons. On the most basic level, a travelogue is a place to record information — the name of that historic hotel in Livingston, Mont., or directions to the best Khmer restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s a log of what not to forget. It can inspire writing to publish or share with friends and family; serve as a confidant on solo journeys; store memorabilia such as stamps, ticket stubs and wine labels; or provide a clean canvas for impromptu sketches. It can be a mirror of self-discovery along the way.

For me, the ultimate reward is being forced, regularly, to slow down and be present. If I sit with my notebook for even a few minutes each day to write about where I am in that moment, and what I’m currently experiencing with all of my senses, it becomes a practice. It takes me out of thinking only of past and future — the site I’ve just visited, or my next destination. It demands an immediate stillness and awareness, and in doing so enriches the whole experience.

RP: What advice would you give to a first-timer, who has never kept a travel journal and doesn’t know where to start?

LS: Begin by treating yourself to a new unlined blank book. Choose it carefully, paying close attention to the weight of the pages and the feel of it in your hands. Will it lay relatively flat when open? Will it hold up to weather and wear? My favorite journals are actually sketchbooks — they’re affordable, sturdy and versatile, and can be found in any art supply store.

Once you’ve set yourself up with the perfect blank book, take it home and display it on your bedside table along with a favorite pen. Soon it’ll call to you like keys to a new car. If you’ve bought your journal for an upcoming trip but want to start writing in it at once, begin by listing expectations and goals for the journey, as well as any preconceived notions of your intended destinations. Include your to-do list, packing list, estimated budget and any useful travel tips you’ve received. Not only will this spark excitement and get you into the habit of journal writing, you’ll also have fun reading it upon your return, at which point you can recount the ways in which your expectations met or differed from reality.

RP: How do you keep a consistent journal on the road without letting it interfere with your experience?

LS: I think of my journal as a travel companion. Not a whiny or strict companion demanding my constant attention, but an affable, playful, ever-available friend that doesn’t mind spending a lot of time locked in my hotel room. Then, as I go about my day, taking in sights and having adventures, I keep it in the back of my mind, thinking to myself, “I can’t wait to tell my journal this story.” I pick up small gifts for it while I’m out — a colorful candy wrapper to glue inside, a flower to press between the pages, a museum pass or a hologram sticker of Kuan Yin.

A mistake many people make is feeling obliged to carry their journal everywhere they go. Instead, tuck a small spiral notebook into your pocket or daypack. That way you can jot things down on the spot and later transfer over the information, or better yet, tear out the page and paste it into your journal. Another mistake is trying to describe in exhaustive detail the events of every single day. If you make yourself write daily long entries, eventually it’ll start to smell like homework.

Some consistency is necessary, though. It’s a good idea to commit to eking out a few words every day — short notes on where you went and what you saw, or a funny overheard quote. Entries in my journal from Tibet are as brief as, “steaming plates of yak momos,” and in my Mexico journal, “The lady renting us the casita has a shiny gold star on her front tooth.” A few words are enough to solidify memories.

Maybe later you’ll expand on what you’ve written. Maybe not. Either way, you’ve managed to include the journal in your experience without allowing it to take over. I like to save longer entries for idle moments, when no one else is around and I’m feeling reflective, or when I’ve been drinking.

In Defense of Jewish Husbands

In early 1943, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decided to "avenge" the German defeat at Stalingrad by finally making Berlin completely "Judenrein."

On Feb. 27, the Gestapo and SS rounded up the last 5,000 Jewish men, and some women, still living legally in the German capital. They had been spared deportation so far because they were married to "Aryans" or had a non-Jewish parent.

Before sending them on to Auschwitz, some of the Jews were held at the former Jewish Community Welfare Office on Rosenstrasse.

The next morning, a few dozen Aryan wives of the imprisoned Jews stood in the cold outside the Rosenstrasse building, demanding the release of their husbands.

One day later, 100 more women and a few men, including one in a German army uniform, joined the protestors.

By the sixth day, close to 1,000 took part in the vigil, and when an SS contingent trained machine guns on the protestors, they screamed back "Murderers" and would not be moved.

"It wasn’t easy, even for Nazis, to shoot these women," director-writer Margarethe von Trotta commented. "After all, these were Aryan women who were displaying the supreme Germanic virtue — to be loyal to their husbands."

On the seventh day of the stand-off, Goebbels gave in. He ordered the Jews to be released to their families, including 25 men who had already been sent to Auschwitz.

Thus began and ended the only known successful internal public protest against Nazi rule, a fairly obscure historical incident now resurrected in the German film "Rosenstrasse."

Von Trotta, one of Europe’s preeminent filmmakers with a special gift for portraying strong women, has previously chronicled the story of 20th century Germany in such films as "Rosa Luxemburg" and "The Pledge." It took her some 10 years to complete the cycle by documenting her country’s "darkest period" in "Rosenstrasse."

While staying true to the basic facts, she has dramatized the story by telling it largely through the eyes of a young American Jewish woman, Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader).

Hannah’s mother, as a young child, was an eyewitness to the Rosenstrasse drama but had never talked about her past, so the daughter sets out to present-day Berlin to track down the family history.

There, Hannah encounters an old woman, Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), who recounts the 1943 events in black-and-white flashbacks.

Lena had horrified her aristocratic German family by marrying a Jewish violinist and becomes one of the first protestors at Rosenstrasse when her husband is arrested.

The film is quite slow-paced, but it catches the grim, oppressive atmosphere of wartime Berlin, just undergoing its first massive British air raid.

Von Trotta also exposes the luxurious wartime lifestyle of the Nazi elite when Lena, as the beautiful blonde baroness, attends a party in a desperate attempt to charm Goebbels into releasing her husband.

Martin Wuttke, who impressed Los Angeles theatergoers a few years back in Bertolt Brecht’s "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" at UCLA, plays Goebbels.

During a brief visit to Los Angeles, von Trotta speculated on what gave a few hundred German housewives the moral backbone to defy the Nazi rulers in the midst of war.

"This was not a political demonstration," she said. "These women did not intend to act as a political group, but each woman wanted to protect her husband. They did not see themselves as heroines. They were afraid, they were in despair and they acted with the courage of despair."

Questioned on the continued focus of German and American filmmakers on the Nazi and Holocaust eras, von Trotta responded, "Hitler said that his Reich would last 1,000 years. We have to remember his crimes for the next 1,000 years."

As the "von" in her name indicates, the director is descended from an aristocratic German family, although since her mother was not married when Margarethe was born, she took her mother’s name.

"Actually, my mother’s ancestors were knight Crusaders, who after killing Jews and Muslims, returned from the Holy Land and settled in Eastern Europe to ‘Christianize’ the Baltic states and Russia," she said.

Von Trotta got her start as one of the most popular actresses of the New German Cinema, working closely with her former husband, director Volker Schlondorff.

When I mentioned to von Trotta that I had lived near Rosenstrasse as a youngster, she turned the interview around.

"There are lots of questions I want to ask you," she said. "How did you live during the Nazi period? Do you hate the Germans?"

But the next interviewer was already knocking on the door, and we agreed to continue our conversation by e-mail between Los Angeles and Paris, where the director lives.

"Rosenstrasse" opens Aug. 20 at three Laemmle theaters, Royal in West Los Angeles, Town Center 5 in Encino, and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

Diaspora: A Photographer’s Quest

"My work was driven by a sense of imminent loss," writes Frédéric Brenner in the introduction to his new book, "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile." "Two thousand years of history were about to vanish. I felt a desire and a responsibility to document these permutations of survival in exile before they disappeared…. As I began my journey, I realized how much loss had already taken place."

It was this sense of loss that led Brenner, a 44-year-old French photographer on a 25-year journey to more than 40 countries, to document the lives of Jews in exile. Brenner wanted to record the process of acculturation that has distinguished the history of the Jews since the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered into exile.

"The journey undertook me more than I undertook it," Brenner told The Journal. "I needed to unveil and uncover the many threads which make up the fabric of my identity. I am a product of the East and West — my grandparents came from Algeria, and my other grandparents came from Ukraine and Romania. I am typical of the blending which makes up the fabric of our people."

So Brenner traveled all over the world, using his camera to tell stories that might otherwise never be told. He went to Abyssinia, where he photographed Jewish women who still practice the pre-talmudic custom of confining themselves to a hut during menstruation; he captured Jews in Yemen who know how to read Hebrew upside down, because they have only one book that all need to learn from; descendants of Marranos (secret Jews) in Portugal who light Shabbat candles in hiding and celebrate Passover in the attic; Russian peasant Jews who work on kolkhozes (communal farms); and Gen. David Dragunsky, the leading Russian anti-Zionist during the Brezhnev era. Brenner shot Jewish merchants in India; female rabbinical students, all wearing tefillin, in New York; Chasidim in Mea Shearim, and Hell’s Angels in Miami.

The photographs, all black and white, give the viewer a glimpse into the many permutations of Jews and Judaism today. They manage to shake any sense of complacency that one might have about definitions of what the religion should be, and should look like. All in all, they are profoundly moving, because it is only this gossamer chain of religious identity that is shared by all.

"What these people have in common is mainly their differences, and their acceptance of their own differences," Brenner said. "What Jews have in common is that they altogether make the experience of dispossession and dispersal, again and again and again. This experience is not only experienced passively as a curse, but very often it is claimed as reinvigoration. The ‘wandering Jew’ is something we reclaim, as a project, a vocation."

In "Diaspora" (Harper Collins) the photographs are presented in two volumes. The first installment is a coffee-table collection of some 260 photographs; the second is a selection of the shots with accompanying text surrounding them, laid out like a page of Talmud.

The text is written by a variety of authors: Jacques Derrida, Stanley Cavell, Sami Shalom Chetrit and Carlos Fuentes to name a few. They approach the photographs as a layered text, attempting to discern the meaning in the image, and to raise the issues that they see embedded in the duotones. "What rouses me against this photograph and doesn’t let me go?" asks Michael Govrin of a shot of four Greek Holocaust survivors, each stretching out their arms so the viewer can see the numbers tattooed there. "Did Frederic mark those nameless men yet again in a ‘composition’ of tattooed arms and clenched fists? Did he violate the pain etched in their bodies by imprinting it on film?"

Sometimes, the text tells the story of the person in the image, such as the wonderful letter, written in 1821, that accompanies the "Tribute to the Raba Family." The letter tells the story of the Rabas, Portuguese Jews who escaped the inquisition keeping their Judaism intact, and went on to amass a huge fortune in France.

"I don’t offer any answers, only questions," Brenner said of his images. "The texts chosen are very elliptical, and so there is a lot of space for the viewers to trust their own commentary."

Brenner is an outgoing, lively and handsome man, who is as likely to quote biblical commentators like Rashi in his speech as he is postmodern theorists. He gives the sense of always being in flux, his projects are infused with the same gusto that his every gesture exudes. One can easily imagine him jetting around the world, camera in tow, feeling invigorated as he traipses through a ludditic Ukrainian village looking for the last remaining Jew.

"Jews are people who subvert the archaical forces of death," Brenner said. "A large majority of Jews, and non-Jews, know how Jews died, but they don’t know how Jews lived. The history of the Jewish people is becoming the history of the Shoah; there is a fascination with our own disappearance and that is not Jewish. The fact that we have been victims for a large part of history has taken over the other part, which defines who we are. There is a famous verse in the Bible where God says ‘I will put in front of you life and death, and you will choose life’ — and that is what we have to do."

Frederic Brenner presents and discusses images from "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile," at the Skirball Cultural Center on Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. This lecture is in association with "The Photograph and the American Dream, 1840-1940,"on view Oct. 18-Jan. 4. For more information, call (323) 655-8587.