AJ Meijer performs Andre Aciman’s “The Last Seder” in “Exile.” Photo by Jan Berlfein Burns

‘Exile’ highlights the journey of Sephardic Jews

Homesickness and nostalgia are similar, but there’s a subtle difference. Homesickness is when you miss a place you can go back to, and when you do go back, what you’re homesick for will likely still be there. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a place you cannot go back to because it’s rooted in the past, and you know, deep inside, that the past cannot be lived again.

Nostalgia is a running thread in “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks,” a Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) show that opened March 18 and runs through April 3 in various venues, including synagogues and private homes. Directed by Susan Morgenstern, “Exile,” like other JWT shows, is a staged reading — performed by professional actors — of more than a dozen thematically connected personal stories and songs that evoke laughs, smiles of recognition and more than a few tears.

The subject matter of “Exile” — the journey of Sephardic Jews — is at times tragic or hilarious and always touching. Sephardim were forced to leave Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago, after which they settled in far-flung places, from Central America to South Asia, but mostly in North Africa, Turkey, Greece and the Middle East. Over the years, often after being forced into exile again, most Sephardim have found safety in Western Europe, the Americas or Israel, but their history has taught them that safety may not be permanent: However secure a haven may seem, it could eventually turn out to be temporary.

“The motif that I saw repeated is being in a place for a generation or two, North Africa or Turkey, then having to move someplace else for a generation or two, and then having to go someplace else,” said Ronda Spinak, the JWT co-founder and artistic director who adapted and produced this show. “A sense of nomad, that there really is no home. … What you see in a couple of the pieces [in “Exile”] is the sense of, ‘OK, we’re here now, but how long will it be before we have to move someplace else again?’ ”

In a piece called “Becoming American,” Gladys Moreau expresses the uncertainty that many Sephardim carry in their DNA. Born in Egypt, Moreau moved to Italy with her parents, lived there for years, and as a schoolgirl, immigrated to the U.S. In a touching piece in which Moreau talks about Ashkenazi friends who had never met a Sephardic Jew, she writes that she has always felt secure here, but “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and this feeling of, yeah, I’m in America, but still … I don’t know.”

The Sephardic writers of the pieces seem to be “groping,” not only to find a place where they can feel secure and at home, but also toward an identity.

In “Living Between the Question Marks,” Ruth Knafo Setton writes: “I dream in French, write in English, mysteriously know Spanish, curse in Arabic, cry in Hebrew,” an apt summary of Sephardic history’s interwoven strands. “I exist between languages, roam between countries, write between genres. … In a sense, I’m always writing in translation.”

That feeling of an uncertain future is captured in “The Last Seder” by Andre Aciman, whose Sephardic ancestors left Iberia, lived in Turkey for generations, then settled in Egypt. The story takes place during Passover in Alexandria in the 1960s after then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser has ordered Aciman’s family and other Jews to leave the country. The piece poignantly expresses a 10-year-old boy’s pain at being uprooted from a place he loves and will never forget.

In “Both Jewish and Arabic,” a young father whose Sephardic family lived in Syria and is now in the U.S., tries to teach his daughter Arabic, which he himself barely knows, and is gratified when she responds. Even though he knows they’ll never go back to Syria, her  counting to 10 in Arabic is a symbolic return to a land where his family once felt at home.

An issue that Sephardic Jews have had to confront, after leaving Morocco or Turkey and coming to North America, is the interaction with Ashkenazi Jews.

“I wasn’t aware that many Sephardim have a sense that Ashkenazis consider them second-class,” Spinak said, “that [Sephardim] are not the real Jews. … So part of this show is trying to get at how much we are alike. … To acknowledge from the part of Ashkenazis, that, yes, we’ve done that to you. And for the Ashkenazis who are being shown this for the first time, that there is a whole different type of Jewish culture that is equally valid and equally Jewish.”

“Differences,” performed by the ensemble, was, according to program notes, “assembled from the internet” and pokes fun of cultural divides between Sephardim and Ashkenazis, while “A Sephardi Air,” by Ruth Behar, zeroes in on the customs relating to the sensitive issue of child-naming — Sephardim name a child after a living relative, while Ashkenazis do not — to highlight divergences and similarities between these two Jewish groups.

Spinak said that she and some others at JWT had wanted to do a Sephardic-themed show for some time. She met with UCLA Sephardic Studies professor Sarah Stein, who “was helpful in giving me a list of books to read about Sephardim: their history, their journey, as well as books of poetry and literature. She suggested different writers, so then I … did a lot of reading.”

While watching “Exile,” it’s no great leap to hear references to current events. “The play’s themes of loss and uncertainty about being forced to leave one’s home resonate deeply … at this day and age,” she said. “The Sephardic story is one that every Jew needs to hear.”

“Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks” is adapted and produced by Ronda Spinak, and directed by Susan Morgenstern. Funding for the project was provided by the Maurice Amado Foundation. There is also an art show on Sephardic themes at the Braid, JWT’s home base, at 2912 Colorado St., No. 102, Santa Monica, with works created by artists Rene Amitai, Jaco Halfon, and Sarah True. For dates and venues, please go to jewishwomenstheatre.org or call (310) 315-1400.

Report: Qatar deports Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal

Qatar reportedly has deported Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal to Turkey.

The move was first reported over the weekend in a Turkish newspaper. It comes as Qatar is working to strengthen ties with Egypt and several Gulf States that object to the Hamas presence.

Mashaal visited Turkey in a surprise appearance about two weeks ago, where he called for Turkish help to “liberate” Jerusalem.

On Tuesday, Hamas leaders denied that Mashaal was deported.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry in a statement issued Tuesday praised Qatar for deporting Mashaal, saying the ministry had worked openly and through private channels to Qatar and other countries in order to effect Mashaal’s deportation.

“We expect the Turkish government to now follow suit,” the statement said.

Mashaal spent 13 years in Damascus before leaving in January 2012 due to Syria’s continuing civil war.


Megillat Esther — The book of the exile

Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar.  It can be distinguished from all the other festivals by the character that it was granted in later generations, but mainly by its most primary source –  Megillat Esther itself.

The different nature of the Purim customs and of Megillat Esther, can be seen in comparison with Hanuka, the Jewish festival that is closest to it both in time and meaning.  Although the Books of the Maccabees did not become part of the canonized Bible, they nevertheless belong to the philosophical and stylistic “milieu” of the Biblical books, in the events that they relate, in the characters of the main figures, and in the religious-national issues looming in their background.  Compared with them, Megillat Esther seems to be almost on the other side of the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus;  the wicked, petty Haman; Esther whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella tale; and the righteous Mordechai, who gets entangled in the court intrigues of an Oriental tyrant.  Commentators have also remarked that G-d’s name does not appear in the entire Megilla even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that in Mishanic times, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scriptures.

The clue to all these peculiarities may be found in one single issue – Purim is the Festival of the Exile, and Megillat Esther is the Book of the Exile.  In a sense, Megillat Esther is the basic model of the life of the Jewish people in exile.  Its  entire story, which looks like a simplistic melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality, takes on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked at as the mirror of Jewish history not only at the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also throughout Jewish history in the years of exile.

Ahasuerus, the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty seven provinces,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to  destroy, and kill all Jews” without considering all its possible implications – is he a mere creature of the imagination?  Almost no generation passes without us encountering him, in one form or another.  He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even  foolish and weak  tyrants can bring about terrible destruction upon the Jewish people in exile.

As for Haman – about whom there are various Aggadic tales, who somehow becames the de facto ruler of the land, and decided that personal hatred, superstition, or any other kind of nonsense, is sufficient justification for killing all the Jews – one does not have to search very far to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening.

In Megillat Esther Haman is clearly a comic figure.  However, throughout our history this character has been accompanied by so many tears and so much blood.  Haman’s inciteful speech to the King about a certain people scattered among the peoples of his  kingdom, whose laws are different  from those of every people, who do not  keep the king’s laws; and therefore the king should not suffer them” (Esther 3:8) – has not been greatly perfected during  the 2,500 years that have elapsed since then.  With minor variations, it is repeated to this day by modern-day  Hamans throughout the world.  We no longer laugh at this pathetic figure.  Today, we are afraid of him.

One can elaborate and illustrate how this strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of Megillat Esther – that could have been funny, had it not been so tragic – has been repeating itself generation after generation, in different parts of the world.  The Midrash says that the protagonists of the Megillah are not just figures,  Ahasuerus and Haman ”  represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands of others like them who  grow out of the fundamental evil of the Jewish existence in the exile: a people who has no real support, whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be conspicuous, and against whom any ruler’s whim will be turned – the eternal scapegoat.

Megillat Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of thhe Divine Face,” of the Jewish people in its exile, in which the greatest threats against its very existence begin with what looks like a comedy, and even the miracles that occur during its rescue, stem from the nature and “soil” of exile.

Only a very profound outlook, that sees the Jewish future, and is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused Megillat Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible.  For this book is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.”  The Megilla teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history.  Within all this, one must believe that “relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews…”, and that in moments of distress, assimilation and masks will not help even those who sit in the king’s own palace.  And that, despite everything, there is hope.

The story of Megillat Esther will continue as long as the exile continues to exist, and as long as the world persists in functioning  with the “hiding of the Divine Face” and “the hiding of the Divine Name.”  May the days soon come when we will no longer comprehend the seriousness of the Megilla, when we will be able to read it truly frivolously, knowing that it is just a tale from bygone times that will never return.

Libyan Jewish exile to leave country

A Libyan Jewish exile attempting to restore Tripoli’s main synagogue will leave the country following angry protests.

David Gerbi, who arrived in Libya from Italy this summer when Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi was ousted in a rebellion, agreed Sunday to return to Rome on a military transport scheduled to leave Tuesday, according to The Jerusalem Post.

On Yom Kippur eve, hundreds of protesters called for Gerbi’s deportation and carried signs reading “There is no place for the Jews in Libya,” The Jerusalem Post reported. The protesters attempted to forcibly remove Gerbi from his central Tripoli hotel, he told the Post, but were stopped by hotel and Libyan security, and government officials.

Gerbi began trying to clean up the site of the Dar al-Bishi synagogue earlier this month but said he was forced to leave the site by armed men. He said since then he has been holed up in his hotel room.

He said he had spent weeks getting permission from the country’s new leaders to clean up the site.

Gerbi, a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, had told Reuters that he was applying to become a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a full member to represent the Jewish community and planned to reclaim Jewish properties confiscated by the state.

Most Tripoli synagogues have been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries also have been torn down to make room for office buildings.

Gerbi fled Libya with his family in 1967 when he was 12 years old.

Solving the riddle

Overnight, they lost their homes, their jobs, their life savings. At nine in the morning, they were well off; by noon, they were impecunious.

All the hard work and planning, the expensive education, the sacrifices, all the good fortune, the street smarts and common sense and old wisdom they had fallen upon or inherited or learned on their own — gone in a matter of hours, sucked away by the greed and immorality, the cravenness and stupidity of those in charge.

I’ve seen this movie before.

Thirty years ago this month, before Freddie Mac and Bernie Madoff and failing automakers, before Henry Paulson and Merrill Lynch and billion-dollar bailouts that don’t make a dent, tens of thousands of Iranian Jews watched helplessly as their lives unraveled through no fault of their own. It was the height of the Islamic Revolution, the climax of months of anxiety and stalemate.

In Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere in the West, families who had left Iran “for the summer,” to “wait out the troubles” and “return in time for the kids to start school in September” realized there was no going back. From far away, they watched as their homes and businesses were confiscated in Iran, as they and anyone else deemed sympathetic to the shah were fired from their jobs, tried in absentia and condemned to death.

Strangers in a strange land, they had no bank accounts, no credit, no knowledge of the workings of Western commercial systems. One minute they were successful professionals and artists and entrepreneurs; the next minute they were being yelled at by impatient clerks at discount stores, where no one cares who you once were — either learn English or go home.

And yet they endured. Most even triumphed.

I’ve wondered about this for 30 years, and more so in the last few months: How, I’ve asked myself, did our parents do it? How did they suffer so much loss with such grace, find their footing in a foreign land, start over and build again, often better than the first time?

Women in their 20s and 30s, with young children and no income, a husband stranded back in Iran; elderly men who spoke not a word of English, who had survived the ghetto and the poverty of old Iran, thrived under the shah only to see it all disappear; middle-aged couples with elderly parents and teenage sons and daughters — three generations of loss and alienation under one roof.

Where did my parents find the strength, the faith that sustained their own optimism and made the success of my generation possible?

Ironically, it was the economic meltdown of 2008 that helped me solve the riddle of 1978 and ’79. Through the torrent of bad economic news and the sorry spectacle of reckless dealers and malicious trustees and criminally ignorant public officials, I spent the better part of last year reliving the worst moments of the Iranian revolution. Both in terms of personal loss and collective angst, the parallels between us then and us now are obvious.

There must be a lesson here, I thought.

This is what I remember of the years directly after the revolution: my mother on the phone with her sisters a dozen times a day; my father sitting down with friends and strangers from Iran, talking into the early morning hours about what could be done, and how, and at what cost.

My brother-in-law walking every square foot of Westwood Boulevard and the downtown jewelry district, stopping every time he ran into another Iranian so they could bring each other up to date on what they had learned most recently. My cousin moving into her parents’ two-bedroom apartment with her three young daughters and two unmarried sisters.

My grandmother baby-sitting her grandnieces and nephews after school so their parents could work. Entire families moving to small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, where a son or daughter was attending college.

Kids my age going to school in the daytime and working (illegally) at liquor stores at night to help pay the rent. Shabbat dinners with seven aunts and their husbands and children; Passover seders with 62 cousins and everyone’s in-laws.

We were lost, but never alone.

It’s one of those traits — this enhanced sense of community, this emphasis on the value of friendship and family, even if you don’t like the friends or the family, this recognition that we are defined as much by what we do individually as what we achieve as a group — that have as many drawbacks as advantages.

It’s the old village mentality, the need to belong at almost any cost, that is often deplored in traditional societies such as our own. It’s a tribal force that breeds conformity, nurtures intolerance, stifles the tendency toward originality and privacy on the part of the individual. At the same time, though, it’s a safety net like no other, an organized base of support that can catch a people — even Western people — in free fall, a sure thing when nothing else is for certain. It’s the one place, the one truth, you know holds no surprises.

“Why must we visit our great-great-aunt and her weird children and snooty grandchildren every time she invites us to her house?” my sisters and I used to bug my mother in those years.

“We see her because she’s your great-great-aunt,” my mother would say, as if that was supposed to make any sense.

We didn’t like the aunt, and she didn’t like us, and still, she came to our house, and we went to hers, and we all made nice to each other like little robots on some kind of mission of cordiality, the purpose of which is only now becoming evident to me: She wasn’t important in and of herself, this aunt. She was a link in the chain, a knot in the safety net, and so were we, and so were the weird children and the snooty grandkids.

In a fractured society, amid fear of the future and shame about the past, where so many families are standing at the edge of poverty and unemployment, and so many of the trusted have proven unworthy of trust, the old village may just be the place we all want to go back to.

For the children of those Iranian Jews who weathered the storm three decades ago and are caught in its midst again this year, the question is, have we kept enough of our parents’ values to be able to find our way back to the safety and support of the tribe?

For the rest of the country, descendants of those immigrant communities who came to America a hundred years ago and built the country into what it is today, the question is, will they look to the past, discover the secret of their parents’ survival and come together once again as a family?

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

This time, I remember

We’re sitting around my parents’ dining room in Century City for Shabbat dinner, and the conversation veers toward our childhoods in Iran.

My cousin, who’s a few years older than I (though you’d never guess it by looking at her, because she has that remarkable ability to forgive the world instantly for all its cruelties), is talking about the big house on Shah Reza Street where I grew up — how grand and magnificent it had seemed to her in those years, how every time she came over with her parents and sisters, she felt awed and startled by the vast garden with the many pools, the high, forbidding walls of yellow bricks, the outsized halls and heavy velvet drapes and 12-foot-high French doors that opened onto tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings.

Across the table from her, another cousin, this one from the other side of the family, concurs. “We were scared to talk or move or, God forbid, play there when we came over,” she says. “That just wasn’t the kind of place where you did silly childish things,” she says. “It seemed like everything that happened there was serious and important and dramatic.”

They go on like this for a few minutes while my mother fusses with the dinner.

They’re playing that “Do you remember?” game I dread because I’m so bad at it, because I don’t remember anything — ever — unless I’m writing about it; it’s like I read a book of stories once and memorized every line, and after that I stopped seeing or learning anything ever again. So I never participate in these reminiscences and certainly never encourage them; I try to slip away unnoticed when the conversation begins or, if that’s not an option, I explain that I’ve been in a coma my whole life, I’m brain-damaged, yes, I’m sure I was there, right along with you, when all this happened but I might as well have been on Mars for all the impression it’s left.

Except this time, I know exactly what they’re all talking about.

I remember the house — every corner and back door and hidden stairway in it, every ancient tree and life-sized statue and fresh-water pool in the yard, every rusted metal gate, razor-wired brick wall, secret passageway and narrow tunnel and dark alley. I remember all the rooms, the kitchens, the servants’ quarters. The French, hand-carved furniture, Czech crystals, Persian rugs, Italian marble floors. To me, it had the aura of a place in decline — a fortress of pride and vanity, built with the kind of care and attention that implies unwavering faith, unabashed arrogance, a certain confidence in one’s immortality.

Built by my grandfather when his children were very young, it had stood stalwart against the decades and the many turns of history, resisted the carnage of time and the pull of entropy, the many upheavals in the city’s constitution, the decay of the streets, the onslaught of traffic, the mass immigration from the countryside to the city. And yes, it was indeed the scene of great drama and outsized stories, not the kind of place that tolerated childhood. So when my forever-young cousin turns to me with a bemused smile and asks, “Do you remember?” I can actually say “Yes, I do remember, this one I remember well.”

What I can’t say is how shocked I am to learn that we all have such similar impressions, all these years later, of the house on Shah Reza Street. That I never thought anyone else would remember the place as I did, never knew how much of what I remembered was factually correct. I never knew how much larger, more theatrical that house had become in my imagination, how different — smaller — I would find it when I went back to Iran.

It’s been 30 years since I saw the house, I want to say, and this is the first time I realize that other people saw it as well, and perhaps in the same way. It’s been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I’m going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it’s indeed 12 feet high, or if I’ve imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street. Everything else I knew or thought I knew about Iran has changed with time; even my sense of belonging, my sense of familiarity with the people and the language and the customs of the place, has faded beyond recognition, but somehow, I know it will all come back the minute I see the house, that I will recapture all my lost memories, be able to tell truth from fiction, to put together the many pieces of myself that now lie across the landscape of time.

I would go back to the house some day, I’ve always thought, and no matter how old it’s become, how many other families have lived in it and how many changes it has undergone, I will walk into the first floor hallway and smell my grandfather’s cigarette smoke, climb the steps to the second floor and find my older sister, so quiet and innocent the teachers call her “the holy mother,” listening to Barry White while she does her math homework. I will walk into the bedroom where the three of us girls sleep and see my old bed just where I left it the day we flew out of Iran for what turned out to be the last time. I will open the closets and find my old clothes, pull the drawers and rescue my plastic dolls from their 30-year slumber.

My childhood. My parents’ youth. My little sister with the hazel eyes and the red hair and the tiny hands holding popsicle sticks as she walked around the house on scorching summer afternoons, the orange ice melting against her impossibly white skin. My beautiful aunt with the dark brown eyes and the short, short skirts, the red patent-leather boots, the fearlessness with which she announced one day she was going to America — “to New York, or L.A., or whatever,” she said — to study.

Half an hour into the meal, my mother has finally finished running back and forth into the kitchen, bringing out a new dish every three minutes and chiding the kids for not eating enough, all this dieting will make you sick your bones will hollow out you won’t be able to study your skin will turn grey hasn’t anyone warned you about the dangers of malnutrition?

“You have,” my little niece whispers quietly, “just about every week.”

My mother ignores the response, sits down at the table and overhears the conversation about the house. She puts a plateful of rice in front of my younger son and says, as casually as if she were still talking about food, “They tore it down.”

The others are too engrossed in the chatter to take note of what has been said, but I turn to her and ask, “What’s been torn down?”

“The house,” she says. “They tore it down.”

She has said this too matter-of-factly, with too little emotion, so I don’t believe we’re talking about the same place.

“What house?” I ask. “Who’s ‘they’?”

At the other end of the table, my cousins and sisters have stopped talking; my daughter, who’s been taking Farsi lessons at UCLA and is therefore more attentive than usual to family talk (what she calls “Persians’ strange stories”) is looking at me as if to glean the importance of some house being torn down somewhere in the world.

“I don’t know who ‘they’ are,” my mother says. “But they tore down the house on Shah Reza Street. My brother drove by the other day and saw it was all gone, the whole place has been leveled, probably a while ago already.”

For a moment, no one speaks. I don’t know what the others are thinking but for me, the news has repercussions greater than can be processed in the course of one evening or one whole day. I’m not sure what it means, or why I hadn’t been told sooner, or why my parents don’t seem particularly disturbed by this.

I don’t know why my sisters don’t ask, why my cousins slowly pick up the conversation and go on in the same vein, playing the “Do you remember” game about a place that, until minutes ago, had been eternal, everlasting, my true North.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Exile’s gains and losses

I don’t know what will become of the legacy of Iranian Jews outside of Iran, how history will judge us in the context of the opportunities we had and the extent to which we helped make the world a better place with what we were given.

I don’t know what our kids will think of us 30 years from now; how we’ll define ourselves in retrospect.

When I’m feeling particularly glib, I think that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did us all a favor by causing us to leave the country once and for all. But I also know that I’m being presumptuous and perhaps unfair when I say that exile has been good for our community.

It is true that hardly a day goes by when I don’t thank God and my parents for the good fortune of living in this country. I thank my parents because they had the courage and foresight, years before the Islamic revolution, to up and leave Iran for America when I was 13 years old.

It was the heyday of the shah’s reign; the Jews had never had it so good. Money grew on trees, and you could sleep at night with the doors unlocked.

Yet even then, my parents could see the cracks in the wall, imagine the limits of what was possible in Iran. They forsook home and country, family and friends, 2,000 years of roots and put their faith in the idea of America. I thank God they did, but I realize there’s an immeasurable difference between the path that my parents took — leaving on their own terms — and the road onto which so many other Iranian Jews were forced.

It’s a testament to those Jews’ powers of invention and resilience, their adaptability and courage, that they have managed, in just three decades, to succeed so relatively well in their personal and professional lives here. Still, if you were to ask me what I think Iranian Jews have gained as a result of the Islamic revolution and what I believe we have lost, I could only give the most subjective and personal of answers.

What have I gained and lost, thanks to the “troubles” — that’s what people called the revolution in the beginning — of 30 years ago?

I gained the good fortune of having a community of Iranian Jews being born here overnight, filling the loneliness and alienation I had felt in the first years of my life in Los Angeles, when hardly any Iranians lived here and hardly any Americans gave us a chance at establishing a friendship. They nodded to us politely in passing, then looked away. If they stopped long enough, it was to ask where Iran was on the map and whether people rode camels to the grocery store in Tehran.

I gained the great good fortune of witnessing our community transform for the better with each passing decade, easing up on the misogyny and intolerance that were byproducts of Islamic and Jewish practices (because Persian culture, when freed of the influences of religion, is actually quite progressive and broadminded). I gained the possibility of speaking my mind without fear, questioning tradition without shame, writing what I believe to be the truth.

In exchange for all that, I lost the country of my birth, the places of my childhood, the handprints of my ancestors on the landscape. I lost the kindness of a people who, even in the depths of poverty, opened their homes and offered their food to a stranger; the innocence of a nation that had been closed off to the world for so long that it embraced every new idea, every foreigner wholeheartedly and with faith. I lost the beauty of the land where history began, the glow of a sunlight that was older, more seasoned, more forgiving than what I’ve seen anywhere else.

I lost the colors of the costumes little girls wore to perform ethnic dances, the faces of young boys who sat on rotting rowboats along the Caspian shore, the sound of water crashing against smooth black rocks in the Karaj River, the rosewater scent of the first harvest of apples. I lost the ability to go back and see with my eyes what I can only revisit now in memory.

For me, that’s a great bargain. For some others, especially people of my parents’ generation, it might have been a tough sell.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Escape, exile, rebirth: Iranian Jewish diaspora alive and well in Los Angeles

Thirty years have passed since the massive and violent demonstrations against the Shah of Iran that began in September 1978, and for many, the start of that country’s bloody revolution might seem a faded memory. Yet I have carried those shattering events with me all of my life: I was born on in Tehran on Sept. 11, 1978, as chaos unfolded on the streets outside.

For Americans, Sept. 11 has its own painful history, but for me, that day each year has always been, as well, a reminder of another horrific tragedy: Sept. 9 to Sept. 11, 1978, were among the first and most brutal days of a revolution in Iran that would result, among many upheavals, in the uprooting of the country’s ancient and once-thriving Jewish population.

My family’s story is no different from that of thousands of other Jews who fled Iran during and after the revolution, many of whom now live in Southern California, New York, Israel and elsewhere worldwide — the Iranian Jewish diaspora.

While scholars have since debated the true cause of the revolution, it is well known that the massive public protests for “greater freedoms” and strikes crippled Iran’s economy. Violence between the protesters and police erupted in Iran’s capital in January 1978 and intensified later in the year.

These activities eventually resulted in the collapse of the government led by the shah, who fled Iran on Jan. 20, 1979. On Feb. 1, 1979, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, quickly dissolved the monarchy and shortly thereafter established a new fundamentalist Islamic state government.

The new theocratic regime eliminated practically overnight many of the freedoms and civil liberties once taken for granted by Iranians — including the country’s Jews, who under the shah’s reign had experienced one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in their long history in the region.

A day perhaps best remembered in the United States is Nov. 4, 1979, when regime operatives took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans in a reign of terror that would last for 444 days — the rationale for this act, in part, was retaliation against the U.S. government, which had granted the exiled shah permission to be treated for cancer in America.

The new regime’s henchmen also quickly executed several prominent Jewish community leaders, accusing them of sympathizing with the fallen monarchy or “spying for Israel and America.” For fear of what calamity might befall them, many Jewish families rushed to abandon their homes and businesses and fled the country — often under cover of night. Others lost everything they owned, as millions of dollars in assets were confiscated by the new fundamentalist Islamist Iranian government.

Under the shah’s rule, Iran’s Jews, as well as other religious minorities in Iran, had become accustomed to being treated with respect, albeit as separate, distinct cultures. Now they were second-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country.

Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within my community. Many Iranian Jews continue to live in disbelief at what transpired.

“It was unbelievable, unfathomable for us Jews to believe anything would happen to us in Iran because of the incredible power of shah and his government,” Ebrahim Yahid, a local Iranian Jewish activist, now in his 80s, told me in a recent interview. “Nobody in our community believed of the calamity we would face under the new regime of Khoemini.”

Jewish flight from Iran began in earnest, most community members agree, in May 1979, when the new regime’s revolutionary guard executed 66-year-old “Haji” Habib Elghanian, a philanthropist and the leader of Iran’s Jewish community. Elghanian’s younger brother, Sion, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke to me about his brother’s execution, the first time he has spoken publicly about it.

“Haji was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran,” said Sion Elghanian, who is now retired and in his late 80s.

The older Elghanian had been in the United States temporarily, hoping to weather the chaos of the early days of unrest, which had brought the country to a standstill through nationwide strikes.

It was expected that Habib Elghanian might become a target, because he was the wealthiest Jew in Iran and the leader of Iran’s Jews.

“Everyone, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Begin, asked him not to return to Iran, but he said, ‘I was born in Iran, I love my country, I have treated all Iranians — Muslims and Jews alike — with compassion, and I have not done anything illegal,'” his younger brother remembered.

The Islamic regime arrested Habib Elghanian on Feb. 17, 1979, and falsely charged him with being a Zionist spy, along with other trumped-up charges of treason against the state. He was executed on May 9, 1979, after a sham trial by the revolutionary Islamic court, which lasted just over an hour and consisted merely of a proclamation of the verdict, without presenting any real evidence. While he was in prison, family members and friends were able to get some messages to him and receive his replies.

“Haji knew that they were going to kill him,” Sion Elghanian said. “Before he was executed, he requested that that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear. He recited the ‘Shema’ … and then they shot him by a firing squad.

“Afterward, Iran’s Jews were in total shock and grief,” his brother told me. “We told him [Elghanian] that we wanted to arrange to have him sprung from jail in an escape, but he told us not to go forward with it, as the move might motivate the Islamic leaders of Iran to retaliate by executing thousands of Jews living in the country.”

Sion Elghanian said that he respects his brother’s wishes not to be sprung from jail and feels that the family did all that they could to rescue and save him. He views his brother as a hero who sacrificed himself for the good of the community.

Family’s tale recounts Libyan Jewish dispersion

The trailer
“Any time you have a community that is erased, it’s a tragedy not only for the community but for humanity.”

The opening line from the documentary “The Last Jews of Libya” begins a nostalgic visit to an ill-fated community of 25,000 people living between the Mediterranean Sea and North African desert at the dawn of World War II.

It’s a story we know too well — pious, successful and family-oriented Jews living in coexistence with their neighbors suddenly become targets of racial hatred and are ultimately expelled or destroyed. Once in the United States, the immigrants struggle to find their place within an American Jewish life rooted firmly in Eastern European culture.

Told through the experiences of the Roumani family, the film, which airs Dec. 3 on the Sundance Channel, was inspired by a providential accident.

Following the death of their mother, Elise Tammam Roumani, director Vivienne Roumani-Denn and her brother discovered her memoirs, handwritten on legal paper, stuffed under her bed.

“It was really indescribable. Her presence became alive again but with a gift of all her life — our lives, as if she were anticipating her first grandchild’s question years later,” Roumani-Denn said.

Isabella Rossellini narrates the story as Roumani, recounting her youth in the coastal town of Benghazi.

A port city long controlled by the Ottoman Turks before an Italian conquest, its Jewish inhabitants studied Torah and Talmud daily. Life revolved around the Sabbath, and modes of dress indicated levels of observance. The relationship between Arabs and Jews was characterized as peaceful coexistence, textured by business and personal relationships and a communal appreciation of Arab culture.

“When people said to me, ‘Oh you must hate Arabs,’ it was shocking to me. Jews lived in Arab countries for millennia and felt a great affinity with the Arabs. I grew up listening to Arabic music, watching Arab films. We enjoyed the language and the poetry … we even enjoyed listening to the Quran when muazen would go up on minarets or chant on the radio,” Roumani-Denn said.

But escalating tensions between Jews and Arabs, resulting from Italian fascism, Nazi occupation and later, the creation of Israel, catalyzed violent pogroms forcing Libya’s Jewish community to flee. The Roumanis spent a year at an internment camp in Tunisia before returning to Benghazi.

“The pogroms broke the trust completely between Jews and Arabs. Pan-Arabism with Nasser was the final breaking point. It was very anti-Jewish and anti-Western,” Roumani-Denn said.

With two sons studying in the United States, Yosef Roumani, the family patriarch, decided to immigrate to America. When the family resettled in the United States, they felt isolated and out of place.

“There was a break in the continuity of culture, traditions, liturgies. The way we prayed was different; the way we sang was different. Among the middle class, who were scattered everywhere, [the United States] was not a place where we found a like immigrant community, so that makes you feel uneasy, uprooted. People would ask, ‘You don’t speak Yiddish? How could you be Jews?'”

With the departure of the last Jews of Libya, an entire Jewish tradition ceased. “Religion was an intrinsic part of our life. It was the way we lived, thought, did business, the way we interacted. It wasn’t an effort; it was a joy, and we did not have the divisions of Conservative, Orthodox, Reform. You’re a Jew. There’s no division.”

Today, there are no known Jewish families living in Libya and the close-knit religious community that worked and worshipped alongside Arabs is gone.

When the film screened at festivals, Roumani-Denn realized the impact of her family’s story resonated with larger audiences. “Making this film was a wonderful way to clarify some of the clichés about ‘Who is a Jew’ and preconceived ideas about the relationship between Arabs and Jews. It was intended to be a film to pass on the story of my family but very quickly it became obvious that this was a story beyond the family,” she said.

Now scattered throughout the world, the Roumani family continues to draw on the traditions preserved in the film. Roumani-Denn hopes it will connect her family’s future generations to the Jewish foundation of their past.

“In a human journey, one may go through various iterations [of observance],” she said, “but the community and your synagogue was always there waiting for you.”

“The Last Jews of Libya” airs Dec. 3, 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel. For more information, visit http://lastjewsoflibya.com/ or


‘Live from Tehran’

It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I’m at the studios of KIRN — a Persian-language AM radio station on Barham Boulevard near Universal Studios. I’m a guest on a program called “Live From Hollywood.”

The host/producer, Suzi Khatami, is an Iranian woman who, like me, left the old country — long before the revolution — opted for exile and is happy about it. Earlier this evening, she has had on the show an Oscar-nominated Iranian actress who has just finished making (what else?) “The Kite Runner,” followed by an award-winning Iranian documentary filmmaker who has spent five years in very exotic places shooting a movie about the life of the Iranian poet Rumi. The show’s technician is a young Iranian man; he has the television monitor tuned (without sound) to CNN, where Iranian-born reporter Christiane Amanpour is interviewing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This may be “Live From Hollywood,” but we might as well be in Tehran.

On the air, Suzi and I talk about books and writing and the places where stories originate. She wants to know how I can write about a country I haven’t seen in 30 years — that I left when I was barely a teenager and cannot go back to for security reasons — how I remember so much of the landscape and the people, so many details of our lives there. I fumble with the response — something about the subconscious mind and how it retains so much during one’s formative years — but I’m more interested on what’s happening on CNN than in my own interview. When we go off the air for a commercial break, I ask the technician if he’s followed Ahmadinejad’s travels through the United States. He lights up.

“Of course I have,” he says, shaking his head in dismay. “That weasel conquered Columbia University. He had the students cheering for him, jeering their own president. It was a fiasco; he went in as the bad guy and came out as the victim. Imagine Columbia’s president making the weasel look good.”

The technician is not saying anything I haven’t already heard, but something about the way he talks strikes me as odd. It reminds me of the way Iranians used to talk about their leaders when I lived there — that mixture of resentment and awe (resentment for the way the country was run; awe for the fact that it was run at all, that anyone had managed to overcome the impossible circumstances, the challenges we faced from inside and out) that begrudging, spiteful admiration one feels for a worthy adversary. Even his choice of words, calling Ahmadinejad a weasel — is singularly Iranian.

Back on the air, I watch him throw switches and talk on his cell phone as he follows the images on CNN. He moves briskly, with confidence, I can do all this and much more just give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. He has the demeanor of someone who is accustomed to staying on his toes all the time, who doesn’t take success for granted. He doesn’t have the jaded quality, the I’m tired when I get up in the morning air of so many Iranian men who have lived in the West for a good while.

At the next break, I ask him how long ago he left Iran.

“Four years.”

“Is that all?” Suzi exclaims. “You left only four years ago?”

Suzi’s reaction is understandable: These days, it’s rare to meet an Iranian who hasn’t been living abroad for at least a decade. But for me, it makes perfect sense, defines what I’ve sensed but could not quite put my fingers on: He’s more Iranian, still, than Iranian American. He works quickly, half a dozen tasks at once, because that’s how people work in Iran. He thinks of Ahmadinejad not in general terms, as a lunatic who is a threat to international peace (which is how the rest of us old-timers think of him), but as a lunatic whose actions and decisions have a direct influence over the individual’s daily life. He’s disappointed at the performance of Columbia’s president because he still believes, as we all did back in Iran, that the head of such a mighty institution would easily overpower a working-class former mayor of a Middle Eastern city who goes around with an unshaved beard and whose idea of formal attire is a zip-up windbreaker with dirty cuffs.

“Yup,” the technician nods. “And I go back all the time to visit. But I don’t think I’ll ever live there again. I think I’m going to stay in Los Angeles. I almost like it here.”

At 9 p.m., the show over, we shake hands and say goodbye. I tell him that Los Angeles is an acquired taste; it grows on you till you can’t live anywhere else. I say I envy other Iranians who, as of late, have been able to travel back and forth freely and without apparent threat from the regime’s police and judicial system. I couldn’t do that because of the books I’ve written. He nods pensively. Right when I turn around to leave he says, “They’re still there, you know.”

I don’t understand.

“The places you write about in the book,” he explains, “Sorrento Café, the park on Pahlavi Avenue, the Square of the Pearl Canon — they’re all there, just like you describe them.”

I look at him then and think how strange, that this young man has seen — can still go back and see — all the places that, for me, have long been only images on a distant plain. How my memories, so old they are nearly indistinguishable from my imagination, are actual places — real and concrete and tangible — to people like him. Later, as I drive past Universal Studios to get to the freeway, I think of Sorrento Cafe, and of the character I’ve created and sent to sit on its terrace in Tehran — a man I’ve named “The Opera Singer” because that’s what he wants to do in life, though he can’t sing and has never been to the opera. He sits in the cafe every afternoon, sipping iced coffee and reading government propaganda in yesterday’s newspaper as he waits to be discovered by a person of influence. He stays till dark when the waiters chase him away, watches the sun set over the city before he leaves. Below him the street chokes with traffic, old city buses hiss and sigh and exhale dozens of working-class men every time they come to a stop, dark-eyed young women throw one last glance at the lovers they have met on the sly, away from the eyes of their parents, in the narrow, shady back streets surrounding their school, squeeze into orange taxis and pray they will not be spotted by someone they know.

How strange, I think, to be told that the fairy-tale places I have invented really exist — that they look the same as I’ve described them, are populated by living characters I had thought existed only on my page.

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.

Leftist government’s moves worry Nicaraguan Jews

It has taken Nicaragua’s new leftist President Daniel Ortega less than two months in office to alienate the country’s tiny Jewish community.

They are distrustful of Ortega and his Sandinista movement, after his first term in office from 1979 to 1990 sent the community into exile.

Local Jews have found government moves to rekindle cozy relations with Iran a distasteful and bitter pill to swallow. The moves come after 16 years of pro-United States and pro-Israeli foreign policy by the right-wing governments that ruled in Ortega’s interval as opposition leader.

“We hoped that he would follow the policies that we had in recent years, but that is not what we have seen,” Nicaraguan Jewish Community President Rafael Lipshitz said. “There is a great deal of uncertainty.”

Ortega returned to power in November elections, in which he captured a plurality of 38 percent, enough to win the presidential race by a slim margin.

After taking office in early January, Ortega’s first official state visitor was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spent a day touring the countryside with Ortega during his first weekend in office. The two agreed to exchange embassies, and Ortega reportedly made an open-ended promise to support Iran internationally.

The visit irked the U.S. government, as did Ortega’s action of firmly aligning himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who also has supported Ahmadinejad and condemned President Bush in a U.N. speech.

Ortega delayed his swearing-in ceremony by a few hours so Chavez could attend.

“In general terms, our foreign policy is based on international law; we maintain our relations with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking,” insisted Sandinista legislator Pedro Haslam, a leading member of the National Assembly’s International Affairs Committee. “We want relations with all the countries of the world predicated on both justice and respect.”

Not all in Nicaragua are happy with the changes, particularly in the right-wing opposition, which would rather see the country firmly alongside the United States.

“I think that small countries like ours should not enter into conflicts,” Eduardo Enriquez, editor of a right-leaning daily newspaper, told JTA. “What we have seen in the first 40 days of the government is not encouraging.”

With most of its members successful business entrepreneurs, Nicaragua’s 50-member Jewish community is a natural source of opposition to the Sandinistas, whose socialist policies and leanings made Nicaragua the Cold War’s final front, as the Soviet-backed government battled U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

In the 1990 elections, the Sandinistas were routed from office by a coalition but remained the country’s premier political party.

But local Jews hold the Sandinistas in special contempt. During their regime, the country’s synagogue, damaged in a 1978 fire, was converted into a secular school. It is being used now as a funeral home. The country’s Torah remains in exile in Costa Rica.

The lack of trust in Ortega has local Jews on edge. Reacting to the country’s delay in supporting a Holocaust memorial resolution in the United Nations, the community has taken to the airwaves of right-wing television Channel 2 to call out the government.

The appearance led the Foreign Ministry to issue a statement recognizing the Holocaust as historical fact, a relief to the community that feared Ortega’s dealings with Ahmadinejad would put the country in his controversial Holocaust denial camp.

However, future relations with Israel, which were resumed in the 1990s but are tepid — Israel’s embassy in neighboring Costa Rica is the closest to Managua — remain clouded. Shortly after the triumph of their revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas cut ties with Israel.

Ortega surprised many by maintaining relations with Taiwan instead of China, and Israel’s ambassador in Costa Rica has made at least two trips to Managua so far this year.

Seemingly contradictory, the clouded foreign policy is in keeping with what one coffee industry executive complained is the administration’s “mixed signals,” given its lack of a clear plan.

While the early posturing has some local Jews nervous, few expect a repeat of the ’80s, when the Sandinistas forged close ties with the PLO, and the Ministry of the Interior, headed by the only surviving founder of the Sandinistas, Tomas Borge, issued passports to an unknown number of PLO combatants, as well as notorious members of Italy’s Red Brigade.

Borge, who of late has distanced himself politically from Ortega but remains an influential party leader — he is expected to become the country’s ambassador to Peru — keeps a picture in his office of himself sharing a laugh with Yasser Arafat.

“This is not the same mentality that there was in the 1980s,” Lipshitz said. “Borge is very low profile; I have not seen much of him.”

Despite the murky climate, the Jewish community is forging ahead with plans to build a new synagogue. Some members are even planning new investments.

As one member who asked not to be identified said, “This time we are going to confront them here instead of from exile.”

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday the 21st

TV stars perform bonafide rock ‘n’ roll at a Ben Gurion Society

Keren’s Corner

It’s an old episode but a fairly new story. Last year, “Grey’s Anatomy” featured a plot line about the high risk of breast cancer among Jewish women. This year, Hadassah delves into the subject with an informative panel discussion about the episode, but more broadly, about this trend. “Can TV Be Good For Your Health? How One Show is Helping the Fight Against Breast Cancer” takes place on Tues., Oct. 24 at the University of Judaism.

Panelists include former “Grey’s” writer Mimi Schmir, cancer survivor and health advocate Selma Schimmel and genetic counselor Joyce Seldon. TV and film writer and director Linda Shayne moderates.

7 p.m. $25. University of Judasim, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. R.S.V.P., (310) 276-0036 or (818) 343-9316.

benefit this evening. Battle of the Network Stars Band features current and former TV actors, or “actors.” Bob Guiney aside, however, you’ll also catch James Denton of “Desperate Housewives,” Greg Grunberg of “Heroes,” Hugh Laurie of “House” and Brad Savage of … ummm … yeah, he falls into that “former” category. They rock it out for ya post cocktails, dinner and a silent auction.

7 p.m. $125 (tickets). Attendees must be current members of the Ben Gurion Society, which requires a minimum 2006 gift of $1,000 to The Jewish Federation Annual Campaign. Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3219.

Sunday the 22nd

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Monday the 23rd

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Tuesday the 24th

The dazzling compositions of Miriam Wosk come to the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Wosk’s first solo museum exhibition, “Euphoria,” features three large-scale pieces. The crafty works, paintings embedded with a bevy of everything from pearls, to crystals to starfish, walk the line between excess and exactitude. They are on view through Nov. 25.

Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 586-6488.

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The ambitious Arpa Film Festival aims to forum “films exploring Diaspora, war, exile, genocide, multiculturalism and dual identity,” according to founder Sylvia Minassian. Two such films featured in this year’s fest (both documentaries) have Jewish perspectives. “Awake Zion” explores the relationship between reggae culture and Judaism, and “Young, Jewish and Left” focuses on radical Jewish communities.

Oct. 25-27. Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 663-1882.

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Thursday is looking up as UCLA Live welcomes Fes Festival of World Sacred Music to Royce Hall. “The Spirit of Fes: Paths to Hope” features world artists including early music singer Susan Hellauer from Anonymous 4, South Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam, Lebanese American percussionist Jamey Haddad and Moroccan Sufi ensemble Daqqa of Taroudant, performing Judaic, Christian, Muslim and Hindu sacred music.

$15-$45. 8 p.m. UCLA Royce Hall, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

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The uplift continues today with the opening of the film, “Conversations With God,” based on the 1996 book by Neale Donal Walsch. The movie stars Henry Czerny (“The Pink Panther”) and is produced and directed by “What Dreams May Come” producer Stephen Simon. The film tells Walsch’s true journey from homelessness to best-selling author and spiritual guru.

Ahoy, mateys ! Thar be Jewish pirates!

There’s no arrr-guing that pirates are in.

As of last weekend, Disney had plundered $1 billion worldwide with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” and International Talk Like a Pirate Day — that’s Sept. 19, for you landlubbers — has gone from an inside joke between two friends to a mock holiday celebrated in more than 40 countries.

Yet tales of Jewish piracy, which stretch back thousands of years, aren’t in the public’s consciousness, and Hollywood even has been known to remove a pirate’s Jewish background. As a result, we’re stuck with portrayals of pirates as wayward English seamen on a murderous rampage.

But now a forthcoming book hopes to change that image by focusing on Ladino-speaking Jews whose piracy grew out of the Inquisition.
“The Jewish pirates were Sephardic. Once they were kicked out of Spain [in 1492], the more adventurous Jews went to the New World,” said Ed Kritzler, whose yet-untitled book on Jewish pirates will be published by Doubleday in spring 2007.

Jewish piracy has been around since well before the Barbary pirates first preyed on ships during the Crusades. In the time of the Second Temple, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records that Hyrcanus accussed Aristobulus of “acts of piracy at sea.”

Kritzler has studied pirates for 40 years, and said that the public is fascinated with them because they’re “rugged individuals in a world of conformity. They carved their own identity, independent of the rules and strictures of society.”

But determining the exact number of Jewish pirates is difficult, Kritzler said, because many of them traveled as Conversos, or converts to Christianity, and practiced their Judaism in secret.

While some Jews, like Samuel Pallache, took up piracy in part to help make a better life for expelled Spanish Jews, Kritzler said others were motivated by revenge for the Inquisition.

One such pirate was Moses Cohen Henriques, who helped plan one of history’s largest heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques set sail with Dutch West India Co. Admiral Piet Hein, whose own hatred of Spain was fueled by four years spent as a galley slave aboard a Spanish ship. Henriques and Hein boarded Spanish ships off Cuba and seized shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today’s dollars about the same as Disney’s total box office for “Dead Man’s Chest.”

Henriques set up his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil afterward, and even though his role in the raid was disclosed during the Spanish Inquisition, he was never caught, Kritzler told The Journal.

Another Sephardic pirate played a pivotal role in American history.
In the book “Jews on the Frontier” (Rachelle Simon, 1991), Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman recounts the tale of Sephardic Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte, whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for “Judaizing.”

Referred to as The Corsair, Lafitte went on to establish a pirate kingdom in the swamps of New Orleans, and led more than 1,000 men during the War of 1812.
After being run out of New Orleans in 1817, Lafitte re-established his kingdom on the island of Galveston, Texas, which was known as Campeche. During Mexico’s fight for independence, revolutionaries encouraged Lafitte to attack Spanish ships and keep the booty.

But in the 1958 film “The Buccaneer,” starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte, any mention of the pirate’s Jewish heritage was stripped away.


For more information on Talk Like a Pirate Day, visit www.talklikeapirate.com.

Click here for a pirate talk translation of this article

Top Ten Halachic Questions for a Jewish Pirate

Loud and Proud Mizrachi Voices

"The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage," edited by Loolwa Khazzoom (Seal Press, $16.95)

On the last night before her family would flee Libya in 1967, Gina Bublil Waldman recalls that she had to choose between taking her only warm sweater or a photo album with the words "Souvenir of Libya" on the cover. Its hand-painted image of a peaceful seascape was in absolute contrast to the political turbulence and danger her family faced. She packed the photos, remnants of a life she wouldn’t know again.

Her essay is included in a compelling collection, "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage," edited by Loolwa Khazzoom.

"The Flying Camel" is both a travelogue of exile and longing — revisiting memories, often borrowed, of the Old Country, whether in North Africa or the Middle East — and a book that charts a new course. Among the essays are bold tales of escape, traditional life, "passing" as Ashkenazi, fighting invisibility and defining home. Asserting their identities with newfound confidence, the contributors are writing their stories into the larger story of Jewish history.

The essayists are of Tunisian, Libyan, Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Indian and Yemenite descent; some are refugees from Arab lands, others are the children and grandchildren of exiles. They are of various ages, religious backgrounds, lifestyles, professions; they speak many languages. They share a strong desire to be heard.

As Jews, they were often second-class citizens in the Arab lands they came from. As Mizrachim, the Hebrew word for "Eastern," they felt similarly considered second-class among Ashkenazi Jews. And as women they felt further marginalized.

In her introduction, Khazzoom describes trying on the silk abayah, a full-body veil, that her grandmother wore on the streets of Baghdad. She imagines she would have wanted to tear it off and feel the sun if she had been forced to cover herself in such a garment.

Khazzoom, in New York City on a book tour recently, shows up for an interview wearing jeans and a T-shirt, clearly free of veils, both real and metaphorical. She is outspoken as she describes the book and her family’s history.

About her Judeo-Arabic name, which sounds so unusual to an American ear, she says it’s quite common.

"I’m the Debbie Goldstein of Iraq," Khazzoom says.

Her mother is a Jew by choice. In 1950, her father fled Iraq, where the family had been for more than 2,000 years, going first to Israel and then to America. Her parents met at a Hillel dance when her mother was well-along in the conversion process. The author says it was her mother, who hails from rural Illinois and can trace one side of her family back to the ship that arrived after the Mayflower, who encouraged the emphasis on the Iraqi part of their heritage.

Her father, who had a distressing time in Israel as a Mizrachi immigrant, had grown used to trying to pass as an Ashkenazi, and the Iraqi pieces had to be coaxed out of him. Even though all of their relatives were in Israel, the Khazzoom home became very strongly Iraqi.

"I really embraced it," Khazzoom, 34, explains. "The religion, the history, the culture." She adds, "It’s very much a living part of who I am."

She grew up in Washington, then moved to Montreal. Her father, who now teaches Middle Eastern and North African studies at UCLA, had a sabbatical year in California, so the family moved there. He was very much at home amid the palm trees that reminded him of Baghdad.

From the time Khazzoom was 3, the family made frequent trips to Israel, which had a large influence on her life. They were Orthodox, and for holidays and frequently on Shabbat, they would attend a traditional Iraqi synagogue in Los Angeles.

Khazzoom is a woman of personality and spirit, and it’s easy to picture her as a determined 14-year-old when she tells the story of mobilizing the women behind the mechitza on one Simchat Torah. Their beloved Iraqi rabbi had retired, and a young spiritual leader of Moroccan descent and Ashkenazi style replaced him. From the women’s section she was incensed that the new rabbi was singing Ashkenazi tunes for the dancing with the Torah rather than the traditional Iraqi songs.

Khazzoom had been leaning toward the men’s section, singing the Iraqi songs at the top of her lungs to no avail, when she turned to the women behind her and mobilized them to sing loudly and drown out the rabbi. Many of the men eventually joined them. She walked over to the bimah and didn’t hold back in telling the rabbi what she really thought, and "all hell broke loose." She describes this as her first political act.

The book’s title is drawn from one of the essays, "How the Camel Found Its Wings" by Lital Levy, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley whose father was born in Iraq. She writes of a flying camel whose wings are broken, likening the process of healing them to gathering the pieces of her own broken identity and fitting them together anew, blending old and new into an integrated whole.

"For all the women in this collection," Khazzoom writes, "our identities have been shattered and need to be rebuilt."

Many of the essays include unforgettable imagery: a grandfather who built a paradise for himself on his roof in Safi, Morocco, far above the streets where, as a Jew, he had to walk with eyes always lowered; a young woman plucking chickens for her cousin’s wedding in Shiraz, Iran, while her cousin goes through a traditional pre-wedding ceremony in "Hair and Feathers"; elderly aunts transplanted to northern Israel who suffer from intense depression and whose only joy is setting a huge table of traditional foods; a young woman in Libya saving her family from having their vehicle set afire on their way to the airport for their escape to Malta.

Khazzoom actually began this project 11 years ago. When she first had the idea of putting together a collection of essays by Mizrachi feminists, the only possible writers she knew of were herself and her sister. One by one, she heard of other potential contributors, and compiled a book with 16 voices. But publishing it was another challenge. She was turned down repeatedly, with publishers suggesting that she add the voices of Ashkenazi women or non-Jews or men to round out the collection.

Then came Sept. 11. Suddenly, many people seemed interested in her writing, and some of the publishers who had turned down the book proposal came forward with offers.

"A positive outcome of the tragedy is that people have woken up, opened up their eyes," Khazzoom says. "At least now they’re more aware of what’s going on."

She sees the book as particularly important now, as the issue of reparations to Jews from Arab countries is being discussed.

"Personal storytelling is the most poignant way of addressing an issue," she says.

Khazzoom, who says she pioneered the Jewish multicultural movement in 1990, is working toward getting Jewish communities to be attentive to non-European Jewish history and culture.

"I wanted to open people’s eyes to the richness of their heritage," she says.

She uses the past tense to indicate that she’s no longer "the Jewish multicultural marketing machine" she once was — not that she doesn’t still value the work. But Khazzoom has moved on in her own professional life.

Two years ago she made aliyah and is now living in Tel Aviv, where most Loolwas have changed their names to Lily. Living among Jews of many backgrounds, identity is no longer the pressing issue it once was.

"I’ve already done my own healing," she says.

Now Khazzoom works as a free-lance journalist, and her mission is to get the message of Jewish multiculturalism beyond the Jewish community and into the larger world. She is also a professional singer, performing traditional Middle Eastern and North African music.

But she hasn’t quite found her place on the religious map.

"I am like a lost observant Jewish girl," she says. She still likes to sing out loud, as she did as a young child, and finds the Mizrachi synagogues, with the women sitting above and often behind a curtain, uncomfortable. Sometimes she attends a monthly egalitarian Mizrachi minyan in Jerusalem, where she might lead services.

Now Khazzoom is thinking of moving to Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, where she could be within walking distance of an Iraqi synagogue that she finds to be very much in the old tradition, with women singing in full voice from above, without a curtain.

Although she stopped being observant in her 20s, she can see herself becoming observant again, saying: "I want to find a place where I can be authentic in my expression of Judaism."

New Tales From a Post-Exodus Egypt

Now that we’ve just finished two seders celebrating ourescape from Egypt, a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center demonstratesthat not every Jew got out of Egypt — or wanted to.

“Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt: A Family Archive From theNile Valley,” revolves around 2,500-year-old papyrus scrolls from a cache ofhundreds unearthed on Elephantine Island — the oldest extra-biblical evidenceof Jews in Mitzrayim.

The exhibit is the latest in a trend of document-based artshows, such as 1998’s “Sigmund Freud: Conflict & Culture,” which illuminatehistory through the display of papers and related objects.

“Jewish Life” comes alive through the remarkable,Aramaic-language scrolls, which describe a Jewish community on lush Elephantine800 years after the biblical exodus. Apparently there were no hard feelings,because these people were descendants of Jews who had voluntarily returned to Egyptafter the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. While elite Jews wereforced into exile in Babylonia, many soldiers and common folk relocated to Egypt,which proved to be a multicultural mecca, not an anti-Semitic hellhole,according to the exhibit.

The core of the show is eight legal documents that belongedto an interfaith family in the fifth century B.C.E, when the religiouslytolerant Persians ruled Egypt. The papyri tell of Ananiah, an official at the Temple of Yahou (a.k.a. Yahweh), and his wife, Tamut, who, in a twist on the haggadahstory, was an Egyptian slave owned by a Jewish master, Meshullam (he allowed herto marry and to own property, per the custom of the day).

According to a real estate deed from 437 B.C.E, Ananiah andTamut bought a two-story mud brick fixer-upper on the main drag in Khnum, avillage named for an Egyptian deity. Their neighbors included Persian soldiersand an Egyptian who managed the garden in the local temple dedicated to Khnum.

Like his fellow Egyptians, Jewish Ananiah probably continuedthe traditional form of Israelite worship that had been practiced in pre-exilic Judah. He likely burned incense to Yahweh, performed animal sacrifice andworshipped deities such as the queen of the heavens, who in the Elephantinearea had a temple across the river from Yahou’s. This kind of “monotheism-lite”apparently enraged the prophet Jeremiah, who rebuked Egyptian Jews for “makingsacrificial smoke to other gods” in the Hebrew Bible.

According to the Elephantine papyri, local Jews swore oathsto regional deities. Sharing religious and cultural traditions was de rigueur,as evidenced by the exhibit’s papyri and accompanying artifacts. A headless butstill stately statue of Ptahhotep, an Egyptian treasury overseer, wears Persianrobes and an Egyptian chest ornament. A quirky terracotta sarcophagus lid froma Jewish cemetery suggests that some Jews were buried in anthropoid stonecoffins resembling those of their Egyptian neighbors. At the Skirball, theexhibit, which originated at the Brooklyn Museum, will feature five-inchceramic figurines of Astarte, the queen of the heavens, worshipped by Jews andnon-Jews on Elephantine.

“The show is fascinating because it depicts how differentcultures and communities lived in harmony on one small island,” said TalGozani, the Skirball’s associate curator.

“It’s especially relevant because when we think of Jews inEgypt, we think of the Exodus, not of the tranquil Persian period,” said ErinClancey, the museum’s associate curator of archaeology.

Even the exhibition’s origins were multicultural. It beganwhen farming families found Ananiah’s archives on Elephantine in 1893 and soldthem to pioneering American Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour, who stashedthem in a tin biscuit box at the bottom of a trunk. There they languished untilhis daughter found them and donated them to the Brooklyn Museum in 1947.

Cut to 1999, when the museum’s Edward Bleiberg, anEgyptologist and Reform Jew, read the papyri and began turning them into anexhibit.

“I immediately felt a strong connection to these ancientpeople,” he told The Journal.

Bleiberg, like Ananiah, is married to a non-Jew, in hiscase, a Methodist from a small town in Georgia. He had recently purchased a750-square-foot fixer-upper — about the same size as Ananiah’s — in a diverseneighborhood in Brooklyn.

As Passover approached last week, he noted one otherconnection to Ananiah: The Egyptian Jew celebrated the holiday, albeit arudimentary form, as evidenced by a document unearthed at Elephantine thatrefers to a “festival of unleavened bread.”

Written long before the codification of the currenthaggadah, the letter calculates the dates that Elephantine Jews were to abstainfrom bread in 419 B.C.E., based on the Jerusalem lunar calendar.

As for Ananiah’s specific observance, he probably ate matzahmade from millet, an Elephantine crop, and enjoyed some kind of culinary feast,the curator said.

“He may have been aware of the basic story of Passover, buthe had to see it as something he didn’t take literally,” Bleiberg added.”Passover must have been a problematic holiday for Egyptian Jews, because theywere celebrating leaving Egypt, and yet they were still there.”

And, as the exhibit shows, no boils, frogs or locusts provednecessary.

The exhibition opens April 30 and runs through July 18.On May 2, Edward Bleiberg will discuss “Scenes From a Marriage: A Jewish FamilyArchive From Ancient Egypt.” For more information about the exhibition, call(310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org . p>

Recall Golus

As recall fever is sweeping the state, a number of cars in the Pico-Robertson and Fairfax neighborhoods are sporting bumper stickers that say “Recall Golus.” Who is Golus exactly, you ask? Is it Gray Davis’ middle name? The name of the 136th candidate on the ballot?

The stickers, which Rabbi Shimon Raichik of Chabad of Hancock Park produced, are actually a call for the Messiah to come. Golus is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile, as in the state of being for the Jewish people before the Messiah comes and redeems us all to Israel.

If Golus is recalled, then the entire state of California will be transported to the Holy Land, and we won’t have to worry about a budget crisis, Davis’s lack of personality or unsavory Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews — which definitely makes recalling Golus something worth thinking about.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

“Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller (St. Martin’s
Press, $23.95).

Many writers have imagined the Jewish immigrant experience,
setting their novels and short stories on the Lower East Side and places like
that, where newcomers can forge their way to become Americans. Risa Miller’s
debut novel, “Welcome to Heavenly Heights,” is a different version of that
story, with American Jews making new homes in Israel, reversing the exile. This
transition can be more pressure cooker than melting pot, mixing idealism,
religion, bureaucracy, family complexities, shifting expectations, love and,
never far away, violence.

In this graceful and engaging work, Miller, winner of the
PEN Discovery award, succeeds in creating a world inhabited by religious Jews
of different backgrounds, mostly transplanted Americans, living out the words
of their long-repeated prayers to be close to Zion. She explores the many
meanings of home, rootedness and community.

Just as the characters in those earlier novels, set in tenements,
had little privacy, so, too, the families of the newly constructed Building
Four in Heavenly Heights — with its dishwashers, built-in teak cabinets and
balconies overlooking the mountains — know much about each other’s lives. The
stacked apartments are like a vertical bungalow colony, with shared ingredients
and stories, and the gang of kids playing outside. Every Friday night, when
their husbands go off to synagogue, the women of Building 4 gather on the
largest porch “to shake off the weekday world,” speaking the way women do when
the men aren’t around.

Heavenly Heights is “close enough to Jordan that a combat
tank starting out in Amman when you boiled your water for coffee would have you
serving to its corpsmen before you finished your own first cup.”

The name has the ring of other suburbs where many Jews live,
like Shaker Heights in Cleveland. A commuting neighborhood north of Jerusalem —
a “settlement if you needed to be technical” — it is home to many new
immigrants whose mortgages are underwritten by “an unidentified do-gooder
well-wisher Godfather who wanted Judea settled — and settled now.”

Miller said that the name Heavenly Heights came to her when
she flipped open a bencher (a small book with the blessings after the meal) to
the page with the phrase sometimes translated as “in the heavenly heights may
they seek our good.” The name stuck as the name of the neighborhood and then of
the book.

“Welcome to Heavenly Heights” is a literary novel of
characters and place rather than a story driven by plot. It is unusual in its
knowing depiction of an Orthodox community, from the inside, with empathy and
without satire or ambivalence.

“I don’t know of any frum literary fiction that likes
itself,” she said.

When Miller began the novel, she set it in the ’80s, and it
seemed timely then, but as the world was changing, she shifted the time and
updated it, shading in some of the violence and tension. It goes up to the edge
of the latest intifada, focusing mainly on Tova, who moves to Heavenly Heights
from Baltimore with her husband, Mike, and children. Readers see this new world
from Tova’s eyes, following her bumpy adjustment to a place where arrogant
appliance “installators,” head lice and guns left in the synagogue foyer
weren’t part of her dream. She wonders whether she was “supposed to absorb into
something or was it supposed to absorb into her.”

Tova shifts from the marriage wig she wore in Baltimore to a
head scarf, from teaching English to Russian immigrants to studying Hebrew in a
similar class. With sensitivity and some humor, Miller captures the cycles of
the week and the holidays, with meal preparations, mikvah visits, small acts of
devotion, weddings and special days like Lag B’Omer, when Tova’s family travels
to Mount Meron for their child’s first haircut. En route, they encounter a
tzitzit-wearing cowboy nudging his horse, “mammela, bubbela.” God is rarely
mentioned but the divine presence is felt, in the kitchen and across the

The novel also portrays the neighbors, including the soulful
Appalachian-born Debra and the back stories of how she and the others arrived
in Israel and their interconnected lives. Tova and Mike end up on an extended
stay back in America when his father gets ill while they are visiting. From
there, they experience a communal tragedy.

Miller too lived in Israel. With her husband and five
children, she made aliyah in 1988, settling in Jerusalem. But in 1990, while
back in Boston on what was meant to be a short vacation, her husband’s back
went out and he had to be in bed for a year. “It was like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’
she said, “when a ‘three-hour tour’ turned into an extended stay.” And, they
are still here.

“We lost our aliyah,” she says, recalling their resettling
in the United States as a time of trauma. They still think about returning, but
now they have grandchildren and aging parents in this country. And she speaks
of her Brookline, Mass., house — the place she’s lived longest since her
childhood in Baltimore — as her temporary home.

Although she had always been a serious reader and knew that
she took in the world a bit differently than others — recording her
observations of things on scraps of paper she’d pile up in a drawer — she began
to take writing seriously when, living back in Boston, the youngest of her children
started school. She took some writing courses and then enrolled in an Master of
Fine Arts program at Emerson College. There, she was studying with students
(and many teachers) who were younger than she was, and few had any context for
her Jewish references; that forced her to explain things with clarity for a
general audience. The heart of this novel was her master’s thesis, and with the
help of supportive teachers and other writers, she found an agent and

“I wrote this out of love and pain,” the author said. She
wants to achieve a feeling like what she went through, “like being punched in
the stomach.”

Miller, 49, grew up in a somewhat traditional home and
became Orthodox along with her husband in their early 20s; they’re now part of
the Bostoner rebbe’s community in Brookline. In writing, she is careful about
facts, although she also gives herself freedom to make up certain things as
long as they’re in the range of the possible. Heavenly Heights is a blending of
prototypes of different settlement communities.

“When writing about Israel, I have to be ethically truthful,
to represent things as they are.”

She’s pleased that several early reviewers refer to the
novel as undemonizing the settlers, showing their very human sides. But she’s
not writing a book with a message.

“I message my children plenty,” she said. “But it’s not my
style as a writer.”

Writing comes naturally, and some paragraphs even come to
her in blocks. She tells of driving along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut
when the opening of the book seemed to “float down” to her, word for word. She
pulled off to the side of the road and jotted them down. For Miller, writing
can feel like setting jewels, taking words and fitting them in place. She’s
particularly interested in the sound of her sentences, and that’s evident in
their rhythmic qualities.

She has a talent for seeing the small, telling details. Soon
after Tova arrives in Israel, she realizes that she’s forgotten to pack rags,
“those repositories of family history,” her daughter’s first Florida T-shirt,
her husband’s worn terry robe. Instead she washes her granite counter tops with
a store-bought rag. “‘This is home,’ she rhythmed, trying to convince herself.
‘This is home.'”  

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

Symbol of All Hopes

About 20 years ago the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua wrote an essay called "Exile as a Neurotic Solution," in which he endeavored to explain why so many Diaspora Jews, for many centuries and in our own day, have avoided coming to live in the Land of Israel.

In 537 B.C.E., wrote Yehoshua, when the Persian ruler Cyrus decreed that Jews who had been exiled to Babylon earlier in the century could return to Zion, many, primarily members of the "upper strata," didn’t. By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., he observed, one-third of the Jewish people lived outside of the Holy Land. For nearly two millennia thereafter, until the dawn of Zionism, "the Jewish people did not make one serious or significant effort to return to Eretz Yisrael and restore its lost independence. This people, with the resourcefulness, flexibility and cunning to reach almost every point on the face of the earth — from the Atlas Mountains to the Indian Desert, from Tierra del Fuego to the Siberian steppes — did not make one real effort to come back and settle in Eretz Yisrael. Further, the Jews settled in masses in every country around the Mediterranean basin except Eretz Yisrael. In their wanderings the Jews circled around and about the Land, drawn to it, yet fearing it."

Only when the fear of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora exceeded the fear of the Land, Yehoshua continued, did Zionism prevail, but of course only among a minority of Jews. Since the establishment of the State, the overwhelming majority of Jews who have come here to live have been refugees from persecution. The reason, Yehoshua mused, must lie with "the same common factors that deterred Jews from coming for hundreds of years." What did they fear? Was it the inability to make a living in Israel? This cannot be the case, winked Yehoshua, for if it were true it would lend credence to the contention of anti-Semites (he cited Karl Marx) that Jews care only about money. Or can it be, Yehoshua went on, "fear of the security situation"? "This theory too," he wrote, "explains the excuse rather than the essence. One only has to see how Jews flock to Israel when it is threatened, and the way that Jewish students fight to get on planes to take them straight to war, to realize that this theory is not true either." (As much as I esteem Yehoshua, I do not believe he has the gift of prophecy; and yet he might as well have been writing about the solidarity missions and legions of Birthright students who have defied the official State Department travel advisories and come to Israel at the height of the current intifada.)

What, then, is the core reason for the perpetuation of exile? After all, Jews endlessly dream of and pray for the return to Zion, but they stay in galut (exile). Why has this, over the ages, been so? Yehoshua, who has long been fond of psychological interpretation, likened the situation to the neurotic behavior of a bachelor who constantly proclaims his desire to marry and have children but forever finds ways to avoid doing so. There is something in marriage that he fears. What is the deep-seated anxiety among the Jews that prevents them from returning to the Land?

The answer, for Yehoshua, lies in the inherent conflict between the religious and national components of Judaism. In the Diaspora, the power of Jewish religious authorities was limited to the community; but a sovereign Israel, from the standpoint of Jewish Orthodoxy, must necessarily be a theocracy. Thus the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who was indisputably alive when Yehoshua wrote about him) stayed away from Israel because the restoration of Jewish sovereignty would compel him to coerce all Jews here to observe halacha. "In the golah one can preach, cajole, educate or persuade, but in a totally Jewish ambiance there comes a moment of truth, and at that moment the choice must be either religious or secular. Life in the golah postpones that moment of truth. It is as if the people senses how dangerous is its conflict with itself and therefore tries to put off the conditions of full sovereign life which can exist in Eretz Yisrael." Staying in exile, in short, avoids confronting the harsh implications of sovereignty, the necessity to fully come to terms with the clash between political priorities and religious ones.

Yehoshua’s argument is highly debatable, of course, which is surely what the author intended. Yet his emphasis upon the intrinsic conflict between the spiritual and national aspects of Judaism is at least as germane today as it was a generation ago. I flashed back to this essay while standing amid approximately a quarter million of my fellow Jews in front of the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. The occasion, of course, was the enormously impressive rally in support of an undivided Jerusalem, initiated by Israeli politicians Ehud Olmert and Natan Sharansky, funded by American Jews, and billed as a strictly nonpolitical event, the imminent elections notwithstanding.

Speaker after speaker invoked the Psalms, the biblical prophets, the traditional prayer book: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…" (A friend of mine told me some years ago that the reason he prefers Tel Aviv is that he can forget about it and his tongue will not cleave to the roof of his mouth.) Prayers for rebuilding Jerusalem are uttered multiple times daily, in the "Amidah" and in the "Birkat Hamazon." Jerusalem is invoked at every Jewish wedding in the Seven Blessings and the breaking of the glass. At the rally, I disagreed with not one word about the sanctity, the primacy, the centrality of Jerusalem. After all, I was raised a religious Zionist and remain one to this day, though I no longer belong to the camp that overwhelmingly, well-nigh homogeneously, dominated the rally. (I saw one bare-headed man, though I imagine there were a few more. I wore a baseball cap with the words "National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.") I recalled a beautiful essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel called "Israel as Memory" (1973), in which he wrote:

"After the destruction of Jerusalem, the city did not simply become a vague memory of the distant past; it continued to live as an inspiration in the hearts and minds of the people. Jerusalem became a central hope, the symbol of all hopes. It became the recurrent theme of our liturgy. Thus even when the minds were not aware of it, the words reminded us, the words cried for restoration of Zion and intensified the link, the attachment."

I don’t know why, after Zion was restored, Heschel didn’t make aliyah. Nor do I know why Rabbi Soloveitchik didn’t, or for that matter Maimonides, who settled next door in Egypt. The decision is personal and many factors are involved, and (unlike Yehoshua) I do not fault anyone, illustrious or anonymous, for his or her choice. But I do know that it is less complicated, as a practical matter, for Jews to preserve the pristine status of Jerusalem as inspiration, hope, symbol and theme when they don’t live here. With the establishment of the State, the celestial, ideal, virtual, prayed-for Jerusalem — Yerushalayim shel maalah — slammed hard into the workaday, messy, complex Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem. Upstairs and downstairs, religious and secular were abruptly conjoined, and their fusion is problematic and highly combustible.

Religion is pure, and the spiritual Jerusalem is indeed the eternal and indivisible bedrock of Jewish national and religious dreaming. Politics is impure, and predicated on mundane reality and compromise. Jerusalem will not cease to be the symbol of our highest Jewish aspirations if ever we share sovereignty here with the Palestinians, no more than its religious power was diminished when, as Heschel wrote at the conclusion of his essay, "numerous conquerors invaded the land: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Kurds, Mongols, Mamelukes, Tartars and Turks." Heschel continued: "But what did these people make of the land? No one built the state or shaped a nation. The land did not respond."

I am a great admirer of the late Rabbi Heschel, who was a brilliant theologian and scholar and a strong advocate of civil rights — but this last contention, in militant hands, is what can get us in trouble. Whether or not we choose to agree, millions of Palestinians with whom we live in intimate proximity believe they have shaped a nation in this very same land and city. How the new Israeli prime minister chooses to deal with this incontrovertible reality is the central question facing the Jewish people. To invoke, as a political principle, our divine right to this land is a great temptation. But we have come home to a stormy neighborhood, and to veer away from the struggle for peace, to crush the Palestinian uprising with an iron fist, adamantly refuse to compromise on territory, risk a regional conflict — this is a recipe for disaster.

Enrico Suavé

In 1961, a saddened and disheartened 23-year-old Algerian school teacher and musician named Gaston Ghenassia was merely one of the thousands of refugees on a ship bound for France, leaving his homeland in the aftermath of the Algerian Revolution. Little did he know at the time how defining a moment it was to become in his life.

For it was on that very ship ride that Ghenassia wrote “Adieu, Mon Pays” (“Goodbye, My Homeland”), the song that would not only launch his music career, but make him one of France’s hottest singer-songwriters and an international star.

Almost 40 years and more than 500 songs later, the entertainer, now known as Enrico Macias, tours the world playing sizable venues. In fact, his appearance next week at the Universal Amphitheater will complete his current tour of North America, where his loyal fans will appear yet again to see him perform his hits; compositions — such as “Oh Guitare, Guitare” and “Ma Maison, Ma Maison” — which have managed to reflect his Sephardic spirit even as they captured the imagination of France.

Born in Constantine, Enrico Macias lived a pied -noir existence in Algeria, often playing local concerts with his greatest creative influence — his musician father-in-law. But it was following his exile from Algeria that a deep social consciousness began to permeate Macias’ songwriting with tunes like “La Tolerance.”

“Always misunderstanding comes with the silence,” Macias recently told the Journal, “And I hate the silence…my job is to break the silence [through my music]…to build dialogue.”

Macias’ Jewish lineage is also at the heart of many of his signature recordings. He has sung Ashkenazi standards “Kol Nidre” and “Poi Poi Poi” and wrote “Six Millions De Larmes” (“Six Million Tears”) as a reaction to the Holocaust. One of his most popular songs, “Juif Espagnol” (“the Spanish Jew”), synthesizes his twin musical interests — his heritage and global brotherhood — in a simple and vulnerable first-person plea:

“I am a Spanish Jew/

I am a Greek-Armenian/

I am a French Creole/

I am a Jewish Arab/

I am every place where people reach out to each other.”

Over the course of his stellar career, Macias has toured the world many times over. He has recorded tracks in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic. He sang before Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, and entertained Israeli troops on the front lines during the 1967 Six Day War. In 1997, Macias was designated a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, alongside Actor Michael Douglas.

But one of the greatest highlights of Macias’ life came in September 1979, when he played a command performance for a very special fan — Anwar Sadat. Meeting the Egyptian president made a great impact on the singer, and when Sadat was assassinated only weeks later, Macias was compelled to write the song “Un Berger Vient De Tomber” (“A Shepherd Just Fell”).

“He was a martyr for peace,” says Macias of Sadat. “He gave us the example and now we follow his example…When Rabin died, they asked me to write a song for Rabin. I said that I already wrote the song – “Un Berger Vient De Tomber.” Unfortunately the song is the same.”

Macias’ latest release, an album dedicated to his father-in-law mentor titled “Hommage au Chef Raymond,” takes the entertainer full circle back to his classic Algerian roots. As for his work as a U.N. emissary, Macias — who has met with refugees all over the world and spoken to the presidents of their countries — says that he finds himself in a privileged position.

“I cannot change the world,” says the singer. “I can only be an example. I am a witness, not a moralist.”

Enrico Macias will culminate his North American tour at the Universal Amphitheater on Nov. 4 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 273-2824.

A Brecht Debut and Finale

In an ironic twist that Bertolt Brecht would have appreciated, his legendary Berliner Ensemble will make its American debut at UCLA July 7 to 11, and then lower the curtain permanently.

Brecht founded the ensemble in East Berlin in 1949 to direct and present the playwright’s own works, and it quickly gained an international reputation and the wary support of the Communist regime.

After its West Coast tour, the troupe will dissolve itself permanently, reappearing later under a new name, management and direction.

For its finale, the ensemble will present “Arturo Ui” (shortened from its full title, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”), written by Brecht in 1941, during his Los Angeles exile. It is a mordant satire and morality play on Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, and how their power grab could have been nipped if good men had stood up.

The play’s jobless Ui leaves his native Bronx and arrives in Chicago with seven thugs and soon brings “peace” to the city’s vegetable market through a protection racket, dubbed The Cauliflower Trust.

Under the pose of a law-abiding family man, Ui obtains and consolidates his power through gang violence, bribery, police corruption, demagoguery, political manipulation and intimidation of the press.

The analogy to the rise of the super-gangster Hitler was obvious in 1941, and remains applicable today.

“We need only look at the tactics of Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and the mafia-like structure of ruling parties in many countries to see the point,” says Stephan Suschke, the Berliner Ensemble’s artistic director, speaking by phone from his home in East Berlin.

Although Brecht’s “theater of alienation” seeks to appeal to the audience’s reason rather than to its emotions, Ui is cast as a superb showman, and his appeal “is similar to that of a movie idol or rock star,” Suschke says.

Though not Jewish, Brecht was high on Hitler’s hit list for his “subversive” plays and Marxist ideology. He fled Germany in 1933 and, after living in Scandinavia, arrived in the United States in 1941.

A prolific playwright, poet and essayist, whose most popular hit was “The Threepenny Opera,” created with composer Kurt Weill, Brecht packed up again in 1947, when, one day after being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he fled to Switzerland.

“Brecht was fascinated by American technology, but, as a left-wing intellectual, he questioned the country’s politics,” says Suschke. Also, unlike many other exiles, the playwright never felt at home in brash Los Angeles.

He founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 and remained at its head until his death in 1956.

The upcoming dissolution of the troupe marks the end of an era, Suschke notes.

“The Berliner Ensemble was closely tied to the history of Communist East Germany,” he says. “Its end stands as an epilogue to that period in German history and means that East Germany has truly ceased to exist.”

Performances of “Arturo Ui” are in German, with running English supertitles projected on a screen on top of the stage.

The arrangement may be novel to most American audiences, but has worked effectively during performances in Russia, Turkey and Latin America, says Suschke.

“You can really understand the play without knowing German,” he says.

The four performances, co-sponsored by Germany’s Goethe Institut, will be on July 7, 9 and 10 (at 8 p.m.) and on July 11 (at 4 p.m.) in the Freud Theatre on the UCLA campus. Ticket prices are $49 and $69. For information, call (310) 825-2101.