Hide ‘n’ seek no child’s game in fleeing Iran


Ruben Melamed is an 80-year-old Los Angeles-area businessman and a fifth cousin of mine who escaped near death in Iran. I did not know of his story until recently, when I began searching for stories of Iranian Jews who escaped their homeland during the revolution some 30 years ago.

In the late 1970s Iranian authorities wanted the assets of the prosperous businessman and pharmacist. Melamed’s business was valued at nearly $40 million, including laboratory equipment.

He had been an important member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran, which oversaw many aspects of Jewish life in the country. He published his memoirs in Persian a few years ago, and he remains one of only a few local Iranian Jews who have been willing and unafraid to share with me his experiences during the Iranian Revolution.

When the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran began in the early days of the revolution, the normal workaday life of Iran came to a standstill because of widespread strikes. As a result, Melamed and his family left Iran for Los Angeles with few belongings, thinking that they would return home once a new government was formed in Iran.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, Melamed, who had not been able to find work in the United States, decided to return home in mid-1979. He hoped to resuscitate his large business, which had been inactive for months.

“Looking back on the whole event, I can say I was tricked by Khomeini’s assurances that nothing would happen to those who fled Iran but wanted to come back,” Melamed said.

He discovered it was a mistake when Revolutionary Guard members came to his office, seeking to arrest him after interrogating his partner.

“They had just killed Habib Elghanian [leader of the Jewish community in Iran], and I was next on their list — the new Islamic regime that had come to power wanted to get their hands on my assets,” he explained. “So they placed a label on me that I was a Zionist who had worked as a member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran and that I had participated in the World Zionist Congress.”

His company was seized by the regime. He was forbidden to conduct any business in Iran, and he was placed on a list of people forbidden to leave the country. For the next six months, Melamed hid in the homes of both Jewish and Muslim friends in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.

“I was very tired that I had burdened these people while living in hiding with them,” he said. “You have to understand that the Islamic regime had placed ads in the newspapers saying that anyone who helped or hid a person that was on the government black list would face the same punishment as the black-listed person — so everyone that was hiding me was frightened.”

After several months of living in hiding and fear, Melamed’s friends obtained a false passport for him bearing the name of “Ravin Aminpour.” They urged him to leave the country illegally. Being proud and stubborn, he initially refused the false passport and unsuccessfully sought to obtain formal permission from authorities to leave Iran.

“I was so tired from all of this running around that at one point, I was even considering giving myself up, surrendering to the authorities and serving a prison term for a few years,” Melamed said.

His father-in-law convinced him to pay 250,000 in Iranian currency and to accept an offer from a Jewish man who promised to place Melamed on a commercial flight leaving Tehran without having to go through airport security.

A few days before his flight was to leave, the Jewish man who had promised to help Melamed informed him that he would not be able to get him on board the plane. Instead, he would help him at the airport if authorities were going to arrest him.

His friends devised a plan. Two of them would wait outside the terminal in a car with the engine running, in case Melamed had to make a quick getaway. Two other friends and a Revolutionary Guard who had been bribed would wait inside the terminal to help the businessman escape if something went wrong.

On the night after Yom Kippur, in September 1980, Melamed dressed as a construction worker. He had grown a beard to disguise himself and carried the false passport.

The businessman was able to get through the airport undetected, even though signs with photos of him were posted on the airport walls.

“After I boarded the plane, the engines revved up, the plane was readying to take off and I thought I was safe — but suddenly, the plane stopped, and the engines were turned off,” he said.

“Five armed Revolutionary Guards immediately stormed onto the plane and were demanding to see Ravin Aminpour — and that was me. My heart just sank to the floor at that moment, and I said goodbye to my wife and kids under my breath as I approached the guards.”

Suspicious, the armed guards interrogated Melamed for 20 minutes on the plane. They accused him of lying about his identity as a construction worker going to Frankfort, Germany, to have a heart operation.

“The guard asked me if I was a former military general, and at that point, I discovered they were not looking for me but rather a different person they had mistaken me for,” Melamed said.

The guard eventually accepted his story and allowed him to return to his seat after Melamed agreed to see the guard when he “returned to Iran after 10 to 15 days.”

“It was a miracle that they had not removed me from the plane and taken me away, because they would have eventually discovered my true identity,” he said.

After the flight arrived in Germany, Melamed was able to obtain his legitimate passport, which a friend, another Jewish passenger on the plane, had been carrying for him. With a U.S. visa and passport, Melamed was eventually reunited with his family in Los Angeles.

“I was one of the people who managed to survive this revolution after I was truly burned and destroyed because of it — it’s something that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he said.

Nevis’ Jewish Past a Tropical Treasure


 

Savvy travelers in need of a getaway come to the Caribbean island of Nevis to relax at restored sugar plantations, like the Montpelier Inn, or the opulent Four Seasons. Celebrity visitors have included Michael Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana, who immediately fled to the island to relax after her breakup with Prince Charles.

Tourists soak up the sun on the island’s beaches and watch for whales, snorkel in the crystal-clear turquoise sea and hike its lush hills listening to the chatter of green vervet monkeys. Nevis is home to 10,000 people, and charming Caribbean gingerbread-style buildings along downtown Charleston’s tiny main street evokes the feeling of “Gulliver’s Travels” as tourists visit area shops and restaurants.

This Leeward Island destination, known as the “Queen of the Caribbees,” was also once home to dozens of hard-working Jews whose story makes up a little-known chapter of Caribbean Jewish history. It’s been centuries since a Jewish community has called Nevis home, but references to the “Jews’ School” and the “Jewish Temple” remain a colorful part of island folklore.

“Nevis has a remarkable story to tell of a community that used to be,” said David Rollinson, a local historian who conducts Jewish tours of the island. “The cemetery is all that’s left now and it continues to give us valuable insight into the lives of the Jews of Nevis.”

Sitting southeast of Puerto Rico, Nevis is the smaller sister island to neighboring St. Kitts (a 20-minute ferry ride), which tends to be more rough and tumble. Nevis is nearly 7 miles in diameter and was first spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. Columbus called the island Nieves, the Spanish word for “snows,” because the islands volcanic peaks reminded him of the snow-capped Pyrenees.

By the mid-1600s, Nevis’ sugarcane industry made it a Caribbean powerhouse. Sephardic Jews expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese were drawn to the island. And by the early 1700s, one-quarter of the Caucasian population in Charleston were Jewish.

The Colonial period brought about a synagogue, but the exact date of its construction is unknown. A school followed, which was attended by the non-Jewish son of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the island in 1757.

By the end of the 18th century, the sugar industry went bust and the Jewish families moved away in search of new jobs, leaving behind their stores and homes. The synagogue and school were closed. Today, the only visible reminders of that once-vibrant community are the 19 surviving grave markers in the Nevis Jewish Cemetery.

Scholars and archaeologists from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have long been fascinated with Nevis’ Jewish history. Funds from various organizations, like the Commonwealth Jewish Council, have been able to piece together a picture of what Jewish life was like from the clues in the cemetery.

Located on Government Road, a few minutes from the pier in Charleston, the cemetery stands in the middle of what once was the Jewish neighborhood. Grave markers, inscribed in Portuguese, Hebrew and English, date from 1650 to 1768 and bear names like Marache, Pinheiro, Mendez, Lobatto and Cohen. However, on some the writing is barely legible. Forty more burial sites, without markers, were identified some 20 years ago by a survey done on the grounds.

Rededicated in 1971 after a Philadelphia couple organized the cleanup and restorations of the gravestones, today the cemetery’s sacred grounds are carefully manicured by the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.

“It’s a very emotional experience for people who come here,” said Rollinson, who watches as tourists quietly place stones on the above ground tombstones as a show of respect. “It’s an emotional experience for me, too.”

Across the street is a narrow vine-covered laneway the locals still call “Jews Walk” or “Jews Alley” which may have led to the Jewish school and kitty-corner from the cemetery is a typical Caribbean clapboard house that was built on the land where the synagogue once stood. Details about the school are sketchy but Dutch archives indicate the synagogue was built in 1684. Sadly, not an artifact has been recovered; historians believe the congregants took the valuables with them when they left the island.

Nevis’ library features some of the best local history books, including books on the area’s Jewish history, and offers the cheapest Internet connections on the island.

To the Nevisians, this area will always be “the Jewish neighborhood.” Some old-timers even remember their great-great-grandparents talking about the Jews who used to live there.

“It’s important none of us forget about those families all those years ago,” said T.C. Claxton, a British expat who has been driving a taxi on the island for 30 years. “Future generations have a lot to learn from this past.”

For more information about Nevis, visit

Pesach, Matzah, Maror and Massage


 

Thanks to an increasing number of spas offering Passover packages, a Pesach getaway doesn’t necessarily have to lead to weight gain. There is no shortage of luxury resorts where you can nourish your spirituality, pamper your psyche and get a workout. In fact, several highly rated wellness centers are hosting seders this year for the first time, including the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Here is a sampling of top spas where you can escape kosher l’Pesach style. Although Passover doesn’t begin until Saturday night, April 23, these packages accommodate religious travelers by including Shabbat the night before.

All pricing is per person, double occupancy, plus tax and gratuities and most programs offer a third-in-the-room price as well as children’s pricing. To experience a massage or another treatment during your stay, schedule it well in advance by contacting spas directly at the earliest date possible. Otherwise, by the time you arrive, the choicest appointments will most likely be taken. The same is true for any spa visit — year-round or at Passover.

Back to the Desert

The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa (” target=”_blank”>www.VIPPassover.com.

By the Sea

The spa and fitness and wellness center at The Mauna Lani Hotel & Bungalows Resort & Spa (” target=”_blank”>www.passoverresorts.com.

Packages are also available at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa in San Diego (marriott.com/property/propertypage/SANCI), starting at $3,000; the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa (” target=”_blank”>www.ranchobernardoinn.com) features 12 tennis courts, two PGA-rated championship golf courses and two swimming pools. Its Passover package includes access to whirlpools, steam rooms and more. The spa’s menu of additional-fee treatments includes a wide array of spa services.

Prices begin at $3,000, plus 25 percent tax and tips. The early-bird special features 12.5 percent tax and tips for bookings through mid-February. The cost includes three gourmet glatt kosher, cholov yisroel meals daily, a 24-hour tea room, shiurim and entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s programs draw kids 12 and under and teens 13 and up. Contact Moshe Wein at Kosher Travels Unlimited (800) 832-6676 or visit ” target=”_blank”>desbains.hotelinvenice.com/) features an expansive pool and lawn area, three clay tennis courts and free shuttle boat service to St. Mark’s Square and the city of Doges. Windsurfing, horseback riding and golf are all nearby. The scholar-in-residence is Rabbi Laibl Wolf and the cantor is Shimon Farkas. Prices start at $3,110 per person, double occupancy plus 24 percent tax and tips, and includes all meals, which are glatt kosher, cholov yisroel Italian cuisine, as well as the 24-hour tea room, entertainment, kids’ day camp and more.

The Other Coast

New for 2005 is the Passover program at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton (” target=”_blank”>www.bocaresort.com), starting at $3,370; the Wyndham Miami Beach Resort (” target=”_blank”>www.totallyjewishtravel.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug, a former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, writes for The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and other publications.

 

Get Me to the Beach on Time


Tired of the same old country club I-dos? Bored with the been-there, danced-to-that-Beverly Hills reception? Why not take your wedding on the road?

At one time, destination weddings were reserved for celebrity vows, hushed elopements and civil ceremonies. Exotic locales meant no chuppah, no rabbi, and no kosher-wine toast. But today, Jewish couples can have their wedding cake and eat it, too. Brides and grooms are getting married on the sandy beaches of the Bahamas and under the neon lights of Sin City, where traditional religious ceremonies are being hitched to romantic getaway affairs.

Nikki Sutker, 27, has lived in Los Angeles for six years, but never thought of Tinseltown as home. She always assumed she’d get married in her hometown of Dallas. But when her fiance, Santa Ana police officer Scott Bender, explained that most of his L.A. friends and Walnut Creek family wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Texas, the couple opted for a Vegas wedding.

“We’re both big Vegas fans,” said Sutker, a counselor at Patrick Henry Middle School in Granada Hills. “L.A. was really never an option, Dallas didn’t work for Scott, and Vegas is always so much fun.”

They are regulars at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live, and they wanted a Jewish wedding with Vegas flair. On Aug. 8, they will be married in a ballroom at the Venetian Hotel. The Sunday night, black-tie optional wedding will be conducted under a chuppah by a local rabbi, and kosher meals will be provided for their more observant guests.

Both the bride and groom’s guests support the couple’s decision to have a destination wedding.

“Most people have decided to make a vacation out of our wedding. They’ll arrive in Vegas on Friday and leave Monday,” Sutker said. Bender’s groomsmen are planning a Friday night minibachelor party, the couple is planning a Saturday rehearsal dinner, and they will provide their guests with a guide to the weekend’s Vegas attractions.

“There’s so much to do in Vegas — we’re really excited to have our wedding weekend there,” Sutker said. “I just hope I don’t have to drag Scott out of the casino.”

For their destination wedding, Raphi and Danielle Salem chose moonlight over neon lights. Raphi loved the kibbutz weddings he had attended while living in Israel.

“The ceremonies were outdoors and the whole community was invited. I wanted my wedding to have that same feeling,” said Raphi Salem, who runs judaicastore.com. So when he and Danielle got engaged, they looked at traditional venues with outdoor accommodations. Unsatisfied with the hotel courtyards and banquet hall patios they saw, the couple decided to have their wedding at Club Getaway, a 300-acre family camp in Kent, Conn. Guests were encouraged to bring their children, and they slept in cabins on twin beds. Activities ranged from kickball, water-skiing and archery to egalitarian and Orthodox Shabbat services. Club Getaway even provided camp counselors.

“As children we both loved overnight camp, and we loved the idea of turning our wedding into a whole weekend camp event,” he said. “We’ve been to so many weddings where you eat, you drink, you dance, and you spend zero time with the bride and groom. Rather than see each of our friends for five minutes at the reception, we spent the whole weekend playing with them.”

The Salems married under an outdoor chuppah on the lakefront in a traditional ceremony conducted by two rabbis. All of the weekend’s food was kosher, including the reception’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich appetizers.

“The actual ceremony was just a formality,” he said. “What made our wedding special for us was spending time with our friends and family. Having our wedding at Club Getaway was what allowed us to do that.”

Like the Salems, Daniel and Amy Nissanoff wanted a destination wedding, kosher meals and a weekendlong celebration, but they also wanted to be wed in the Caribbean. The tropical resorts they looked into did not have kosher caterers and would only kosher their kitchen if the wedding party reserved the entire hotel. So the Nissanoffs found a hotel — an island — they could fill: They were married last June in Jumby Bay, a 300-acre private island located off the coast of Antigua. The couple’s 90 guests filled the Jumby Bay Resort, the island’s only hotel, and participated in four days of fun, sun and celebration. The weekend included a cocktail party, a beach barbecue, snorkeling, tennis, calypso dancing and culminated with the Sunday night wedding. The Nissanoffs flew in an Orthodox rabbi to conduct the ceremony, a mashgiach to supervise the kitchen and food preparation and ferried in kosher ingredients and wine to feed their guests.

Looking to control the size of their guest list, a destination wedding seemed a natural choice.

“We always talked about having a smaller, more intimate wedding” said Daniel Nissanoff, who grew up in Hancock Park and attended Cal State Northridge. “If we got married in Manhattan, we would have been obligated to invite 400 people.”

With Jumby Bay, the couple could pare down their guest list, and because attending the wedding required a substantial time and monetary commitment, only their most devoted friends and immediate family responded yes.

“It was a fantasy weekend,” said Nissanoff, the founder and chairman of a New York-based Internet company. “And believe it or not, it cost less than if we had stayed in New York. We would have rented a fancy hotel, hired a 20-piece orchestra and bought thousands of dollars worth of flowers. In Jumby Bay, we got more for our money, had a more casual reception and the island was filled with its own beautiful flowers.”

Not every Jewish couple can find a rabbi willing to fly to an exotic locale, so many who choose to have a destination wedding are forced to have a civil ceremony. This is no longer the case in the Bahamas. Five years ago, Freeport Hebrew Congregation President Geoff Hurst was sanctioned by the Union of Reform Judaism(URJ) (the regulatory body of Reform congregations) and the government of The Bahamas to officiate at Jewish weddings.

“I wanted to insure that couples coming to the Bahamas to be married could have a proper, Jewish wedding,” said Hurst, a retired pharmacist. “Not a single rabbi lives in the Bahamas, so I approached [URJ] and asked if I could officiate.”

Hurst, who will conduct ceremonies on any of the Bahaman Islands, screens his couples; they must want to be married under the chuppah, with kippot and witnesses and with traditional vows in English and Hebrew. He doesn’t charge for his services, but asks that couples pay any of his travel and hotel expenses, and make a donation to the congregation.

“How can I charge for this? It’s a mitzvah,” Hurst said. “I am simply helping Jewish couples wed in the Jewish tradition.”

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