Los Angeles has a thriving Persian Jewish community, such as at Nessah Synagogue, pictured here. Photo courtesy of Nessah

L.A. hosts first national Persian rabbinical conference

Iranian rabbis from Southern California and across the country gathered in Irvine on June 5-6 for the first national Persian American Rabbinical Conference to discuss issues of intermarriage, the preservation of Iranian-Jewish traditions and efforts to reach out to a younger generation.

The historic conference was hosted by the Los Angeles-based Persian Rabbinical Council (PRC), a loosely organized group set up in recent years of nearly a dozen Orthodox Iranian rabbis who head synagogues and religious schools in the Pico-Robertson area and the San Fernando Valley. The conference culminated in a June 7 banquet dinner at Nessah Synagogue, an Iranian congregation in Beverly Hills, that was attended by more than 30 people.

According to the online registration for the Nessah gala, the goal of this conference was to strengthen and empower the community. “We will focus on fighting assimilation, motivating our youth to participate in the future of our community and solidarity with our brethren in Israel. Our mission is to bring our people together, fostering unity and cooperation amongst the leadership of our community throughout the world,” it states.

Nessah’s chief rabbi, David Shofet, who also is recognized as the primary leader of the Iranian-Jewish community, praised the group’s efforts.

“I believe this conference was very positive because our Jewish community, whether living in Iran or the United States, has always worked hard to maintain our traditions,” he said. “The goal of this conference was for the rabbis to understand the issues we are facing, how to better serve the community’s needs, how to maintain our ancient halachah from Iran and to keep Judaism alive.”

Shofet said the group of Iranian rabbis in attendance also hailed from New York, Atlanta, Baltimore and Dallas, with diverse educational and career backgrounds.

“I was impressed by the rabbis who attended the conference because they were not just religious scholars, but some of them were also physicians, pharmacists and businessmen who have real-world experiences and are aware of the day-to-day challenges the community faces,” he said.

This conference of Iranian rabbis is a first for the community, which hasn’t had any formal organizing for religious customs and traditions since its members’ arrival in the United States more than 40 years ago.

Numbering 80,000 strong before the Islamic Revolution, the Jews of Iran were one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities and adhered to a traditional Sephardic form of Judaism while living in Iran for centuries. After the radical Islamic regime’s execution of Jewish community leader and businessman Habib Elghanian in May 1979, Jews first began fleeing Iran en mass for Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

After their arrival in the United States, many Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York joined an array of Ashkenazi synagogues from different denominations of Judaism since the community did not yet have any formal religious organizations established in the U.S.

Today, after nearly 40 years since their arrival in this country, community leaders estimate that roughly 45,000 Iranian Jews live in Los Angeles, 25,000 live in New York and another 2,000 elsewhere in America. Local Iranian-Jewish community leaders estimate that roughly 5,000 to 8,000 Jews still live in Iran and adhere to their ancient Sephardic traditional form of Judaism. 

A marriage of Purim and Persian New Year

Leave it to us, the Iranian Jews, to overdo it. One holiday with our name on it and you are faced with the ultimate Jewish experience in just two days. Purim is dramatic; a holiday that rivals Passover, as it begins with a grand-scale departure and concludes with a triumphant liberation. It brings Yom Kippur, Tisha B’av, Shabbat and Simchat Torah to life when we fast, repent, read and feast. 

Indeed, Purim is special for the Iranian Jews in many ways. First and foremost, there is the obvious relationship with the physical place we have called home for more than 2,600 years. Many of Iranian Jews have had the privilege of visiting the tomb of Esther in the Iranian city of Hamedan (biblical city of Shoushan), and a good number can trace their ancestry back to the city itself. While establishing an ancestral lineage to Queen Esther is not easy, the mere claim of this heritage is serious enough to have gained these “royal” Hamedanies a special place among their peers, sometimes even a favorable one. 

My grandmother, of blessed memory, grew up in a city near Hamedan and prided herself on her special connection with this holiday. Her delicious cookies, called Koloocheh Purimi, were famous and sought after. Indisputably a prototype to hamantashen, these cookies were made by the women of each household and distributed to friends, family and neighbors in celebration of Purim.

My grandmother made three kinds of cookies, two with fillings and one plain. The plain were small circles, and those with a pasty mass of cooked dates were larger circles. Her third kind were dumpling-shaped and stuffed with hazelnut filling. As a child watching my grandmother knead the dough, I had the special privilege of making the Haman dummy (Haman is the antagonist in the Purim story). In contrast to my grandmother’s highly sophisticated work, my dummy was a rough figure made of plain dough that was baked with the other cookies, then thrown away. No one wanted to eat Haman anyway, so it was permissible to have the figure’s disposable existence defaced by my unskilled hands. There was halvah as well, served as a second offering. The memory of my grandmother’s beautifully decorated dishes filled with sumptuous sweet offerings invokes a magical blend of the aromas of rosewater, cardamom and saffron — the scent of Purim. 

My grandmother took Purim very seriously. She fasted, went to the Megillah reading twice, and considered giving away her cookies her divine duty. She had developed a science of producing the perfect dough. She would wake in the middle of the night to cover the dough with the fastidiousness of a mother tending to her firstborn. Days in advance, she baked practice batches to pick out the perfect ingredients in perfect proportions. After she immigrated to Los Angeles, her nieces and nephews and their children would drive from miles away to take her on “cookie getaways.” These were weekends during which they would together make industrial numbers of cookies under my grandmother’s supervision. Koloocheh Purimi were her trademark. A generation or two ago, all Iranian-Jewish households had their own brands of Purim recipes — just ask them.

Today’s Iranian Jews celebrate Purim in the same way as everyone else. They purchase their casino-night tickets in advance, buy hamantashen baskets as offerings for their friends, and catch a few minutes of the Megillah reading if they happen to be at the synagogue for their kids. But why would a kosher Persian Jew suddenly become a goldfish lover around Purim? Who has ever seen a live fish costume at Purim masquerades anyway? Or, could there be a special goldfish dish for the feast that we do not know about?

It is no secret to the inhabitants of Beverly Hills that Iranian Jews are not ordinary Jews. About 40 years ago, when the wave of Jewish Iranians fleeing the Islamic revolution arrived in Beverly Hills, it brought with it Nowrouz, otherwise known as the Persian New Year. The majority of Jews in exile celebrate the Persian New Year, which, following the solar calendar, usually occurs a few days before or after Purim, celebrating the onset of spring. Although Nowrouz originates in Zoroastrianism, it is considered a secular holiday. To celebrate, Iranians set up a table called Haft-Seen with seven obligatory items whose names begin with “s.” The goldfish, whose name does not begin with an “s,” is exempt from this rule. It is there to represent the stars and their movements with its sparkling gold color and circular swimming pattern. Moments before our planet shifts into a new path around the sun, Iranians, along with Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turks, Kurds and some other nationalities, gather around the table, filling their hearts with hopes and dreams for the New Year.

Remarkably, this holiday still thrives 900 years after the arrival of Islam in Iran. The new rulers may have managed to convert all but a negligible portion of Iranians to Islam, destroyed Zoroastrian literature in its entirety and changed the Persian alphabet to Arabic script, but Nowrouz survived. Along with the Persian language, Nowrouz defied this cultural annexation. 

In the Iran of the 1970s when I was growing up, this holiday was all the rage. Spring cleaning began a month before, and people rushed to prepare for the festivities. At least 15 days before the end of the year, everyone grew Sabzeh, a plate of green-colored sprouts, to decorate their Haft-Seen table. Garlic (seer), apple (seeb), vinegar (serkeh), gold coins (sekeh), sweet pudding (samanou), dried oleaster (senjed) with additional items such as a mirror, a prayer book, a poetry book and, of course, the bowl of goldfish, would be laid out for a period of two weeks. The country would revel in festivities until Sizdah-beh-dar, when the entire nation would welcome the spring and the new year by picnicking and becoming one with nature. 

Our family, like most other Jewish-Iranian families of this period, celebrated this holiday. Yet I could not help but notice my grandmother’s unusual awkwardness in setting the Haft-Seen table. Always in command when it came to Jewish holidays, she appeared lost with regard to Nowrouz. She would often ask her grandchildren to help with the preparations and setting the table. She would never make the essential sweet pudding herself, and she even sometimes passed the crucial moment of spring equinox absent from the table, tending to her Purim cookies.

One day, I asked her: “Grandma, how did you celebrate Nowrouz when you were young?” In response, she looked away, screwed up her face and bit her lower lip, searching for a way to dodge the answer. “Times were different when I was growing up” was all she managed to say.

It would take more than mere questions and answers to understand her reaction. Truth be told, celebrating Nowrouz for Iranian Jews is a relatively new phenomenon. My grandmother, along with other Jews born at the beginning of the 20th century, never really celebrated Nowrouz while growing up. Subjected to periodic pogroms in addition to natural and manmade calamities, the Jews did not have an easy life. There are always exceptions, but the majority of Jews in Iran lived in such poverty that they were lucky if they could meet their needs and observe their Jewish holidays.

As recently as 90 years ago, Iranian Jews lived as disenfranchised subjects, and tending to their affairs was the task of the ministry of foreign affairs. Exorbitant extra taxes for being a Jew were officially enforced until 1881, a practice that endured unofficially for decades after its suspension. They were confined to ghettos, and their living conditions were lower than country’s average. Even if they wanted to, the Jews of Iran could not celebrate Nowrouz. It was a gentile’s holiday.

But stars shifted, and Jewish life in Iran changed for the better. During the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, which started in the 1920s and ended with the revolution that began in 1978, Iranian Jews enjoyed equal status as citizens. For a short-lived historical moment, they thrived. They were able to leave behind their ghettos en masse and climb the ladder of social and economical success. They felt Persian more than ever and as loyal subjects, gave much back to their country.

My grandmother never confided in me, but I believe it was only after her children entered the university and socialized with other Iranians that she had started to celebrate Nowrouz. After all, her children’s friends would come to pay their respects for the New Year and taste her delicious cookies; and how could one not have a goldfish?

My Persian-Jewish home has been bustling with action. I have spent a good part of the past few days preparing. Casino-night tickets in the purse, kid’s costume in the closet and the goldfish is on the credenza. I still have so much to do, but I just had to try to make my grandmother’s cookies myself. This is her holiday, after all. I prepared the dough last night and have already made a batch. My cookies are nothing like Grandma’s, but they are better than what you buy at Ralphs, for sure. I place a new batch in the oven and set the timer. I use the time to organize my Haft-Seen table. I still need to drop by the Persian supermarket to pick up the senjed, but the green sprouts are looking good as I look at their reflection in the mirror. I check the timer to see how much time I have. 

Good. I have enough time to select the clothes I want to give away. Purging closets is important when you do your spring cleaning, is it not? And think about how much ahead I will be when it is time for Passover cleaning! I pick out the traditional Persian outfit, which was sent to me 30 years ago. It doesn’t look that bad; if it still fits, I might wear it to the masquerade. I rush to put it on. There is even a headpiece that goes with it, and a pair of traditional clogs, too. I am looking around for a mirror when the goldfish catches my eye. I am mesmerized by its movements. Shining like a star, it moves around the fishbowl in circular motions. They say that at the moment of vernal equinox, the fish makes a sudden move and shifts its path of motion, just like our planet. Goldfish have been part of Nowrouz for thousands of years, even at the time of Queen Esther. I imagine her tending to her royal Haft-Seen as she prepares for the New Year. I imagine her staring at the goldfish while contemplating when might be a good time to ask the king for her people’s salvation. Who would turn down a favor on Nowrouz?

The timer rings. I look away from the goldfish and into the mirror. I see a Jewish woman in traditional Persian garb next to her goldfish. It all fits.

Abigail Dayan is a freelance writer reporting on social and cultural topics related to Judaism.

Chanukah: Sugar rush

I don’t know what it was like for the others, but, for me, Chanukah as a holiday has been a complete revelation.

I don’t think I had heard mention of it growing up in Iran, and I certainly don’t remember lighting a menorah or indulging in any kind of frivolous food or activity at this time of year. We weren’t big on “indulging” in Iran anyway, and we took religion too seriously to greet most occasions lightheartedly. We did celebrate Norouz, which is a Zoroastrian holiday that Iranians of every faith observe, and we got together in small and large numbers all the time, especially on Friday nights, and we had birthday parties and engagement parties and weddings and brit milahs to keep a person busy five nights a week. But in our family at least, being Jewish was all about sacrifice and oppression, seven plagues and 40 years in the desert and stoning the disobedient son in the town square and thinking of your sins on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah was less about apples and honey than ushering in the Day of Atonement; Passover was less about reclining on a pillow and hiding the matzah than the 1,001 things you couldn’t eat. 

Partly, I believe, this was a factor of living in a Shia Muslim country, where most people’s idea of “celebrating” a religious holiday — Ashura — was to dress in mourning clothes and self-flagellate with heavy metal chains and sharp butcher knives until they passed out from blood loss. 

Partly, too, it was a byproduct of being a nation with a long history, much of it marred by strife. Life had been hard and opportunities had been too rare for too long for too many people. We took things — religion, education, duty, responsibility, aabehroo (family reputation) — too seriously to allow an occasion to come and go without serving a useful purpose. We knew better than to expect, much less feel entitled to, happiness as an end in itself. Even today, the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” sounds like a uniquely American fantasy to me. In the Iran that I knew, Life was supposed to be hard, Liberty was an idea that ensured you a good 10 years in prison, and Happiness was making sure one had met one’s obligations correctly.

Which doesn’t mean I was any more or less happy than your average Jewish-American child. But I have a feeling I had a lot less fun growing up. The way I knew it, religion was something you carried — like a cross or a scarlet letter — defiantly and at personal sacrifice. It wasn’t fun; wasn’t supposed to be fun. Like most everything else — school, home life, entertainment, even literature and poetry and art — it was a learning, growing, maturing experience that lent to a young person the emotional tools with which to endure what would surely be a challenging adulthood. 

Imagine my apprehension, therefore, at discovering, as I attempted to raise semi-normal children in Los Angeles, that much of what I “knew” to be true about religion, education and all that makes a person more or less whole, just wasn’t. Or maybe it was true, but not relevant. Not if you wanted your child to grow up in the mainstream, such as it is in this town, as opposed to one of the more reclusive, hell-bent-on-repeating-the-past Iranian or Ashkenazi communities. I use the word “apprehension” deliberately, though I realize it sounds counter-intuitive: Why not rejoice, you ask, in finding that my children could have a lot more fun being Jews than I did? That they could have an easier time in school, rely on their parents to a greater extent to soothe them at home? 

Because, you see, the way I knew it, fun wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It could be a waste of time, or a source of unreasonably high expectations, or a way to desensitize children to other people’s pain, or to turn them into lazy, entitled adults. Fun could be the Trojan horse that ushers in any number of long-term pathologies.

Too many sweets, too much fat, too many gifts, too much time off school, and we wonder why they remain children into their 20s, expect a medal for getting up in the morning, feel cheated if they make less than seven figures by the time they’re in their 30s. 

My children may beg to differ, but I don’t think I was exactly a fascist as a parent. Not by the standards with which I was raised, anyway. For the record, I did celebrate Chanukah every year and still do, latkes and gelt included, but for too long I did it with one eye closed to what I feared was looming disaster. 

I’m exaggerating, but only a little. Chanukah, for me, became a metaphor for a certain way of seeing the world and preparing one’s child for it. I didn’t fear the holiday so much as the reason so many parents in our day school liked to celebrate it — to give their kids a Jewish alternative to Christmas. “We don’t celebrate Christmas because we’re not Christian,” I would tell my kids, and expect that to be enough. I didn’t see the need to add, “But we celebrate Chanukah, which is equally fun.” My way had worked just fine in Iran. It was the kind of tough-love “life is hard, better get used to it” approach that I grew up with. But in L.A., among my children’s friends and their families, it sounded almost draconian. 

I could see this — that the way I was preparing my children for their adult life and responsibilities might be depriving them of some of their childhood. That childhood as we knew it in our part of the world was a shorter, harder, more austere and unforgiving time — a different animal, so to speak — than its American namesake. I just didn’t know which was real and which was a fantasy. 

For most of my children’s formative years, I vacillated between wanting to give them everything I was able to and holding back lest they take things for granted; between trying to comfort them emotionally and expecting them to comfort themselves; between “I feel for you” and “snap out of it”; “let me hold your hand” and “get out there and manage.” I struggled to find the sweet spot, the right balance, the proper combination. Chanukah came and went, and my kids became adolescents and young adults and, finally, despite my many mistakes, what I believe are excellent human beings. Only then, as I looked back on my fumbling, stumbling search for the correct formula, did I realize that I had been looking in the wrong place all the while. 

There’s an internal logic to every universe that makes its existence possible and its survival probable. In a different context, that logic may be defunct or nonsensical or, at the very least, useless. Never mind that there’s no “correct” way to raise a child (which is why the experts rewrite the bible on parenting every five to 10 years). I’ve come to learn that, with few exceptions — the need for love, care, stability and trust — there’s no common way to define or understand or treat a child correctly either. Chanukah as a metaphor for a gentler, more indulgent upbringing might have made little sense in the stringent, often exacting country that was Iran as I knew it. But my children were neither entirely Iranian nor growing up in Iran. They were, in many ways that greatly mattered, entirely dissimilar creatures from what I had once been or remembered. 

I try now to remember this. I hope younger parents from other immigrant families do as well. 

Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Iran FM: Iran “has saved Jews three times in its history”

In an extensive interview, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Israel of supporting terrorism, said Iran does not want to produce a nuclear weapon and praised his country for protecting Jews.

Speaking to NBC News’ Ann Curry Wednesday, Zarif said the current Israeli regime “should be annihilated” but insisted that Iran harbors no ill will toward Jews.

He accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of having “butchered innocent chidren in Gaza” and called Israel “a threat to regional peace.” Zarif claimed that Israel harbors and supports members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, a Syrian Islamist terror group.

The hourlong interview came one day after Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, criticizing a possible accord among the U.S., world powers and Iran on the Iranian nuclear program.

“This is the only regime with nuclear weapons,” Zarif said regarding Israel. “This is the only regime that has aggressed upon all of its neighbors, has gobbled territory of its neighbor, is occupying people’s territory, is violating human rights on a daily basis.”

Iran, said Zarif, “has saved Jews three times in its history” — twice in the biblical period and also during the Holocaust. He said Iran does not want to kill Jews.

“We are not talking about annihilation of Jews. We never have, we never will,” he said. “We have a history of tolerance and cooperation and living together in coexistence with our own Jewish people and with Jews everywhere in the world. If people want to espouse fear-mongering to fan such hysteria in the world, that’s to their detriment.”

Zarif repeated the Iranian government’s claim that the Islamic Republic does not want to produce a nuclear weapon, and has refrained from doing so despite having the ability.

“We have eight tons of fissile material, of 3.5 percent enriched uranium,” he said. “We did not go for a bomb, because we do not believe that a nuclear weapon will augment our security.”

Iranian-Jewish doctor spreads Holocaust truth in Farsi

As Jews worldwide remembered and honored the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust in recent weeks, Dr. Ari Babaknia, a renowned Newport Beach Iranian-Jewish obstetrician and gynecologist, was crisscrossing the country — touring Southern California and New York City — and making his own unique contribution to the cause.

The 60-something Babaknia is not a formally trained Holocaust scholar, nor a professional historian, yet he found himself educating Iranians of various religions about the Nazis’ Final Solution and other 20th-century genocides. His undying passion to learn about the Shoah in the last two decades has made him the sole voice of Holocaust awareness to millions of Iranians in the United States and overseas.

“Many years ago, I realized that there was no book about the Holocaust in Farsi, even though there are more than 150 million people in the world who are fluent in Farsi,” said Babaknia, who attended medical school in Iran but underwent his specialty training at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “My goal and the goal of my organization, the Memorah Foundation, is to spread the truth about the Holocaust in the Middle East because people in the region and Iran have been hearing rhetoric about the Holocaust, and now they want to know the truth about the Holocaust.”

In 2012, his efforts culminated in the publication of the first and only original Farsi-language history of the Shoah, a four-volume, 2,400-page book called “Holocaust.” (There have been some works related to the topic translated into Farsi, but none nearly as comprehensive.) Then, earlier this year, he published “Humanity, Not,” a 300-page English-language book that juxtaposes the words of scholars, survivors, Holocaust victims and others with impressionistic sketches about the Shoah from the late Iranian-Muslim artist Ardeshir Mohasses. 

“Mr. Mohasses was like the Iranian Norman Rockwell — perhaps more famous than Rockwell because he was internationally renowned,” Babaknia said. “He did 300 amazing paintings, capturing almost every aspect of the Holocaust, capturing both the emotions and ethics of the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust in a very graphic manner.”

Babaknia’s earlier work, “Holocaust,” is more of a straightforward history. It details the events of the Shoah from the rise of Nazism in Germany to the final days of World War II. The book is also filled with graphic photographs from the era as well as countless official U.S. and European government documents from the time period. The final volume chronicles other genocides that occurred in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.

He wrote out the book by hand, which required 13,000 pages, and spent $2.5 million over the years on the research, assistants and other elements necessary to put it together. 

More than 3,000 copies of the book have been sold through a select few bookstores in Southern California and online. All proceeds have gone to the Memorah Foundation to educate individuals of Middle Eastern background about the Holocaust and the need for tolerance. 

“Believe it or not, 90 percent of the buyers of the Holocaust book in Farsi have been Iranian-Muslims because they have real interests and curiosity to learn more about it,” Babaknia said. “There has never been a definitive book about this subject matter in their mother language until now, which is drawing their attention.”

Its success has led to speaking invitations from many Iranian community and social groups, including mosques. 

Ali Massoudi, a 77-year-old retired Iranian-Muslim journalist based in Irvine, said the book has wide appeal.

“I’ve received feedback myself that people in Iran who have seen Dr. Babaknia on Iranian television broadcasting from the U.S. have been encouraged to learn more about the Holocaust and are trying to find out how to get their hands on copies of the book,” he said. “Dr. Babaknia’s book presents the Holocaust as a tragedy for all of humanity and not just the Jews — this has really resonated with Iranians of different faiths.”

Babaknia’s books come at an important time for his target population. In March, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned if the Holocaust took place, and the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a longtime Holocaust denier. The Iranian regime also has  hosted several conferences over the years, featuring American neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists. 

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-American human rights activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said there will be lasting, positive impacts among average non-Jewish Iranians living in Iran and elsewhere as a result of Babaknia’s work.

“After more than three decades of censorship of the Holocaust in Iran, Dr. Babaknia’s documentation of this historical event in Farsi and its potential of becoming a credible source for future generations of Iranian-Muslims is indeed a major landmark whose importance will increase with time,” he said.

Babaknia said he has plans in the near future to make “Holocaust” available online for anyone to download for free from his foundation’s website, knowhate.org. This online resource provides visitors with information about the Holocaust and other genocides in Farsi and English, with translations in Turkish and Arabic expected to come.

Despite the positive reception Babaknia’s book has received from non-Jewish Iranian-Americans, the author said he’s been surprised by the amount of indifference he’s encountered from many Iranian Jews.

“I am honestly amazed that people in the Iranian-Jewish community tell me in front of my face, ‘Thank you for what you have done, but I’m not going to read your book because it will make me sad.’ 

“Our emotions about the Holocaust should be more than anger, more than sadness and more than a revolting feeling. We have to read and learn about the Holocaust  so we can become better human beings and become more sensitized to others’ suffering.”

Tabby Davoodi is among the young leaders in the local Iranian-Jewish community who have been drawn to Babaknia’s message and efforts to educate Iranians about the Holocaust.

“The Talmud teaches us that ‘in a place where there is no leader, strive to be a leader.’ Dr. Babaknia embodies this wisdom and call to action,” said Davoodi, executive director of 30 Years After, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish organization. “In the end, the Shoah belongs to all Jews, including Iranian Jews, because it is forever tragically sealed in the fabric of the Jewish people,” Davoodi said. “As Iranian-American Jews, we are but one thread in this unbreakable fabric, and any loss of Jewish life anywhere around the world is ours to mourn.”

For more information about Dr. Ari Babaknia’s new book and Shoah commemoration events in the Iranian-Jewish community, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews. 

Many doubt report on Iranian-Jewish captives

Los Angeles-area Iranian-Jewish activists are expressing doubt about a recent report from the Israeli intelligence agency that a group of Jews fleeing Iran during the 1990s were, in fact, kidnapped and then murdered.

On March 20, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying the Mossad had investigated and “received from a reliable source, privy to the details, information that these Jews were captured and murdered while escaping [Iran].” The statement did not indicate who carried out the killings.

A handful of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles are questioning the details of reports from the Israeli media.

“The Israeli media reports contained a number of inaccuracies, and our community is in the process of gathering more facts about the reports,” said Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, who has been following the case of the missing Iranian Jews for the past 20 years. “We will not be making any further comments until such clarifications are obtained,” Kermanian said.

According to a 2001 report issued by the now-defunct Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations (CIAJO), eight Jews ranging in age from 15 to 36 were arrested by Iranian authorities between June and December 1994 while attempting to illegally flee from Iran into Pakistan. The CIAJO report also states that, in February 1997, Iranian authorities arrested four more Jews in their late 40s and 50s, also for attempting to illegally flee from Iran to Pakistan.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, also has been following the case for the last 20 years. He believes the Israeli news reports contain errors, including a failure to mention Jews kidnapped in 1997 by Iran’s secret police.

“To date, neither our community in Los Angeles, nor the families of the missing Jews who reside in the United States, have received any formal notification from the Israeli government,” Nikbakht said. “At the same time, to the best of our knowledge, the narratives in the Israeli papers and media contain certain factual mistakes.”

State-run news media outlets in Iran also have remained silent on the Israeli reports, Nikbakht said.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, in the meantime, has neither confirmed nor denied the claims made by the Israeli press, relating to several different events having taken place during three years, surprisingly ending in virtually identical tragedies or supposed ‘mistakes’ — which apparently only happened to groups of Iranian Jews trying to leave their country for the United States, Israel and other free countries,” Nikbakht said.

For the past three decades, local Iranian Jews have been heavily involved in various actions regarding the safety of the remaining Jews in Iran. 

In 2000, with the assistance of various American-Jewish groups, the L.A. Iranian-Jewish community was able to publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been jailed in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel and were facing the death penalty. Ultimately, the intense international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the “Shiraz 13” were eventually released.
According to a recent report from the United Nations Refugee Agency, hundreds of thousands of Iranian Muslims, Bahais, Armenians and Zoroastrians, as well as Jews, have fled Iran via Pakistan or Turkey, many during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and afterward to avoid military conscription required by the Iranian regime’s laws.

There are no enhanced penalties specifically targeting Jews fleeing Iran, but the amended 1991 Islamic Punishment Act of Iran states that the official penalty for leaving the country through unmarked border crossings is simply a monetary fine amounting to a few dollars and a maximum of three months in jail. 

Iraj H., an Iranian-Jewish businessman who lives in Los Angeles but declined to give his real name for fear his family members in Iran could be harmed, said that during the 1980s and ’90s, Iranian authorities arrested a small number of refugees fleeing Iran. Most were released soon after their arrest and returned to their homes, although, he said, sometimes the authorities robbed the escapees of their valuables.

Perhaps the most publicized story concerning the kidnapped Iranian Jews has come from Elana Tehrani, mother of Babak Tehrani, one of the missing Jews. She now lives in Los Angeles and spoke to the Journal in 2007 in an exclusive interview. 

Tehrani said that on June 8, 1994, Babak, then 17, and his friend Shaheen Nikkhoo, then 20, secretly left Tehran to escape the country. Leaving Iran was illegal and risky for the pair, both of whom were at the age of military conscription. The two Jewish youths had planned to cross into Pakistan, then head to Austria, and finally to the United States. They and their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, arrived in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan. Witnesses said they saw the two Jews being arrested by non-uniformed secret police, Tehrani said.

“I was in Austria at that time, waiting for Babak to call me. Instead, the smugglers’ relatives called and said that Babak, Shaheen and the smugglers had been arrested and they would help get them released,” Tehrani told the Journal in 2007. “When days turned to weeks and we heard nothing about the boys, we were very upset and turned to the Iranian-Jewish community here in L.A. for help.”

Nikbakht said the Tehranis and other Los Angeles-based family members of the missing Iranian Jews will not speak to the press and are unconvinced by the recent reports from Israel.

“At this time, lacking sufficient facts, those family members in the United States who have been informed about the reports have refused to mourn or to hold any memorial events,” Nikbakht said. “Stuck in their continuing and cruel plight imposed upon them by the regime of Iran, they are determined to continue their lonely search for their missing loved ones.”

The majority of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish leadership will not comment out of caution about making any statements related to the Iranian regime. They fear that any criticism might spur the regime to seek retribution on the fewer than 10,000 Jews still living in Iran.

One exception is Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli attorney for the victims’ families living in Israel. In 2006, Darshan-Leitner’s nonprofit legal center, Shurat HaDin, which is based in Israel, filed suit in a United States Federal Court in New York against former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on behalf of the missing Jews’ families. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, alleges that Khatami was personally aware of and involved with the incidents surrounding the kidnappings.

Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

A Sunday call on same-sex marriage

I was talking with a young woman last Sunday afternoon. She had called me because she read the column I wrote here last month, about Sinai Temple’s decision to perform same-sex weddings. She said she’s gay and came out to her family a year ago. They’re Iranian Jews who care a great deal about the judgment of their friends and relatives. They’ve given her untold amounts of grief for the shame they think she’s brought on them. They tell her she’s ruined the family name, made her sisters and female cousins unmarriageable, bitten the many hands — the grandparents’, the aunts’ and uncles’, the friends of friends’ — that have reached out to save her from her own foolishness. 

I’m neither the village elder nor the town psychologist. I listened to this woman’s story because she sounded sincere and spent and terribly, tragically sad. Like so many traditional Jews who still live under the illusion that they can re-create, in Los Angeles, the suffocating, male-dominated, vicious-aunt-and-mother-in-law-operated households of the old ghetto, her family had raised her to be seen and not heard, obey but not think, get married and have children, and live happily ever after no matter how she really felt. She had done all that, even married, up to her mid-20s. In the last year she divorced her husband, came out first to her family and then in a public way, and was abandoned and denounced by the older members of her extended family. 

I’ve never met this woman, but I know her well. She’s the Ashkenazi girls I meet at USC, who tell me they’ve had to break a dozen taboos just to avoid being married right after high school. She’s the Iranian girls I hear about who might have two doctorates and a silver star for community service, but whose families are ashamed of them because they remain, in their early 30s, still unmarried. It’s true that coming out, especially for a woman, is a much more drastic, even shocking, step than choosing school over marriage, but at their core the two are really not that different: a 1,000-year-old taboo; a trembling, terrified individual mustering the courage to cross a barrier; a family that wants the best for its children, that believes it knows best. 

Forget the wicked witch of an aunt who takes advantage of a family crisis to vomit her own, bottled-up grief and insecurity on a helpless niece, the washout uncle who has no power in his own house and decides to be king in someone else’s. Forget the friends who suddenly crawl out of the bushes to warn of the seven plagues. The parents of these defiant girls, I know, love their children as much any of us. What they do, right or wrong, is what they believe is right. 

Often, they’re right; sometimes, they’re not. 

I said this to the young woman on the phone last Sunday — that as parents, we fail not as much in our love as in our wisdom. “You can judge a man by what he does,” a character in a novel once said, “or you can judge him by what he would have done had he been aware of all his options.” So often, I told this woman, I’ve erred with my own children because I didn’t know better. Then, as now, I wished for nothing more than a voice that would save me from my own, so-called, wisdom. 

Maybe, I said, your parents don’t know there are other respectable, happy families in their community who have accepted and even embraced their children’s homosexuality. Maybe they don’t realize that the world is infinitely bigger than the few dozen self-appointed “leaders” they think they should follow. 

I received a great many e-mails and Facebook messages in response to the article about same-sex marriage. A few Ashkenazi readers warned me of heavenly wrath and earthly pestilence. One Iranian man complained that the Conservative movement is responsible for the fact that his daughter has gone to college and, as a result, remains unmarried in her 20s. Another berated me for calling some Orthodox Jews intolerant, then went on to say that the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements were all “European garbage.” There’s only one kind of “real” Judaism, he said, and that’s what he practices. But by far the great majority of writers expressed support and appreciation for Rabbi Wolpe’s decision to perform gay weddings at Sinai Temple. And by far the great majority of these writers were Iranian Jews who were glad to see their point of view reflected in the article. One woman stopped me on the street to say how proud she is that her daughter is involved in her school’s gay-straight alliance. A man wrote to say he attends an Orthodox shul, but that if his own children turn out to be gay, he would want to have a place like Sinai for his whole family to attend. 

Maybe, I told the woman on Sunday, your parents would act differently if they were aware of other possibilities. 

No one has asked me for advice here; even if they had, I doubt I’m qualified to offer it. But just in case my Sunday caller’s parents find themselves in the same dark valley where I often reside, in case they, like me, long for some hitherto hidden pathway to make itself visible, I thought I’d offer these small bits of truth: 

• Your daughter is not as small or large as her sexual orientation. She has a thousand other emotional and intellectual facets and capabilities. She’s the same child you deemed worthy of your love and protection before she, or you, knew she was gay. She is more precious, more important to you than all the wagging tongues and trigger-happy fingers who’ve suddenly decided that their own limited lives would improve if only someone else’s child would be banned by Rabbi Wolpe from marrying in Sinai Temple. For every one of those soap-box preachers in this town, there are dozens of intelligent, educated, wise men and women who accept and embrace your daughter and support her quest for personal fulfillment. 

You are not as small or large as your daughter’s sexual orientation. Even the town lunatics who try to cow you into “controlling” your children because they’re afraid of losing what little control they have over their own wives and daughters know this. They realize, even if you don’t, that the era of collective shame and inherited guilt, of an entire family being blamed for one member’s deeds or misdeed, has long passed. 


• There was an age in which most Jewish parents would rather see their daughter dead than divorced. The fear then — public embarrassment, social isolation, loss of status for the family and eternal misery for the divorced woman — was remarkably similar to the fear now. But times have changed for divorcees and, believe it or not, at least in California, for gay women and their families. 

It’s not easy to stand back and watch while one’s children make choices that we believe are wrong. The key is to remember that not everything we know is right. Outside the shtetls and the ghettos and the limited minds of big-mouth crusaders, there’s often more than one possibility.

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.

The splendor and distinction of Iranian-Jewish art

For visitors to the Fowler Museum’s recent exhibition, the show’s catalog, “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” edited by David Yeroushalmi (Beit Hatfutsot/Fowler Museum: $30) will be a keepsake. For those who missed the exhibition, the book captures the sumptuous images and the resonant historical narrative that were on display at the Fowler. Either way, the book is a sumptuous and illuminating work of history.

The book grapples with a paradox that is echoed in the title.  “Jewish existence in Iran was especially characterized by deprivation, persecution and subjection to arbitrary decrees,” explain Orit Engelberg-Baram and Hagai Segev, two of the scholars who have contributed essays to the book, “but during the same period, it was also remarkable for its incredibly rich cultural life and achievements.”

Iranian Jewry represents one of the most ancient communities of the Diaspora.  “The Jewish sources, chief among them the books of the Bible…, reveal a direct connection…between Iran and the Jewish people,” writes editor David Yeroushalmi, who reminds us that the defeat of Babylonia by the Persian emperor Cyrus resulted in the end of the Babylonian Exile and the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The coming of Islam, and the dominance of the Shiites in Iran, led to “the growing isolation of Iran’s Jewish communities and to their detachment from the important Jewish centers and communities in other Muslim countries and throughout Europe.”

The peculiar style of Iranian persecution is illustrated, for example, in an illustration that shows how Jews were legally forbidden to wear matching shoes — an especially humiliating way of setting them apart from the rest of the population and the functional equivalent of the “Jew badge” that was used for the same purpose elsewhere in the world.  As late as 1874, the chief rabbi of Tehran issued a formal report to the French ambassador on the plight of the Jewish community : “[E]very Jew leaving his house to go to market and provide provisions for his family is beaten,” the rabbi reported, “and they consider this to be a religious commandment.”

Yet, as in so many other places, the Jews in Iran also managed to create works of art and literature that embody qualities of refinement and splendor. One example is a pair of wooden doors that have been embellished with the words of a poem in the Judeo-Persian language: “I will take a paintbrush and pen” declares a king who has been inspired by the beautiful women he has seen in a vision of Paradise, “and paint fetching forms, forms that will speak.” And, along with these words, we see the image of a pair of lovers, heads inclined toward one another as the man plays a sitar.  Here, and elsewhere in “Light and Shadow,” we glimpse the glories of a Jewish culture that thrived in the otherwise hateful environment in which these Jews were forced to live.

“Their rich cultural and mystical traditions include the creation of epic poetry, illuminated manuscripts, synagogue art, ritual and secular objects made of silver, copper, and wood, textiles, and musical compositions,” writes Ariella Amar. “[I]t may be that the evolution of this tradition was directly influenced by the harsh conditions — that the hostile environment in which they lived actually provided means for community members to define a collective identity and foster self-esteem.”

The fusion of Jewish and Persian themes resulted in some odd creations.  A poem dating back to 1333, for example, imagines that Cyrus, the great Persian hero of the Hebrew Bible, as the offspring of none other than Queen Esther; significantly, a site in Hamadan is still revered as the site of the tomb of Esther and Mordecai.  And Jewish artists in Iran, unlike other Muslim countries, felt at liberty to adopt the traditions of Persian miniature paintings in which the human figure was freely and beguilingly depicted. 

The rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early 20th century led to a marked improvement in security and opportunity for Jews in Iran, but — as we know all too well — it was short-lived.  “The history of Iranian Jewry is interwoven with recurrent instances of persecution and oppression alongside periods of relative calm and freedom,” observes David Menashri. Curiously, the Shah’s benevolence toward the Jewish population of Iran in the era before the Islamic Revolution owes something to “his desire to present himself as a ruler in the image of Cyrus the Great.”

“Light and Shadows,” both the book and the exhibition that inspired it, are works of curatorship that display and study the literary and material artifacts of Jewish civilization as it existed in Iran for more than two millennia.  But they have a special function for readers in America, where the contemporary Jewish community of Iran has been largely transplanted since 1979. Thanks to “Light and Shadows,” we are able to see and understand the richness of the heritage they brought with them. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in May 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Young Iranian-Jews discuss taboo topics at UCLA

Nearly 300 young Iranian Jews packed UCLA’s Fowler Museum auditorium on March 7 for a discussion featuring five prominent young Iranian-Jewish professionals openly discussing topics considered to be taboo within their community. The gathering was historic not only because young Iranian-Jews do not typically discuss their problems regarding career choices and personal relationships in a public forum — but also because this event marked the first time an openly gay member of the community has discussed issues of homosexuality facing Iranian-Jews in Los Angeles.

“I believe that we were aiming to create the types of dialogues and conversations that are already occurring between young Iranian-American Jews when they sit down together — only this time, we wanted to expand these expressions to a public forum so as to send a message that it is OK to actually discuss these issues openly and as a community,” the event’s moderator, Tabby Davoodi, executive director of the L.A.-based Iranian-Jewish nonprofit 30 Years After (30YA), said.

While 30YA did not sponsor the event, Davoodi said many of the local young Iranian-Jews who make up its membership were drawn to the event to learn how to speak to their family about pressures surrounding career choices or about issues of sex and marriage.

Speakers included Saba Soomekh, a theological studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, and her sister, Iranian-Jewish film actress Bahar Soomekh; hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian; financial adviser Joseph Radparvar; and Shervin Khorramian, an openly gay Iranian-Jewish accountant. Fowler Museum organizers chose each speaker because they demonstrated independence and challenged community taboos. Each speaker talked about how young people in the community should feel empowered to make decisions in their own lives and take steps to shatter the taboos.

“I think it’s only natural for Iranian-Jews, as immigrants to this country, to be scared and want to keep their kids near them and push them into areas which they think are best for their kids,” Nazarian said. “But it’s up to each one of us in the younger generation to have the courage to follow our passions and make decisions that are best for us personally.”

Radparvar, 30, expressed the frustration many young Iranian-Jewish professionals face as their parents push them into medicine or law for the potential financial rewards. 

“Every single day I was in law school I was miserable, and I know there are hundreds of other young Iranian-Jews who feel the same way because they go into certain fields just to make their parents happy,” Radparvar said. “I had to leave home and remove myself from that environment to find the inner strength to choose a career path I was happier with.”

Saba Soomekh said her young Iranian-Jewish students frequently say they feel trapped and are unable to speak with anyone about their issues of sexuality and relationships.

“The amount of sexual confusion in our community and the need for women to keep their sexual purity is at a ridiculously high level,” Soomekh said. “The fear of backlash and spreading of gossip has gotten to the point where girls can’t even talk to their girlfriends about issues of sex.”

She also said some Iranian-Jewish parents expect their daughters to remain virgins until marriage while looking the other way when sons are sexually active, creating a double standard that is a point of contention for young women in the community.

Homosexuality is a highly taboo topic in the community, as well. Many gay community members are not open about their sexuality out of fear of being ostracized by family or friends. Khorramian said Iranian-Jewish parents, especially, face a significant difficulty when gay children come out of the closet.

“I can understand the sense of loss Iranian-Jewish parents feel when their kid comes out to them, because they feel the child has left their culture and their norms,” Khorramian said. “The second you come out, the roles are reversed. You become the teacher, and your parents become the students — so you have to be patient, considerate, accepting and forgiving of them.”

Khorramian also said many young Iranian-Jews who are gay lead double lives. They often use the Internet for anonymity, which can expose them to sexual predators online or other dangers.

Iraj Shamsian, an Iranian-Jewish psychologist who has long helped young Iranian-Jews open up to their families about their homosexuality, but was not at the UCLA event, said that community members need to have ongoing public discussions about sexuality, drug abuse and alternative career choices.

“The reality is that there are Iranian-Jews who are drug addicts, or who are gay or have mental health issues — we don’t have to like it, but we must acknowledge these people and slowly begin a healthy community dialogue about these topics in order to grow as a society,” Shamsian said. “We have to change as a community, so people who need help can get help, and we need to take a risk to understand these issues and not to judge individuals facing these issues.”

Shamsian said he hopes to begin a support group for young gay Iranian Jews to help them come out to their families and to embrace their new identities. 

30YA head Davoodi said that while currently there are no plans for future events on the topic, she has been bombarded with positive feedback from attendees expressing their support for the open dialogue created by the event.

“There is a way to explore the taboo issues in healthy, gentle ways without sacrificing our amazing principles and traditions,” Davoodi said. “It all begins with listening, compassion and suspension of judgment, whenever possible.” 

Letters to the Editor: Iranian Jews, Netanyahu, New Print Design

Valuable Lesson From Jews
Your cover stories about the history of Iranian Jews were eye-opening and inspiring (“A History of Iranian Jews,” Oct. 12). Although I am not Jewish, I have had many Jewish friends over the years tell me stories of great religious traditions and faith mixed with the anguish of hatred, unjust prosecution and persecution that came with being Jewish.
No matter if it meant hiding phylacteries under headdresses in Iran or praying in the confines of Auschwitz, Dachau or other concentration camps, nothing could ever stop the faith of the Jewish people.
If we non-Jews could look more closely at why the Jewish people have endured over time and how faith can overcome anything, then maybe we all could take the first real steps toward true world peace. 
George Vreeland Hill
Beverly Hills
A Personalized Treasure
We thank Rob Eshman for making a purchase from our NCJW/LA Council Thrift booth at the Celebrate Israel Festival in April and thoroughly enjoyed his narrative of the journey that the painting took him on (“The Appraisal,” Sept. 28). Although we can’t promise that every item in our Council Thrift Shops turns out to be a work of art from a pedigreed artist, we can promise that many of our items are treasures to the people who purchase them.
We feel privileged to be able to help someone afford to buy that first menorah or first pair of Shabbat candlesticks. And for that matter, it is a privilege to bring second life to gently used furniture and clothing. We know that these kinds of treasures are going to someone’s first new apartment or an important job interview.
But the real treasure that these purchases and Eshman’s painting help us provide is the plethora of amazing services to women, children and families throughout our city. Can you imagine how many books we were able to purchase for an underfunded elementary school library with the proceeds of a painting that had been neglected and forgotten?
We encourage everyone to give a second life to those things that they no longer need by donating to our Council Thrift Shops. Who knows what adventure awaits the next owner!
Amy Straus, Board President
Hillary Selvin, Executive Director
National Council of Jewish Women/
Los Angeles
When Conflict’s Fuse Was Lit
Rob Eshman is right about one thing: The Middle East conflict involving Palestinians and Israelis has been going on for decades, and can be compared to a “ticking bomb” (“Netanyahu’s Other Bomb,” Oct. 5). I disagree with him when he claims, “That fuse has been lit since June 1967, when Israel captured Palestinian territories during the Six-Day War.”
Not exactly. In 1967, Israel captured Jordanian territories that would have been Palestinian, but the Arabs rejected the Partition Plan proposed by the United Nations in 1947. That is when the “fuse” was lit. 
One idea to defuse the “ticking bomb” is the two-state solution. But a two-state solution will be viable only when Palestinians cease hostilities against the Jewish state and are ready to negotiate in good faith.
Jay Zingmond
Ruth’s Conversion
Louis Richter is mistaken in identifying Ruth’s marriage to Boaz as “intermarriage” (Letters, Oct. 12).  Ruth was clearly already a convert to Judaism. When she insisted on following Naomi back to the land of Judah, Ruth famously said, “Whither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). A clearer declaration of conversion to Judaism would be hard to construct.
Solomon W. Golomb
Distinguished University Professor
University of Southern California
The New-Look Journal
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help and wonder why on Earth the Jewish Journal decided to put the name of columnists at the top of an article, in some character size that seems to beat out 24 or 36 [point]. As I’m skimming through my Jewish Journal, I’m actually searching for the title of articles. Maybe you gentlemen thought that putting the title in parenthesis will help us readers identity the subject that much easier. 
I just want to say: It hasn’t been working for me.
Kinga Dobos
via e-mail


An article about Fairfax High School and musician Herb Alpert (Alumni Celebrate Fairfax High’s Rich Legacy,” Oct. 5) misidentified the instruments played by two members of the Colonial Trio, the band Alpert played with in high school. Norm Shapiro played drums, and Fred Santos played piano.

An essay on writing about the local Iranian-Jewish community, “A Journalist’s Perspective” (Oct. 12), included an incorrect byline. The writer is Karmel Melamed.

L.A.’s Iranian Americans keep tabs on new freedom protests in Iran

In the wake of the Feb. 14 Iranian protests for greater freedom, which took place throughout that country, Iranian Americans of various religious backgrounds in Southern California have been closely monitoring the developments and voicing support for those seeking democracy.

The Iranian Americans here have been in close contact with student opposition groups in Iran, and leaders said the recent demonstrations there were sparked, at least in part, by the recent success of the massive public protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

“After protesting the 2009 fraudulent presidential election in Iran, the people in Iran were again inspired this time by seeing people in Tunisia and Egypt rise up against their governments for freedom,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, who heads the Los Angeles-based Iranian Marze Por Gohar political party, which opposes Iran’s government. “You’re seeing thousands of Iranians demanding regime change in Iran when they’re chanting in the streets,” said Farahanipour. Chanting, “ ‘Mubarak, Ben Ali and now it’s time for you to go, Seyed Ali!’ — which is a reference to the dictators of Egypt, Tunisia and Iran.”

Iranians organized another mass anti-government demonstration on Feb. 20 to commemorate the seventh day of mourning for two slain students, Sanah Jaleh, 26, and Mohamad Mokhtari, 22, who were killed during the Feb. 14 demonstrations when Iranian security forces attacked a crowd in Tehran.

According to various anti-regime Web sites in Iran, the demonstrators in Tehran were met by hundreds of anti-riot police and Basiji militia, who lined the streets and on several occasions fired directly into the crowd and beat protesters with steel batons. In one neighborhood, the Basiji took over a commercial building and dropped tear-gas canisters from the roof onto the protesters.

The Iranian government has barred foreign journalists from entering the country to cover the demonstrations, but social networking Web sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have been flooded with video taken by protesters during the demonstrations. The videos show thousands of young men and women wearing surgical masks, throwing rocks at riot police, setting trash cans on fire, chanting slogans of “death to the dictator” and setting on fire posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Here in Los Angeles, on Feb. 14, about 50 Iranian Americans opposed to Iran’s regime protested in front of the U.S. Federal building in Westwood to mark the 32nd anniversary of the current Iranian government’s rise to power.

The local Iranian American community has also been glued to the various Persian-language satellite television programs broadcast here, hoping to get information on demonstrators and friends. Viewers of the Tarzana-based Pars Television were shocked last week when one unnamed pro-regime militia member called into the program from Iran and threatened viewers. During his call, he shouted at the show’s host in Farsi, saying, “My brothers and I will not have mercy on anyone! If anyone dares to stand up and question the authority of the Supreme Leader, we will kill each and every single one of them! My hope is that one day I will encounter you and your supporters to cut your heads off myself!”

Leaders of the Iranian Jewish communities in Southern California and New York have remained mostly quiet about the current situation in Iran and the fate of Iran’s Jews for fear that what they say may be used as an excuse by the Iranian regime to retaliate against the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still living there.

“The Jewish community in Iran can be considered as a sort of hostage population, and they may be facing new pressures soon, even though they were not involved at all” with the demonstrations, said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Religious Minorities in Iran. “This is because the paranoid Iranian regime, thinking Israel has had a hand in the riots, may pressure the Jewish community to stage pro-Palestinian and pro-Hezbollah demonstrations, issue statements and hold rallies, like they forced the Jews to do in 2009.”

Indeed, in January the Iranian government-sponsored Fars News Agency (FNA) reported that “the Iranian student Basiji militia, of the Abu-Ali Sina/Avicenna University in the western Iranian province of Hamadan were rioting outside the entrance of the Esther and Mordechai tomb and threatening to destroy it if Israel destroyed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The news reports said Basiji militia had removed the mausoleum’s entrance sign, covered the Star of David at the mausoleum’s entrance with a welded metal cover and demanded the site be placed under the supervision of the local Islamic religious authority.

According to one FNA news report, the Basiji protesters also demanded that the shrine lose its status as a nationally protected religious site because “the shrine is an arm of Israeli imperialism that impugns Iranian sovereignty; it honors Esther and Mordechai, who were the murderers of Iranians, and their names must be obliterated to teach the younger generation to beware of the crimes of the Jews.”

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has sent a letter to Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),  asking the organization to condemn the threats to the mausoleum and calling on UNESCO to request the Iranian government to protect the site. Aside from a handful of local Iranian-Jewish activists, Iranian-Jewish community groups in Southern California and New York have remained silent about the threats to the mausoleum in Iran.

Nikbakht said small minority groups in Iran, and in particular hated minorities such as the Jews, have always been in danger during periods of crisis since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

“Times of turmoil, war and revolution are the most dangerous, because not only may a Nazi-like government, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, decide to use its Jewish hostages for deterrence or revenge — but smaller groups of fanatics within the society or the armed forces may decide to do something themselves to the Jews during a chaotic situation,” Nikbakht said.

Requests for comment on the status of Iran’s Jews or the Esther and Mordechai mausoleum made to the Beverly Hills-based Iranian Nessah Synagogue and to Dr. Kamran Beroukhim, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in West Hollywood, were not returned. Similarly, calls to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the leadership body of Jews in Iran, were not returned.

Nevertheless, some Iranian American political activists in Los Angeles expressed optimism at seeing young protesters demanding real democracy in Iran, while still uncertain what benefit the demonstrations might have, because they felt the protests were poorly organized.

“In my opinion, the current demonstrations are not going to yield results, because people are just demonstrating up and down a few major streets and in the ‘revolutionary square’ in Tehran which has no real impact on the government,” Farahanipour said. “They are not marching in front of the Parliament, homes of political leaders, the prisons or the state-run media outlets — if they did so, it could slow things down and have some kind of an impact.”

Analysts see sharp differences between the situation in Iran and those of Tunisia and Egypt, countries that each had only had one military force and a central government. Unlike those countries, the Iranian regime has power bases spread throughout the religious sector, as well as the political factions and the revolutionary guard, all willing to help prevent a coup d’état. Likewise, the Iranian government makes use of seven major security and military apparatuses to quash political opposition, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Basiji militia, the Supreme Leader’s personal security forces, Ministry of Intelligence security forces, the judiciary’s security forces, municipal police forces and the country’s internal security forces. During the 2009 demonstrations in Iran, the regime even utilized members of the government-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah to beat, kill and later torture protesters in Iran’s major cities.

On Feb. 18, the Iranian government bused in thousands of regime “loyalists” from cities throughout Iran for a rally in Tehran calling for the executions of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Iranian activists in Southern California were quick to discount the authenticity of the pro-regime rally.

“These protests in support of the regime are not legitimate because the government has 10 percent of the country’s population on their payroll, and these people will do whatever the government tells them to do, because they don’t want to lose their paychecks,” Farahanipour said.

Kianoosh Sanjari, an Iranian journalist working for the Washington, D.C.-based “Voice of America in Farsi” television program, who is a former Iranian student-opposition leader, said protesters in Iran were extremely disappointed with the Obama administration for being slow to voice public support for the populist uprising in 2009 seeking regime change in Iran as well , and again during the current crisis.

“Last year we heard the people of Iran’s disapproval of Obama when they chanted in the streets, ‘Obama, you’re either with us or you’re with them!’ ” Sanjari said. “The demonstrators are very upset with Obama, because they see how he treated the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, America’s close ally, by demanding his resignation and freedom for the people of Egypt — yet, at the same time, he says nothing to Khamenei and the Iranian regime, who are enemies of the U.S.”

The majority of Iranian-American activists believe the best way for the United States and the West to bring about a new democratic government in Iran would be to voice moral support for the demonstrators seeking freedom, and to increase the political and economic isolation of the Iranian regime.

Calls for comment to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in New York were not returned.

For more videos and information on the current situation in Iran, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/

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.

Angelenos raise money for mikveh, $1 million for Israeli school

Money for a Mikvah

Though demure in their dress, the women of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles were not as modest with their checkbooks during an “Evening of Auction and Ambiance,” a Nov. 2 fundraiser for the maintenance of Mikvah Esther located on Pico Boulevard. Assembled on the tennis court of a sprawling Beverly Hills estate, nearly 200 women bid on donated auction items as diverse as home-delivered challah (valued at “priceless”) and Botox treatment (valued at $800).

“The laws of family purity are the basic foundation for the Jewish family home,” said Liz Steinlauf, a Mikvah Society founding member whose father, a Holocaust survivor, began a movement toward building a community mikvah in the 1950s.

The warm apple crumble helped sweeten appetites for bidding, while conversation oscillated from family updates to the election (“I’m from Iran — I know a snake when I see one,” a woman who declined to be named, said of Barack Obama).

The enthusiastic bidding was a tribute to the seriousness with which Jewish women regard the mikvah ritual, one of the three cornerstone mitzvot (along with lighting Shabbat candles and separating challah) commanded specifically of Jewish women.

“A man uses the mikvah by custom. We use the mikvah by commandment,” said Miriam Fishman, who sits on the education committee of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles.

The Jewish laws of niddah (“to be separated”) prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife from the onset of a woman’s menstruation until seven days after its end. Although the ritual is required only of married women, its observance impacts the whole family, Fishman explained.

“The entire family benefits from the purity of relations between a woman and her husband — from the children who are born from those relations and from the discipline and respect established between husband and wife — a family is one neshama,” she said.

Mikvah Esther was established in 1973 out of a geographic need for a community mikvah in the Pico-Robertson area. Until then, the only local mikvah was located on Fairfax, which made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to attend on Shabbat. When the Pico mikvah opened its doors 35 years ago, 80 women visited monthly; today, after $500,000 in recent renovations, almost 1,000 women spend their mikvah night on Pico Boulevard each month. At $26 a visit, the mikvah is open every night of the year except Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, when Jewish law prohibits marital relations.

Since the renovations, which modernized the mikvah and made it more like a spa, the cost of upkeep has increased.

“Mikvahs should be beautiful,” said Sandi Reiss, a former Mikvah Society of Los Angeles president. “A woman should look forward to going without dread.”

Which is why part of the renovation included luxurious additions, like 12 private dressing rooms.

As much as these women enjoy the act of going to the mikvah, it represents more than just a ritual bath. Observing the family purity laws enriches their marital relationships.

“For two weeks of the month, if you have a fight, you literally can’t ‘kiss and make up,'” Fishman said. “You can’t sweep your problems under the rug with passion — you have to talk.”

But be not fooled — it is also about the art of sexual attraction. Apparently, the Torah knows the secret to keeping things hot.

“The Torah views sexual attraction as beautiful and desirable and frequent,” Fishman said about sexual indulgence within a holy context. The practice of restraining from sex every month “keeps you sensitive to holding hands.”

For more information about the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, call (310) 550-4511.

Iranian Jews Raise $1 Million for Israeli Agricultural School

Friends of Alliance Israélite in Southern California, a newly formed nonprofit, drew 350 Iranian Jews to the Beverly Hills home of Jacqueline and Isaac Moradi on Oct. 19. The evening raised funds for Mikveh Israel, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) agricultural school located on a tract of land southeast of Tel Aviv.

Between 1898 and 1979, the AIU provided secular and Jewish education to Jews living throughout Iran, an effort that indirectly resulted in Iranian Jews gaining wealth and leaving their ghettos. Gity Barkhordar, one of the event’s organizers, said ticket sales and fundraising efforts at the event together raised $1 million for Mikveh Israel, which will fund renovation projects.

The Friends of Alliance Israélite in Southern California was co-founded by members of the affluent Merage family, who like other Iranian American Jews have been enthusiastic about returning the generosity the AIU showed their community more than 100 years ago.

“There is one simple question: What would have happened to me if my father had not gotten a chance to get at an education at the Alliance?” said David Merage, the event’s co-chair. “I wish I could go back to the founders of Alliance and say thank you.”

During the past several years the Merage family has been active in various Jewish philanthropic groups in the United States and in Israel’s Negev region.

Also at hand was French Jewish philanthropist Hubert Leven, whose great-grandfather, Narcisse, along with six other French Jews, helped establish AIU schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. In addition to the Jewish Journal’s columnist David Suissa speaking at the gathering, a video message of support was also played from Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer


Left to right: Pari Rahban, Katherine Merage and David Merage. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Lawsuit re POW swap involves L.A. family; Student writes guide for U.K.

Lawsuit Filed to Block Israeli Prisoner Swap Involves L.A. Family’s Missing Son

A day after the Israeli government agreed to trade five Lebanese prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the 2006 war with Hezbollah, a lawsuit was filed in Jerusalem by the families of 12 Iranian Jews who have been missing since they attempted to emigrate from Iran in the early 1990s.

Six of the families now live in Israel. But one, the Tehranis, moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and still await their eldest son’s arrival. The lawsuit argues that any deal with Hezbollah, which would reportedly include information from Israel about the fate of four Iranian diplomats who went missing in Lebanon in the early ’80s, must advance the effort to locate and free the missing Iranian Jews, ages 15 to 60 when they disappeared.

“For the families of the missing Persian Jews, the decision to release information on the whereabouts of the disappeared Iranian officials means that they simply will have no other leverage from any quarter to influence the Islamic regime to provide information about their loved ones,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “Several of the wives are agunot [‘ chained’ women who cannot remarry], and many of the families are on the verge of economic collapse after 14 years.”

“The High Court promised the families two years ago that it would compel the [Israeli] government to undertake every possible step to secure information concerning the missing Jews from the Islamic regime, and now the Cabinet has recklessly voted to simply turn over the information without making any effort at a quid pro quo,” Darshan-Leitner continued. “Being the guardian of the world Jewish community is not merely something our officials should only pontificate about at Israeli bond dinners, its something they are obligated to fulfill at every juncture.”

Israel National TV talked to one of the missing Iranians’ family in Israel

Babak Tehrani was 16 and evading military service when his parents paid smugglers to transport him into Pakistan. Babak’s parents and two younger brothers planned to meet him in Vienna and then continue on to Los Angeles. They haven’t heard from him since they said goodbye in 1994, their only hope a 12-year-old report from a friend who said he saw Babak in a notorious Iranian prison.

The Iranian government has denied any knowledge of the missing men. During a 2006 visit to the United States, Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate who was Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005, was sued by the families for ignoring their pleas, despite allegedly being aware of the missing Jews’ whereabouts. A decision is pending in Virginia District Court.

“There is not even a moment when we don’t think about the situation,” Siamak Tehrani, Babak’s younger brother, said after the 2006 lawsuit was filed. “We open our eyes in the morning, and we think about this until we go to bed at night.”

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

L.A. Rabbinical Student Writes Guide to Aid Reform Movement in Great Britain

In a country where a high percentage of Jews are Orthodox — or, as the joke goes, the synagogue they don’t attend is Orthodox — other movements often struggle to attract more people.

That’s where the American Jewish Reform community — particularly Los Angeles’ — comes in.

Danny Burkeman, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, wrote “Leading a Community in Prayer,” an educational resource to accompany the new prayer book for Great Britain’s Reform movement. The siddur, “Forms of Prayer,” is the first egalitarian prayer book in England to use gender-neutral language, and it also includes traditional songs and prayers that had been left out of the 1977 Reform prayer book.

Burkeman, on the phone from London, where he is visiting for the summer, said he has learned much about spirituality from living in Los Angeles. “It’s such a wonderful and warm community,” he said. “The American Reform movement is such a confident movement; there’s such a variety of programs and projects that the Reform movement in England hasn’t been able to do.”

The new prayer book will bring the British Reform movement more in line with the U.S. Reform movement, Burkeman said. His guide discusses how to lead prayers and what it means to be a prayer leader, and provides prayer planning sheets. It can be useful to Reform Jews everywhere.

Once Burkeman, 29, is ordained as a rabbi, he plans to return to England for some years to share what he’s learned here in Los Angeles, such as the music and the synagogue atmosphere. (“There’s more Jews in Los Angeles than there is in the whole of England.”)

But the good news, he said, is that the new prayer book will help move Britain’s Reform Jews into the new millennium.

“It’s a dynamic Judaism that continues to grow,” he said. “A new siddur is necessary to speak to the next generation.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Local Soccer Coaches Make Cut for 18th Israeli Maccabiah Games

The 18th Israeli Maccabiah Games are still more than a year away, but the team selection process has already begun. Two local soccer coaches, Wendi Whitman and Michael Erush, have made the cut.

Whitman, head assistant coach at Cal State Long Beach, will be assisting Barry Kaplan in coaching the junior girls team. Whitman, a former Maccabi USA soccer player and goalkeeper for Stanford University, coached the junior girls team during the 17th Maccabiah Games in 2005 and last year’s Pan American Maccabi Games.

Erush, assistant coach at Loyola Marymount University, will serve as assistant coach on the Maccabiah men’s soccer team. He played defensive midfielder for Loyola from 2000 to 2003 and took silver during the 2005 Maccabiah Games.

— Molly Binenfeld, Contributing Writer

Sinai Temple, Sinai Akiba Celebrate Major Renovation Completion

Sinai Temple and Sinai Akiba Academy joined together to commission a major redesign of Sinai Akiba Middle School by architect Zoltan Pali. The $9.5 million improvement project included raised ceilings, wider hallways and new classrooms, along with updated equipment and technology, computer lab, renovated gym and an expanded library that is also open to the congregation.

Iranian Jews still awaiting apology from Muslim singer

Dariush live in Las Vegas 2007

The concert at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas was advertised as a “night to remember,” and it lived up to the hype.

During the Dariush Eghbali concert on Dec. 23, which drew about 5,000 Iranian Americans, local Iranian Jewish fans were shocked when the popular Iranian Muslim singer made what some considered to be an anti-Semitic remark between songs.

Despite a recent meeting with Eghbali, the controversy continues, more than three months later, as the Iranian Jewish community awaits an official apology from the singer.

During the concert, Eghbali quoted an alleged passage from a book he attributed to Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran, best known in the United States for the book “The Prophet.”

In a video clip (since removed) from the Las Vegas concert posted to Eghbali’s Web site, dariush2000.com, the singer speaks in Persian, saying, “Different people have different talents.” He elaborates, saying that Iranians notice one bad tree in a beautiful park; Germans are power-seekers; Italians are fashion-oriented; and Jews are “mochareb,” which is the Persian word for “saboteurs.”

After making the statement, Eghbali reiterated that the words were Gibran’s and told the audience he had a message of harmony and peace for all peoples.

Iranian Jews who attended the concert began circulating e-mails denouncing the singer, calling for boycotts of his shows. Others called on Calabasas-based concert promoter Tapesh to pressure Eghbali into making a formal apology. Tapesh issued a written statement to the media indicating they were not responsible for the comment he made and did not endorse it.

In late February, Iraj Shamsian, a close Iranian Jewish friend of Eghbali, brokered a meeting between the singer and nine leaders from the local Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF).

“At the meeting Dariush said he really didn’t think Jewish people are saboteurs and it was something he read in a Farsi-translated book,” Shamsian said. “At the meeting he clarified that he never meant to hurt anyone and was sorry some people were hurt by what he said.”

Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the IAJF, said that while he and other Iranian Jewish leaders were initially pleased with the outcome of the meeting with Eghbali, they are awaiting a formal letter of apology from the singer.

“We are surprised that even though he expressed his regret over his statement … he has still not released a written apology to start healing the wounds in our community,” Eshaghian said.

Shamsian said the 57-year-old singer, who lives in Los Angeles and Paris, was shocked by the allegations of anti-Semitism and disappointed with the e-mails circulated about him.

“He was very hurt when he received those e-mails,” Shamsian said. “He told me it was one of the worst experiences of his life, because after 40 years of being a beloved performer in the Persian community he never thought Jewish people would think he was anti-Semitic. He’s always had a message of harmony amongst all people.”

The controversy surrounding Eghbali’s statement briefly unified the local Iranian Jewish community, which is often plagued by infighting. During a Jan. 2 meeting, nearly 70 Iranian Jewish leaders from different organizations gathered at the IAJF synagogue in West Hollywood to discuss the community’s response to Eghbali’s comments.

The community leadership agreed that a tempered response to the incident would be needed once the singer issued a formal apology.

“We need to respond to [Eghbali] properly but also calm our community because emotions are running high,” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “We need to use our energies in more productive ways to help resolve other more serious issues the community faces.”

Iranian Jews who have seen the online video of Eghbali’s Las Vegas concert said his statement may have been insensitive but was not intended to be anti-Semitic when placed in context, since he was calling on all people of the world to set aside their differences and unite in harmony.

“There is no benefit in him [Eghbali] saying something negative about Jews,” said Bijan Khalili, an Iranian Jewish publisher. “Unlike Ahmadinejad who wins support in the Arab streets by bad-mouthing Israel and the Jews, Dariush wins nothing by make any alleged anti-Semitic statement — so it’s obvious there was no negative intent by him.”

Karmel Melamed has more on this story in the Iranian American Jews blog.

Khalili said Eghbali is not known to have made anti-Semitic remarks in the past and has enjoyed a strong Jewish fan base for 30 years.

Shamsian also defended Eghbali, saying the singer “does not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body [nor] have I never heard Dariush say anything anti-Semitic or express hate for any religious group.”

Eghbali, who is on tour in Europe, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Iranian Jews, for the most part, have enjoyed warm relations with their Muslim compatriots since both groups immigrated to Southern California following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Khalili and other local Iranian Jews said they did not want isolated incidents like the one involving Eghbali blown out of proportion and jeopardizing their existing friendships with Iranian Muslims.

Dariush Fakheri, one of the founders of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, said he was disappointed with the IAJF for missing the opportunity to really engage Eghbali and educate local Iranian Muslims about anti-Semitism through help from Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.

“We are not radical Islamic leaders to issue fatwas against people who insult us,” Fakheri said. “We as Jews are a peace-loving people and should have put together seminars to educate Muslims about issues of anti-Semitism — after this incident we see the importance of gatherings such as these.”

Iranian Jewish activist Noorollah Gabai (left) and Iranian Jewish publisher Bijan Khalili at IAJF meeting on January 2. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Delshad reflects on his year as B.H. Mayor

Mayor Jimmy Delshad was surrounded by nearly two dozen local Iranian Jews at his Beverly Hills City Hall office on March 10. Holdings hands, they recited a prayer of thanksgiving and he personally thanked his supporters in the community for backing his efforts as mayor.

“I really could not have done everything I did as mayor without your help,” Delshad told his supporters. “I hope that every time you enter the city and see the letters ‘B-H’ you will think of the words ‘Baruch Hashem’ — and be thankful that we are represented and have a voice in the city government.”

Delshad is the first Iranian Jew elected mayor in the United States, and after one year in office his term ended on March 18.

He narrowly won re-election to the Beverly Hills City Council last year after running against two other Iranian Jewish candidates vying for votes from the 20 percent to 25 percent of Beverly Hills’ Iranian residents, many of whom are Jewish. The five-person City Council annually rotates the job of mayor among its members in order of seniority, and when Delshad’s turn came on March 27, 2007, he made national headlines.

“For most of our 2,500 year history, members of this community [in Iran] were deprived from participation in politics,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. “Then suddenly, within one generation, when this opportunity was granted to us in Israel and the United States, through people like Jimmy Delshad, this community proved that its talents are not limited to commerce and academics.”

Reflecting on his tenure as mayor, Delshad said he was particularly proud of introducing measures to bring new technology to the city’s basic services and security, as well as spearheading the council’s approval of an Iran divestment measure.

“I’m proud of introducing the ‘smart’ city initiative so Beverly Hills can do everything smartly. That means we don’t water our grass or parks when it’s raining or going to rain, we should be able to have our parking meters run on solar power and credit cards, and we should be able to know by cameras if a car is passing through the city and is wanted by the F.B.I. or is stolen,” Delshad said.

But Delshad also weathered some controversy when a small group of Beverly Hills residents opposed to development repeatedly accused him of accepting favors from real estate developers.

During a Feb. 19 City Council meeting, some residents from the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association requested Delshad answer questions regarding allegations that he might have received benefits from the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

“Initially, when I posed questions to Jimmy Delshad at a meeting, he refused to answer and ultimately cut off my microphone,” said Larry Larson, the group’s vice president.

For his part, Delshad said he has answered his critics and proven the allegations were false by making his financial records public.

He said the allegations are an outgrowth of years-long anger over his support for development of the Montage Hotel on Beverly Drive, a project some Beverly Hills homeowners tried to block.

“From day one they were against me, they think Persians are developers and would develop high-rises in Beverly Hills. But that hasn’t been the case during my five years on the council,” Delshad said. “Since I was a big proponent of the hotel, they were against me and because the City Council voted for it, then they lost a referendum on the hotel, and they also went to three different courts in California and lost — so they have certain wounds.”

Trailblazing in politics is nothing new for Delshad, who initially made history in 2003 by becoming the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States after a successful grass-roots campaign that energized Beverly Hills’ Iranian Jews and catapulted him into office in Beverly Hills.

“Jimmy truly likes to be cutting edge and will do everything he can not only to help our community but everyone in the city — I think he’s really shown his leadership while being mayor,” said Doran Adhami, a Delshad supporter and a volunteer for the Magbit organization, an Iranian Jewish nonprofit based in Beverly Hills.

Local Iranian Jewish leaders said younger community members have been inspired by Delshad’s political leadership in representing them and transforming the image of how Iranian Jews are perceived in Southern California.

“Obviously we are extremely proud of Mayor Delshad, not just because of the way he represented us but mainly because of the way he discharged the duties of his office by represented the people of Beverly Hills,” Kermanian said.

Iranian Americans of other religions have expressed their admiration for Delshad because he is also the first American of Iranian background to be elected to public office in the U.S.

“Mr. Delshad’s work while mayor was very positive for all Iranians in the city and he proved that an Iranian is quite capable and can be successful while serving in public office,” said Assadollah Morovati, the Iranian Muslim owner of “Radio Sedaye Iran” (KRSI), a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills. “For every Iranian, he brought us an incredible sense of pride.”

Delshad’s term on the City Council will end in 2011 and he said currently he has no plans to run for a third term. But depending on the outcome of the March 2009 city elections, Delshad could end up serving another term as mayor in 2010.

To listen to Karmel Melamed’s full interview with Delshad, visit his blog at: http://jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Young Iranian Jews get primed for politics, Isreality rocks the Avalon

Young Iranian Jews Get Primed for Politics

Election night energy was vibrant on Feb. 5 when more than 100 young Iranian Jewish professionals gathered at the Brentwood residence of the Cohanzad family to mingle and watch the 2008 primary election results. Community leaders in attendance — including California State Assembly member Michael Feuer (D-West L.A.); Department of Water and Power General Manager H. David Nahai; and Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation — urged the financially successful young Jews to vote and serve in public office.

The newly formed nonprofit, Thirty Years After, which organized the event, said their objective was to engage Iranian Jewish professionals in the political process and social activism. “We couldn’t be happier with the turnout, energy and overall enthusiasm that everyone showed at the event,” said Sam Yebri, the group’s 26-year-old director. “As a community, we showed for the first time that we can come together and become active on certain political issues.”

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Israelity Brings Jewish Talent to Avalon

No Isreality video from L.A., so enjoy this Bay Area video

Israeli hip hop star Subliminal and his cadre of rap artists, known as the T.A.C.T. Family, exploded onto the stage at Hollywood’s Avalon nightclub on Saturday. The headliners of the Taglit-Birthright Israel’s Israelity Tour had the crowd of 700 enthusiastically dancing and singing along for more than an hour. Subliminal (aka Kobi Shimoni) and the seven-member T.A.C.T. (Tel Aviv City Team) crew performed about 30 tracks and several new mega-mixes prepared especially for Israelity, said tour manager Lindsay Litowitz.

Up-and-coming folk singer Michelle Citrin opened the show, followed by funk-hip hop fusion band Coolooloosh.

Subliminal, who is widely credited for introducing Israelis to hip hop, is often criticized in the international media as radically right wing for his bold pro-Israel lyrics. The 20-something crowd reacted to his performance by pumping fists into the air, waving arms and bouncing along to the beats.

SHI 360, a member of the T.A.C.T. Family and a Birthright alumnus, received a similarly boisterous reaction to his song, “Home,” which is the official song of Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The concert, pulsating with energy and incredible talent, proved a moving display of Jewish pride and support for Israel.

— Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer

Rieff Swims in a Sea of Mourning

David Rieff, Susan Sontag
Past the long pathways and towering corridors of downtown’s Central Library, a set of old-school intelligentsia flowed into the Mark Taper Auditorium on Feb. 5 to hear David Rieff pontificate about his mother, Susan Sontag. Fans of the New York intellectual, dressed casual-cool in denim and suede, many of them accessorized with a Sontag trademark — a chunk of silvery-hair silhouetting the dark — demonstrated their devotion to the late literary figure by flocking to hear about her passing, which her son tragically recounts in a new memoir, “Swimming in a Sea of Death.”

Moderator and Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten said Rieff would not read because it was too painful. Instead, he discussed how Sontag’s refusal to accept death left him unable to say goodbye. Despite being diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia that claims the lives of most of its affected, Sontag possessed an almost diabolical unwillingness to confront her own mortality. However, Rieff insisted she was not in denial, “She really believed she would survive.”

Listening to Rieff recount his experience as her “cheerleader” revealed a writer bereft.

Rieff, an erudite intellectual, suddenly became his mother’s vulnerable, grieving son: “She died in inches, horribly, but she left as if she died in a plane crash … with no instructions.”

Without the resources of faith or religion, they both lacked tools for dealing with her death and, Rieff said, “She died unreconciled.”

The question hanging over the evening was how a woman of uncommon intelligence, who staked her life on the pursuit of truth, refused to accept glaring certitudes about her fate. In an almost primitive defiance, Sontag chose life. Although she wasn’t religious, her instincts were Jewish ones.

This being Los Angeles . . .

Last Thursday night at LACMA, I was treated to a reading of my own works by the very talented and beautiful actress Bahar Soumekh, and by UC Irvine professor
Nasrin Rahimieh. Outside the Bing Theater, rain poured in sheets, and traffic on Wilshire was at a standstill because all the lights had been blown out by the wind and — this being Los Angeles where even the mildest winter storm is dealt with like Armageddon — I was rather astonished that anyone had shown up at all.

This being Los Angeles, I was also glad to see that the audience was not a segregated one: There were nearly equal numbers of Iranians and Americans, of Jews, Muslims and Christians. This should not be unusual in a multiethnic city like Los Angeles, but as my friend Chris Abani says, Los Angeles is, in some ways, a third-world country; we have people of different religions and ethnicities, but they don’t mix — not really — and where different segments do live in close quarters, like in East Los Angeles, civil war breaks out.

Things are more civilized on the Westside, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re as integrated as one might hope. For a while there, we had, if not a civil war, perhaps a cold war of sorts on the Westside as well, what with all the talk of how the Iranians have taken over Beverly Hills and Brentwood like it was their fatherland they had come back to reclaim; driving up real estate prices and building houses with too many Roman columns in front. I have a feeling the worst of that’s behind us — that the Iranians are going to stop building Persian Palaces in Beverly Hills and the Americans have realized that, 30 years and two generations later, Iranian immigrants and their children have given as much to this country as they have taken. They are loyal, dedicated citizens who want to make this country proud, and most of them — not me, mind you, or my family — are actually hard-core Republicans who voted for G.W. Bush in 2004 and will probably vote for Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.

At LACMA, many questions from the audience had to do with the issue of identity: how we, Iranian Jews who have lived in this country for three decades, view ourselves, and how the rest of the world views us. Are we Iranians first? Jews first? Americans first and everything else second? Do we feel integrated enough in the larger community? Do we interact much with our American neighbors and with Iranian Muslims?

I don’t know how I, or any other Iranian of my generation, can decide what we are. I think we’re a lot of everything — Jewish, American, Iranian — and that we’re used to this state of affairs, are rather comfortable with our mixed identities. But I do know that we don’t interact nearly enough with either American Jews or Iranian Muslims, or with pretty much anyone from any other ethnic or religious background, and that this — our isolationism — has as much to do with how we view ourselves, as it has to do with how the world views us.

Perhaps we are this way because of our history of living as a minority in a Muslim country that was not always tolerant of Jews; or because we now live in a city where not every American we run into is thrilled to have us here, and they resist accepting us in 1,000 subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid of integrating and losing our identity altogether, or because, as I speculated the other night, we just have too many relatives and are too busy befriending and socializing with them to reach out or be open to others. Whatever the cause, it’s true that, as our community has grown in size, it has also remained rather self-contained; that we socialize with and befriend mostly each other; that some of our American neighbors haven’t exactly thrown their doors and their hearts open; and that some Iranian Jews have been too busy socializing with other Iranian Jews to notice.

“So what?” you say. What’s the difference who your friend is or whom you marry as long as everyone’s happy and thriving? And you’re right. The system may be broken in East Los Angeles, but it’s working well enough on the Westside. Still, there’s something delightful and liberating about making an intellectual or an emotional connection with the unfamiliar and the out of the ordinary. Something very enriching happens when people of different backgrounds discover points of common interest; when the odd and the bizarre become unusual and, therefore, fascinating. It would be a loss to all of us if we continue to waste the opportunity to expand our horizons and learn from each other.

Toward the end of the evening at LACMA, a middle-aged American woman came to the microphone and said: “Until tonight, I used to think that only my mother and other Ashkenazi mothers behaved in strange ways with their children. I feel much better now, because I just realized that mothers are strange in the Middle East, as well.”

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 Jewish Journal.

French philanthropist aid to Iranians comes full circle

Philanthropist Hubert Leven, a French Ashkenazi Jew who recently visited Los Angeles, has ties to the close-knit Iranian Jewish community that go back four generations.

More than 100 years ago, the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a nonprofit educational organization his great-grandfather, Narcisse, helped establish with six other French Jews, provided schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. The educational opportunities AIU made available to the thousands of Jews in Iran between 1898 and 1979 forever changed their lives.

The generosity Leven’s ancestor extended to Iranian Jews came full circle when Leven visited Los Angeles this month, seeking financial support from Los Angeles Iranian Jews for his family’s new nonprofit organization in Israel, the Sacta-Rashi Foundation.

“I find it important, as well as natural, for French Jews to have helped Iranian Jews a century and a half ago, as it would be for Iranian Jews to help Russian or Ethiopian Jews,” Leven said in an interview. “Jews have always survived because of this solidarity.”

Leven, the retired head of a brokerage firm, lives in Paris and now devotes himself full time to his foundation, which offers hands-on educational, health and social welfare programs to benefit Israelis, one-third of whom currently live below the poverty line.

“Due to a lack of educational opportunities, there are still many youngsters who are still not able to integrate and become productive Israeli citizens,” Leven said. “It is only natural for those who benefited from the Alliance two or three generations ago to support the same organization, which is still fighting to save those who are at the bottom of the socioeducational ladder.”

For their part, local Iranian Jews were enthusiastic about supporting Leven’s organization, because of the special ties and nostalgia they felt toward the AIU for helping lift them out of their ghettos in Iran.

“If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today,” said Elias Eshaghian, a former AIU school graduate in Iran and current chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.

According to a 1996 book by Iranian Jewish AIU graduates living in the United States, the organization established both boys and girls schools in 11 different — and often remote — cities throughout Iran. Thousands of Jewish children attending AIU schools in Iran were given uniforms, food, inoculations and moral support.

“The schoolteachers of Alliance were not only teachers, but they were saviors, because they gave pride and dignity to Jews,” said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, professor of Judeo-Persian history at UCLA. “The school also protected them from any maltreatment they encountered from the Muslim population.”

Eshaghian, now in his 70s, trained as a French language teacher at the AIU in Paris and returned to Iran, where he taught French, as well as serving as the school’s director in Tehran and other cities.

“I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools — many of those children today in the U.S. are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community,” Eshaghian said.

Among the graduates of AIU schools in Iran is diabetologist Dr. Samuel Rahbar, who works as a research fellow in the department of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. Now in his late 70s, Rahbar is credited with many scientific breakthroughs in treating diabetes.

“Who knows what my life would have been like if I had not attended the Alliance school,” Rahbar said. “The school had a major impact on my life, since I learned French there that was very helpful to me when I entered medical school. And I later became the first Jewish professor at the medical school in Tehran University.”

Eshaghian said that while a number of Iranian Jews in New York and Southern California have long forgotten the aid of AIU, others feel a great deal of gratitude to the organization and are therefore willing to support Leven’s new foundation.

The Merage Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Southern California and Denver, headed by the Iranian Jewish Merage family, has donated to Leven’s foundation and helped him forge new ties with the local Iranian Jewish community.elias eshaghian
Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.Photo courtesy of Elias Eshaghian

Hebrew course piques Iranian Jews’ interest

“You teach me Persian, and I’ll teach you Hebrew,” quipped Rabbi Hillel Benchimol to the crowd.Nearly 150 Iranian Jews of various ages had gathered at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Oct. 29 for the third session of a free five-week crash course in Hebrew.

Also known as “Read Hebrew America,” the course has been picked up by nearly 700 synagogues in North America during last 10 years through the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a nonprofit organization based in New York. The objective is to promote Hebrew learning among American and Canadian Jews who have lost touch with their Jewish identities.

While this is the first year Nessah has participated in the program, its leaders said the free Hebrew course has attracted more than 600 local Iranian Jews to its first three sessions.

“I was really amazed that so many people from this community really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol, who has been teaching the 90-minute classes on Monday nights since Oct. 15. “You don’t typically see this large of a turnout for Hebrew classes from the Ashkenazim.”

Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the NJOP said her organization was “extremely pleased with the large response” they have received at Nessah. On average, roughly 20 to 80 people attend the “Read Hebrew America” courses in the United States.

Surprisingly, the majority of individuals in attendance for the classes at Nessah were between the ages of 50 and 70. They said they wanted to learn Hebrew because they had been unable to do so previously, due to the difficulties of trying to re-establish themselves in America during the last 25 years.

“I like how people of all ages from our community are here and wanting to learn Hebrew,” said Eliza Ghanooni, a 20-something resident of Beverly Hills. “I think Persian Jews are generally more traditional and have a stronger connection to Judaism.”

A small contingency of younger Iranian Jews were also in attendance and said they had come because they want to speak Hebrew fluently.

While the Nessah class was often sidetracked by individual questions and comments, Benchimol kept the group’s interest by making the group laugh at his witty comments and his efforts to pronounce odd Persian-language words.

“When you’re learning Hebrew, you’ve got to have fun with it, and we’re trying to keep it a light-hearted environment so people will want to come back,” Benchimol said.

A number of non-Iranian Jews visiting Nessah said they were impressed with the excitement Iranian Jews had exhibited in the Hebrew class, and as a result would continue to take the classes at Nessah.

“I’m here to improve my Hebrew because my bar mitzvah is coming up soon, and I want to be able to read from the Torah better,” said Yuji Hasegawa, of West Hollywood, who recently converted to Judaism. “Iranians are loud, but it’s good to see so many of them interested in learning Hebrew.”

Benchimol said after the remaining two sessions of the Hebrew classes are completed, Nessah plans to offer more advanced Hebrew language classes to adults in the coming months.

For more information on the “Read Hebrew America” courses offered at Nessah, call (310) 273-2400 or visit visit http://www.nessah.org

Kidnapped Iranian Jew’s family finds closure

On a spring morning in 1980, following the turbulent Islamic revolution in Iran, Isaac Lahijani, an affluent Jewish architect and real estate developer, said goodbye to his wife, Farzaneh, and his children, and left his home in Tehran for another routine day at work.

Soon after, he was kidnapped and held for ransom by unknown armed thugs of the newly-formed Iranian government.

For 26 years there was no word of Lahijani’s fate. His wife and three children say they wept for weeks and months, unable to hold a memorial for him because they had no information about his whereabouts. The Lahijani family continued living in grief until this September, when Farzaneh Lahijani was finally given an official letter from the Iranian government telling her of her husband’s death.

“After agonizing searching and denials from the Iranian authorities telling my mother to go and come for 26 years, she found out from a two-sentence letter that they indeed have killed my father and that they want to pay restitution for his blood,” said Kaveh Lahijani, the 45-year-old son of Isaac Lahijani.

The timing of the letter’s arrival was indeed unique for Kaveh Lahijani, who is a member of the Laguna Beach Chabad and had long been planning to dedicate a new Torah to the synagogue in memory of his father.

“In Judaism, you cannot do anything in memory of someone when you don’t know if they are alive or not,” Laguna Beach Chabad Rabbi Eli Goorevitch explained. “So the letter from Iran was perfect timing for us because Kaveh wanted to keep his father’s memory alive with this Torah dedication.”

Lahijani said he had planned the dedication for the past year, but was unable to locate an appropriate time to do so because of schedule conflicts. As it turned out, the only time available — Sept. 9 — was Isaac Lahijani’s birthday.

“The fact that we dedicated the Torah on his birthday when we couldn’t have done it on any other day was a sign for me that he was with us and supporting us,” said Lahijani, a Laguna Beach resident. “It was just one of many amazing things that have happened where I know my father is with me.”

Kaveh Lahijani and other members of his family said they were uncomfortable with sharing the exact details of Isaac Lahijani’s kidnapping, because of the years of suffering they have had to endure. However, Kaveh Lahijani said shortly after the kidnapping occurred, his family received a ransom note and a tape recording of his father’s voice asking for the ransom to be paid.

“We paid the ransom but never saw him. Instead we got another letter demanding that we pay more in ransom,” he said. “Then my mother received news that my father was being held in Evin Prison, but she was not permitted to visit him. Since then we have not received any information from the government about my father — until now.”

Evin Prison is a maximum-security facility allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, said Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist.

Last September, Iranian Jewish families in the United States and Israel filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court over the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of 12 Iranian Jews who sought to escape Iran between 1994 and 1997. Iranian government officials have repeatedly denied holding these missing Iranian Jews in custody and claim they were killed by border smugglers while trying to flee the country.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, the Jewish community still in Iran lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

Kaveh Lahijani said that while he and his siblings are content with having closure regarding the fate of their father, his mother, who resides in Iran, has refused to accept the government’s explanation and will press on with her own investigation.

Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

Iranian couples trapped by six-figure party dilemma

Sam Cohan recently completed his residency. As he looked for a job locally, his student loans weighed on him. The 30-something Iranian Jew had grown up middle class in the Valley and had to take out the loans to pay for his education at a prestigious medical school.

With no immediate prospect for income, he found himself caught between feelings of frustration and guilt as his fiancée, her parents and his parents pressured him into a wedding he couldn’t afford.

Cohan didn’t want to break with Iranian tradition or disappoint either family, so he borrowed nearly $100,000 to cover the wedding expenses.

“I felt trapped with the whole situation and wanted to call everything off, but I decided to take the loan in the end because my wife agreed that we’d both work and pay it off little by little,” said Cohan, who asked that The Journal not reveal his real name.

Cohan is one of a growing number of young Iranian Jewish professionals who, due to family pressure, are incurring large debts to pay for lavish weddings.

Somewhere between keeping Iranian hospitality traditions and one-upping displays of wealth, a growing number of Iranian Jewish families today are inviting upward of 500 guests to weddings, with budgets in the six-figure range — typically from $150,000 to $300,000.

The strain of such expectations has led to infighting between families over who should cover the cost. Young professionals are also postponing marriage plans or opting instead for a destination wedding to avoid the financial pressures of holding the event in Los Angeles.

Most local Iranian Jews acknowledge the situation, but few in the community are willing to advocate for change. Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, associate rabbi of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, wants a greater dialogue on the issue.

“The problem is we are taking out the spiritual and emotional aspect of the marriage and instead it’s become a business with all the unnecessary spending,” Benchimol said. “People forget the spirit of the wedding — all you need is love, and everything else falls into place.”

Some young Iranian Jewish newlyweds say that while they did not necessarily want a large wedding, they feel pressure from their parents and extended family to put on a more lavish affair. Their parents, they say, feel an obligation to invite people whose parties they have attended.

“Persians have much more of a tight-knit community, and it’s very respect oriented — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leads to 300- to 400-person weddings,” said Ario Fakheri, who was married last year. “People get upset if you don’t invite their kids or grandmothers, they look at it as disrespecting them — there are so many ways to disrespect them.”

Fakheri said that while he and his fiancee invited almost 600 people to their wedding due to family pressure, many of his friends in the community are opting to have destination weddings.

“You can tell how bad they don’t want people to come to their wedding by how far away they go,” Fakheri said. “It’s basically code for how bad you want to have a normal wedding.”

Iranian Jewish religious leaders said the cost has resulted in several weddings being called off and some couples divorcing within a few months of getting married. There’s also concern that local Iranian Jews will marry outside of the community or outside of the faith in order to escape the mounting six-figure wedding pressure.

Community activists trace the growing trend back two or three years ago when local Iranian Jews began inviting 100 to 200 guests for their children’s bale boroon parties.

The bale boroon is a traditional Iranian courtship gathering prior to the engagement, during which a dozen members from the male suitor’s family visits with a small contingent from the woman’s family. During the gathering both families acknowledge the upcoming union and offer a small gift to one another.Asher Aramnia
“Today, when they have these large parties for the bale boroon, they must then top that with something bigger for the engagement party, and as a result the wedding must be an even bigger extravaganza than the other parties,” said Asher Aramnia, events director for the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana (photo).

Aramnia, who also volunteers as a Jewish matchmaker, said the recent trend of expensive weddings were not the norm in Iran.

“In Iran we didn’t even have catering. The family members cooked the food or those who were well-off hired one private cook,” he said. “Here I’ve been to a wedding where the groom bought the bride a cherry-red BMW and put it on display at the entrance of the hotel for all the guests to see.”

Aramnia said at another wedding he witnessed a diamond-encrusted tiara being lowered from the ceiling onto the bride’s head.

Venus Safaie, a local Iranian wedding planner with 85 percent of her clients hailing from an Iranian Jewish background, said the highest costs for most weddings she helps organize come from securing a venue at a hotel and finding Persian-language singers, who charge $8,000 to $15,000 for two or three hours of entertainment.

“Well, you have to realize that these Persian singers charge more because the cost of living has gone up, and there are not that many of them around, so they can ask whatever price they want,” Safaie said. “Also people agree to pay them these high prices, so you can’t blame the singers.”

Dara Abaei, head of the L.A. nonprofit Jewish Unity Network, said his organization has been urging families to have smaller weddings. The group has also negotiated with certain vendors to give reduced fees to couples struggling to pay for their weddings.

“We’re trying to break the cycle in the community, to get them to not have engagement parties or get smaller engagement parties and try to share the cost of wedding,” he said.

Abaei said couples can save between $7,000 to $15,000 if they hold their weddings at the banquet halls of Iranian American Jewish Federation’s synagogue in West Hollywood, the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana.

Nessah reaches out to young Iranian professionals

Like other Jews in Los Angeles, Iranian Jews have a wide range of Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues of different denominations to choose from for High Holy Days services. This year, Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills hopes to attract a sizeable portion of the Iranian Jewish community who value the traditional form of Judaism practiced in Iran.

In particular, Nessah’s leadership is aiming for the many professional Iranian Jews in their 20s and 30s by offering English-language services conducted by Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who was recently hired as a full-time associate rabbi.

“This synagogue is not Ashkenazi or black hat Chasidic, but with Sephardic roots that are much deeper,” Benchimol said. “We are trying to offer a genuine rebirth of Iranian Judaism that has been watered down in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles over the years.”

Benchimol, while not Iranian, was raised with a Sephardic background in the British territory of Gibraltar. For six years he was the head rabbi at Kahal Joseph, a West L.A. Iraqi shul. Benchimol left Kahal Joseph and spent two years in Europe before he returned to Los Angeles in June to begin working at Nessah.

Nessah board members said young Iranian Jewish professionals who are not necessarily religious have increasingly begun attending the synagogue’s separate English-language Shabbat services because of Benchimol. They find they can relate to the rabbi because he understands the secular world; in fact, he left Judaism for a while as a young man.

“What they love about Rabbi Benchimol is that he relates to them on a one-on one-basis and engages them in an interactive dialogue during services, rather than preaching to them through a sermon,” Nessah board member Simon Etehad said.

Since Nessah’s 2002 move to its Beverly Hills location, the synagogue has designated a separate banquet hall for worship services for young members who are more Americanized than their parents. During the last several years, Nessah has increasingly turned its focus and funds toward the younger generation, including many who had joined Ashkenazi synagogues or even lost interest in Judaism altogether because they do not understand Persian-language services or old-world customs.

Nessah also will target younger people through a lecture series during High Holy Day services. This year the lineup of “hip” Jewish scholars includes Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, host of The Learning Channel’s “Shalom in the Home,” and Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of the popular “Idiot’s Guide” books on Judaism.

“All of our energies will and need to, go to the younger generation, because they are our future asset,” Nessah President, Morgan Hakimi said.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the younger generation have long been important to the Iranian Jews, as the religious gatherings are ideal for singles to meet one another and find their spouses.

Nessah made history five years ago when it became the first Iranian synagogue in the world to embrace congregational membership. For centuries, Iranian Jews have followed the tradition of raising funds for religious activities by auctioning off the privilege of participating in aliyot and other rituals during Shabbat and holiday services. Today, that practice has been phased out at Nessah, and congregants now call in their donations beforehand to receive aliyot and participate in services.

“The beauty of Nessah is that we are trying to transfer 2,500 years of our true tradition and at the same time trying to create a sense of belonging in the community for the new generation through membership,” Hakimi said.

The decision to end bidding on aliyot at Nessah was also based on the new reality that successful young Iranian Jewish professionals do not wish to publicly announce their donations, Hakimi said, whereas in Iran such open announcements were once a source of pride for donors.

“It [the question of bidding on aliyot] has made a lot of people in the older generation uncomfortable because it was a part of our long tradition,” Hakimi said. “But at Nessah we are keeping parts of our traditions that are important and inherent, while letting the others go.”

Even though over the years some local Iranian Jews have accused Nessah of catering only to the wealthy in the community, young professionals are finding the synagogue’s membership fees fairly reasonable. Annual dues are $100 for singles between the ages of 18 and 35 and include the separate English-language High Holy Days services. Couples between the ages of 18 and 35 must pay $200 for their annual membership and High Holy Day services.

Despite Nessah’s membership program, a substantial number of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles remain resistant to paying membership at any synagogue, instead choosing to pay one-time flat fees to attend traditional Persian-language services held at various hotels and movie theatres for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Briefs: Museum of Holocaust names new director, Iranians fast for accident victims

Museum of Holocaust names new director

Rachel Jagoda Lithgow, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust executive director, announced last week that she will step down from the post she’s held for five years in advance of a move to Chicago. Mark Rothman, Holocaust services advocate at Bet Tzedek, will take over the position in April.

Jagoda brought the museum back from the brink of bankruptcy and focused on programming that didn’t deal exclusively with Jews. She staged exhibitions on the Cambodian genocide, the persecution of homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust and concluded her tenure with a screening of “Beyond the Gates,” a new film about the 1994 Rwandan massacre.

Rothman, a USC film graduate, produced documentaries and conducted numerous interviews with Holocaust survivors for the Shoah Visual History Foundation.Rothman said he will continue Jagoda’s efforts to establish a permanent home for the museum in Pan-Pacific Park.

“We’re very close to receiving a building permit,” he said, adding that his primary tasks in the foreseeable future will be to “raise money to build the museum, oversee the construction and maintain the current museum as a culturally and artistically significant institution.”

— Robert David Jaffee, Contributing Writer

Iranians fast for accident victims

More than a dozen Iranian rabbis in Los Angeles and New York released a joint statement earlier this month that declared March 19 a day of communitywide fasting among Iranian Jews living in both cities.

Individuals working at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills said the rabbis established the day of fasting and prayer after two young L.A. Iranian Jews died in recent accidents and after three young New York Iranian Jews were killed in a house fire. Community volunteers said fasting among Iranian Jews is a long-held tradition dating back to the story of Purim.

“During difficult times, they ask for mercy and salvation from God through fasting and prayer,” said George Haroonian, an Iranian Jewish activist. Those who participated in the communitywide fast were asked to recite Tehilim and refrain from speaking in places where the fast was observed.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Interfaith bill performs at “FaithJam”

An interfaith collaboration of music groups and comedians took to the stage for “FaithJam 2007” at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo on March 8. The event, part of the weeklong cultural festival, Let My People Sing, celebrated the diversity of faith through music and comedy.Muslim comedian Maz Jobrani and Jewish comedian Eric Schwartz co-hosted the event, which featured several musical groups celebrating a wide range of cultures.

Acts included On Ensemble, which infuses rock, jazz and folk music with taiko drumming; Israeli rock band MisFlag; Pakistani rock sensation Junoon, fronted by peace advocate Salman Ahmad; and the high-spirited, enthusiastic gospel of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church Chorale.

Proceeds from the event benefited Jewish World Watch, a coalition of 50 synagogues working to combat genocide.

Before the finale, event producer Craig Taubman united the acts on stage and broke bread with them.

“If you have no food, you have no Torah, and if you have no Torah you have no food…. This is Torah,” he said.

— Jay Firestone, Contributing Writer

Aliyah group reserves El Al flights

Nefesh B’Nefesh, the U.S. organization that helps North American and European Jews streamline the process of aliyah, has launched a new program aimed at reserving specific sections on El Al flights each month, rather than relying on less-frequent chartered flights.

The first group of olim (immigrants) to take advantage of the program arrived in Israel from the United States on March 14.

“Making Aliyah as part of a group is more emotionally supportive and uplifting…. We wanted to enable olim arriving throughout the year to have that same experience, in addition to the reduced bureaucracy,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder and executive director.

For more information, visit nbn.org.il.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Three Iranian Jews run for seats on Beverly Hills City Council

Beverly Hills voters head to the polls on March 6 to fill two vacant City Council seats, and among the six contenders vying for the spots are three Iranian Jews.

The candidates, incumbent Beverly Hills Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad, business consultant Shahram Melamed and attorney Maggie Soleimani, have been stumping for votes in the Iranian community since last summer. It’s estimated that 20 percent to 25 percent of Beverly Hills residents are Iranian, many of them Jewish.

Nearly three decades after arriving in Southern California and adjusting to a new way of life, some successful Iranian Jews are venturing into the political arena. That half of candidates on the ballot for the Beverly Hills City Council races are from the Iranian Jewish community speaks to a shift among immigrants who were historically denied political participation in their native country.

“This community [Iranian Jews] truly appreciates the freedoms granted to it by the United States, and it sincerely wishes to pay back for what it has received,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. “I have no doubt that in this area, too, members of our community will prove to be worthy citizens who can contribute to their environment in the most positive way.”Jimmy DelshadDelshad is perhaps the best known of the three candidates. His successful grass-roots campaign in 2003 energized Beverly Hills’ Iranian Jews and catapulted him into office, making Delshad the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States.

(Businessman Joe Sushani was the first Iranian Jew to run for the Beverly Hills City Council in 1996, but was unsuccessful in his bid.)

Prior to his term with the Beverly Hills City Council, Delshad served as the full-time president of Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles from 1999 to 2001 after selling a computer storage technology firm he founded in 1978.

If elected to a second term, Delshad said he wants to implement an initiative to bring a new digital infrastructure to Beverly Hills after seeing the successes of similar technology put into place in the Israeli city of Ariel.

The vice mayor is now hoping to tap the same voters who elected him in 2003, but this time he has to compete with candidates from his own community.

“It’s a misnomer that I’m going to lose some votes,” Delshad said. “Actually I’m going to get more votes from them because I was singularly trying to get the community to vote before, and now I have two other people trying to get the community to vote.”Shahram MelamedOne of the candidates wooing Iranian Jewish voters is Melamed, whose role as a Beverly Hills City planning commissioner has put him in the middle of often controversial development projects.

“As a planning commissioner my hands are tied. I’m only allowed to look at land use, so here I am trying to help the community but I can only use part of my skills,” Melamed said. “Some of my best skills are from my business background, education in finance and my training on Wall Street that is left unused, so I’m hoping to put it to use on the Council.”

Between 2000 and 2004, Melamed also served on the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission. In 1998, Melamed’s mother, Soraya, also made an unsuccessful run for a spot on the Beverly Hills School Board.

Melamed said he is looking to help both Iranian and non-Iranian city residents find common ground on various divisive issues, such as the construction of “Persian palaces,” a local pejorative term for mansions built in a Mediterranean revival or Middle Eastern style on small parcels of land.

“I have explained to many that our families are extended. That when we get together for small family gatherings, with 40 and 50 people in a living room, you need a more spacious one and a higher ceiling so that the noise doesn’t bother you,” said Melamed, who is a fourth cousin to this reporter. “Through dialogue we have to find common ground that satisfies both segments of the community. From talking to architects, I understand there are styles out there that can maintain the integrity of the City of Beverly Hills and at the same time address the needs of an Iranian American family.”Maggie SoleimaniAttorney Soleimani is taking a more conservative approach to the development issue. Positioning herself as a political outsider, Soleimani is appealing to voters frustrated with city officials who have approved numerous development projects around Beverly Hills.

“I have not been a part of the nasty and angry battles of the past,” Soleimani said. “I want to be a voice of unity, professionalism, healing the community and ending the division that has occurred over every single development project.”

Soleimani said one of the reasons she decided to run for City Council was to bring a stronger ethics ordinance prohibiting council members from appearing as lobbyists on behalf of real estate developers.

Current city codes forbid former council members from serving as lobbyists for one year after they leave office.

“I think it should be at least two years and I personally promise not to ever represent anyone as a client who has their case come before the council, if I am elected,” said Soleimani, who could become the first Iranian Jewish woman elected to political office in the United States.

Beverly Hills Mayor Steve Webb, Planning Commissioner Nancy Krasne and Lizza Monet Morales are the three other candidates running for the Beverly Hills City Council.

Proof of the Iranian Jewish community’s growing political muscle came in March 2005, when Beverly Hills Iranian Jews were able to cast ballots featuring Persian-language directions in Beverly Hills elections. They also received help from poll volunteers who also spoke Persian, Delshad said.

“Persians are beginning to realize that they can wield influence by participating in political life,” said H. David Nahai, a Century City attorney and political activist. “Many are also beginning to see that there is a unique sense of fulfillment in public service which private gain can never equal.”

Iran’s Jewish legislator criticized during L.A. appearance

A group of local Iranian Jewish activists spoke out in protest of the Dec. 4 appearance of Maurice Motamed, the only Jewish representative to the Iranian parliament, at the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) synagogue in West Hollywood, where he provided an update on the current status of Iran’s Jewry.

Motamed’s address to an audience of nearly 150 mostly older Iranian Jews painted a positive picture of the lives of Jews in Iran. He described them as generally financially well off and said they are allowed to practice their religion without being harassed. Evidence of this, he said, can be seen in the fact that a new Jewish community center is planned in Teheran on a land recently purchased for $5 million.

However, Motamed’s speech sparked sharp criticism from the Council of Iranian Jews, a small Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish group whose leadership said welcoming a member of Iran’s current regime provided a forum for the repressive government.

“Our community members clearly know he [Motamed] is acting on the orders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said George Haroonian, an activist with the Council of Iranian Jews. “He represents a regime that every day calls for the destruction of Israel, denies the Holocaust as a state policy and is the biggest financial and practical support of groups whose main goal is the murder of Jewish people.”

Motamed dismissed those opposing his presence at the IAJF synagogue and, without naming names, accused them of attacking his character in order to advance their own personal agendas.

“Unfortunately those who say these things approached me three years ago and wanted information about the internal affairs of Iran,” Motamed said in an interview with The Journal. “And since I have not given it to them, they have a personal opposition and vengeance against me.”

Four IAJF board members attended, and Nessah Cultural Center’s Rabbi David Shofet appeared briefly, but no other prominent local Iranian Jewish leaders were present at the event.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and local expert on the treatment of minorities in Iran, claims Motamed’s statements about Jewish life in Iran lack credibility. Motamed “has officially sworn to uphold the interests of Islam and the Islamic Republic upon entering the Islamic Assembly as the Jewish representative, as required by the government’s constitution,” Nikbakht said.

Nikbakht questioned Motamed’s allegiances based on a 24-page Persian-language report authored and distributed by Motamed at an event held at the Nessah Cultural Center during a visit to Los Angeles in 2002. In the report, Motamed outlined his activities as a member of the Energy Committee in the Iranian Parliament as well as his travels to Russia, where he urged Russian companies and officials to complete Iran’s nuclear reactor at the Bushehr location.

IAJF leaders defended Motamed’s current visit as well as his efforts to protect Jews living under Iran’s fundamentalist regime.

“He is in a very sensitive position and is walking a tight rope in trying to keep our community there safe and sound,” said Solomon Rastegar, vice-chair of the IAJF. “There are people here in Los Angeles with insufficient knowledge about life in Iran who try to attack him so they can gain credible for themselves.”

Some local Iranian Jewish activists have been had odds with IAJF leaders who have long advocated keeping criticism of Teheran’s regime to a minimum for fear of retributions that might be brought against the roughly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.

During the question-and-answer segment of the event, Motamed defended his record as a Jewish advocate saying he had spoken out against comments made earlier this year by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denied the existence of the Holocaust. Motamed also said he has been trying to resolve the case of 12 missing Iranian Jews who tried to flee Iran nearly 12 years ago.

Motamed had been slated to speak at the Museum of Tolerance on Oct. 10 during a seminar on the future security of Jews living in Iran. The event was hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization (IJWO), but Motamed cancelled his appearance at the last minute citing scheduling difficulties.

During his speech at IAJF, Motamed denied accusations that his invitation to the Museum of Tolerance event had been withdrawn, and he claimed to have the full support and confidence of Iranian Jews worldwide.

“What is important to me is that I feel the support of the 20,000 Jews in Iran and the Iranian Jewish community outside Iran,” Motamed said. “Therefore everything else that is said is unimportant to me.”

Iranian Jewish mentors reach out to youth

A recent gathering at a home in the San Fernando Valley brought together more than 40 Iranian Jews to discuss issues of mentorship. However, this informational meeting wasn’t about matching up Baby Boomers with Gen X-ers to discuss long-term career strategies.Instead, it was focused on finding adults who would be willing to reach out to young Jews from mostly single-parent homes.

Volunteers from Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) organized the meeting as a special effort to find mentors from within the local Iranian Jewish community. The event, which successfully recruited 12 new mentors, reflects a growing trend among younger Iranian American Jews. As this generation turns its attention to charitable causes, they are increasingly breaking outside of Iranian Jewry’s insular circles to take a more active role within the greater L.A. Jewish community.

“There are many young successful Persian Jews that are eager to help,” said Eman Esmailzadeh a 24-year-old Jewish Big Brother and JBBBSLA liaison to the Iranian Jewish community. “This would offer an avenue for them to give back to the community by giving their time and not just their money.”

Esmailzadeh said he was motivated to connect JBBBSLA with Iranian Jewish groups, such as the Jewish Unity Network and the Hebrew Discovery Center, in order to break the community’s long-running taboo of not seeking help from the larger Jewish community.

“Those that might be reluctant to otherwise ask for help will hopefully do so with the support of community and religious leaders when they realize the importance of having a positive mentor in a child’s life,” he said.

Community activists now collaborating with the JBBBSLA said they welcomed the group’s mentoring program because of the dramatic need for adult role models for many children from Iranian Jewish families.

“We need good mentors because we have a lot of single parents, parents who both work too many hours, and some parents where there is a generation gap and cannot connect with their kids that are Americanized,” said Dara Abaei, head of the Jewish Unity Network.

One young Iranian Jew who has benefited from the JBBBSLA’s program is Eva P., a 17-year-old Los Angeles resident. Her mother died several years ago, her father and siblings live in Israel and she lives with her elderly grandfather. Eva, who asked that her last name be withheld, said her life has been transformed after being paired up with a Jewish female mentor.

“I was very skeptical at first when I started with my Big Sister,” Eva said. “But now I don’t consider her just a part of the program, I consider her my parent, my friend — she is and will always be my everything for the rest of my life.”

Mark Mandell, JBBBSLA’s director of community development, said his organization currently has more than a dozen Big Brothers and Big Sisters as well as Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Iranian Jewish descent. While the group has been working with individual Iranian Jews for many years, he said it has only now been able to effectively reach the Iranian Jewish community because of their mentors who are educating their friends and family about JBBBSLA’s programs.

“We have found that the Iranian Jews that have or are in the process of becoming ‘bigs’ are wonderful caring people that have a genuine desire to positively impact children’s lives,” Mandell said. “They always rise to the action when asked to help with the various agency programs or events.”

Big Brothers who spoke with The Journal said their lives have changed as a result of mentoring and that they were surprised the small amount of time spent with their mentees made such a substantial impact on the children.

“I think that a lot of people are afraid that by mentoring they are going to take on a major commitment, but it’s not as intrusive as they think it is,” said Paul Soroudi, an Iranian Jew who has served as a Big Brother for the last 12 years. “To me it’s very sweet when you see the little things that the kids do to show their appreciation for hanging out with them.”

Mandell said that JBBBSLA is in need of more adult mentors and the organization’s volunteers will continue to reach out to the Iranian Jewish community in order educate those who may not be aware of their program.

“We must first earn the trust and confidence of the community and make families and volunteers comfortable with what we have to offer,” Mandell said.

For more information about joining Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, call (323) 761-8675 or visit www.jbbbsla.org.

Persian voices unite in lawsuit against Khatami

In a rare display of unity, a variety of groups within the local Persian Jewish community have joined to voice support for a lawsuit filed against former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on Sept. 9 by seven Persian Jewish families in Los Angeles and Israel. The suit holds Khatami responsible for the arrests and disappearance of their loved ones more than 10 years ago.

Iran to L.A. — Hope, Hardship Mark Path


Jahangir Javaheri lived a full life in Iran as a pharmaceutical retailer, complete with a nice car, large house and the esteem and satisfaction that came with being a leader within the nation’s small but cohesive Jewish community. Yet he wanted something more for his family, especially his children, so he left behind nearly everything for the dream of going to America.

His family’s odyssey took him to Vienna for seven months and finally to Los Angeles, where he, his wife, Mahvash, and their two teenage sons have adjusted to a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. The 56-year-old immigrant and his wife are taking English lessons. And, for the first time, he’s had to rely on the kindness of friends, relations and support organizations to get by.

“It’s not been easy. People like us who have just immigrated to this country must start over with almost nothing,” said Javaheri, speaking in Persian. “We left Iran, because our entire family had left Iran, and we decided there were more opportunities for our sons here.”

For centuries, Iran was home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish populations. However, the downfall of the shah of Iran in 1979 sparked a mass exodus over the next decade. The pace has since declined, and entering the United States has become more difficult due to post-Sept. 11 immigration restrictions.

But Jews such as the Javaheri family continue to flee Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime, seeking religious freedom and better economic opportunities. More than 15,000 Jews still live in Iran, compared to an estimated 30,000 Iranian Jews residing in Southern California. About half of these are post-Revolution immigrants.

Last year, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped 225 Iranian Jews to resettle in the United States. Of those, 163 reside in Los Angeles.

The path for many led through Vienna, said Leonard Glickman, president of HIAS. His group has helped Iranian Jews obtain transit visas to Austria and complete U.S. immigration applications. The organization also provides educational and social services to Jews while they wait in Vienna for permission to enter the United States. Austria is one of the only countries that currently allows lengthy stopovers by Iranian Jews seeking ultimate haven in America.

“We feel we have been very successful in keeping the Vienna pipeline open for Jews and other Iranian religious minorities through a very challenging period for the U.S. refugee program,” Glickman said.

Still, for many on the journey, Austria proves a difficult layover.

“We were lucky enough to live with friends in Vienna and live off our savings,” said Javaheri’s wife, Mahvash. “Most Iranian Jewish families are living with four to five people in one-bedroom apartments, with little money to live off. Their children can’t go to school, and they can’t work, because of Austrian laws while they’re waiting for their visas.”

Once families reach the United States, various organizations are waiting to help, including the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. JVS has aided about 250 immigrants locate suitable work over the last four years, said Elham Yaghoubian, one of the agency’s four Persian language-speaking counselors.

“We refer them to appropriate English as a second language classes and vocational training,” Yaghoubian said. “We also train our clients in job-search techniques and provide job referrals.”

One of his success stories involves two middle-aged women who didn’t speak English. It didn’t help that their husbands did not want them to work. After developing the women’s skills and evolving the husbands’ attitudes, one woman became the manager of a retail store, while the other started a certified nurse assistant training program and works at a Jewish seniors facility.

Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the Eretz-SIAMAK Center and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition.

Sometimes, immigrants also need counseling to get through depression, said Manizheh Yomtoubian, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK Center in Tarzana. One immigrant in her 20s “was so depressed, because she didn’t have anyone here, that she wanted to return back to Iran,” Yomtoubian said.

Adults older than 35 sometimes become overly dependent on their children to communicate, Yomtoubian said, adding that the Caring Committee needs additional help finding housing and work for new arrivals.

“More than money, we need people who can give these new immigrants good-paying jobs or rent a guest house or room to them during a short period,” Yomtoubian said.

Javaheri remains optimistic about the future.

“My hope is that my children will be able to get a proper college education and have better lives here,” said Javaheri, who frequently took on the role of organizing Jewish youth gatherings in Iran. “I know that I’ll be able to find work soon, but my wish is to be able to take part in volunteer community work here, just as I’d done back in Iran.


Five Iranian Jews Remain Jailed

Three Iranian Jews imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel have been released, but the last five remain in jail, contrary to earlier reports.

Sources close to the issue said Monday that Iranian authorities had granted the last five an indefinite furlough. On Wednesday, however, those sources confirmed that the reports from Iran were "disinformation."

That’s "why we urged people not to comment on this, because it’s happened before," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The uncertain status of the five seems to underscore the precarious situation faced by the entire Jewish community in Iran. They now number between 22,000 and 25,000, down from 100,000 or so prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

After the three Jews were pardoned last week, hopes were raised among their families and American advocates that the remaining five would soon be freed.

Hoenlein said he was "still hopeful" that they would be released soon.

Both Israel and the Iranian Jewish community deny the men ever spied for "the Zionist regime," as Tehran alleges.

It’s unclear what led to the dissemination of the false reports.

Pooya Dayanim said Wednesday that sources in Iran informed the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles on Monday that the five men were home with their families.

The release was confirmed the next day by an Iranian justice official in a statement to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA.

"We now know that the information given to us [was] false. The five remaining Iranian Jews are still in prison," Dayanim said.

Asked why the sources would provide erroneous information, Dayanim said, "No comment."

The five who remain in jail are Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, sentenced to 13 years in prison; Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13 years; Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years; and Farhad Saleh, 33, who had received an eight-year sentence.

The three released last week — who reportedly were granted a pardon directly from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — were Javid Beit Yakov, 42, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison; Farzad Kashi, 32, and Shahrokh Paknahad, 24, who had received eight-year sentences.

Analysts suggested the release of the three might be due to a supposed power struggle between relative moderates in the Iranian regime who favor detente with the West and conservative clerics who have maintained a grip on power since the 1979 revolution. Analysts for months have suggested that several factors may be pressing Iran: President Bush’s lumping of Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil"; the prospect of a United States-led war against Baghdad; and the possibility that Iran may be the next target of America’s year-old war on terrorism.

It’s not only from Washington that Iran is feeling the heat. Europe, a significant economic partner, reportedly has cited Iran’s disregard for human rights and its treatment of minorities as impediments to improved relations.

According to analysts, the tension between Iranian hardliners and reformers influenced the original arrests.

Thirteen Jews were arrested in January and March 1999, but three were found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years. The men appealed, and Tehran reduced the sentences from two to nine years in September 2000. Two men already were released after serving out their terms.

Advocates for the men say that what really bothered Iranian authorities was the men’s increasingly fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism. Most of the men were religious leaders from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, a bastion of religious conservatism. The arrests were perceived as a warning to the rest of the community, and there was initial fear that the men might be executed.

In May 2000, after more than a year in solitary confinement, the 13 gave "confessions" for Iran’s Revolutionary Court.

But their advocates — and media, diplomats and human rights experts from around the world — pronounced the closed trial a fraud.