From Iran to Israel, the art of Elham Rokni
Standing inside Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice, a visitor watched the silhouettes of trees flash by on a screen. It was dark, and the shadows were barely discernible. It took a while for the visitor to realize that the images were filmed from a car driving at night.
This hypnotizing video piece, “Clavileño,” was part of a recent solo exhibition by the Israeli artist Elham Rokni. The title comes from the wooden horse Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, imagined could fly. Like the famous literary tale in which those characters appear, Rokni’s piece asked the viewer to suspend disbelief and take an imaginary journey through space and time.
Rokni continues her stay in Los Angeles as the 2016 Soraya Sarah Nazarian Middle Eastern Artist in Residence, a two-month residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Her current project involves African refugees in Israel reflecting on their dislocation.
“The project I’m working on is collecting oral folktales from them. So it actually deals with their memory from the place they came from,” she said. “It’s political because being a refugee and an immigrant is a political thing. But I’m interested in the memory regarding this displacement.”
Rokni was born in Tehran in 1980. She left Iran with her parents at the age of 9, and that refugee experience has shaped much of her creative output.
“It’s not Persian culture or heritage that I deal with,” Rokni said, but rather “immigration and dislocation and our memories about it.”
She also has work from her series “The Wedding” on view at the center through March 12. “The Wedding” is centered around a video of her parents’ wedding in 1978, the year before the Iranian revolution that gave power to a religious fundamentalist regime. Her parents and relatives struggle to remember the exact date of the wedding. She asks her father to look for the ketubah, and even once he finds it, her mother tells her the actual ceremony took place a week or so after the contract was signed.
Elham Rokni solo show at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice. Photo by Michael Underwood
The uncertainty about the wedding date seems to mirror the confusion of the historic turmoil about to sweep Iran. The film combines amateur video of her parents’ wedding with protest scenes from the 2012 film “Argo,” in which a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans during the hostage crisis in Tehran. Rokni narrates over the images, describing the confusion around the wedding date, which remains unresolved.
Also on display at the 18th Street Arts Center is a series of drawings of guests from her parents’ wedding. The figures lack outlines, making them appear to melt into the white space around them. Their outfits are colorful and richly patterned, and they stand in groups facing the camera, or in this case, the viewer of the drawings.
The piece “Four Frames #1” features four images of a couple dancing, with the pictures beginning quite dark and becoming lighter. The drawings are based on a moment in her parents’ wedding video in which the camera flares, and like “Clavileño,” searches for a story within the interplay of light and movement.
Rokni received her BFA and MFA from Bezalel Academy in Israel, where she now teaches video art. Her work has been screened in international film festivals and she has received grants from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Yehushua Rabinovich Tel Aviv Foundation for the Arts, and the Fund for Video Art and Experimental Cinema in Israel.
Her work is also being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Crossing the Dune,” a video showing a man trying to ride his bicycle across sand dunes, is included in the exhibition “Islamic Art Now, Part 2” and will be in the permanent collection at LACMA. It’s part of a body of work created in 2010 that re-creates things she actually saw people doing, which includes “Clavileño.”
“I re-enacted driving in total darkness. Sometimes I used to do it, driving in the desert on some straight road and just turn the lights off,” she said. “It was a period of time that I was noticing situations where human beings just do something against logic or against the laws of nature, just because of their belief that they will succeed doing it.”
Included in that series is a video of a car going down a road with an unsecured mattress on top. Halfway through, the mattress flies off the roof, the car stops, two passengers rush out, put the mattress back on the car, and drive on.
Rokni, based in Tel Aviv, has not returned to Iran since she was 9. She said she would like to visit her childhood home and school, but she is not allowed back in the country because she is an Israeli citizen.
“If I were allowed to go back to Iran, it actually wouldn’t be that interesting to me. Because it’s something that I can’t, I’m so eager to see that. It’s like a forbidden territory for me,” she said. “I think all immigrants who can’t go to their motherland because of political issues have this wish to go back, because we just can’t. It becomes more of a desire and a longing.”
Iran troops to join Syria war, Russia bombs group trained by CIA
Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government, Lebanese sources said on Thursday, a sign the civil war is turning still more regional and global in scope.
Russian warplanes, in a second day of strikes, bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, the group's commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War.
Speaking by video link for an hour, U.S. and Russian military officials discussed ways to ensure their warplanes do not come into conflict as they carry out separate air campaigns over Syria, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. He said it was the first in a series of conversations.
Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive. They would also be backed by Assad's Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shi'ite militia fighters from Iraq, while Russia would provide air support.
“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said.
So far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has also mobilised Shi'ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.
Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck near the cities of Hama and Homs are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by U.S. allies including Arab states and Turkey.
Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group which is part of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters one of the targets was his group's base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate raids. His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, part of a programme Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.
“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots.
The group is one of at least three foreign-backed FSA rebel factions to say they had been hit by the Russians in the last two days.
At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference Moscow was targeting Islamic State. He did not specifically deny that Russian planes had attacked Free Syrian Army facilities but said Russia did not view it as a terrorist group and viewed it as part of a political solution in Syria.
The aim is to help the Syrian armed forces “in their weak spots”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Thursday's military talks as “cordial and professional” and said a U.S. official raised concerns that areas targeted by Russian aircraft in Syria were not Islamic State strongholds.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the United Nations on Thursday: “Instead of lone decisions by Russia to take direct military action in Syria we need Russia to take political action advocating transition in Syria.”
SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT FRIENDS
Russia's decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world's military powers.
With the United States leading an alliance waging its own air war against Islamic State, the Cold War superpower foes, Washington and Moscow, are now engaged in combat over the same country for the first time since World War Two.
They say they have the same enemies – the Islamic State group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
But they also have different friends, and sharply opposing views of how to resolve the 4-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes.
Washington and its allies oppose both Islamic State and Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement.
Washington says a central part of its strategy is building “moderate” insurgents to fight Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training.
Moscow supports the Syrian president and believes his government should be the centrepiece of international efforts to fight the extremist groups.
It appears to be using the common campaign against Islamic State as a pretext to strike against groups supported by Washington and its allies, as a way of defending a Damascus government with which Moscow has been allied since the Cold War.
The Russian strikes represent a bold move by President Vladimir Putin to assert influence beyond his own neighbourhood: it is the first time Moscow has ordered its forces into combat outside the frontiers of the former Soviet Union since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s.
The Russian and Iranian intervention in support of Assad comes at a time when momentum in the conflict had swung against his government and seem aimed at reversing insurgent gains.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of neighbouring Iraq, where Washington is also leading an air war against Islamic State while Iran aids government forces on the ground, said he would be open to Russian strikes as well.
A Syrian military source said on Thursday that Russian military support would bring a “big change” in the course of the conflict, particularly through advanced surveillance capabilities that could pinpoint insurgent targets.
Putin's gamble of going to war in Syria comes a year after he defied the West to annex Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, drawing U.S. and EU economic sanctions while igniting a wave of popular nationalist support at home.
He appears to be betting that decisive action to aid Assad will improve Russia's position at future talks on a political settlement, safeguard its control of the naval base and limit the influence of regional rivals like NATO member Turkey. It could also help his image at home as a strong leader willing to challenge global rivals, first and foremost the United States.
Iranian diplomat in Brazil: Soon there will be no place for Zionists
A Brazilian newspaper has published an opinion article by an Iranian diplomat asserting that “there will soon be no place for Zionists in the Middle East.”
Ali Mohaghegh, first secretary of the Iranian embassy in Brasilia, made the asertion in article published last month in the newspaper Folha de S. Paolo. “This [Israeli] regime that once sought to dominate the land between Nile and the Euphrates, now needs to hide behind a wall,” Mohaghegh wrote. He added: “The Zionist regime of Israel is the foremost reason for international terrorism.”
CONIB, the representative body of Brazilian Jewish communities, condemned the opinion piece published as “unacceptable.”
Several responses to Mohaghegh have appeared in Brazilian media, including in Folha.
Flavio Morgenstern, a translator and writer for the commentary site Papo de Homem, accused the paper of “ceding inches to anti-Semitism.”
Writing in O Globo, another major Brazilian daily, Osias Wurman, Israel’s honorary consul in Rio de Janeiro, accused Iran of state terrorism.
Lebanese judo team refuses to practice next to Israelis at Olympics training facility
The Lebanese judo team at the 2012 London Olympics refused to practice next to the Israeli team.
The Jordanians even erected a makeshift barrier to split their gym into two halves, according to the Times of Israel.
The two teams were scheduled to train inside London’s ExCel center, but the delegation from Lebanon would not train in view of the Israeli team and insisted a barrier be placed between them, the report said.
The two teams were scheduled to use the same gym and mats at London’s new ExCeL center for their final preparations, but International Olympic Committee officials were forced to erect a special screen following demands by the Lebanese’s coach to separate the teams, according to the Times of Israel, citing several Hebrew websites.
Also, last week Iranian judo athlete Javad Mahjoob withdrew from the games citing “critical digestive system infection,” according to the Washington Post.
The Post reported that has led to speculation that Iran was maintaining a long-standing policy of not allowing its athletes to compete against Israelis.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, according to the Post, has said, “If Nation A does not appear at the competition against Nation B, we will ask for explanations. If the explanation is not satisfactory and valid at the end of it and is not credible, then we will go into cross-examination by an independent medical board. And if the medical board says it is not a genuine reason, then sanctions will be taken.”
SEC halts Ponzi scheme targeting Persian Jews in L.A.
A Ponzi scheme targeting the Persian-Jewish community in Los Angeles was shut down by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The SEC obtained an emergency court order on April 13 to stop the scheme.
According to the SEC, Shervin Neman, also known as Shervin Davatgarzadeh, allegedly raised more than $7.5 million from investors in the Persian-Jewish community, of which he is a member, by posing as a hedge fund manager.
Neman, 30, of Los Angeles, told investors that he had a hedge fund called Neman Financial L.P., which invested in foreclosed residential properties that would be quickly flipped for profit, as well as in Facebook shares and other high-profile initial public offerings, according to the SEC.
Instead he allegedly used the investors’ money to pay off other investors and finance his extravagant lifestyle. Neman spent nearly $1.6 million of investor funds to buy jewelry and high-end cars, as well as to finance his wedding and honeymoon, other vacations and VIP tickets to sporting events, according to the SEC.
Judge Jacqueline Nguyen of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the SEC’s request for a temporary restraining order and asset freeze against Neman.
“By exploiting investors’ trust in him, Neman was continually able to raise more money to pay back existing investors and finance an extravagant lifestyle,” Michele Wein Layne, associate regional director of the SEC’s Los Angeles office, said in an SEC statement.
Opinion: The myth of the Iranian-American Jew
This one’s for our children — the teens and 20-somethings who were born in this country or who’ve lived here most of their life, who have no memory of Iran except what’s been passed on to them or what they’ve constructed with their imagination. The kids who speak Persian with an accent or not at all, crack up at the way their parents pronounce their w’s and th’s, become wide-eyed and incredulous when they discover that we grew up without frozen yogurt, nonfat milk and broccoli. And who, more and more these days, find themselves having to define and defend that tangled nexus of nationality and religion, of likeness and singularity, of being and becoming that is their Iranian heritage.
I am speaking, of course, of the uproar within the Iranian community in reaction to a certain reality show over the past few weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but it pains me to see our young people cringe and shudder at the thought of what the rest of the country is going to think of us after having seen this show. They’re in a strange predicament, these children of hyphenated parents. Iranian-American. Iranian-Jew. Iranian-American-Jew. Already, they’ve had to walk the tightrope from one component to the other every hour of every day. But for too long they’ve also had to endure the harsh judgment of Los Angeles’ larger society, fight negative misconceptions, shrug off the myth of what Iranian-Americans are like because they feel they have little power to change it. Why else would they be so hurt and offended by the pitiful portrayal of a handful of Iranians on a less-than-second-rate television show?
Once upon a time, an army of rich, spoiled and ill-mannered Jews, having exhausted all the sources of glee and merriment in Iran, sat around and hatched a plan to conquer the idyllic city of Beverly Hills, destroy its library and public schools, and lay waste to adjacent Westwood Corridor and Sinai Temple. One bright summer day in 1978 they packed up all their jewels, cash and “attitude,” traveled some 7,581 miles, and descended en masse onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of said city. Overnight, they evicted, expelled and dislodged the rightful owners of Beverly Hills by paying too much for their land, paying all cash, opening short escrows. The natives who weren’t forced to sell by outsized offers sold anyway, perhaps out of fear of the jewel-slinging Jews and their all-night displays of libertinism on Shabbat.
Sound familiar? It didn’t start with the TV show; it started more than 30 years ago, within the “native” American community of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.
Having planted their flag onto the “natives’ ” land, these Iranian Jews set out to expand their sphere of influence by infiltrating the four pillars of Beverly Hills’ community — the schools, synagogues, professional offices and Neiman Marcus. They spoke Persian to each other even when there were “natives” around. They invented shallowness, materialism, large houses and questionable business practices, and kept it all to themselves. All those unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street who rip off their own clients, the homeowners and real estate speculators who developed and built Brentwood Park and Holmby Hills, the international fashion houses and clothing stores that charge the equivalent of a midsize car for a wallet or a blouse — they must all be Iranian Jews. So must all the women prancing around this city with fish lips and Brazilian buttocks. And all the Americans who, no matter where they are in the world, speak English and expect everyone else to understand.
I shouldn’t have to, but I feel I must clarify that the above is, indeed, a myth. As with all myths, it has a kernel of truth buried somewhere within: Yes, a handful of Iranian Jews came to this country with a lot of money, though that’s hardly a crime; a few of their children own BMWs and drive too fast; a few come across as, or really are, impetuous and unpleasant.
But there are infinitely more rich, obnoxious, BMW-driving “natives” in this city than there are Iranians of that sort, and no one’s going around resenting their presence and blaming them for all the ills in the country. The difference is, when one of the “natives” commits a wrong, we blame him. When an Iranian commits the same wrong, we blame them all.
Sound familiar? It’s like what the world has done to Jews through the ages, except in this case, many of those wagging the finger and perpetuating the myth about the frightful Iranian-American Jew are — alas — “native” American Jews. At best, this is divisive and unhelpful.
So I’m here to tell you, lest it goes unsaid, that the real story of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles is vastly different from the one that’s being told — on television and off.
The real story is that by far the great majority of Iranian Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and in the ensuing decade were anguished and traumatized refugees escaping the very real threat of extinction in a homeland where their roots stretched back thousands of years. Most got away with only the proverbial shirt on their back. What money they had made in Iran was the result of decades of hard work and ingenuity; whatever part of it they managed to bring to the United States, or to make here, helped contribute to the health and vibrancy of this economy.
The real story is that nearly no one, not even the most fortunate, was spared emotional loss and psychological hardship in the turmoil of migration. From the owners of the closet-size stalls on Santee Avenue who worked seven days a week selling quinceañera dresses, to the wives who took a job for the first time in their life because their husband couldn’t find one, and the children who were sent here alone to become the ward of a sibling, an aunt or a Jewish charitable entity — just about every Iranian here has earned whatever living he’s managed to make. To this day, most of them are not rich — not by Los Angeles standards. They don’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Pico-Robertson, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Northridge. Their kids don’t go to private school; they work nights and weekends, take loans to finance their higher education. That they manage to get into Ivy League colleges and succeed in medicine and art and law and technology puts the lie to the idea that they live and breathe to party, drink and spend their parents’ money.
They’re a splendid bunch, these young people who know, perhaps better than many “natives” of their generation, what a gift it is to wake up every day under the American sky. They take little for granted. They’ve learned to appreciate the salient parts of each piece of their identity and to tolerate the rest. That’s a gift they’ve been blessed with and a cross they’ll have to bear. But this other cross — being singled out as “foreign” by their fellow Americans, held to account for the flaws and failures of others, having the good in them overlooked and their faults magnified — this is a burden they’ve neither earned nor deserve.
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.
Giving hope and help to L.A.’s Iranian Jews
Earlier this year, after nearly two decades of providing counseling and psychological help to local Iranians for free or at reduced rates, Shadee Toomari, a local Iranian-Jewish licensed clinical psychologist, formally established the community’s first nonprofit mental health treatment clinic. Operating the nonprofit inside her Beverly Hills-based Radiance of Hope Counseling Center, Toomari, along with co-founder Diane Alvy, supervises interns who since August have been treating nearly a dozen local underprivileged Iranians of various faiths who are in need of psychological help.
“When I came to the U.S. with my family from Iran many years ago, I encountered a lot of difficulties and stresses,” Toomari said. “So, today, when I’m able to help Iranian families in crisis and give them hope that things will get better, it gives me tremendous pleasure.” The nonprofit center treats low-income clients for no charge, a reduced fee or, alternatively, allows clients to pay whatever amount they can afford.
Story continues after the jump
Starting this nonprofit is just the latest step in Toomari’s nearly two decades of giving back to the 40,000-strong Los Angeles-area Iranian-Jewish community. In 1998, Toomari established the Family Aid program in conjunction with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim Iranian synagogue, to provide financial and social assistance for Iranian-Jewish families facing crisis situations, including domestic violence, mental illness and housing emergencies. Although that program ended five years ago, Toomari still dedicates a considerable amount of her time to working as a liaison among a handful of L.A.-area Iranian-Jewish nonprofits to help identify impoverished individuals in the community and to help pool resources in order to offer financial help, affordable housing, and free or low-cost medical and legal services.
“Dr. Toomari is definitely a tremendous asset to our community as far as giving back to those who are in real need and also serving as a strong female role model for young Iranian-Jewish women today,” said Morgan Hakimi, a psychologist and former president of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills.
Toomari said she decided to help others when she realized the significant financial challenges many local Iranian Jews are facing today. “I think it’s a big misconception that the majority of L.A.’s Iranian Jews are very wealthy,” Toomari said. “We have a growing group of people in the community who are unemployed, almost homeless and do not have enough money to feed their children from day to day — so those with the financial means to help must help those struggling individuals.” Toomari said she will continue her volunteer work on behalf of the community and is currently seeking donations for her nonprofit in order to add more rooms and more staff to the clinic, to be able to treat more clients.
For more information on Toomari’s efforts, contact Radiance of Hope Counseling Center at (310) 279-2878.
Oh, to be young and stupid again
I was 21 years old, a first-year law student at USC, when I walked by a trailer parked on an empty lot off McCarthy Way on the downtown campus. It was late afternoon, and I was on my way home; I only noticed the trailer because it was such an anomaly among the red brick buildings surrounding it. The door was open, and I could hear voices inside, and I saw a young man with dark skin and a sparse, reddish beard standing amid a mess of paper on the floor.
“Come on in,” he said, like the big, bad wolf in the story, and I did.
There was a maroon yard-sale couch, a creaky desk chair with no desk, a few stacks of books, a tall man wearing a brown-leather jacket, black socks and no shoes. He introduced himself as “the director,” and the young man, Michael, as “the program specialist.” They welcomed me to the “program offices,” offered to answer my questions, handed me a one-page application, and I still had no idea where I was, what “program” they were talking about or why “the director” had no shoes.
It turned out that he was James Ragan, a noted poet who had recently taken over the then-fledgling Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC. In retrospect, that just about explained everything, including the modesty of the premises; I promise you the law school deans all had desks and wore shoes at the office. Then again, I had met many a lawyer and dean and professor in my life; I’d never met a poet. Nor had I imagined there were schools that trained people to become writers, or that anyone in his right mind would actually decide he was going to be one. All the writers I’d ever heard of had either committed suicide or stabbed or shot someone. They were depressives and alcoholics; they died young in car accidents or were put in jail and tortured by their governments and then thrown out of helicopters into marshlands.
You have to remember this was before every university and community college and online school discovered that there are more writers in the world than readers, and that every one of those writers can use some instruction, and can create what a literary-minded friend of mine calls “a booklike object,” and that some of those booklike objects go on to become classics or mega-sellers or, at the very least, a safe hobby. And it was before most nice Iranian-Jewish girls like me wanted to grow up to have a profession, as well as a family. And, yes, I was young and stupid and didn’t know just what a risk I was taking, but a few weeks after I made my great discovery, I dropped out of law school and signed up at the trailer.
The jury’s still out on whether this was a good idea in the long run, but I’m forever grateful to James Ragan for encouraging me to write, and grateful to the stars for putting him on my path.
I was reminded of this a couple of Sundays ago, when I went to Orange County for the Iranian-American Women’s Leadership Conference — 680 professional women, 40 speakers, every last one of them impressive and accomplished in her field. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to an event like this, but I found myself having an especially good time and feeling unusually inspired. Late in the day, I went to thank Maryam Khosravani, the brain and the force behind the conference, for inviting me. I heard myself say that the gathering had been a revelation to me, which was true, though it would take a while longer for me to figure out why, and some more time after that to admit it to myself: These women were all Iranian.
The last time I was surrounded by nearly 700 Iranian professional women was — I’ve been raking my mind about this for over a week — never. I’ve known for a long time that there are thousands of brilliant, successful Iranians in this county, but it never occurred to me that so many of them could be women. I’m talking about senior executive positions at the World Bank and Boeing and Texas Instruments and Genentech; about directorships at major research medical centers and universities. It’s not as if any of these people had been hiding herself all these years; it’s more like I had taken an idea with me out of Iran, when I left in 1973, and carried it around for the next 38 years till I happened to go to the Hilton in Costa Mesa. In between, I’ve had a vague idea that leaving Iran has been the best thing that could have happened to Iranian women, but that was mostly because of rights issues and family traditions. And I’ve witnessed the endless hyperbole and unrestrained self-promotion generated by a few women, but, as is often the case, the ones who scream loudest have the least to boast of.
For me, the existence of so many accomplished Iranian women puts the lie to the image so many Angelenos have of Iranian women as being either oppressed and unhappy, or bored, infantile and overly comfortable. It was proof that while some of us might have stayed in a high-school frame of mind well into our 30s and 40s, struggling to be liked and accepted by the “cool” girls or to date and marry the rich boys, and while many of us expect too little of ourselves and our daughters, many more have gone on to scale great heights.
I’m so glad I had a chance to look through this other door, and that the people inside invited me in. Right before I left, I went up to Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of international news gathering for CNN Worldwide, and told her that in my youth, I had dreamt of becoming a reporter, only I had no idea that an Iranian girl like me could grow up to become a woman like her. I only hope that our children’s generation has a better eye for all the open doors and all the magical figures that reside beyond them.
Author promotes moderate faith for Iranian Jews
After their immigration to Southern California more than 30 years ago, the majority of the area’s Iranian Jewish community poured their energies into re-establishing themselves financially. Following their success, some Iranian Jews have turned their attention to promoting philanthropy in the arts, education and Israel in recent years.
Nourallah “Norman” Gabay, a semi-retired Iranian-Jewish businessman, is one of perhaps a dozen older individuals in the community who has been using his wealth to promote Jewish education and values, among Jews and non-Jews alike.
A resident of Beverly Hills and a founding member of the Magbit Foundation, the 82-year-old Gabay authored and self-published “An Invitation to Reason,” a 2009 Persian-language book that suggests Iranian Jews should reject religious extremism and follow a traditional yet moderate form of Judaism instead.
Gabay said his main motivation in writing the book was to address a divisiveness and sectarianism that has taken root within his community, which he says has strayed from 2,500-year-old Iranian-Jewish traditions.
“I wrote this book to better inform our community and our society of the neglected dangers of the status quo, and to help prevent the further spread of such irrational divisiveness, or even sectarianism,” said Gabay, who poured approximately $80,000 into editing and publishing the book.
For centuries, the Jewish community in Iran followed a traditional religious practice that might best be described as “Conservadox.” After their immigration to the United States, Iranian Jews split among the movements of American Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — a gradual division that Gabay says has often caused great strife among tight-knit families in the Iranian-Jewish communities living in Southern California and New York.
Despite the fact that Gabay has no formal rabbinic or religious training, he has not shied away from this controversial topic. He says that the children of immigrant Iranian-Jewish families have been particularly vulnerable, and that Chasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities have encouraged Iranian-Jewish youth to follow a religious path radically different from that of their parents.
“In effect, this small group of preachers were tearing apart these families at a particularly vulnerable stage in their lives and, by extension, they were destroying the unity of our community, rather brutally,” he said.
In the book, Gabay issues a call to action to adopt a rational approach to religion in order to build stronger communities and a more ethical world for Iranian-Jewish children and grandchildren.
Gabay says the book’s message can be applied to any faith. And if he were to rewrite the book today, he says he wouldn’t single out a specific religion.
“Instead, I would just write about extremist religion as a whole,” he said. “I think that each one of my readers can find certain points in my arguments which would align along their own convictions and beliefs.”
Since its first printing, Gabay has sold nearly 3,000 copies among local Iranian-Americans of various faiths through word of mouth and at an event organized last year by the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization.
Earlier this year, Gabay published an English-language version of “An Invitation to Reason,” which is intended for younger Iranian Jews who were unable to read the Persian-language edition. Gabay has also made both versions of the book online as a free download on his Web site, babanouri.com, and the English-language version can be purchased on Amazon.
For their part, many of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community members said they were supportive of the book’s main theme, which promotes harmony among Jewish families by embracing the traditional customs followed by Iranian Jews.
“Everyone whom I have given Mr. Gabay’s book to read has told me that they have enjoyed its refreshing message of embracing what is positive among about Judaism,” said Nasser Mogeemi, an Iranian-Jewish businessman living in Studio City. “We live in America and it is inevitable that our young people will be lured to other faiths, so we need to avoid pushing them away from Judaism with fanatic religious customs.”
Gabay acknowledges the often-vast religious difference among local Iranian Jews but said he would like his book to begin a positive dialogue between parents and their children as well as among religious leaders. He hopes his work will inspire the community to openly discuss how to unite and find common ground.
For downtown’s Persian Jews, work plus worship equals success
Fast-paced techno dance music blasts through Chikas, a retail clothing store off Santee Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District, which many call the Garment District. Robert Mahgerefteh, the store’s owner, helps the dozen or so young women looking for great deals on the latest fashions.
“Many of us from the Iranian-Jewish community working in the Garment District have a very hard work ethic, sometimes working six or seven days a week,” he said. “People like myself grew up seeing our dads and uncles put the time and effort into making their businesses a success, so we’re following in their footsteps.”
Mahgerefteh, 29, is among the more than 300 Iranian Jews who work as retailers, wholesalers or importers of clothing, fabrics and fashion accessories in downtown’s Fashion District. Over the last 30 years, their businesses and Iranian-Jewish investment in downtown real estate have helped transform the district into one of the major business hubs in Southern California.
In addition to improving the area, Iranian-Jewish businessmen have brought their faith and practice with them, establishing synagogues in the area and supporting several downtown kosher restaurants. Rabbis even travel to the Fashion District to teach Torah and other topics during lunch-and-learn sessions.
And while the flood of cheaper clothing and fabrics from China has driven some Iranian Jews out of the business, others have remained downtown, finding their niche in the new marketplace.
Following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran, hundreds of Iranian Jews flocked to the Fashion District in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either because of their familiarity with the garment trade or because it seemed the easiest way to earn a living.
Iranian-Jewish real estate developer Behrooz Neman, who has owned properties in downtown’s Fashion District since the mid-1980s, said the area was in dire economic conditions when Iranian Jews first arrived.
“It looked like South Central with only old buildings and empty warehouses,” Neman said. “I can honestly say that if the Iranian Jews had never come to Los Angeles, there would be no Garment District as you see it today.”
Those Iranian Jews who first worked the Fashion District didn’t have the higher overhead costs of the larger American fabric companies, said Amir “Aby” Emrani, co-owner of Emday Fabrics.
“And, we also gave ourselves smaller commissions,” he said.
Today, Emday Fabrics and a handful of other Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses are among downtown’s largest and most successful fabrics importers, selling to both a national and international clientele.
“In the early days, we worked very hard and long hours — it was just myself, my brother and my father. … Little by little, the hard work and our ability to give much lower pricing to our customers allowed us to grow,” Emrani said.
Among the businesses that found a niche early was Donna Vinci, a division of Brasseur Inc., which specializes in plus-size women’s suits, among its other high-end women’s clothing.
“It was very successful for us, and we have continued over the years to build on that idea with many different designs and brands for the same customers,” said Danny Golshan, Donna Vinci’s co-owner. “Our focus is on being unique and bringing up-to-date clothing to our customers.”
With Hollywood not too far away, Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses such as the Italian Fashion Group have also supported the needs of costume designers for major television shows and films. The company, run by three Iranian- Jewish siblings, has become a top manufacturer of high-end, custom-made Italian suits that attract entertainment industry designers and celebrities such as Al Pacino, Terrence Howard and James Belushi.
“Our custom line of suits, Di Stefano, has become the pearl of our company,” said Shahrouz Stefano Kalepari, co-owner of the Italian Fashion Group, adding that their suits have appeared on such televisions shows as “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “The Defenders.”
“Our suits and shirts are 100 percent hand made and the patterns are designed from scratch for each individual order, to create a very personalized and custom fit for our customers. We use the most precious accessories such as horsehair canvas inside our suits, pure silk linings and mother-of-pearl buttons,” Kalepari said.
But with cheaper labor and raw material in China and the Far East flooding the Fashion District, Iranian-Jewish businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese goods.
Businessmen like Kalepari say they have had to be more aggressive in marketing their products and educating their customers about the higher quality of their clothing in order to survive.
“Unfair competition with China, combined with the lack of knowledge from some customers, makes it very frustrating at times,” Kalepari said. “But in the end, a high-quality product speaks for itself, and when a famous designer of top-quality clothes in Beverly Hills uses our company’s line for his own personal use, this gives us the utmost satisfaction that we have done the right thing and can survive in this market.”
Aside from the district’s retail and wholesale businesses, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or constructed buildings and other properties over the years to further solidify the community’s influence in the area.
These Iranian-Jewish developers have not only upgraded the appearance of the stores and buildings in the area, but were pivotal in the creation and growth of the widely popular “alley” shopping area within the heart of the district — a nearly three-block stretch along Santee Street that resembles a Middle Eastern-style open bazaar.
“In the early 1980s, there was no alley in existence,” Neman said. “The idea to use the space in the alley area came from mostly Iranian Jewish developers who wanted to get the maximum use of their properties in the area by making these smaller spaces behind their buildings available for retailers.”
Not only have Iranian-Jewish businesses thrived and prospered in the fabrics and clothing industry, but city officials have praised the community’s entrepreneurial efforts during the last three decades of the Fashion District’s revitalization.
“The Persian community has helped to reshape the district by partnering with stakeholders in the area to form business development districts to keep the area safe and clean for business to thrive,” L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “This community has been at the forefront of growth in the Garment District, and I am confident that the future will bring greater prosperity as downtown continues its transformation.”
The financial growth over the last 25 years alone in Southern California’s garment business speaks for itself.
“In 1984, California Mart in downtown’s Garment District did about $50 million in sales annually, which was for all the U.S. sales of garments on the West Coast,” Neman said. “Today the annual sales for the garment business in Southern California alone is $150 billion — and without a doubt it is because of the hard work of Iranian-Jewish- and Korean-owned businesses in downtown.”
Many local Iranian Jews also credit Ezat Delijani, one of the community’s most prominent real estate developers, who died in late August, for having transformed the area by pioneering mixed-use developments in downtown Los Angeles as well as for purchasing and renovating four historic theaters on Broadway near the Fashion District.
“The investment Ezat Delijani made in the historic area of Broadway brought new life to an area that was stricken with graffiti and blight,” said David Rahimian, a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The Delijani family led a preservation effort that brought the theater back to life, not only making it a jewel on Broadway but a proud site for all Angelenos to enjoy.”
With all of their financial success, Iranian- Jewish businessmen in the area have still maintained their strong Jewish bonds in the district, even establishing three synagogues in the area.
Ohr HaShalom, also called the Downtown Synagogue, is perhaps the most popular synagogue in the Fashion District. Located inside a 300-square-foot storefront, it attracts up to 30 Iranian-Jewish businessmen for daily prayers.
“It’s more convenient for businessmen from our community to come to the synagogue that is close to their businesses in the area in order to do their early morning prayers or to say the Kaddish prayers on the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones,” said Abner Cohen, a fabrics businessman and co-founder of Ohr HaShalom.
The other two synagogues in the area are located within the offices of Iranian-Jewish businesses, housing Torahs as well as other prayer books. Yet the business owners operating these office synagogues would not grant The Jewish Journal entry out of concern that the publicity could attract unwanted security challenges.
In addition to the synagogues, a handful of local rabbis frequent the different Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses in the Fashion District, providing free lunchtime classes on Torah and religious practices.
“We love teaching Judaism, and we offer these businessmen insights on how they could benefit from Torah in their everyday lives to become better fathers, better partners and better community members,” said Rabbi Yosef Shemtov, executive director of the Yachad Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim synagogue.
Over the course of each week, Shemtov and two other Iranian Jewish rabbis from his group visit more than 50 Iranian-Jewish businesses in downtown’s fashion and jewelry districts. Their group began the teaching program for Iranian Jews working in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago and, Shemtov said, it has gradually grown in popularity.
Kosher restaurants in recent years have also popped up the Fashion District, including Snack 26 deli, offering sandwiches to Iranian-Jewish businessmen on the run, and Afshan Restaurant, providing customers with kosher chicken and beef kebabs as well as popular Persian stews and rice dishes. Both eateries also deliver to their clients downtown.
With all of the ups and downs in their businesses, Iranian Jews working in the Fashion District said their strong sense of spirituality and Jewish values have enabled them to continue working hard to achieve success in the fashion industry.
Shervin Arastoozad, an Iranian-Jewish designer and owner of Cut n’ Paste Handbags, says the one thing he’s learned about business is that you must build a foundation to get anywhere.
“One very important foundation for me has been Judaism and the morality it brings into [my] business and everyday life,” he said.
For more interviews with Iranian-Jewish businessmen in downtown’s Fashion District, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.
Iranian plot included Israeli embassy in Argentina
An Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, thwarted earlier this week, also involved an attack the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Buenos Aires.
American-Iranian Manssor Arbabsiar, arrested Oct. 11in the Saudi ambassador murder plot, was also planning an attack against the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in Buenos Aires, although U.S. officials did not state it specifically, according to reports.
Acting head of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, Ángel Barman, told JTA that “it´s not surprising that Iran is suspected of committing a new attack.”
After hearing the news that FBI broke up a series of terrorist attacks involving Iranian targets in Argentina, AMIA said in a statement that “whoever is unpunished, reoffends.” The statement refers to the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in which 85 were killed and hundreds injured. Argentina has accused Iran of ordering the bombing, which it says was carried out by the Hezbollah terrorist organization.
“This only shows the impunity with which Iran operates given its current lack of cooperation to clarify the AMIA bombing, a pending task that leaves the possibility of a third attack in Argentina open,” according to the AMIA.
“I’m not surprised by the fact that Iran´s terrorist attack was ready and organized, because they realized that nothing happens, they can kill and do it again.” Barman told Argentinean TV channel C5N.
In a ceremony for the “Argentine Diplomats Day” on Oct. 11, Foreign Minister, Héctor Timerman highlighted the “openness” of the Argentinean Government toward Iran after Iran announced recently that it would cooperate with Argentina to bring the AMIA bombers to justice.
“I mean the attitude of openness that we chose at the announcement of cooperation from Iran over the AMIA bombing. … Because the warrants issued by Interpol against of those accused of heinous attack remain firm,” Timerman said hours before Iranian intention of attacking embassies in Argentina was made public.
Sergio Witis, vice-president of DAIA, Argentine Jewry’s primary umbrella organization, said that “this is a matter of concern, because it affects the safety of all Argentineans. It doesn’t surprise us that Iran stands behind this kind of plan,” Witis told C5N.
The United States reportedly informed the Argentinean government about the Iranian terrorist plan. “Argentina was one of the countries called by the Undersecretary for Political Affairs and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns” to talk about this issue, said a U.S. spokesperson.
At the same time, Clarín Newspaper was told by upper echelon sources that, in parallel, that Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. embassy in Argentina and key man for its diplomatic headquarters, Jefferson Brown, was in Argentina’s Foreign Ministry this week to discuss details of the indictment that the U.S. Attorney filed against two Iranian citizens.
It was also confirmed through diplomatic sources that Argentina appears in the investigations initiated by the FBI and the DEA, as well as other countries whose names were not revealed. The potential attack on the embassies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in Argentina was mentioned initially by ABC News on Oct. 11, and the following day on the front page of the New York Times.
Contacted by JTA, the spokesperson of Israeli embassy in Argentina would not comment about the issue. Israel’s embassy in Argentina was attacked on March 17, 1992, leaving 29 civilians dead and 242 additional injured.
Argentina has the largest population of Jews in Latin America.
Mossad killed Iranian scientist, Der Spiegel reports
Israel is responsible for the assassination last week of an Iranian nuclear scientist, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported.
The assassination of Darioush Rezaei is the first “serious action” taken by new Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, an unnamed Israeli source told the news outlet, according to an article published on the newspaper’s website Tuesday.
Rezaei, who worked at a nuclear research center in northern Tehran, is the third Iranian nuclear physicist who has been assassinated in the last 20 months.
The killings are part of a campaign to sabotage, or at least slow down, Iran’s nuclear program, Der Spiegel reported citing unnamed sources in Israeli intelligence.
The report also cited its military source as saying that the calls for bombing Iran are increasing, especially from Israeli Air Force officers.
Iranian media first identified the victim of last week’s assassination as Rezaei, who worked on the development of switches for a nuclear bomb, and then later amended its identification naming graduate student Dariush Rezaeinejad. Der Spiegel asserts that the victim was indeed Rezaei, who has not been seen since the attack, in which he was shot in the throat by two attackers, who then escaped on a motorcycle.
Ban Iranian Olympians, World Jewish Congress urges IOC
The World Jewish Congress called on the International Olympic Committee to bar Iran from the 2012 Games until the country allows its athletes to compete against Israelis.
The WJC’s complaint comes in the wake of a withdrawal by an Iranian swimmer, Mohammed Alirezaei, from a race in Shanghai last week in which an Israeli was participating. Although Alireazei claimed he was “tired and drowsy,” and denied political reasons, according to the WJC, he used a similar excuse at the 2008 Olympics when he refused to compete in a race that included Israeli Tom Beeri.
“Iran’s behavior is unsportmanlike and smacks of anti-Semitism,” WJC President Ronald Lauder said in the statement. “It must be stopped!”
The WJC urged that Iran be banned from other international sporting events, as well.
The chairman of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, Mohammad Ali Abadi, said in an interview last year that Iranian athletes should boycott all competitions in which Israeli athletes participate, and in February he threatened to boycott the 2012 London Olympics over its logo—a stylized 2012 that Tehran claimed spelled Zion.
Sports in Iran are highly politicized. In 2009 four Iranian soccer players received lifelong bans for wearing green armbands in solidarity with protesters during a match, and last year an Iranian was kicked off his team after competing against an Israeli in the World Masters Weightlifting Championship.
Bolivia boots Iranian defense minister over ‘94 bombing
Iran’s defense minister left Bolivia following complaints from Argentina over his alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Jewish community center.
Ahmad Vahidi reportedly left Bolivia late Tuesday night under a cloud of secrecy, Reuters reported, after arriving the previous day on an official visit to attend a military ceremony led by President Evo Morales.
Argentina has accused Vahidi of planning the July 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center, which killed 85 and wounded hundreds. The Argentina Justice Department had called on Interpol to detain Vahidi, who has had an international arrest warrant issued against him since 2007.
Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday offered a “heartfelt apology” to Argentina, admitted internal misunderstandings about the invitation to Vahidi, and assured the administration of Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner that it had ordered the “immediate withdrawal” of the Iranian minister in order to “not interfere with respect to proceedings regarding the legal status of that person.”
Aldo Donzis, the head of DAIA, Argentina’s Jewish political umbrella, described the Iranian’s visit to Bolivia as a “provocation.”
Vahidi arrived in Bolivia to attend a ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of the Colmilav Military Aviation School. Diplomats from Cuba and Venezuela also attended.
Asked by reporters whether there was a possibility of installing Iranian military bases in Bolivia and Venezuela, Vahidi denied that the two countries have applied to host the bases.
“We are willing to offer any kind of cooperation in this regard if we are asked,” he said.
Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman has accused Iran of masterminding the AMIA attack and requested Tuesday that Vahidi be detained in Bolivia, which borders Argentina.
In September 2009, the Iranian parliament unanimously approved Vahidi’s nomination to be the country’s defense minister. Vahidi declared that his appointment was “testimony to the anti-Zionist spirit of the Iranian Parliament and Iranian people.”
Gina Nahai: Staying true to our own heritage
I once wrote a novel about an Iranian Jewish woman who grows wings and flies away from her husband’s home. She escapes because she’s in love with another man, and she believes it’s better to abandon her family than to stay and shame them by having an illicit affair. A few months after the book was released, I overheard someone — an Iranian Jew who happened to be very observant and very trusted by Iranians and Ashkenazim alike — remark that the novel had no merit because it was based on an impossible premise. I braced myself for a comment about the implausibility of a woman growing wings and flying off a window ledge like a migrating bird. Instead, the gentleman went on to assert that the really improbable proposition was that any Iranian Jewish woman would ever, under any circumstances and for any reason, contemplate an extramarital affair.
Now, God knows I’m no expert in Iranian Jewish history, but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time, and I can say without equivocation that by far the majority of our women are, and have always been, impeccably chaste, unfailingly faithful and indefinitely devoted to their spouses. I’m not saying this just to keep up appearances before our friendly American neighbors or to avoid being banished from all Iranian parties forever. I’m saying it because it’s true. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible that, over the course of our 2,500-year history, one of our women has committed an indiscretion of the kind depicted in the book. What fascinated me about the gentleman’s remark, therefore, was not so much his faith in our women’s piety, as his manifest conviction that there are areas of human nature and behavior that remain, to this day, entirely closed to Iranian Jews.
I realize that’s not a terribly uncommon assumption for a Jew to make about other Jews. Just as the world holds us to a different standard, so do we hold, if not ourselves, then each other, to a higher code of ethics. I grew up hearing about a multitude of acts that were the exclusive domain of Muslims and Christians and Zoroastrians and Buddhists and basically anyone at all except for Jews. Murder was one. Adultery (for women) was another. Theft on a grand, gluttonous and unabashed scale was yet another.
According to all the Jewish adults in my Iranian childhood, Jews did not kill, sleep with anyone but their husband, or steal from their friends, neighbors and random old ladies because:
A. They were bound by a higher calling — halachah — than your average penal code.
B. They lived in a country where, by law, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, and would be punished, for the indiscretions of each of its members. And
C. They belonged to a culture in which a person’s good name and reputation was his greatest asset, where his or her children would be duly rewarded or punished for his or her actions, where “shame” was a penance greater than any jail sentence and more exacting than poverty, illness or even death.
That, regrettably, was then.
I don’t know if things have remained the same in Iran, but I hope my fellow Iranian Jews in this country will forgive me for saying in print what we all know and lament in person — namely, that somewhere between Tehran and Los Angeles, some of us became more religiously observant and less personally righteous, more outspoken about the virtues of piety and less capable of feeling remorse, more able to circumvent the law and less fearful of public shame.
And I hope my fellow American Jews in this city will resist the urge to wag a holier-than-thou finger and indulge in the all-too-common tendency to blame the entire Iranian community for the sins of a few individuals. For one thing, that’s rather reminiscent of what the non-Jewish majority did to the Jewish minority in Iran, Russia and even in this country up until the 1950s. It wasn’t right then, and it’s not right now. More importantly, I dare say that Iranian Jews are as Jewish and as American as all the parents and grandparents of the current “native” population. Like us, your parents prized their American citizenship but continued to speak both English and their mother tongue. Like us, they ate both hot dogs and latkes, were made to feel unwelcome in fancy neighborhoods, and were suspected of committing all sorts of offenses, from building unattractive houses to taking over the world.
But I digress.
In the three decades since the revolution, Iranian Jews tried to embrace the best of Western culture while maintaining the positive aspects of their own. The jury’s still out on how well we’ve navigated those waters, but until recently, we were pretty confident that we had indeed gotten one thing right: We had re-created in America a community that, while far from perfect, had nurtured and strengthened us through many a difficult time. Outside our little bubble, the world was moving fast and memories were short, people reinvented themselves with impunity every few years, and nothing was wrong unless the law said so. But inside, we continued to harbor the notion that there were some things in this world a Jew just did not do.
We assumed, for example, that a Jew would not solicit “investments” from other Jews only to use the money to build himself a big, fancy house. Or that a Jew, especially a very observant one, would not empty the trust funds of orphan children into his own wife’s bank accounts. Or rob poor widows to enrich his already wealthy siblings. Or cheat his closest friends to finance his children’s education at expensive Jewish day schools.
We assumed all this with the kind of foolish certainty that had driven the gentleman critic to assert that a Jewish Iranian woman would sooner grow wings than indulge in pleasures of the flesh with a man she was not married to. We were, alas, proven wrong. On the heels of Bernie Madoff and all his lesser likenesses, Iranian Jews discovered their own batch of “toxic assets.” One of them, you may be amused to learn, was our resident literary critic. In a single year, he and his fellow luminaries did to our community what a 1,000 years of being persecuted by the mullahs and 30 years of living outside Iran did not: They took from us the notion that Jews, especially very religious ones, observed a higher threshold of ethical behavior; that a good name had an inherent value that could not be measured in dollars.
If you can’t trust your own, whom can you trust?
We are, today, a wounded and perplexed community. The old laws don’t apply, and the new ones don’t protect against Old World behavior. We cannot enter a deal with a handshake, then expect the courts to enforce what we didn’t deem necessary to put on paper. For us, the question is no longer what a Jew will and will not do; it’s what we, as a community, will and won’t tolerate. It’s whether our increasingly Orthodox rabbis will take a public stand against larceny in our own midst, or choose to look away. Whether our fellow Jews will buy and sell with other people’s money, or pass on profiting from ill-gotten gains. Whether we continue to protect the guilty with our silence and save our hate mail for the young Iranian Jewish reporter who relates the news as it happened in this publication. Instead of yelling at him to stop shaming our community by reporting other Jews’ misdeeds, we could, for example, yell at the wrongdoers and their accomplices and enablers.
It’s a funny thing about shame, you know: Those who are capable of feeling it are inevitably at a disadvantage against the rest. That’s always been in the case. There have always been people who chose wealth in disgrace over the simple honor of a life of hard work and sacrifices. In the old country, this was a real, almost permanent choice. “Everything dies,” the old Persian expression went, “except a name.”
But out here, where bootleggers’ children grow up to become president and a few million can get your name above a school or synagogue door, who’s to say that’s not a false choice? Commit the crime, weather the storm, then go out and purchase an even better name than you had before. The question, for our community, is whether we’ll go the American way and buy and sell a name as easily as a used car, or whether we’ll pause, and remember, and stay true to our own heritage.
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.
Financier Namvar’s conviction reveals community wounds
Once a pillar of the local Iranian Jewish community, businessman and philanthropist Ezri Namvar was a trusted friend to whom many in the community loaned money freely and without fear. Namvar’s reputation, which has been tarnished during the last several years, was dealt another blow on May 19, when Namvar, 59, was convicted on four counts of wire fraud in a downtown Los Angeles federal court.
After only three hours of deliberation, the jury found that Namvar had failed to return $21 million entrusted for safekeeping to his company, Namco Financial Exchange Corp. (NFE), and instead invested the money in risky real estate deals. NFE’s controller, Hamid Tabatabai, 62, was also convicted on four counts of fraud for a scheme with Namvar from March 2008 to August 2008 to defraud five of NFE’s clients of 1031 funds. According to the federal tax code, 1031 funds are profits realized from the sale of a business or investment property that are not immediately liable for capital gains taxes when the money is used to purchase a similar replacement property.
Namvar was indicted in September 2010 on charges that he returned only $4 million of the $27 million in 1031 funds given to his company for safekeeping. The indictment charged that the funds were used by Namvar without authorization for various purposes unrelated to the clients; it also indicated that Namvar, with the help of Tabatabai, used NFE’s clients’ funds to pay off creditors and investors of Namvar’s investment company, Namco Capital Group Inc., as well as Namvar’s personal creditors.
Namvar’s criminal conviction is the latest in a slew of problems he has encountered. In late 2008, two dozen creditors — most of them from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community — filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Namvar and his Namco Capital Group company, accusing him of losing as much as $500 million loaned to him in an alleged Ponzi scheme. That case is still ongoing.
Several Iranian Jews who lost money through Namvar’s actions expressed satisfaction at the jury verdict last week, particularly because Namvar has denied wronging anyone in his own community.
“Many of us victims feel that justice has been served somewhat today with this conviction,” said Abraham Assil, an Iranian Jewish businessman and Namvar creditor. “But we still believe more criminal charges need to be brought against the other Namvar family members involved for their role as accomplices to the criminal actions of Ezri Namvar.”
According to a statement released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice, both Namvar and Tabatabai are facing sentences of up to 80 years in federal prison.
David Peyman, a Los Angeles-based attorney specializing in white-collar criminal defense, said Namvar will more likely face concurrent sentences of about 78 months for each count he was convicted on (a total of about seven years) — because federal sentencing guidelines are driven by the amount lost in each case. At the same time, Peyman said, the judge in the case will have some discretion.
“One of the factors judges always look at in coming to a sentencing decision is deterrence — will their sentence in one case send a message to others,” said Peyman, who has successfully served as a defense attorney in federal criminal securities cases. “That can never be the dominant factor, but it’s always in the mix.”
U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson ordered Namvar released on bail and subject to home incarceration with electronic monitoring. Anderson has scheduled a June 1 hearing to determine whether Namvar will be sent back to jail prior to his sentencing, scheduled for Aug. 22.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown Los Angeles and Namvar’s attorney did not return calls for comment on the case. A. David Youssefyeh, a Century City Iranian Jewish attorney representing some of Namvar’s Iranian Jewish creditors, said Namvar’s conviction has been a long time coming for many of his creditors.
“The fact that Ezri Namvar was convicted of fraud is a surprise to no one,” Youssefyeh said. “However, justice is not done yet. Justice will be done when Mr. Namvar is sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.”
In addition to Namvar’s involuntary bankruptcy nearly three years ago, 17 more lawsuits have since been filed against Namvar, Namco, entities owned by Namvar and other Namvar family members, alleging breach of contract and contractual fraud in a case that attorneys estimate involves 300 to 400 creditors — the majority of them Iranian Jews.
Youssefyeh said Namvar’s creditors have been particularly frustrated during the last nearly three years because they have had to endure tremendous financial hardships while Namvar has continued to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and made a concerted effort to hide his assets during the bankruptcy proceedings.
A report released in early 2010 by the trustees in Namvar’s bankruptcy case states that Namco owes more than $500 million to more than 170 secured and unsecured creditors. The report also states that Namco is owed more than $600 million from loans it made to 16 members of Namvar’s family, various limited liability corporations owned by Namvar and to more than 60 individuals and entities. In addition, the report indicates that Namvar gave himself a loan of more than $32 million, and he also gave $50 million to each of his four children.
Many of Namvar’s Iranian Jewish creditors are low- to middle-income couples, individuals or retired seniors who invested their savings with Namvar and his company, hoping to receive higher interest rates than what most banks were offering. Their investments ranged from $10,000 to $300,000, and most said they have lost all hope of regaining their funds.
The Namvar case has bitterly divided Southern California’s tight-knit Iranian Jewish community, with many of the Namvar creditors expressing frustration with the community’s social and religious leadership, whom they accuse of remaining largely silent about Namvar’s culpability.
“Early on, Rabbi David Shofet [of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills] indicated in a formal letter that if Namvar was proven in court to be a thief, then he and his family must give back the money that they took from people,” said Assil, one of the first creditors to initiate the involuntary bankruptcy proceedings against Namvar. “Today I’d like to see what the rabbi’s statement is to Namvar’s conviction.”
Calls to Nessah Synagogue requesting comment were not returned. Nor were calls made to the West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, an umbrella group for the community.
Under community pressure, in April 2010, Namvar voluntarily quit his post on Nessah’s board.
Some other Namvar victims have strongly defended Shofet and other community rabbis for their efforts to resolve the financial dispute through the beit din, or religious courts. Both Namvar and the creditors rejected this option.
“I can say with certainty, since I have attended many meetings on this matter, that our rabbis — particularly Rav David Shofet — were involved in helping with this case, even before the case was taken into bankruptcy, so as to resolve the matter without causing so much hardship,” said George Haroonian, a Namvar creditor and local Iranian Jewish community activist. “Now some in this community wrongly expect the rabbis to have executive power, which they don’t.”
Several older Iranian Jewish activists said cases involving financial disputes among Jews in Iran traditionally were settled by the community’s leadership, key businessmen and elders — outside the court system — gathering all parties involved and helping out those who had suffered the economic loss, a practice that no longer is feasible in the United States, at least in this instance.
Haroonian said Shofet and other local Iranian rabbis also have been wrongly accused of financial misdeeds through an ongoing smear e-mail campaign.
“Many wrongly thought that the rabbis were financially involved with Namvar, but this has been proven to be a false and vicious rumor — a letter released by the bankruptcy trustees has proven that there was no such involvement by the rabbis,” Haroonian said.
For his part in defending the rabbis and advocating for a more moderate community dialogue and approach regarding the Namvar case, Haroonian said he has also been targeted by the e-mail campaign, falsely accusing him of “collaborating with Namvar.”
“The fact is, my family and I have not gotten back a dime of our money, when a couple of individuals who support this lie [about my family], have gotten back some of their money from Namco,” Haroonian said.
Emotions continue to run high in the community. Representatives of a handful of local nonprofit Iranian Jewish organizations that offer relief to those in need said that over the last few years they have been overwhelmed by calls from Iranian Jews in need as a result of the fraud. With their budgets already hard-hit by the economic downturn, the organizations have been unable to help everyone.
Investment fraud scandals involving two other local Iranian Jews have added to the local community’s difficulties.
In January 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against John Farahi, 52, a popular Iranian Jewish radio talk-show host, who also served as an investment adviser and stockbroker for local Iranian Jews. That suit alleges that Farahi and his Beverly Hills firm, NewPoint Financial Services Inc., defrauded Iranian American investors of millions of dollars and that Farahi; his company; his wife, Gissou Rastegar Farahi; and the firm’s controller, Elaheh Amouei; misled investors by telling them their funds were being invested in unsecured corporate bonds, FDIC-insured certificates of deposit, government bonds and corporate bonds issued by companies backed by funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
Also over the last few years, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed by various L.A.-area Iranian Jews and other businesses alleging that Beverly Hills Iranian Jewish businessman Joseph Boodaie defrauded them of a combined total of close to $100 million, according to one local attorney. No criminal charges have been filed against Farahi or Boodaie.
Nevertheless, Namvar’s creditors said that Namvar’s criminal conviction would send a message to other Iranian Jewish businessmen seeking to potentially defraud investors. Still, the community will need many years to heal from the fallout from this crisis.
For more in-depth interviews regarding the Namvar case, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/.
Iranian Jewish investor guilty of fraud
An Iranian Jewish real estate investor in Los Angeles was found guilty of fraud after he was accused of stealing $21 million from clients.
Ezri Namvar, 59, was convicted May 19 in Los Angeles federal court on four counts of wire fraud and faces up to 80 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for August.
Namvar is accused of misusing $21 million of the $25 million garnered from the real estate transactions of four clients of his Namco Financial Exchange Corp. The clients had deposited the money with the company until it could be reinvested.
Members of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles also are suing Namvar for hundreds of millions of dollars that he was supposed to invest. They say Namvar took the money and created a Ponzi scheme in order to use the funds for personal expenses, including his brother’s wedding.
Israel watching Syria-bound Iranian warships
Two Iranian warships have left for Syria and plan to sail through the Suez Canal, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.
Lieberman in a statement released Wednesday called the move a recurring Iranian “provocation.” His statement suggested that Israel would not ignore Iran’s actions.
“The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations,” he said.
In a conference call Wednesday on new Iran sanctions, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said Iran’s move was legal but “very provocative.”
Iran may be able to cross the canal now that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been deposed.
[UPDATE] Iranians demonstrate in support of Egypt
One protester was killed and dozens were injured as thousands of Iranians demonstrated in support of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Dozens of opposition protesters were arrested in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, and Iranian security forces fired tear gas at protesters marching in central Tehran toward Freedom Square on Monday, Reuters reported.
Iranian officials banned rallies in support of Egypt. Opposition leaders reportedly had planned such rallies after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in public remarks that the Egyptian reformists had taken a page from Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 in toppling a monarchy supported by the West.
Also Monday, anti-government protesters demonstrated in the streets of Yemen and Bahrain.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed the Iranian protestors, telling reporters Monday in Washington that they “deserve to have the same rights that they saw being played out in Egypt and are part of their own birthright.”
The European Jewish Congress called on European leaders to press unequivocally for democracy and freedom for the Iranian people and express concern about the situation in Iran.
EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor called on European leaders to issue similar responses that were released during the recent demonstrations in the Arab world.
“In the spirit of the ongoing fight for democracy in the region, it is vital that the European leaders do not suddenly fall silent when they are needed the most,” Kantor said. “As Europeans we should fully support those who fight for freedoms that we take for granted.”
Iranian Jewish banker Ezri Namvar indicted on federal fraud charges
Los Angeles Iranian Jewish banker and real estate investor Ezri Namvar, 59, was indicted on Sept. 21 by a federal grand jury on five counts of fraud. The charges allege he failed to return $23 million given for safekeeping to his company, Namco Financial Exchange Corp. (NFE), and instead invested the money in risky real estate deals.
The indictment filed in U.S. District Court also includes charges of five counts of fraud against NFE’s controller Hamid Tabatabai, 62, alleging that both he and Namvar carried out a scheme from March 2008 to August 2008 to defraud five of NFE’s clients of 1031 funds, which, according to the federal tax code, refers to profits realized from the sale of a business or investment property that are not immediately liable for capital gains taxes if the money is used to purchase a similar replacement property.
Namvar’s indictment charges that he returned only $4 million of the $27 million NFE’s clients’ 1031 funds gave his company for safekeeping, and that these funds were used by Namvar without authorization for various purposes unrelated to the clients. The indictment also alleges Namvar, with the help of Tabatabai, used NFE’s clients’ funds to pay off creditors and investors of Namvar’s investment company, Namco Capital Group Inc. as well as Namvar’s personal creditors.
Tabatabai surrendered to the F.B.I. and was arraigned on Sept. 23 at the downtown Los Angeles Federal District Court. Namvar agreed to be arraigned on Sept. 27 in the same court. Both men could face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison for each count of fraud, if convicted.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown L.A. and Namvar’s attorney did not return calls for comment on the case. A. David Youssefyeh, a Century City Iranian Jewish attorney representing some of Namvar’s Iranian Jewish creditors in other civil cases against Namvar, said his clients and other creditors who lost their life savings to Namvar have expressed satisfaction that the charges have been brought against the financier.
“For two years, Mr. Namvar has been lounging around in his mansion in Brentwood while they [the creditors] have had to pickup what is left of their finances to try to squeeze out a living—for quite a few that has meant being evicted from their homes,” Youssefyeh said. “Although the indictment can’t put their lives back together, at least his victims know that Mr. Namvar will not be able to walk away without any consequence to him either”.
Namvar was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in December, 2008, and accused by investors of creating a Ponzi scheme that lost as much as $500 million loaned to him — most of it by Los Angeles’ Iranian Jews. The petition followed 17 lawsuits filed against Namvar, Namco, entities owned by Namvar and other Namvar family members, alleging breach of contract and contractual fraud in a case that attorneys estimate involves 300 to 400 creditors, the majority of them Iranian Jews.
The creditors include investors in Namco Capital Group, those lenders to Namco who received a personal guarantee from Namvar, lenders to Namco who received a lien on property owed by Namvar or one his entities and those who gave profits from their real estate transactions (1031 funds) to Namvar, according to the lawsuits.
A report released earlier this year by the trustees in Namvar’s bankruptcy case showed that Namco owes more than $500 million to more than 170 secured and unsecured creditors. The report also states that Namco is owed more than $600 million from loans it made to 16 members of Namvar’s family, various limited liability corporations owned by Namvar and to more than 60 individuals and entities. In addition, the report indicates that Namvar gave himself a loan of more than $32 million, and he also gave $50 million to each of his four children.
Many of Namvar’s Iranian Jewish creditors are low- to middle-income couples, individuals or retired seniors who invested their small savings with Namvar and his company, hoping to receive higher interest rates than what most banks were offering at the time. Their investments ranged anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000, and most said they had lost all hope of regaining their funds.
Separately, another investment scandal hit the Iranian Jewish community in early January of this year, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against John Farahi, 52, a popular Iranian Jewish radio talk show host who also served as an investment adviser and stockbroker for local Iranian Jews. The suit alleges that Farahi and his Beverly Hills firm, NewPoint Financial Services Inc., defrauded Iranian American investors of millions of dollars and that Farahi, his company, his wife, Gissou Rastegar Farahi, and the firm’s controller, Elaheh Amouei, misled investors by telling them their funds were being invested in unsecured corporate bonds, FDIC-insured certificates of deposit, government bonds, and corporate bonds issued by companies backed by funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The complaint against Farahi alleges that investors’ money was transferred into personal accounts controlled by Farahi and his wife to build their mansion in Beverly Hills, as well as into risky stock market options that resulted in more than $18 million in losses for investors.
A third alleged Ponzi scheme that rocked the local Iranian Jewish community came to light this year when lawsuits were brought against Joseph Boodaie, also a Beverly Hills Iranian Jewish businessman who lent money and offered community members higher rates of return on their savings than most banks. Last year, nearly a dozen lawsuits were filed by various L.A.-area Iranian Jews and other businesses alleging that Boodaie had defrauded them of a combined total of close to $100 million, according to one local attorney.
Amidst mounting pressure from local Iranian Jews and the board of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, Namvar quit his position on the synagogue’s board last April. Nessah’s board and the West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation did not return calls for comment on Namvar’s indictment.
For more on the Namvar case visit Karmel Melamed’s blog online: www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/
IRANIAN ELECTION ANALYSIS: All Iran candidates will bolster Hamas, Hezbollah ties
One winner has already been declared in the Iranian elections: The Internet, used by more than 23 million Iranians, or 34 percent of the population. But that figure alone cannot be used to determine which of the four candidates will win. At the very most, one can assume most Web users will vote for reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, rather than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mohsen Rezeai.
Although the presidential race is based mostly on the individual skills of the candidates, their agendas and public record are no less important. The candidates have almost insignificant differences on issues of core interest to the West and Israel. All of the candidates have said they are willing to hold a dialogue with the U.S., but say it would be gradual and depend on U.S. policy. Even Ahmadinejad has expressed his willingness to talk to the U.S. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.
Car Wash Brothers Face Labor Abuse Charges
Since two local Iranian Jewish brothers were charged with a 176-count criminal complaint by the L.A. City Attorney’s Office in February for alleged labor law violations at their car washes, many area Iranian Jewish business owners are quietly expressing support for the pair. And some believe they are being singled out for political reasons.
The complaint alleges that Benny Pirian, 38, and Nissan Pirian, 31, the owners of four car washes in Northridge, Hollywood and Los Feliz, routinely refused to pay their workers minimum wage, failed to pay their workers overtime, prevented their workers from taking rest breaks and required their workers to purchase uniforms and equipment from them, in addition to other violations of state labor laws. The complaint also alleges that workers who attempted to unionize the car washes with the help of the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers were intimidated and harassed, and that a manager at one of the car washes brandished a machete and a club in two such union-busting incidents.
The City Attorney’s Office also alleges that the Pirians failed to provide medical attention to workers who were seriously injured by acid burns, deep puncture wounds and severe lacerations while on the job. If convicted on all counts, the Pirians could face more than 80 years in county jail and more than $1.25 million in fines and restitution.
“This was a joint investigation involving the investigators from our office and from the United States Department of Labor,” said Max Follmer, a City Attorney’s Office spokesperson. “Our offices investigated this case for some time, interviewing more than 40 witnesses.”
The Pirians’ arraignment is scheduled for May 7 in L.A. Superior Court.
The criminal charges are just the latest troubles for the Pirians. Bet Tzedek, the L.A.-based Jewish nonprofit law firm, first filed a civil class-action suit against the brothers and their four car washes last May on behalf of nearly 250 current and former workers for unpaid wages as well as denial of rest and meal breaks.
The Pirians declined to speak on the record with The Journal about the criminal charges and other litigation, directing inquiries instead to their attorney, Mark Werksman.
Werksman denied his clients’ wrongdoing and said the criminal and civil cases brought against his clients were retaliation stemming from the Pirians’ lack of support for unionizing activities at their car washes.
“The criminal charges are baseless and rely on frivolous, unproveable allegations made by union organizers who are trying to punish the Pirians and their employees for resisting their union drive,” he said. “The union has launched a campaign of harassment and frivolous litigation to bludgeon the Pirians into submission, and this prosecution is their latest weapon.”
While many local Iranian Jewish community leaders declined to comment on the Pirians’ case, business owners in the community have been quietly supporting the brothers over the past few months.
“This criminal case is politically motivated since the outgoing City Attorney [Rocky] Delgadillo wants to curry favor with the unions before he leaves office in June,” said Houshang F., an Iranian Jewish car wash owner in the San Fernando Valley who asked that his last name be withheld. “These brothers are just being made an example of by Delgadillo to scare the rest of us car wash owners into bowing down to the unions.”
Follmer said that the criminal charges brought against the Pirians were not politically motivated. “The charges were brought by experienced career prosecutors and based upon evidence developed over the course of lengthy and complete prosecutions,” he said.
Bijan Yaghoobia, an Iranian Jewish former car wash owner, said many in the Iranian Jewish community are standing in support of the Pirians despite the numerous allegations of wrongdoings.
“There was shock in the community over the charges but a lot more compassion for these guys because they were the ones singled out over others. The belief is that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Yaghoobia said.
Several Iranian car wash owners said their business has long had problems with monitoring laborers since many of their workers are undocumented; they often come on their off days to work for tips alone and sometimes they leave the country for long periods of time.
“I think the car washes are an easy target in the city for these labor violations, even though there are plenty of garment businesses, light manufacturing companies and even restaurants using illegal labor,” Houshang F. said.
According to California State Labor Codes, a person’s immigration status is irrelevant when it comes to their employers’ duty to pay employees minimum wages, allow for rest and meal breaks and follow all other labor laws.
Yaghoobia, who owned several car washes for 13 years, said car washes have long been popular among Iranian Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles since it is a profitable, low-skill cash business. He added that many car washes use illegal labor to reduce costs and prices, which in turn puts financial pressure on owners who follow labor laws and hire documented workers.
“The problem arises when you’re in an area where there are other car washes who are hiring illegals, or not paying minimum wages or hiring tip workers. You have to compete with them since they have lower prices,” Yaghoobia said.
Bet Tzedek’s current civil case against the Pirians is also not the first, said Kevin Kish, Bet Tzedek’s director of legal services. In 2005, Bet Tzedek represented a Pirian car wash employee in a lawsuit for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime in a case that was eventually settled, he said.
Kish said the latest health and safety citations received by the Pirians’ car washes were in December 2008 from the California Department of Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety and Health division.
According to records from the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, while criminal charges were not previously brought against the Pirians, a different car wash owner was previously convicted of labor law violations in November 2005. In that case, the owner was ordered to pay more than $160,000 in restitution to 11 workers and to complete community service requirements with Caltrans.
Yaghoobia said that while individuals may be quick to blame car wash owners like the Pirians for labor violations, the fault in such cases often lie with both workers and their employers.
“Both sides are at fault because, for example, you tell your worker to take a lunch break but he works through it to make tips and everything is hunky dory until one day the laborer gets upset with the owner for some reason so he goes to the Labor Board and claims he’s been mistreated,” he said. “At the same time many of the owners are uneducated about the state labor laws and the accountants they hire don’t always educate them about these laws.”
For more about this story and local Iranian Jews, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.
Roger Cohen’s Dialogue with the Iran Jewish Community
For video footage of the dialogue, click here.
There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 members of the local Iranian Jewish and Bahai communities last week, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.
Last month, Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, returned from a reportorial visit to Iran and wrote a column for the Times headlined “What Iran’s Jews Say.”
In the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, Cohen talked to a handful of Jews, who are among the 25,000 remaining in Iran out of a one-time community of 100,000. Cohen reported that the Jews were “living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.”
Despite the Holocaust denials and rants by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Cohen wrote.
To some 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles who had uprooted themselves from their ancient homeland, Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naïve at best and a mockery of their own experiences at worst.
They inundated Cohen and the New York Times with letters and e-mails, and the columnist agreed to fly to Los Angeles to address his critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large proportion of Iranian congregants.
What could have been a highly emotional face-off went well, thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy presentation and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during the more emotional question-and-answer period.
Cohen started by expanding on the main points of his earlier column:
* Labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and then the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.”
* Iranians are a proud people, but pay little attention to the regime’s propaganda and incitements. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of six million victims.”
* Iran’s leadership is mainly pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
* Iran is the most democratic state in the Middle East, outside Israel, and is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
* An attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would be a global disaster. “Force is the unthinkable option,” Cohen said, and mutually respectful negotiations are the only answer.
* Although he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen believes that Israel “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza” and that Hamas and Hizbollah are “established political forces,” that cannot be eliminated by military means.
The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.
Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.
Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”
Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”
Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.
“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.
Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.
Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.
Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”
Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community, seven of whose leaders in Iran were recently imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies.
Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais, but was aware of their plight.
Despite his stout defense, it became obvious that Cohen was affected by the direct or implied criticism of his views by a knowledgeable audience.
“I feel your anger, indignation and pain,” he said. “I think that at some level you retain a love of country [Iran]. But I hope you will give some thought to what I have said.”
A sampling of audience reactions after the talk revealed little indication that Cohen’s request was acceptable.
“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation, and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” commented Jasmin Niku, a 22-year old law student.
Two veteran community leaders, who rarely see eye-to-eye but have excellent contacts inside Iran, also expressed strong reservations.
“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.
Sam Kermanian was particularly disappointed, after spending two hours one-on-one with Cohen earlier in the day, trying to explain the real situation in Iran.
Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy, based in Iran, said that the Teheran government is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.
“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” added Kermanian, “then he has been deceived.”
L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches — big hearted Angelenos
“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”
The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.
Boy, could we use some now.
As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong — either out of evil, in Madoff’s case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.
So we look to The Journal’s fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.
The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.
Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….
Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause
It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.
“I had a really bad stutter when I was kid,” the now 27-year-old recalled recently. “My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk.”
Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).
By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.
In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.
“We wanted to do well in our work,” he said. “We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that’s kinda where SYP was born.”
Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn’t until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.
At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.
“He was really seen as a leader even among his peers,” said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.
However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events — big, bold, boisterous events — and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.
“We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms,” Halimi said. “If you’re going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause.”
On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP’s first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.
Approximately 500 young Angelenos — mostly ages 18-30 — raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.
Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn’t directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.
“It was just so beautiful,” Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service’s relief work in Darfur. “We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help.”
“It goes to the principle of tikkun olam,” healing the world, he said.
SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.
“We don’t want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone,” he said.
The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.
In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.
When asked, Halimi said he doesn’t consider himself a mensch — he’s not worthy, he claimed — but he offered up this definition of one: “Someone who can see past themselves.”
But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, “In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe.”
— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer
Kim Krowne: ‘Hakuna Matata’Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids
Kim Krowne thought she’d be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She’s been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.
Once a “total planner,” Krowne’s current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata — “there’s no problem” in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. “Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There’s so much work to be done,” she said.
The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.
At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn’t afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.
She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.
The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.
When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.
They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.
Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.
They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic’s roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.
Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.
To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.
Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne’s ability to transcend barriers. “Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched,” she said. “We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives.”
To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor
Creditors force Ezri Namvar into involuntary bankruptcy
Businessman and philanthropist Ezri Namvar was once a pillar of the local Iranian Jewish community, a trusted friend to whom many in the community loaned freely and without fear.
Now Namvar and his investment company, Namco Capital Group, Inc., are accused of losing as much as $400 million loaned to him.
For the last three months, lawsuits have been filed and extensive negotiations have been taking place to resolve the hundreds of millions of dollars in disputes between Namvar’s creditors and the Brentwood Iranian Jewish businessman. On Dec. 22, two dozen creditors filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Namvar and Namco.
The petition follows 17 lawsuits filed against Namvar, Namco, entities owned by Namvar and other Namvar family members alleging breach of contract and contractual fraud in a case that attorneys estimate involves 300 to 400 creditors, the majority of whom are Iranian Jews.
“Disputes happen all the time, but the magnitude of this case is huge,” said A. David Youssefyeh, a local Iranian Jewish attorney who is advising nearly 20 Iranian Jewish creditors in this case, of whom only a small group participated in the filing of the petition. “This case hits people in the community from such a broad socio-economic level — it includes everyone, from students that had entrusted Mr. Namvar with their bar mitzvah money, to retired people who invested their entire life savings in Namco and were paying their living expenses from the interest they received from the company.”
The creditors include investors in Namco Capital Group, those who lent money to Namco and received a personal guarantee from Namvar, lenders to Namco who received a lien on property owed by Namvar or one his entities and those who gave profits from their real estate transactions (1031 funds) to Namvar, according to the lawsuits.
“For 1031 money, the IRS will allow delayed payment of taxes on profits people give to a facilitator, such as Mr. Namvar, to hold for them until they find a substitute property to purchase,” Youssefyeh said. “But now that that money is gone, the people that entrusted Mr. Namvar with the money may potentially have to pay taxes on monies that they don’t have.”
Problems first arose nearly five months ago, when various creditors discovered they were unable to retrieve funds they had invested in Namco or given to Namvar, and that they were also no longer receiving interest payments from monies invested his company, Youssefyeh said.
While some community members filed suits to regain their money, the majority hoped instead to resolve the issue outside of the courts, in the traditional manner of the tight-knit community.
“Back in Iran, whenever a businessman in the Jewish community was unable to pay his creditors, the community leaders would get together and devise a plan to help the businessman get back on his feet financially so that he could repay those debts,” said Ebrahim Yahid, a community activist in his 80s who is a close friend of the Namvar family.
Indeed, such a group was organized after a meeting on Nov. 5 between Namvar and Namco’s Iranian Jewish creditors, according to a statement released to The Jewish Journal by the group on Dec. 16. Namco’s creditors first nominated and then voted to create a provisional committee, including prominent, independent community members. The group planned to trace all of Namvar’s assets and propose solutions to the creditors, according to the statement.
The all-volunteer committee included retired banker and former president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) Solomon Agahi and former IAJF Secretary General Sam Kermanian, as well as businessmen Jack Rochel and Nejat Sarshar. They had their first meeting on Nov. 24, according to the statement, and they were offered full authority by Namvar to resolve the disputes. The committee also hired an independent forensic accountant and attorney.
Nevertheless, talks broke down, and Youssefyeh said he advised his clients to file the bankruptcy petition when his negotiations with the local Iranian Jewish community leaders and Namco’s attorney failed to secure a deal to retrieve their investments for his clients and the nearly 200 other local Iranian Jewish creditors.
Youssefyeh said he became frustrated because Namvar’s paybacks seemed designed to protect the wealthy creditors, rather than the small investors whose life savings had been jeopardized. “What particularly made me mad was that with the $12 [million] to $13 million, Mr. Namvar could pay off 190 people, most of which needed the money for their survival, that had entrusted Mr. Namvar with $200,000 or less,” Youssefyeh said. “But people close to him told me that instead of Mr .Namvar paying off these creditors, Mr. Namvar had earmarked the remaining $17 million that he would receive from the sale of his Wilshire Bundy Plaza building to pay his 1031 obligations first, in order to avoid any potential liability arising from the 1031 funds not being available to the investors.”
Youssefyeh said bankruptcy was the only available option to protect his clients, because it allows the courts to distribute Namvar’s assets and even reverses settlement payments Namvar had made to his more affluent creditors, who have the financial means to proceed with litigation against him.
According to the bankruptcy petition, filed in U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court in downtown Los Angeles, the dozen creditors include both Iranian Jews and non-Jews, with more than $7 million in claims against Namco Capital Group and $7 million in personal claims against Namvar.
While members of the provisional committee declined to comment on the filing, legal experts said the petition nullifies the committee’s ability to settle the case, giving the courts the responsibility of distributing Namvar and Namco’s assets.
Some community leaders, who asked not to be identified, argued that the bankruptcy petition could hurt the community’s numerous creditors, because they might never receive their money back, since the case could take years to litigate and any available monies could be eaten up by attorneys’ fees as well as other costs.
Youssefyeh defended the bankruptcy petition. “The [provisional] committee had not taken any steps to take control of Mr. Namvar’s assets and in so many words said that they were not qualified to disperse his assets,” he said, adding, “yes, it will be painful and take a long time, but at the end of the day there was no other viable solution that would have frozen the assets, brought all of the preferential transfers and securitization money back into the pot.”
Local Iranian Jews had been investing with Namvar and Namco since the late 1990s. The relationships were based on his family’s reputation for being honorable as well as his success in real estate development, Yahid said.
Some have compared Namvar’s situation to the Bernard Madoff scandal, which involves a Ponzi scheme, but this is unfair, according to Namvar’s friends and community supporters, who say Namvar’s losses are due simply to the economic downturn.
“I know he [Namvar] did not have bad intentions — the economy around the whole world has gone downward, including the real estate market here in Los Angeles, and everyone is hurting, including himself,” Yahid said. “If he really had bad intentions, he would not have welcomed the committee to resolve this case, but would have instead declared immediate bankruptcy himself and destroyed the lives of hundreds in our community.”
Thousands protest Ahmadinejad in New York — no Clinton, no Palin [VIDEO]
NEW YORK (JTA)—Thousands of protesters filled Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations for a rally against Iran’s president, who came to town to address the General Assembly.
“The message to him is please go home,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said at Monday’s demonstration. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, go home and stay home. We don’t want you here.”
Wiesel called for U.N. members to declare Ahmadinejad persona non grata and to exit the General Assembly hall in protest when he speaks Tuesday afternoon.
“In truth, the proper place of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not in the U.N.,” Wiesel said. “His place is before an international tribunal which will charge him with inciting crimes against humanity.”
The Jewish-sponsored rally was meant to highlight the Iranian regime’s threats to Israel and the rest of the world with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as its Holocaust denial, and to send a message to Ahmadinejad, organizers said.
Rally speakers stayed on message, slamming the visiting Iranian leader and warning of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States, Israel and the world.
Nessah Young Professionals party like Paris Hilton; New VP for Masorti women
Nessah Young Professionals Party Like Paris Hilton
Dubbed the “Glamour Summer Night,” the Nessah Young Professionals’ Aug. 26 annual gala drew more than 600 local Iranian Jewish young professionals and college students to the Area nightclub in West Hollywood, where they danced the night away to live music while also raising money on behalf of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).
Funds generated by the event this year were set aside for the creation of a mobile recreation facility — a place to relax, socialize, exercise and check their e-mail — for Israeli commandos, who aren’t given enough time off from assignments along the Israel-Lebanon border to visit permanent FIDF recreational facilities.
“It is so very meaningful and heartwarming to realize that although we live in Beverly Hills, we are still able to have fun, mingle and raise enough money to build a mobile club for our brothers and sisters who are defending and protecting our homeland in Israel,” said Simon Etehad, head of the young professionals group based out of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “Some of those Israeli soldiers have just completed high school and are not even old enough to drink.”
As in years past, the fundraiser’s ultra-hip venue was donated by SBE Entertainment, which is owned by Iranian Jewish hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian.
Nessah Young Professionals members said the recreational facility in Israel will also be dedicated in memory of Daniel Levian, a local Iranian Jew in his 20s who died last month in an automobile accident. In past years, the young professionals group has raised funds for other FIDF projects, including the LEGACY Program, which provides all-expenses-paid trips to attend summer camp in the United States for bar and bat mitzvah-age children who had a family member killed in action.
— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer
Brandes’ ‘Quarrel’ Opens Off-Broadway
Pico-Robertson playwright/producer David Brandes has turned his 1991 film “The Quarrel” into an off-Broadway play.
Co-authored by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Quarrel” tells the story of two estranged friends — a pious rabbi and a secular writer — who reconnect in an accidental meeting after years of being separated by betrayal and war. What ensues is “a fierce battle of wits and a raw test of friendship, faith and tolerance,” according to publicity materials.
The play opened last week at the DR2 Theatre in New York, where it will run through Sept. 28.
New Veep for Women’s Masorti Movement
Tobie Rosenberg is in line to become vice president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Among her many leadership positions in the Jewish community, Rosenberg has served on the board of directors of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Valley Beth Shalom, as well as on the International Board and Torah Fund Cabinet of the Women’s League.
Rosenberg will be installed at the 2008 biennial convention on Nov. 9 in Dearborn, Mich.
Founded in 1918, the Women’s League is the umbrella organization overseeing 600 affiliated women’s groups in Conservative/Masorti synagogues in the country.
ADL Reunion Brings Together Scattered Graduates
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reunited 100 graduates from its Glass Leadership Institute, a program established 10 years ago that grooms young professionals for leadership in the ADL. The purpose of the event was to reconnect graduates with the ADL, some of who have gone on to leadership positions within the organization and others who have become lay leaders in other areas of the Jewish community.
Each year, 20 to 25 young professionals in their late 20s to early 40s are nominated to the 10-month institute (formerly known as the Salvin Leadership Institute), which provides education on hate crimes, terrorism, Holocaust education and Israel advocacy. The institute has become a significant talent pool for the ADL, giving rise to new generations of lay leaders.
Current ADL regional board chair Nicole Muchnik is a graduate of the program, along with board officer Seth Gerber and former regional chair Murray Levin.
The ADL is currently accepting nominations for next year’s class. For more information, call (310) 446-4243 or visit http://www.adl.org.
Who you calling rebbetzin, why you dissing Palin, what college anti-Semitism?
The Rabbi’s Spouse
In her recent story, Danielle Berrin contemplates the role of the clergy’s spouse (“Who You Calling Rebbetzin?” Sept. 12).
It seems that one of the downsides is being misunderstood.
I repeatedly emphasized to Danielle that my voluntary role in our community is one which I gladly fill both at our synagogue and in our children’s school, because these are the communities where our family belongs, and I feel a personal responsibility to help. Never at any time did I or will I expect any financial compensation for the work I volunteer to do in my community.
I created the position that I fill because I care about the community and am proud to help build our congregation along with my husband.
I wish there would have been some way for that positive message to have been better expressed in the article.
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel
We would like to thank Danielle Berrin for her article on the contemporary rebbetzin.
We were subjects in this piece, and we could not be more pleased. Within the Jewish world so many of us seek connection — with God, with community, with mitzvot, and yes — with the rabbi’s family!? Through her article Ms. Berrin gave our community a chance to get to know us a little better, with the hope of strengthening those connections — that is indeed a holy pursuit, a true mitzvah.
As rabbis who are also rebbetzins, we are grateful for Ms. Berrin’s attention to the value of the rabbinic spouse.
Rabbis Deborah and Brian Schuldenfrei
The Iranian Vote
Iranian American Jews are mostly wary and distrustful of the Obama-Biden ticket.
In your Aug. 11 Iranian American Jews blog report on my debate with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and Judge Bruce Einhorn on the U.S. presidential elections, you mistakenly mentioned that I had emphasized the issue of Sen. John McCain’s experience.
In fact, my main and repeated emphasis was on the lack of understanding by Sen. Barack Obama of the nature and the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the worldwide jihadist movement, as well as Sen. Joe Biden’s long-time record of encouraging appeasement and giving one-sided concessions to the Iranian theocratic dictatorship.
I mentioned that as a Democrat, I would strongly suggest putting aside our differences and voting for McCain, due to the overwhelming urgency of the worldwide threats facing us all.
I, like most Iranian Jews, fear that the Obama-Biden administration will fail to stand up to this worldwide threat.
Religious Minority Rights in Iran
I wanted you to know that I ran across your piece as I scoured the Internet looking for my minute-by-minute updates on the election (“Post-Palin Depression” Sept. 12).
I am just an average person that fits the person you describe in “Post-Palin Depression.” I do not have a therapist, but I have been in depression for almost two weeks now.
But your article inspired me to go nearly cold turkey on election news (I didn’t think about limiting to C-SPAN and, of course, I just can’t go without “The Daily Show”). One question, before I go into detox, can I finish out my obsession until I fall asleep tonight?
Thanks for the great piece. I can’t wait for my blood pressure to resume to normal levels.
Fields of Dreams
I would like to thank David Suissa and The Jewish Journal for the moving article comparing/contrasting Trochenbrod and Camp Ramah (“Fields of Dreams,” Sept. 12).
Filmmaker Jeremy Goldscheider is doing a big mitzvah in producing a film that will preserve a part of European Jewish History, which would otherwise be lost forever.
I would like to support this project and would like more information on how to get involved. I am writing as a representative of the Blitstein family of Trochenbrod.
In his recent letter to David Suissa, Jeff Kramer stated “The truth is that they (missionaries) don’t want your soul, what they want is to help you draw closer to God and in so doing, enjoy a fuller and more complete life now and in eternity.”
This statement is written more like a true believer in Jesus than a faithful Jew who understands that the roots of Christianity originate from Roman and Hellenistic paganism and belief in the trinity and bodily incarnation of God is considered idolatrous for Jews? (“Strange Love,” Aug. 22).
This is something all denominations of Judaism agree represents the spiritual destruction of the Jewish soul.
So yes, regardless of their intention, the end result is that missionaries, who seek to convert Jews, want our soul and in doing so perpetuate a long history of anti-Judaism that disrespects and invalidates the spiritual integrity of Jews and Judaism.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Founder and Executive Director
Sleight of Hand
The directors of Stand With Us have engaged in a bit of sleight of hand (Letters, Sept. 12).
Rather than confront the fact that anti-Semitism is a negligible presence on college campuses today, they engage in name-calling. We are “elitists,” a common epithet in today’s political discourse.
If by characterizing our response as elitist, Roz Rothstein and Roberta Seid mean that we actually know what we are talking about, since we work on various college campuses (not just UCLA), then we plead guilty. Actually knowing what one is talking about is something that is very helpful in political discussions — both this one and larger national ones.
Professor Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Susan Laemmle
Professor David N. Myers
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller
Professor Roger Waldinger
There are issues pertaining to Gov. Sarah Palin’s judgment privately that should be judged publicly (“Sarah Palin and the Jews,” Sept. 5).
First, why is it not immoral to have a baby when you know that the baby has Down syndrome and the baby is your fifth?
Second, why is it not immoral to get pregnant at age 42 with your fifth child when you know or should know that the odds of having a baby with Down syndrome is increased exponentially when a women reaches 40?
According to the March of Dimes Web site, at 25, a woman has about one chance in 1,250 of having a baby with Down syndrome; at age 30, a one in 1,000 chance; at age 35, a one in 400 chance; at age 40, a one in 100 chance; at 45, a one in 30 chance.
Lastly, why is it not immoral to have a fifth baby when given our current world environment. Zero population growth should be a goal for all of us? Why not adopt instead?
The above questions should all be asked of this person, but our media just won’t go there.
Martin H. Kodish
Yes, it was nice to know that Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has good relationships with Alaska’s Jewish population, although it was hardly surprising that she is strongly pro-Israel, given that she is an evangelical Christian.
However, to describe her simply as a social conservative is a gross understatement. From all we know of her, insufficient as that is as yet, she is a rabid, right-wing ideologue.
In her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, with its clever one- and two-line zingers written by a group of the best-paid communications professionals in the business and rehearsed by Gov. Palin for at least five hours prior to its presentation, with a mixture of homey references to her family and herself, she likened her small-town roots to those of President Harry S. Truman (a senator from Missouri for 10 years before becoming vice president in January 1945).
It remains the challenge of the media to break through the blockade surrounding their access to her — talk about protectionism run amok — to ask penetrating questions about her positions on policy issues, among them: the kinds of justices she would appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court; whether she believes in multilateral, rather than unilateral, approaches to international affairs; given her opposition to government intervention into our private lives, why a woman should not have the right to make her own reproductive choices without big brother dictating her decisions.
Also, how she intends to protect the guarantees of our Bill of Rights and their erosion in the name of fighting terror; why, if she is so staunchly pro-life, she does not support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research — using embryos that will be discarded or destroyed — to improve the quality of life of those living with terrible diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, AIDs, etc.; why she opposes sex education in the schools, including teaching even kindergartners — as Barack Obama has proposed — about what they need to know, at the most primary level, in order to protect themselves from sexual predators.
In addition, where she stands on our constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state, in general, and the teaching of creationism, along with the theory of evolution, in particular; regulating gun ownership; outlawing hate crimes; drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and on and on.
With less than two months remaining before Election Day on Nov. 4, it is urgent that the media reveal what the new kid on the political block — who would be a heartbeat away from the presidency — believes about many of the most urgent issues facing our country.
I am not a supporter of the Republican ticket. However, let’s be fair to Sarah Palin on Jewish issues. First of all, most gentiles are probably not familiar with Pat Buchanan’s views on matters of Jewish concern, particularly people such as Palin, who are not known for their deep knowledge of such things. So her wearing of a Buchanan button does not signify anti-Jewish feelings.
Second, whatever one’s views may be on abortion rights, it is not a Jewish issue. The Orthodox Jewish view on abortion is similar to that of most Christian religious groups. The only pertinent Jewish issue in today’s political world is support for Israel.
The disclosure that last month Gov. Sarah Palin’s church hosted the executive director of Jews for Jesus, who told congregants that violence against Israeli Jews is God’s punishment for their failure to accept Jesus, is going to be the next club that Palin’s leftist critics pick up against her.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quotes Palin’s pastor at Wasilla Bible Church, the Rev. Larry Kroon, as saying that he doesn’t believe Jews for Jesus are deceptive.
“Look at Paul and Peter and the others, they were Jews and believed in Jesus as the messiah,” he told JTA. “There’s gentile believers and there’s Jewish believers that acknowledge Jesus as messiah. There’re Swedish believers.”
Mainstream Judaism today rejects the idea that one can believe in Jesus and still be a practicing Jew. Anyone who maintains that the two beliefs are compatible is a pariah in the Jewish community.
But these columns have been cautioning against the idea that politicians need to be held accountable for every thing that is said from the pulpits of their congregations. In an editorial of March 18, 2008, “Obama’s Moment,” we said that religion by its nature calls forth great passion, and that religious institutions, churches, synagogues, mosques, are places where things are often said that strike the congregation in a way that they might not strike the wider public.
None of this is to excuse the errors of Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or Kroon. But it is Obama and Palin who are running for office, not the clergymen.
To make a big issue of these kinds of things in respect of the candidates, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, would be to impose a religious test for office of the sort that the framers of the Constitution forbade right in Article VI, when they wrote, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
No, ever, any. They couldn’t have been more emphatic and not even in an amendment but right there in the original body of the Constitution.
Exile’s gains and losses
I don’t know what will become of the legacy of Iranian Jews outside of Iran, how history will judge us in the context of the opportunities we had and the extent to which we helped make the world a better place with what we were given.
I don’t know what our kids will think of us 30 years from now; how we’ll define ourselves in retrospect.
When I’m feeling particularly glib, I think that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did us all a favor by causing us to leave the country once and for all. But I also know that I’m being presumptuous and perhaps unfair when I say that exile has been good for our community.
It is true that hardly a day goes by when I don’t thank God and my parents for the good fortune of living in this country. I thank my parents because they had the courage and foresight, years before the Islamic revolution, to up and leave Iran for America when I was 13 years old.
It was the heyday of the shah’s reign; the Jews had never had it so good. Money grew on trees, and you could sleep at night with the doors unlocked.
Yet even then, my parents could see the cracks in the wall, imagine the limits of what was possible in Iran. They forsook home and country, family and friends, 2,000 years of roots and put their faith in the idea of America. I thank God they did, but I realize there’s an immeasurable difference between the path that my parents took — leaving on their own terms — and the road onto which so many other Iranian Jews were forced.
It’s a testament to those Jews’ powers of invention and resilience, their adaptability and courage, that they have managed, in just three decades, to succeed so relatively well in their personal and professional lives here. Still, if you were to ask me what I think Iranian Jews have gained as a result of the Islamic revolution and what I believe we have lost, I could only give the most subjective and personal of answers.
What have I gained and lost, thanks to the “troubles” — that’s what people called the revolution in the beginning — of 30 years ago?
I gained the good fortune of having a community of Iranian Jews being born here overnight, filling the loneliness and alienation I had felt in the first years of my life in Los Angeles, when hardly any Iranians lived here and hardly any Americans gave us a chance at establishing a friendship. They nodded to us politely in passing, then looked away. If they stopped long enough, it was to ask where Iran was on the map and whether people rode camels to the grocery store in Tehran.
I gained the great good fortune of witnessing our community transform for the better with each passing decade, easing up on the misogyny and intolerance that were byproducts of Islamic and Jewish practices (because Persian culture, when freed of the influences of religion, is actually quite progressive and broadminded). I gained the possibility of speaking my mind without fear, questioning tradition without shame, writing what I believe to be the truth.
In exchange for all that, I lost the country of my birth, the places of my childhood, the handprints of my ancestors on the landscape. I lost the kindness of a people who, even in the depths of poverty, opened their homes and offered their food to a stranger; the innocence of a nation that had been closed off to the world for so long that it embraced every new idea, every foreigner wholeheartedly and with faith. I lost the beauty of the land where history began, the glow of a sunlight that was older, more seasoned, more forgiving than what I’ve seen anywhere else.
I lost the colors of the costumes little girls wore to perform ethnic dances, the faces of young boys who sat on rotting rowboats along the Caspian shore, the sound of water crashing against smooth black rocks in the Karaj River, the rosewater scent of the first harvest of apples. I lost the ability to go back and see with my eyes what I can only revisit now in memory.
For me, that’s a great bargain. For some others, especially people of my parents’ generation, it might have been a tough sell.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.
For as long as I’ve worked in the Jewish community — 14 years — I’ve heard insults leveled at Iranian Jews.
They’re pushy, acquisitive, flashy, nouveau riche, cheap. They’re grasping, insincere, clannish, suspicious, old-fashioned. “They’ve ruined Beverly Hills High.” “They’ve invaded Milken High.” “They’ve taken over Sinai Temple.”
I repeat the invectives by way of making one point: Enough already.
This week marks the 30-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the ascent of the mullahs led to the exodus of thousands of Iranian Jews.
Within months, one of the world’s oldest and most vital Jewish communities had fled and scattered across the globe: Europe, Israel, the United States. It was the Jewish Diaspora, Take 392.
The bulk of the Iranian Jewish Diaspora ended up in Los Angeles. By some estimates, there are between 40,000 to 45,000 Jews of Iranian descent living in Los Angeles today, almost 10 percent of the entire Jewish population.
As these Jews integrated into American society, they also had to integrate into a Jewish community whose roots go back to the 19th century, and whose ethnic makeup was (and is) largely Ashkenazic.
On the surface, the differences are charming, but barely enough to sustain a good sitcom episode. We eat roast chicken, they eat fesenjan. We eat matzo brei, they eat kookoo sabzi (kookoo, by the way, is better). We finish dinner at 8 p.m. They start dinner at 11 p.m. (Granted, there are enough hors d’oeuvres beforehand to stuff Michael Phelps.) We honor the Torah as it passes us in synagogue by discretely touching our prayer books to it. They embrace it like a life preserver, and kiss it like a long-lost friend.
We say sweetheart. They say joon.
I learned joon at the bat mitzvah of my daughter’s close friend Daniella, whose parents came from Tehran. On the pulpit, they kept referring to their daughter as Daniella-joon. They called their rabbi, Rabbi-joon. And when Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben got up to bless the family, he called everyone joon, as well. There were titters at that one, so at dinner — around 11 p.m. — I asked what the word means.
Joon means “darling” or “sweetheart” in the Persian language, as in, “Rabbi darling.” You get the Yiddish equivalent by adding a -le at the end of a name, though I can’t imagine many rabbis adjusting to being called, “Rabbi-le.”
The sheer quantity of joons in Iranian Jewish speech points to some of the deeper differences between Los Angeles’ Iranian and non-Iranian Jewish communities. The obvious one is language, which can reinforce a sense of separateness and strangeness.
There are strong cultural preferences that easily breed conflict. There is the battle within Iranian Jewish culture to preserve traditions and mores, even if that means appearing insular, or worse, to your new Jewish neighbors.
As one jilted Jewish woman told me of her ex-boyfriend, who came from a traditional Iranian home: “I was Jewish enough to date, but not Persian enough to marry.”
For three decades now, Sinai Temple has functioned as our own laboratory for this historical moment of Iranian-Ashkenazi contact. The old, established synagogue in Westwood experienced a steady influx of Iranian Jews, who eventually comprised 30 percent to 40 percent of membership. Sinai Temple became our very own Jewish Cultural Supercollider.
Tensions rose until Rabbi David Wolpe delivered a sermon in 2001 that called on each group to do the hard work of integration and compromise.
“In order for us to be a community–not an ‘us’ and a ‘them’– we have to recognize certain things,” Wolpe intoned. “When two communities merge, there is enough pain to go around. Nobody gets everything they want. It is not only called a synagogue. It is called life. Here is the crucial point: When I say I want one community, I mean it so much I am ready to tell you this: If you or your children or your grandchildren are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you do not belong in this synagogue. I do not want an ‘us’ and a ‘them.'”
The sermon went a long way toward cooling the reactions in the Supercollider. An Iranian Jew, Jimmy Delshad, went on to become president of Sinai Temple (and eventually mayor of Beverly Hills), and from what I understand the synagogue has no more tension, infighting, gossiping and name-calling than is absolutely necessary in Jewish life.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles, there are signs the worst of the nastiness is ebbing. The younger generation has integrated into both the Jewish and larger society with astonishing speed and success. America is the Land of Hyphenated Identities, and young Iranian Jews will no doubt succeed in navigating it as have previous tribes.
As for the established Jewish community, I’d like to believe we have become 100 percent accepting. I’d like to believe that on the occasion of this 30-year anniversary, those of us who still default to — I’ll be blunt — racist generalizations, take the time to learn the remarkable recent history of Iranian Jewry — a story as compelling, frightening and death-defying for those who lived it as any our own relatives experienced.
I’d like to believe we’ll come to understand that there was exactly no — zero — difference between our antagonism of this greenhorn community and the cold-shoulder with which established German Jewish communities in America greeted the waves of our Eastern European ancestors 100 years ago.
“Many of these new arrivals . . . have brought with them unfamiliar customs, strange tongues, and ideas which are the product of centuries of unexampled persecution,” wrote Louis B. Marshall in 1904 of your bubbe and zayde. “But what of that! They have come to this country with the pious purpose of making it their home; of identifying themselves and their children with its future; of worshipping under its protection, according to their consciences; of becoming its citizens; of loving it; of giving to it their energies, their intelligence, their persistent industry.”
“The Russian Jew is rapidly becoming the American Jew,” he continued, “and we shall live to see the time when [they] will step into the very forefront of the great army of American citizenship.”
That process is well under way here in Los Angeles. Since 1978, Iranian Jews have injected into a stable, maybe even staid Jewish community talent, industry, a profound connection to their Jewish roots and a desire to have a positive political and social impact on the city. They have energized a Jewish community that could always use invigorating.
More than L.A. Jewry saved the Iranian Jews, the Iranian Jews saved L.A. Jewry.
They are, in a word, joon.