Photo by Oleg Volovik

30 under 30: Chloe Pourmorady

Sharing a musical travelogue with her violin

Chloe Pourmorady picked up a violin at the age of 9 and hasn’t put it down since. The 26-year-old Los Angeles native, who went to Sinai Akiba Academy, started out in the school orchestra there playing Jewish music, then went on to study at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), where she got a degree in violin and played classical music in the chamber ensembles.

After college, Pourmorady, the winner of the Independent Music Awards’ Best Eclectic EP and Best Eclectic Song honors in 2015, started performing in small bars, clubs and cafes. She also traveled the world, going to places such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece and Spain. Though she was performing classical music at the time, her travels gave her the idea to play the folk music of different countries.

“I studied at LMU, but I learned everything after college, through my travels and studying independently,” Pourmorady said. “I’ve gone to those places to learn music and collect folk songs and get an idea of their music culture. I’m my own ethnomusicologist. When I’m there, I just find other musicians to study with. The music finds me in one way or another.”

In Greece, she spent a month taking a workshop about that country’s traditional music. “I learned with a lot of incredible musicians and I brought the music back home to Los Angeles,” she said. “It inspires something in my own writing and composition.”

Pourmorady also incorporates Persian folk music into her performances and takes great pride in her heritage. (Her parents fled Iran before she was born due to the Islamic revolution.) Last month, she played Jewish songs during a concert with her ensemble at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of the Infinite Light Festival during Chanukah.

Two local organizations, NuRoots and Jews Indigeneous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) put on the concert. Pourmorady, who serves as an ambassador for JIMENA, said she tries to bring Persian culture to life through her music. After receiving positive feedback for the show at the Skirball, she is working on preparing  shows for Purim and Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Pourmorady also has found a way to connect with her community through a group she started last year. Called First Generation Project, it brings first-generation Iranian women together to share their art — visual, musical or other creative endeavors — with one another.

“I saw there was this issue in our community that our women felt like they couldn’t really pursue a creative path, or they were afraid to do it,” she said. “I wanted to create this project for them to embrace their creativity and showcase the women doing something special in our community.”

So far, Pourmorady has held meetings where women come and share what they’re working on — one participant brought in a skateboard that featured Persian art on it. In the future, she hopes to expand the project to other first-generation communities in Los Angeles.

Through her music, Pourmorady hopes to tell stories and to reach as many listeners as possible.

“The more styles of music I learn and perform, the more people I can connect with and the wider audiences I can touch, “ she said. “That’s really my goal as a musician and as a performer. I want to create peace.”

Backgammon ‘Shesh Besh’ smackdown

Upon visiting the high-stakes backgammon competition March 8 at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, witnesses were welcomed by the sound of dice on board, the cursing of bad luck and the occasional exclamation of “shesh besh!”

The phrase — another name for the game — comes from the Hebrew word for six (shesh) and the Turkish word for five (besh). Those two numbers represent the best possible rolls of the dice you could hope for to begin the game, giving you an edge over your opponent. When you roll a five and a six, you better call it out loud, shouting “shesh besh” at the top of your lungs so people are impressed not only with your roll, but also with your ability to call it. 

At stake in the inaugural competition, which was held in conjunction with Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), was an iPad Air, as well as an iPad mini distributed early in the day to the competitor with the best board. Temple congregant Bob Ourian took home the latter with his bright-hued board, made in Isfahan, Iran, and crafted in the elaborate khatam style — inlaid with bone, ivory and wood.

Before the competition began, Nathaniel Malka, a JIMENA advisory board member, said shesh besh is a staple in Sephardic households.

“I have a huge Iraqi family, and when I’m with family, everyone is always bragging about being the best player in the family — if not the world,” he said. “I think everybody in this room goes around telling their family they’re the best in L.A., and the scary thing is, after today, one of them can say, ‘See? I can prove it!’ ”

Sephardic Temple’s president Alex Rachmanony explained, with sage-like wisdom, “There are two ways to play. You can play offensively or defensively.” Rachmanony went on to play in the semifinals by alternating between the two strategies.

Competitors were a hodgepodge of young and old, men and women. During the preliminaries, 31-year-old Sanaz Meshkinfam took on Saul Mathalon, who at 91 was the most mature player competing at the event and who brought with him a whopping 80 years of shesh besh experience. 

Mathalon attended with his wife, Mereille, who, as the tournament progressed, became a highly coveted good-luck charm. When somebody was down on their luck, they’d call out her name — “Mereille!” — and she’d make the rounds, blow on their dice, and, more times than not, work miracles.

“Saul, you’re keeping my confidence in check,” Meshkinfam remarked after all of Mathalon’s checkers were collected in a neat pile and her chips were scattered across the board, signaling a win for the elder. Meshkinfam, an independent consultant for community and government relations, first heard about the tournament through JIMENA. 

“I knew that I’d be playing different generations,” she said about attending the event. Overall, she decided to participate because the game “brings back childhood memories.” 

“Do you know who taught me how to play?” she asked Mathalon during their game. “My grandmother,” she answered. She learned when she was only 6. 

And although shesh besh could be perceived as a man’s game, her grandmother was one tough cookie who knew her way around a board. Meshkinfam, who grew up in Iran, said that the strategies she employed in shesh besh helped her learn some valuable life lessons — like when it’s wise to be on the offensive or defensive, when to oscillate between the two, and that half the game is luck and half is strategy and smarts.

Another player who used shesh besh as a metaphor for life was Albert Cohen. While watching Mathalon slay his opponents, one after the other, he said, “This is the game of life.” 

Soon after, he relayed the story of the time his granddaughter, Amberly Hershewe, a current student at Shalhevet High School, asked Cohen to teach her how to play. Cohen’s No. 1 tip for shesh besh success was: “Don’t be vulnerable, and if you’re going to be vulnerable, calculate your move.”

By the end of day, the community backgammon competition looked like after-hours at prom. Plastic cups filled with half-consumed soft drinks littered the tables as disheveled tablecloths draped off the tabletops. Competitors with bloodshot eyes due to more than five hours of nonstop shesh besh played their final games. 

The event started at 10 a.m. with more than 30 players and dragged on until 5:30 p.m., when the number of competitors dwindled down to two. By 4 p.m., tired players mumbled, standing around, waiting for semifinals to finish and the finals to begin.

Cohen’s skill took him to finals, where he faced John Sherf, a family man who, by the end of day, was glued to his phone, promising his wife he’d be home soon. In a moment of vulnerability, Cohen made a move, making his checker susceptible to his opponent. 

“What are you doing in the last game with a move like that?” the onlookers yelled at him. 

It so happens that Cohen’s risky move is what made him champion. He won the iPad Air and, of course, said he was giving it to his granddaughter. 

Moving and shaking: The Dead Sea Scrolls, JQ International, JIMENA and more

“Dead Sea Scrolls: The Exhibition” represents not only “the birth of modern Judaism but also of Christianity … and later, Islam. … So we’re really celebrating the Abrahamic traditions and monotheistic religions,” explained David Siegel, the consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, during a press conference last week.

Siegel was introduced by Jeffrey Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, which is hosting the highly anticipated show. Siegel spoke of partnering with the center and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to bring to Los Angeles the scrolls, mostly religious texts that date from 250 B.C.E. to 68 C.E., as well as more than 600 artifacts from the Israelite period.

In an interview after the press conference, Siegel called it “the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century and the largest-ever exhibition coming out of Israel.

 “The exhibition is also significant in the way that it is not political,” he added.  “It’s not about news headlines, but the significance of Israel to world religions and to all peoples, all nations.”

But whenever Israel is involved, it seems, politics are likely to simmer, at least beneath the surface.  At the press conference, Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the IAA, alluded to the Palestinian Authority’s claim to ownership of the scrolls.  “[But] the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by Jews and are part of the spiritual assets of the Jewish nation,” Dahari said.  “It is our right to possess the scrolls — it’s not a legal but a moral issue.”

In an interview, Dahari explained that the first seven scrolls discovered by Bedouins in a cave near Qumran in 1947 were eventually purchased by Israeli archaeologists and are now housed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.  When the northern part of the Judean desert came under Jordanian rule in 1953, it was the Jordanians and others who discovered 900 more scrolls in caves at Qumran. The area of Qumran has been in Israeli hands since the Six-Day War in 1967.

“The scrolls were not excavated by Palestinians … so they have no demands upon Israel,” Dahari said. “But the Palestinians say, “No, the excavations took place in the West Bank, and the West Bank is our property. However, according to international laws, they’re not, because Palestine is not [yet] a state. And even if it becomes a state in the future, this has nothing to do with the past.”

 Still, he admitted, “I am afraid for the future of the scrolls.”

— Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

With a record 1,100 people in attendance, the Israeli-American Council (IAC) held its seventh annual gala March 8 at the Beverly Hilton and announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Winnetka that will be used as a community center. IAC plans to announce the exact location of the site at a future time.

The gala brought in $23.4 million for the IAC, with casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, pledging $12 million. Haim Saban, who was seated next to the Adelsons, pledged $1.2 million.

“Sheldon is 10 times richer than me,” Saban quipped to the crowd. “I said to Sheldon, ‘Listen, whatever you give, I’ll give one-tenth.’ ”

The IAC gave real-estate businessman and philanthropist Stanley Black a lifetime achievement award for his decades of support for Israel, and the evening’s honorees were Roz and Jerry Rothstein, founders of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel education and advocacy group. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, delivered a pre-recorded video message that thanked the IAC and acknowledged its role in strengthening the State of Israel from the United States.

Comedian Modi Rosenfeld was the evening’s master of ceremonies. At one point, he asked the crowd, “How many of you don’t speak Hebrew?” When a good portion of the audience raised their voices, he responded, “This is going to be the longest night of your lives.”

— Jared Sichel, Staff Writer

JQ International honored several successful LGBTQ role models from the arts community as well as a gay religious leader during its annual awards brunch March 8 at the historic Wilson Harding Golf Course Clubhouse at Griffith Park. 

From left: Rabbi Barbara Zacky, Bruce Vilanch, JQ International Executive Director Asher Gellis, Faith Soloway and Andrea Meyerson. Photo courtesy of JQ International

Those being feted were folk musician and writer Faith Soloway (JQ Inspiration Award), who also is a writer for “Transparent,” the show created by her sister Jill Soloway; comedy writer and performer Bruce Vilanch (JQ Trailblazer Award); filmmaker Andrea Meyerson (JQ Visibility Award) and Rabbi Barbara Zacky (JQ Community Leadership Award).

“After I came out, I identified strongly as a Jewish lesbian, but there weren’t many places that honored all of me,” Zacky said in a statement. “JQ has created an open and inclusive community of LGBT Jews and I’m so glad to be a part of that.”

Approximately 165 people turned out for the event.

JQ International describes itself as an inclusive community for LGBTQ Jews that raises awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ community members in the Jewish world.  

“We create programs and services that foster a healthy fusion of LGBTQ and Jewish identity, which offer LGBTQ Jews, their friends, families, and loved ones the opportunity to connect with each other while fostering a strong sense of self,” the organization’s website indicates.

“Voices of Dissent: A Refugee’s Story,” a recent panel discussion at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, included topics ranging from Iranian Jews and other minorities in Iran, to Coptic Christians’ struggles in Egypt under Muslim rule, to Yazidis in Iraq who are suffering under ISIS.

From left: Raymond Ibrahim, Gina Nahai, Elias Kasem and Karmel Melamed. Photo by Natalie Farahan

The Feb. 26 event featured Jewish Journal contributor and attorney Karmel Melamed, author Raymond Ibrahim and activist Elias Kasem.

“The Iranian regime is a human rights disaster, and we’re not talking about it in the United States,” Melamed said. “No one is covering it, and it is shameful. The nuclear [issue] is getting a lot of coverage, I don’t get into that, but the plight of Christians, of Baha’is, artists, even just regular Muslims who don’t agree with the regime — they are facing horrible human rights situations.” 

Author and Journal columnist Gina Nahai moderated the event, which drew approximately 30 attendees and was sponsored by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).

Among those in attendance were Natalie Farahan, JIMENA’s Los Angeles program director; Kelsi Copeland, communications and program manager at Kol Ami; Sadie Rose-Stern, the congregation’s executive director; and Siamak Kordestani, assistant director at American Jewish Committee, Los Angeles.

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Shared history of persecution unites Mizrahi, Sephardic Jews

A band of young, Jewish musicians filled the halls of Hillel at UCLA with traditional Sephardic music as more than 120 local Sephardic Jews gathered at the center on Nov. 24 to commemorate Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Iran. Sponsored by the nonprofit Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the event was designed to raise greater community awareness about the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from various Middle Eastern and North African countries since the creation of Israel in 1948. 

“We have a responsibility to tell the world about the stories of our Jews that had been living for many centuries throughout countries in the Middle East and overnight became refugees by the Arab and Islamic regimes in those countries,” Israel’s Consul General in L.A. David Siegel said, calling upon those gathered “to teach your children about the near 1 million Jews who were left homeless and had everything taken away from them.” 

According to Norman Stillman’s book “The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times” (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), between 1948 and the late 1970s, nearly 900,000 Jews from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Yemen either fled their homes penniless because of pogroms by Arab mobs or were forced into exile by Arab regimes in their native countries. More than 200,000 Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries resettled in Europe and North America, while more than 500,000 settled in Israel. According to local Iranian-Jewish leaders, nearly 80,000 Jews have fled Iran since that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The gathering at Hillel at UCLA came in conjunction with the Israeli Knesset’s recent designation of Nov. 30 as a national day of commemoration for the expulsion and flight of Jews from Middle Eastern countries since 1948. 

JIMENA’s local leadership said the event resonated with community members who experienced the violent pogroms that occurred from the late 1940s through the 1960s.

“Many members of the audience were former refugees themselves, and [they] felt as though we honored them personally and gave a voice to their story,” said Natalie Farahan, JIMENA’s Los Angeles program director.

JIMENA was founded in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, by a group of Bay Area Jews from Arab countries with the goal of educating the public about the history and culture of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. The group now has official chapters in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has held events in Chicago and New York in recent years, where Jewish Mizrahi former refugees tell their stories of escape and exile for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

JIMENA was also created to share the story of Israel’s role as an ethnically diverse Jewish homeland and safe haven for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Farahan said.

Perhaps the event’s most emotional speech came from former Libyan Jewish refugee Penina Meghnagi Solomon, who recalled for the audience the traumatic experience of fleeing rioting Muslim mobs outside her home in Tripoli during Israel’s Six-Day War.

“In June 1967, there were rumors of a war between Israel and the Arab nations, and we received news that there was pillaging of Jewish homes and businesses, and they were killing Jews in Libya,” Solomon said. “I saw crowds outside our home shouting ‘Slaughter the Jews, slaughter the Jews!’ as they rioted in the streets — it was truly a frightening experience.”

Solomon said she and her family were forced to leave Libya with just one suitcase, then, eventually, relocated to refugee camps in Italy with thousands of other Jewish refugees from North Africa.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Los Angeles-based Sephardic Educational Center, said the story of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews fleeing Middle Eastern countries during the 20th century remains relevant because of the rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide and Israel’s status in the stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

“It is easy to forget, but we must tell our story and remember what happened to the Jews of the Middle East who fled oppression, pogroms and were exiled from their homes,” Bouskila said. “We must tell the world that we as Jews are not some foreign entity implanted in the Middle East during the 19th century, but our ancestors have been living there for many millennia.”

With the growing trend in recent years of Arab scholars and leaders denying the existence of Jewish populations in their respective countries, in 2010 JIMENA launched a campaign to video record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. Refugees in the videos tell their personal histories as well as stories of human-rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, material losses and resettlement in new societies in the West. In 2011, JIMENA began translating personal accounts of Mizrahi refugees into Arabic and Persian, with the help of Middle Eastern dissidents, and launched an Arabic Facebook page last year, which has 10,000 followers.

JIMENA leaders said that in 2015 they are planning a variety of events, including a backgammon tournament, a local Sephardic music festival, a human-rights panel discussion about minority groups in the Middle East and a Mimouna celebration — a traditional Moroccan-Jewish event with music and food that begins at nightfall on the last day of Passover and continues the following day until sundown.

To read more about JIMENA’s event at Hillel at UCLA, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at

‘Forgotten’ Jews Address Injustice

Addressing a conference of Jews predominately from the Middle
East and North Africa, keynote speaker Stan Urman delivered a quip that
underscored the sentiments of many audience members.

“When I first heard about your group, JIMENA [Jews
Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa], and knowing that it originated
from California, I thought it was wonderful that there was a group of Hispanic
people concerned about the plight of Jewish refugees,” said Urman.

Urman, the executive director of the Center for Middle East
Peace and Economic Cooperation, followed his humorous opening remarks with some
pointed remarks Sunday at JIMENA’s conference held at San Francisco’s Reform
Congregation Sherith Israel.

“Why have this discussion now?” Urman asked rhetorically.
“The answer is because the Jewish community is appalled by the ignorance of the
world to the facts of the situation, and because as the living witnesses to
history pass on, it becomes even more pressing that we address this historical

“Whenever the ‘conflict’ in the Middle East is addressed,
Palestinian and Arab refugees are always referred to,” Urman continued, “but
where are the stories of Jews from Arab lands whose property has been
confiscated? Those stories are rarely told.”

The conference, “Forgotten Refugees: Jews Expelled From Arab
Countries,” was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, JIMENA and
the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation. Support
came from the World Jewish Congress and other local and national Jewish

About 300 people attended the four-hour event, hearing and
sharing testimonials detailing imprisonment at internment camps, mass
deportations, rape and ethnic cleansing. The stories were interspersed throughout
the conference, which also featured panels on community activism, the role of
the United Nations in the Middle East and a keynote address by Algerian-born
Jew Eric Benhamou, the chair of 3Com Corp.

Urman went on to debunk what he considered to be a slipshod
analogy between the two groups of refugees. “Israel, in its infancy, absorbed
650,000 Jews from the Diaspora, whereas the Arab countries, with the exception
of Jordan, turned their back on the Palestinians and used them as a political
weapon for the past 55 years.

“There is no symmetry, and no comparison.”

Urman, a Canadian Jew of European ancestry, offered some of
the guiding principles of the conference. He recalled the “rich heritage of
Jewish culture in Arab lands,” and advocated “exposing the myth that there is a
greater number of Palestinian refugees than Jewish refugees from Arab lands,”
citing the “state-mandated hate that Jewish residents of Arab lands were
subjected to.”

Urman also called for financial restitution to Jewish
refugees exiled from Arab countries and insisted that any Palestinian-Israeli
accords include discussion of that restitution.

Yitzhak Santis, the director of Middle East affairs for the
JCRC, echoed Urman’s comments, adding that a movement to redress the grievances
of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is just beginning to gain momentum.

“There really cannot be true justice and reconciliation in
the Middle East, and between Israel and the Palestinians until this issue is
fully addressed and made part of the final settlement equation,” Santis said.

Spinning a joke about the prevailing Jewish paradigm, JIMENA
co-chair Joseph Abdel Wahed said, “There aren’t too many Goldbergs or
Goldsteins here this afternoon, but there are plenty of Semhas and Wahbas.

“We’d like to change the perception of the organized Jewish
community,” said the Egyptian-born Wahed. “After World War II, the focus was on
[the fact that] European Jews had been slaughtered, and rightly so.

“But there were hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands
who also lost their lives and property. Our story isn’t very well-known, and
now is the time to finally tell it to the world.”

For more information on JIMENA, visit