Solving the riddle


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

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

I’ve seen this movie before.

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

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

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

And yet they endured. Most even triumphed.

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

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

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

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

There must be a lesson here, I thought.

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

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

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

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

We were lost, but never alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.Y. nostalgia with an egg cream chaser


“A lot o’ the tribe are here,” Stewie Stone said. The 68-year-old comic, who got
his start as a Borscht Belt tummler at the Concord Hotel, was one of many landsman stuffed into Beverly Hills High School for a reunion on Saturday night — the 23rd annual New York Day in L.A.

The event, which drew 1,500 transplants who attended New York high schools, also celebrates Hollywood stars from the Big Apple, amid deli food and egg creams.

“We’re not the New Yorkers who hate L.A.,” said Lou Zigman, chair of the New York Alumni Association. “We’re the New Yorkers who love L.A.”

Zigman first organized the happening in 1979 for other alumni of Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn. In 1985, the gathering was opened to anyone from the five boroughs (dues: $18 annually) to kibitz with old classmates and sit through more than three hours of a Catskills-quality gala toasting two ex-New Yorkers. Past honorees have included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Rita Moreno and Mitzi Gaynor (the Chicago native was “adopted” by the group in 2006).

Actors Jack Klugman and Jerry Stiller were the honorees for 2008, and money raised during the gala will go to high school scholarships (New York schools, natch). This year’s event also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers leaving Ebbets Field in Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

“It’s an attempt at a bit of nostalgia,” said Abe Glazer (Haaren High School, ’49) as he shuffled into a courtyard ringed with banners identifying high schools — DeWitt Clinton, Erasmus Hall High, New Dorp — where former bobby-soxers sat with Shofar hot dogs or lined up at a vintage Carvel Ice Cream cart as a sextet of alumni/musicians whomped out big band sounds.

In the packed Beverly Hills High auditorium, a variety show featured alumni entertainers like Gary Marshall, Sammy Shore, Connie Stevens and Monty Hall.

Stone (Erasmus Hall) got laughs with his schtiklach about how Jews had to choose between matzah and white bread. “We chose matzah because there’s more pieces in the box. That’s it. So when Moses said, ‘Let my people go,’ he meant to the toilet. We’re a people constipated for 5,000 years,” he said.

But there wasn’t a dry set of eyeglasses in the house after Ed Ames sang, “Try to Remember.”

Backstage, by an overflowing spread from Junior’s, Freddie Roman and Mal Z. Lawrence (stars of “Catskills on Broadway”) were telling Budd Friedman (founder of The Improv) why they love to perform here.

“We’re still Jewish,” Roman said.

“That’s right, the piece hasn’t grown back,” Lawrence said, talking over Roman in Borschtsy banter.

“We’re very good between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Roman added.

“But I’m not looking forward to the bris,” Lawrence said.

Len Lesser (Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld”) sidled over and put a topper on the appeal of the reunion.

“Like Norm Crosby used to say about New Yorkers in L.A.: ‘What are you hugging and kissing all the time? You knew each other in New York for years you never said a word to each other.'”

‘Live from Tehran’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Four years.”

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

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

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

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

I don’t understand.

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

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

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


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

Hero With a Thousand Faces


The 60th birthday of Bob Dylan (né Robert Zimmerman) has created a bull market in baby-boomer nostalgia and soul-searching. In his 20’s, Dylan defined a generation. Perhaps even more significantly, he invested pop music with social meaning, giving future generations a powerful tool for defining themselves. His religious identity has always been a source of mystery (and obsession) to Jewish fans. He flirted with Christian messianism, sent his children to a Beverly Hills Hebrew school, nearly joined a kibbutz and danced with the Lubavitchers. A generation that looked to Dylan for The Way seemed forever disappointed that he was often lost himself. Four decades later, his spiritual quest and his musical achievements seem of a piece — a long strange trip, with so many of us as eager passengers.