Australia’s oldest Jew dies at 110


Mary Rothstein, Australia’s oldest Jew, has died at age 110.

Rothstein died Tuesday afternoon at an aged-care facility run by Jewish Care in Melbourne. 

She was the second-oldest Australian and was believed to be the second-oldest Jew in the world after Evelyn Kozak of New York City, according to Robert Young, a senior researcher at the U.S.-based Gerontology Research Group, which specializes in verifying centenarians and supercentenarians.

Born in Russia, Rothstein and her family escaped the pogroms to England soon after she was born in 1901. She had no birth certificate, so she was not named in the world’s 89 validated living supercentenarians listed by the Gerontology Research Group.

Rothstein lived in London for half her life, working as a milliner making hats for the royal family, before immigrating to Australia.

Rothstein’s daughter, Ruth Cavallaro, who visited her mother twice daily since she was moved into the aged-care facility 17 years ago, told JTA, “I’m numb, it hasn’t actually hit me. I don’t know what I’ll do with my time. She was a wonderful mother, very good to her grandchildren and loved her great-grandchildren. It’s very sad that this era has gone.”

Cavallaro said her mother only ate in kosher restaurants and used to walk to synagogue every Saturday until she was moved from her home.

As for her secret to her long life, Rothstein’s daughter said on her mother’s 110th birthday in March, “The only thing I can honestly say about her is she never drank, never smoked and never swore. And she worked very hard.”

Along with her daughter, Rothstein is survived by two grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Oldest Jewish Immigrant From Iran Arrives in L.A.


After living in Iran for more than a century, witnessing the rise and fall of three kings and the upheaval of an Islamic revolution 30 years ago, 102-year-old Heshmat Elyasian arrived in Los Angeles two months ago with her immediate family to become the oldest Jewish immigrant from Iran to resettle in Los Angeles.

Because of an age-related mental decline, Elyasian was not fully aware that she had resettled in the United States. However, she said she was in good spirits during an interview with The Journal.

“I have some pain in my arms and legs from arthritis, but otherwise, thank God,” she said in her native Persian, while seated in a wheelchair and surrounded by family members at a relative’s home in the Valley.

Elyasian immigrated to the United States with her son, Manouchehr Tabari, and his family with the help of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). According to HIAS records, Elyasian is the oldest refugee they have helped.

“Making the transition to life in America is not easy for many reasons, especially since the Iranian currency is worth so much less when converted to dollars, but we’re grateful to be here,” said 68-year-old Tabari, who was a cinematographer and filmmaker in Iran.

Tabari said the decision for his immediate family to leave Iran was based on his desire to pursue better educational opportunities for his children in the United States. Since extended families typically live together in Iran for many years, it was only natural for Tabari to immigrate with his mother.

“The plane trip here was very difficult for all of us, especially for my mother, because it was for many hours, and they had seated all of us in different parts of the airplane,” said Tabari, who now lives at his niece’s Tarzana home. “We are still trying to get over the exhaustion of the trip and the shocks of this new environment.”

Elyasian’s long life in Iran has not been the easiest, her son explained. After her marriage, her husband, who was a butcher, lost his savings after livestock he had purchased and ritually slaughtered were not kosher due to some impurities. The couple and their six children barely survived while they lived in poor conditions in Tehran’s run-down Jewish ghetto. Her husband was forced to work small and low-paying odd jobs, while she raised their children and also earned a living helping other families with their cooking, sewing and hand-washing their laundry.

“I am the only person in my family that has had formal education, and my mother really sacrificed on my behalf so that I could get an education,” said Tabari, who produced documentary films for television networks in Iran after studying film and drama in New York during the 1960s. “I’ve taken care of her myself ever since my father suddenly died of a heart attack at age 62.”

Iranian Jewish historical scholars said they were excited about Elyasian’s arrival in the United States because of her life experience and the fact that her father was one of a few Jewish musicians to entertain the late Iranian king, Nasser-al-Din Shah Qajar, which could shed new light on how Jews were treated in the king’s court during the early 20th century.

“Life was not easy for Jews living in Iran during the time this woman was born,” said Daniel Tsadik, a professor of Iranian studies at Yeshiva University in New York. “They were typically living in poverty, faced persecution in various cities and their movement was restricted in the country, because they were considered ritually impure by the local Muslim leaders.”

Despite several mattresses and open suitcases stuffed with clothing laid out in her living room, Elyasian’s granddaughter, Soheyla Tabari, said she was excited to welcome her grandmother and uncle’s family to stay with her temporarily until they settle in their new lives in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been telling them to come here for the past 20 years, and we lost some valuable time that we could have really enjoyed together,” Soheyla Tabari said. “But it’s been a great experience for all of us to find each other again — four generations living under one roof.”

Elyasian and her family have already begun the slow process of resettlement with the help of local Jewish agencies. Once Iranian Jewish families reach the United States, the Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles typically are among the first to help these new immigrants.

Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the SIAMAK organization and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help the family with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition. The local Iranian American Jewish Federation has also been involved in helping these new immigrants.

The issue of Jewish immigration from Iran is particularly sensitive for local Iranian Jewish leaders. For the most part, the work of HIAS to help Jews emigrate from Iran since the 1980s has happened under the media radar in order not to embarrass the Iranian government. Community leaders have long feared that any publicity could potentially jeopardize the current flow of Jewish immigration out of Iran. The process of immigration varies for different Iranian Jews and can take anywhere from nine months to several years.

According to HIAS records, since 1979, the organization had aided more than 15,000 Iranian Jewish refugees in immigrating to the United States, nearly half of them to the Los Angeles area.

During 2007, the Chicago-based Christian Jewish nonprofit, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), along with the Jewish Agency in Israel, offered $10,000 per person to encourage Jews to leave Iran and immigrate to Israel. IFCJ officials reported that of the 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, only 125 accepted the offer and immigrated to Israel.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said despite the Iranian regime’s hostility toward Israel and treatment of Jews as second-class citizens, a substantial number of Jews continue to stay in Iran because they feel they will face economic and cultural challenges if they leave the country.

“Some successful and resourceful Jews [in Iran] have either a false sense of security or are willing to take risks, hoping to outlast the regime,” Nikbakht said. “Some have converted to Islam or other ‘safer’ religions, such as Christianity, to help them survive.”

For his part, Tabari said he still has a fondness for Iran and hopes to travel back there at a later date to visit with his other family members. Likewise, he said his wife is planning to care for his mother while he is looking for employment in Los Angeles’ film industry.

“I am a very optimistic man and believe strongly that God will help us,” Tabari said. “America is a land of opportunity, and we are hoping for the best here”.

For more about this story and local Iranian Jews, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Ancient Texts Could Unlock Persian Past


It took Iranian Jews in the United States nearly three decades in exile from the land their ancestors called home for 2,700 years to appreciate the rich history and culture preserved in their literature.

Considered one of the oldest but least- studied Jewish writings in the world, Judeo-Persian writings consist of the Persian language written in Hebrew characters by Jews living in what today are Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and some parts of India during the last 1,000 years.

“In Iran the Jewish community was not aware of the value of Judeo-Persian writings, but now that they are away from their home they feel more attached to their heritage and want to preserve it,” said Nahid Pirnazar, founder and director of the nonprofit Los Angeles-based House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts foundation.

Pirnazar, who obtained her doctorate from UCLA in Iranian studies with an emphasis in Judeo-Persian writing, said she formed the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts in 2000 after a significant number of Iranian Jews in Southern California expressed their interest in learning more about these ancient texts.

“There are probably hundreds and hundreds of Judeo-Persian manuscripts in the possession of Iranian Jews,” Pirnazar said. “Not knowing what they are, they think they’re copies of Torahs.”

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution sparked a mass exodus of Jews; today approximately 30,000 to 35,000 Jews from Iran live in Southern California.

For the last five years, Pirnazar has spent her own money in addition to small donations from local Iranian Jews to acquire copies and even originals of Judeo-Persian manuscript collections owned by museums, libraries and individuals in the United States, Europe, Israel and Iran. Her ultimate objective is for the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts to amass the largest collection of Judeo-Persian works in the world.

“Our first goal is to collect and transliterate these manuscripts into the Persian script before the generation that can read them easily is gone,” Pirnazar said. “The next step is to eventually publish and translate some into English and other languages.”

According to “Padyavand,” a series of books about Judeo-Iranian studies by professor Amnon Netzer of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Judeo-Persian literature consists not only of Jewish biblical translations and commentaries but also secular poems, dictionaries, medical texts, scientific treatises, legends, calendars and translations of works by non-Jewish masters of classical Iranian literature.

The oldest Judeo-Persian manuscript — which is also the oldest extant example of Persian writing — is a 37-line merchant’s letter dating to the year 750 C.E. It was discovered in the early 20th century by archaeologists in eastern Afghanistan, according to Padyavand.

Judeo-Persian came into being following the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, when the Jews of Persia, who then spoke what is known as Middle Persian, refused to write the Persian language in Arabic letters but instead wrote Persian with the Hebrew letters they were familiar with, Pirnazar said.

Aside from its linguistic value, Judeo-Persian literature has been a unique window into the previously unknown and painful history of Iranian Jews, who lived under oppressive kings for centuries. According to Vera Basch Mooren’s book, “Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism,” the Iranian Jewish writer Babai Ibn Lutf chronicles in Judeo-Persian a seven-year time span in the early 17th century when the Jews in the Iranian city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam or face execution.

In 1629, Isfahan’s Jews ultimately were permitted to return to Judaism after two of their leaders interceded on the community’s behalf with Safi I of the Safavid dynasty.

Pirnazar also said Iranian Jews continued writing and reading Judeo-Persian up until the beginning of the 20th century but gradually drifted away from it as they secularized and Iranian society opened to them.

Bijan Khallili, an Iranian Jewish publisher and owner of the Los Angeles-based Ketab Corporation, has been publishing Iranian Jewish-related books in Persian and English for more than 20 years.

In 1999, his company published 3,000 Persian-transliterated copies of a Judeo-Persian Torah commentary originally written by the 12th-century Iranian Jewish writer Shahin. He also hopes to publish a Persian translation of a Judeo-Persian text written by the 15th-century Iranian Jewish writer Emrani.

“Sales of the Shahin Torah were OK. Mostly only older Iranian Jews can read the book since it is in Persian,” Khallili said. “The main problem is that younger people can’t read Persian writing, and they are the ones usually buying these books because they want to learn about their history, so we are looking to publish more of them in English.”

Nearly five years ago, interest in Judeo-Persian was rekindled in the Southern Californian community after the Habib Levy Foundation in Los Angeles began providing endowments for a class on Judeo-Persian that was initially taught by Netzer and now is taught by Pirnazar at UCLA.

“A lot of Iranian Jews still do not know that Judeo-Persian studies exists,” said Tannaz Talasazan, 21, an Iranian Jewish student at UCLA. “I think this course on Judeo-Persian is a great opportunity for young Jewish people, especially Iranian Jews who grew up here in America, to learn more about who they are and where they came from.”

The UCLA course not only has received tremendous praise from young Iranian Jews but also has sparked the curiosity of some Iranian Muslim students wanting to learn more about an aspect of Persian literature and poetry they hadn’t known.

“Being able to read Judeo-Persian script was certainly a feeling that I will never forget,” said Reza Khodadai, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who now is a biochemistry major at UCLA. “It was at the final exam, when I answered the whole transliteration section, I was reading a script that had always been unknown to me and I was seeing that it was actually in my own language of Persian.”