Joon


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.

When Ashkenazi and Persian worlds collide — community healing begins at shul


In March of 2001 I delivered the sermon abbreviated and reprinted here. Having been the rabbi at Sinai Temple for four years, it seemed time to straightforwardly address the tensions between the Persian and Ashkenazi communities.

Since that time, by dint of committees, school parents and children and genuine efforts, Sinai has managed to forge a largely integrated community.

In a comment not reproduced, I spoke about Esther’s transformation in the Purim story as a model for us. We have been transforming the synagogue to a beit knesset — a house of gathering for all Jews, a transformation which makes us proud.

I want to begin with two thought experiments. First, imagine your grandparents built a synagogue. Your parents grew up there and so did you. You knew the place and
loved it.

One day, a huge population of people with the same religion but a different culture and language joined. Suddenly you felt an alien in your own home. How would you feel?

Now imagine that tomorrow a catastrophe occurs and all the American Jews have to flee. Where do we go? We go to Israel.

As American Jews lacking the time, organization or inclination to build our own synagogues, we join existing ones in Israel. We bring, of course, our own language, our own customs, our own outlooks, and it’s not long before we hear our Israeli brothers and sisters say, “You know, this would be a good place if it weren’t for all those American Jews.”

We say to them, “But hey, we’re Jews, too.”

To which they answer, “You’re not our kind of Jews. You don’t speak our language, you don’t know our customs — you invaded our synagogue.”

If you can put yourself in the place of both groups in that thought experiment, then you know what has gone on over the past 20 years at Sinai Temple. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part of it. Both groups have felt aggrieved, and as a result, they have done what aggrieved people often do, which is to dig in.

And they have not given the time, the effort or, perhaps, the emotional sympathy to understand how the other side feels.

So I want to speak very frankly to both sides about how we should be and what we should do.

First of all, let’s recognize that there are differences. Sometimes these differences are painful. For example, Ashkenazim don’t like to hear from Persians that our families are a mess. But it’s true.

It’s not true of every American Jewish family, God knows, but I have to tell you, my father grew up in a house of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, and they were all together all the time.

We have no family in this city. And that’s true of almost every third-generation American I know. So when a Persian family says to an Ashkenazic family, “Look, we want our family around us. We’re afraid of losing the family structure we have. We don’t want our families to end up like American families,” we may be defensive, but they’re not wrong.

The Persian community may not be able to avoid the disintegrating family, but who can blame them for trying? Are there problems in Persian families?

Absolutely; I hear them in my office. Are there wonderful Ashkenazic families?

Yes, many. But one way of not being defensive is seeing ourselves realistically, too. And realistically, for all the blessings of America, this country has not been a blessing for the extended family.

On the other hand, to our Persian members: You must also realize that when you speak Farsi in this synagogue, this is what you are saying to your Ashkenazic fellow synagogue members, to your fellow Jews: “I do not care whether you understand my words. You are not invited to join this conversation, and that’s why, in part, I’m speaking a language you don’t understand.”

That may not be what you intend, but it is the inevitable message.

Some of these conversations are conducted by people who do not speak English.

That I understand. But if you do speak English and choose not to use English when there are other English speakers around you, it is a way of saying, “I don’t care if you understand me.” That is painful, it is exclusionary, and it is a shame.

To our Ashkenazic brothers and sisters: Some of the most disturbing, prejudiced and even racist remarks I have heard in the past several years have been directed against the Persian community by the Ashkenazic community. Every time I hear about how they do business, I think “That is what people say about Jews.”

How they do business. Now if you say to me, well there are members of the Persian community who are prejudiced, too, I have no quarrel with you. I’m sure you are right, but you know what? I can only change my own soul. I cannot change someone else’s. So before you begin to accuse others, ask yourself what you believe and what you know about others who are not like you.

In order for us to be a community — not an “us” and a “them” — we have to recognize certain things. The Ashkenazic side has to realize that this synagogue will never be the synagogue that it was 40 years ago. It is not going to happen.

It has changed, and if that gives you pause and gives you pain, I understand it, but the same thing is true of this country and of this world. To our Persian members, this was founded as an Ashkenazic synagogue, as you know, and the basic rites are true to that tradition. I am delighted you chose to join us, and presumably you did so because you want this kind of synagogue. There are mores and customs that will be different from the synagogues of your origin, and we ask you to support us in those.

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.

New Queen Esther flick is whole ‘nother megillah entirely



“‘Christian Money Makes Jewish Film,’ that’s the headline I’d like to see above your article,” Matthew Crouch, producer of “One Night With the King,” suggested in an interview.
 
The film, based on the biblical Book of Esther, “brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder … it’s vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them,” according to Crouch, the son of megatelevangelists Paul and Jan Crouch.
 
“A pumped-up Purim story,” observed a rather less enthusiastic Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
 
“One Night With the King,” which, despite its somewhat titillating title, contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even suggestive cleavage, opens Oct. 13 at close to 1,000 theaters across the United States.
 
As a warmup to the premiere, Crouch and his co-producer/wife, Laurie Crouch, barnstormed 21 cities in 16 days, pitching the film and its message to clergy of all faiths.
 
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at “faith families,” in particular some 75 million Christian evangelicals in the United States.
 
Crouch himself is one of the pioneers in the field, who mortgaged his house to make the 1999 “Omega Code.” Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
 
But what really rang Hollywood’s bell was the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
 
“It took Hollywood a few years to catch up,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but “Passion’s” $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process.
 
Fuhr’s own company has just released “Facing the Giants,” billed as an inspirational film about a small town high school football team, whose six-year losing streak is reversed through faith in God.
 
“Giants” was made for $100,000 by an all-amateur company of writers, cast and crew from a Baptist church in Georgia, but expects to find its audience by mobilizing a national network of pastors.

The first major studio to finally get the message is Twentieth Century Fox, which has created FoxFaith, a new division that plans to produce around a dozen Christian-themed movies this year.
 
Significantly, major studios and distributors are joining up with the independent producers of faith movies, with Samuel Goldwyn Films partnering with “Giants” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox studio handling the DVD sales for “One Night.”Up to now, Jewish organizations have not weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian films phenomenon, either because it’s not yet on their radar screens or because of the fervent support of Israel by the evangelical community.

An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliakof the Los Angeles-based www.JewsonFirst.com, who sees in the faith films a further encroachment by the Christian right on every aspect of American life, especially schools and popular culture.
 
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, sees a “positive impact” by “One Night” and urges potential Jewish critics to “stop being so prickly.”
 
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in “One Night” might upset Jewish sensitivities.
 
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film’s artistic merit. But the general consensus had it that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provided a positive portrayal of Jews.
 
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as “beautifully done and artistically and emotionally very satisfying.”
 
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
 
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and “felt comfortable with it.”

Foxman, who had been one of the sharpest critics of “The Passion of the Christ,” said that “One Night” “is not the gospel and it’s not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling.”

Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at the University of Judaism, gave the film a mixed review.
 
On the plus side, he liked the “compelling and wholesome beauty” of Esther, portrayed by newcomer Tiffany Dupont, and the movie’s emphasis that Jew-hatred is often motivated by a demagogue’s financial and political interests.
 
But Berenbaum, a scholar and author on the Holocaust, questioned whether “we need a movie on an incomplete genocide at this time,” or a film which “transformed a biblical story into a not terribly exalted love story.”
 
Most critical was Rabbi Levy of HUC-JIR, who described “One Night” as “a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther.”

He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to the preview DVDs, which described Esther as “an orphan minority,” but never mentioned her Jewishness.
 
“I find that offensive,” Levy said.
 
The American Bible Society, a Christian group that encourages biblical literacy and which rarely endorses a movie, has put its weight behind “One Night.”
 
“The film is consistent with the Bible and an inspirational story with a relevant message that will appeal to Christian and Jewish viewers alike,” said Robert Hodgson, dean of American Bible Society’s Nida Institute for Biblical Studies. “Films like this, with meaningful biblical messages, will soon become more mainstream as Hollywood recognizes their values.”
 
The 44-year old Crouch, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but is not without a sense of humor.
 
At one point in a lengthy interview, he pithily summarized his movie as “Cinderella Meets the Lord of the Rings.” Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting “family values.”