The Jews of Kaifeng, China


Jewish liturgy and ritual frequently remind us that the Israelites were scattered to the “four corners of the earth,” as symbolized by the four fringes of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The extent of the geographic dispersion of the Jews over millennia has been vast, ranging from Baghdad to Burma, Marrakesh to Melbourne, Jerusalem to Los Angeles. 

But it wasn’t until I arrived in China for a two-and-a-half week stint to teach Jewish history that I realized just how dispersed these “four corners” are.

In Kaifeng, where Jews once lived — and still do — I witnessed the past and present of one of those dispersed “corners.” I also learned what it is like to teach Jewish history in China, where the field of Jewish studies is undergoing a surprising growth spurt.

The absence of a firm trail of historical evidence leads some to maintain that reports of a medieval Jewish presence in China are unfounded. I tend to agree with another group of scholars, who believe that there was such a presence — and that Kaifeng (pronounced “Ky fung”), in Henan province, is the oldest known Jewish community. This group argues that Jewish merchants, most likely originating in the Middle East, traveled along the vaunted Silk Road and made their way to and through China as early as the seventh century C.E. A document written in Judeo-Persian detailing business activity dates Jews in China to the early eighth century. Meanwhile, scholars surmise that sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., Jewish traders — likely of Persian origin — laid roots in Kaifeng. Kaifeng was no mere station along the Silk Road, and surely no backwater. It was one of the “Seven Ancient Capitals of China,” serving as the administrative center for five dynasties. Even more remarkably, Kaifeng was reputed to be the largest city in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a population estimated at between 700,000 to 1.5 million. The list of other leading urban population centers in this period includes Córdoba (Spain), Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo and Baghdad, all of which were or would become home to large populations of Jews. In fact, the Jewish romance with the city was not a modern invention. In a city, one could find a spirit of openness, new ideas and, of course, abundant commercial opportunities. In this sense, it would be no surprise that Jews made their way to medieval Kaifeng.

Kaifeng in its golden age was a masterfully designed city, with three sets of city walls, at the center of which was the elaborate Forbidden City where the emperor and his court were located. The Jewish community lived within the city walls, dwelling in close proximity to the community’s first synagogue, built in 1163, whose construction was commemorated in a stele dated to 1489. Unlike many of their medieval co-religionists, the Jews of Kaifeng, it appears, were largely unscathed by discrimination or persecution. The Song Emperors, based in Kaifeng, held the Jews in high esteem. And the Jews maintained good relations with their local Chinese neighbors. 

It is reasonable to assume that amiable relations hastened the pace of cultural integration. Within several hundred years, many of Kaifeng’s Jews, who at their peak numbered several thousand (some estimate as high as five thousand), lost knowledge of the Hebrew language. And yet, a key feature of traditional Jewish life remained throughout the entire existence of the community, even up to today: Jews in Kaifeng abstained from eating pork. Another distinctive feature of the Kaifeng community also survived: One of the Song Emperors, who could not pronounce the Hebrew names of the Jews in his realm, bestowed on them seven Chinese family names that are still in use today.

The existence of this community was unknown to the West until 1605, when the intrepid Jesuit scholar and missionary in China, Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a Kaifeng Jew in Beijing. After an initial confusion in which the two thought they belonged to the same religion, Ricci recognized that he was dealing with a previously unknown phenomenon: a native Jewish community in China. This well preceded the later communities established in the late 19th century in Shanghai and Harbin. 

A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some decades later, the city of Kaifeng, including its Jewish community, confronted a major disaster. In 1642, a devastating flood of the Yellow River wreaked massive destruction upon the city, killing large numbers of residents, including Jews, and laying waste to much of the city’s infrastructure, including the synagogue. The glory days of Kaifeng as a world center of commerce were over.

After the flood, the Jews did manage to rebuild their synagogue, distinguished, like the original one, by a large Chinese-style roof, along with a number of other distinctive Chinese features. But the community’s best days were past. Fewer and fewer Jews attended the synagogue or had familiarity with Jewish ritual. In 1841, another major flood hit Kaifeng, again destroying much of the city, including the second synagogue. And this time, no communal institutions were available afterward to provide support or services to Kaifeng Jews. 

One might assume, on the basis of this story, that the history of Kaifeng Jewry has come to an end, a victim not of anti-Semitism but of Chinese hospitality. My visit to Kaifeng suggests otherwise. My host in China, professor Xu Xin, one of the founding figures of Jewish studies in China (about whom more later), took me to visit Esther Guo Yan, a woman of about 25 or 30 who preserves one of the seven Jewish family names. Esther is the granddaughter of the last renowned Jewish notable from Kaifeng, and she runs a tiny, rough-hewn shrine to the history of Kaifeng Jewry. She waits for the occasional tourist to find her home, which is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Her interests are both to recall the old Jewish community and to bring knowledge about Chinese culture to what she refers to as her “hometown,” Jerusalem.

Indeed, a strong connection to Israel marks the larger group of Jewish descendants whom I met in Kaifeng. I first visited them at the end of their weekly four-hour study session of English and Hebrew with their ebullient, chain-smoking Israeli teacher, Shulamit Gershovich, who had been sent by Shavei Israel, an international group that seeks out lost Jews. She is concluding a six-month stint teaching the Kaifeng group and lives in one of the two rooms that now serve as a kind of community center under the name Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope). This name was bestowed by the center’s founder, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg, who began to work with and teach the group two years ago. 

On a Thursday evening, I met with a group of eight students, some of them bearing the ancient names of Kaifeng Jews who, thus, are “descendants,” and others who have no Jewish blood but are married to descendants. Here in Kaifeng, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the most important criterion of Jewishness is not the rabbinic standard of matrilineal descent. Rather, it is the willingness and desire to be a Jew. Against remarkable odds, the members of Beit HaTikvah are assiduously studying what it means to be a Jew. Though a small number of younger family members have been sent off to Israel or the United States to study and undergo formal conversion, the majority of the 25 or so attendees at Beit HaTikvah are on their own path of Jewish self-discovery in China, where they likely will remain. (I should add that, in the ancient and venerable ways of the Jews, there is another group of a similar size studying at a different locale in Kaifeng with a Messianic Jew named Tim Lerner, though I did not get to meet them.)

Without a doubt, the highlight of my time in Kaifeng, and a reflection of the group’s indomitable spirit, was the Shabbat I spent at Beit HaTikvah. I was brought to the Friday night gathering by Ari Schaffer, an Orthodox undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, who is conducting research on the community. The small, nondescript room was filled with some 25 people, ranging in age from 16 to 75. On one wall was an unusual array of symbols: the flag of the State of Israel on the right, the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the left, and in the middle, the Shema prayer flanked by a pair of Hebrew words, shemesh and kamon.  

Shemesh means sun. Kamon’s meaning is a matter of dispute; some scholars believe it refers to an angel, while others maintain that it connotes moon. In any case, this pair of words seems to have served a sort talismanic function for the community.

After candlelighting, Gao Chao, the leader of the small community, began to sing “Yedid Nefesh,” the medieval poem sung at the outset of Kabbalat Shabbat. Typically enough for this community, Gao Chao is not of Jewish descent. He is married to a descendent, but has taken on the responsibility of learning Hebrew and Jewish prayers so as to serve as the prayer leader on Friday nights. He led the community through Kabbalat Shabbat, with members joining in in their Chinese-inflected Hebrew (which was rendered into Chinese characters for them to follow). The degree of ritual fluency for a community that does not include a single halachic Jew and has been studying Hebrew intensely for only two years was remarkable. The community chanted with gusto and competency many of the standards of Jewish liturgy and custom on Friday night: “Lechah Dodi,” “Ve-shamru,” and “Shalom Aleichem.” It was particularly moving when the congregation joined with Gao Chao to sing the penultimate line of the Friday night Kiddush: “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and good will given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.”

After services, the entire group sat down to a potluck vegetarian Shabbat dinner, my first with chopsticks as the utensil of choice. Dinner was tasty and spirited, but a mere prelude to the memorable post-meal singing. We sang the grace after meals and then spent several hours singing zemirot and other Hebrew and Israeli songs at the top of our lungs — aided, it must be said, by a potent Arak-like beverage native to the region. One member of the community — not herself a Jewish descendant, but married to one — had assumed the Hebrew name Netta. She seemed to know virtually every Hebrew song sung. She had an infectious smile, beautiful voice and a true sense of oneg Shabbat — the joy of the Sabbath. Other members did not know many of the songs, but added their own enthusiastic and well-timed rhythm by clapping and pounding the table.

The one song that all knew was the one whose name adorns the current Kaifeng community: HaTikvah. At a certain point in the midst of the cacophonous frivolity, the group rose as one to offer a sonorous version of “Hatikvah” — in Chinese! Those of us who knew followed in Hebrew. It was another stunning moment in an evening of stunning moments. Few of the community members are likely to make aliyah, but somehow they have managed to develop a strong bond with and sense of pride for Israel. There was also a strong sense among all of us present of the past and future shared by Jews. Assembled at a long Shabbat table in Kaifeng, we experienced, in the rawest and purest form I’ve ever witnessed, the unbroken spirit that links Jews scattered over the four corners of the world, from California to China.


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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.

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 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.

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.

Pnina Bouskila
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
via e-mail

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.

Frank Nikbakht
Director
Committee for
Religious Minority Rights in Iran

Post-Palin Depression

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.

Catherine Devericks
Via e-mail

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.

Paula Verbit
Trochenbrod Descendant
Second Generation

Strange Love

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
JewsForJudaism.org

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

Sarah Palin

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
Woodland Hills

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.

Rachel Galperin
Encino

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.

Marshall Giller
Winnetka

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.

Reyna Oro
via e-mail

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.

A few Persian phrases that could come in handy, enshallah


These are expressions that might be used in conversation with Persian Jews:

Salaam — Hello

Khodahafes — Goodbye

Kaheshmekonam — Please

Befarmeyeet — Welcome (as a greeting)

Haleh shoma chetoreh? — How are you?

Moteshakeram (alt. Merci) — Thank you

Khoshal shodam — Happy to meet you

Bezan beh choob — Knock on wood

Kaheshmekonam — Please

Saleh no mobarak — Happy New Year (this can be used for Rosh Hashanah, the American New Year or the Persian New Year)

Enshallah — God-willing (normally used in the context that one hopes something will happen)

Local community refuses to forget 12 missing Persian Jews


12 missing Persian Jews: not forgotten

Nearly 300 members of the Iranian Jewish community and local Persian-language media gathered at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills on Sept. 27 for an event sponsored by the Council of Iranian Jews to discuss the fate of 12 Persian Jews who were kidnapped by the Iranian secret police between 1994 and 1997 and have not been heard from since. Family members of the missing 12 Jews were on hand to express their frustration with lack of cooperation from the Iranian regime.

“I am sure my son is not lost; he’s alive and being held by the Iranian government and that regime must answer to where they are holding our youngsters!” said Elana Tehrani, whose 17-year-old son, Babak, was arrested by Iranian secret police when trying to flee Iran into Pakistan in 1994.

Those in attendance cried when photos of the missing 12 Jews were held up for the audience with their names and dates of abduction announced. An emotional recorded telephone message to the community from Orit Ravizadeh, one of the missing Jews’ wives living in Israel, was also played for the audience.

Speakers at the event included Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet and the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Persian Jewish activists George Haroonian, Bijan Khailli, Frank Nikbakht and Pooya Dayamin who spoke at the event said they have been active in trying to resolve the case of the missing 12 for the last six years.

Earlier this month, the kidnapped victim’s families filed suit against Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami for implementing a policy of abduction and imprisonment of their loved ones.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Smile, darn ya!

Operation Smile, a leading humanitarian and medical services organization dedicated to helping improve the health and lives of children and young adults worldwide, honored humanitarians Vanessa and Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump family; L.A. Clippers of present (Elton Brand) and past (Norm Nixon); and Abbott, the global health care company, at its fifth annual Operation Smile Gala Sept. 21 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Among the prominent civic leaders in attendance were Milt Hinsch, Jerry and Vicki Moyers, Joe and Sue Kainz, Dennis Seider and dental innovator Dr. Bill Dorfmann, author of “Billion Dollar Smile, a Complete Guide to Your Smile Makeover.”

The evening, whose honorary chairs were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wife, Cindy, began with a VIP party, complete with goodies and piano accompaniment and culminated in a dinner and awards ceremony emceed by “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush. Guests were royally entertained by multi-Grammy Award-winner Christopher Cross and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy.

Lladro, the renowned Spanish House of Porcelain, donated $150,000 to the cause and the evening included a surprise visit from Madelein Cordova Dubon, a 2-year-old girl from Honduras who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Event co-chairs Roma Downey and Mark Burnett had recently participated in an Operation Smile medical mission in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they met and bonded with Madelein.

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker. It has provided free reconstructive surgery to more than 100,000 children and young adults with cleft lips, cleft palates, tumors and other birth defects in 32 countries around the world.

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Dr. Sarah Weddington, renowned winning attorney in one of the most famous cases in U.S. history, Roe v. Wade, spoke at the annual fundraiser for the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP) recently. Opening her speech, she immediately expressed her deep sadness about learning of the death of her dear friend, colleague and fellow Texan, Ann Richards, former governor of the state of Texas.

“I had the privilege of knowing Ann since the early ’70s,” she told the large group of supporters who turned out for the event. “When it came to running for a political office, Ann was a guru and pioneer in the art of running for political office and winning. Her inspiration, courage and quick wit were element of her savvy personality. Ann Richards was a friend, mentor and role model for women.”

WRRAP raises money for low-income women of all ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds who are unable to pay for either emergency contraception or a safe and legal abortion. The event featured sumptuous hors d’oeuvres and a wine reception. Following Weddington’s speech and comments on the upcoming Proposition 85, which would prohibit abortions for California teens until 48 hours after their parents have been notified, there was a Q-and-A session.

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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.”

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.”

 

For Iranians, Purim Is the Real Thing


 

Historians may question whether events in the Book of Esther, which are celebrated at Purim, happened as described in the traditional tale. But to Persian Jews, the holiday resonates deeply.

Part of it is that the story unfolds in ancient Persia — now modern Iran — so the events commemorated have a local connection.

“Even though Purim is for all Jews around the world, we as Jews living in Iran feel particularly closer to Purim,” said Parviz Yeshaya, national chairman of the Jewish Council in Iran. “Especially since the tombs of Esther and Mordechai are here in Iran.”

Iran’s Islamic regime does not discourage the celebrating of Jewish holidays, including Purim, Yeshaya said. Still, the tone of the holiday is quite different than in other countries. The Jewish community in Iran has embraced the long-standing religious aspects of Purim rather than the light-hearted festivities that characterize American observance.

“The most important part of celebrating Purim in Iran starts with the fast, which is 24 hours, and the reading of the megillah in synagogues during the fast,” Yeshaya said. “We give gifts here, but not as many, and we don’t have carnivals like the Ashkenazim. But children in their Jewish school conduct their own plays of the Purim story.”

Within Iran, the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordechai has become somewhat of a tourist attraction. They are located in the city of Hamadan, and they’ve recently been renovated and maintained by Iran’s Jewish community.

“Near the tomb there is a synagogue, but unfortunately due to the large migration of Jews out of Hamadan, there are problems with taking care of the synagogue,” Yeshaya said. “But we are working on resolving this.”

Although Persian Jews have long believed the tomb contains the burial sites of Esther and Mordechai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.

“The great archeologist Ernst Hertzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there, but later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there,” said Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

That’s not his only point of doubt.

“The tombs of Esther and Mordechai had not been mentioned in any Jewish sources,” Netzer added. “The first Jewish person who mentioned the existence of the tombs there was Rabbi Binyamin of Toodelah in 1167 [C.E.]. I wonder how come there are absolutely no mentions of these tombs in the Talmud or post-Talmud literature?”

Netzer did, however, have an explanation of the more subdued, religious nature of the holiday’s observance. Jews in Iran have always been cautious in their celebrations of Purim, he said, because the Book of Esther contains unflattering depictions of non-Jewish Persians and also includes the tale of a slaughter of non-Jews.

“If you read the book itself you will see that it says the Iranian Jews were permitted actually to massacre a lot of Iranians on a certain day and King Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, is pictured as a stupid king,” Netzer said. “So these factors actually made Iranian Jews extremely careful not to have high-profile celebrations for Purim.”

Decades ago, he noted, Iran had close ties with Nazi Germany, and some of Iran’s more nationalistic papers labeled Purim as anti-Iranian.

But the celebration of Purim has endured. And, ironically, its importance has even been enhanced by a non-Jewish holiday. Purim typically coincides with the festivities of No Ruz, the secular Persian New Year.

“Purim gets more focus in Iran from Jews,” said Nahid Pirnazar, an instructor of Iranian studies and Judeo-Persian literature at UCLA. “It’s like Chanukah in the United States, which coincides with Christmas,” she said. “A lot of the traditions of No Ruz are reflected in Purim, like the idea of exchanging gifts.”

Purim fasts are broken at the conclusion of megillah readings, she added. Jews traditionally eat special Purim cookies as well as halva, a dry or wet dessert made of flour or rice, sugar, oil and saffron.

And although some historians have their doubts regarding the Book of Esther, the experience of Jews in Iran embodies a consonance with events described in the tale. Over the centuries, Pirnazar said, Jews have narrowly escaped forced mass conversions to Islam by participating in communitywide days of prayer and fasting — similar to the fast carried out by Queen Esther in the Purim story.

One such Purim-like episode is identified in Vera Basch Moreen’s book, “Iranian Jewry’s Hour of Peril and Heroism” (American Academy for Jewish Research, 1987). In 1629, the Jews in the city of Isfahan were forced to convert to Islam with the succession of King Safi I of the Safavid Dynasty. Later, these Jews were permitted to return to Judaism after two Jewish leaders successfully interceded with the Iranian monarch — a scenario that parallels the Purim story.

As an often-oppressed minority, Iranian Jews have their own modern-day hardships to confront. And the Book of Esther, with its tale of triumph over hardship and evil, still conveys a message of hope.

 

Star of the Canyon


The Canyon Country Store — the star-studded grocery featured in the older woman/younger man film "Laurel Canyon," starring Frances McDormand — is actually run by two Persian Jews.

Owner David Shamsa and manager Tommy Bina have tried to maintain the store’s authenticity.

Shamsa, who was an influential Persian Jew in Iran during the shah’s regime, was the head of National Iranian Steel Mill Corporation and director of Iran Hotel Corporation, hosting many American officials such as Henry Kissinger, and Sens. Barry Goldwater and Ted Kennedy.

Just a few months before the Islamic revolution, Shamsa fled to the United States and, in 1982, bought the building in Laurel Canyon.

The only store nestled in the verdant Laurel Canyon, Canyon Country Store, built in 1919, has served as a location for several films and is also a hangout for many artists, musician and actors. The cozy, friendly place is reminiscent of a small-town store — whose patrons have included celebrities like Liam Neeson, Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger. Downstairs is a restaurant, Pace ("peace" in Italian), and adjacent is a wood house where Jim Morrison used to live.

Bina told The Journal he feels a responsibility for the entire neighborhood. Together with other locals, he has formed a voluntary group to clean up Laurel Canyon’s surrounding area, for which he has received an award.

"The city doesn’t take care of this area very well," he said. "We do this to protect the environment."

A Persian American Feast


Every Erev Rosh Hashana, our dining room table is set with the requisite items: apples, honey,tongue and beets. Zucchini and black-eyed peas. Mouth-watering sweet pomegranate. Sound a little exotic? To Persian American Jews, this is a yearly reality as families get together to celebrate the Rosh Hashana seder and meal.

While this isn’t Passover, a seder is most definitely included on each night. It consists of eight ritual items, each with a separate blessing and symbolic significance. Just as in Passover, we build up an appetite before the main meal.

The ceremony begins with apples and honey. This is followed by leeks, zucchini (baked squash), black-eyed peas, tongue, beets, dates, and pomegranate. But if eating apples and honey are a worldwide Jewish ritual symbolizing hopes for a sweet new year, then what about the less widely known ritual foods?

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood, daughter of a Persian father and Ashkenazi mother, never knew of this ritual until she moved to Los Angeles. Then, while she was in rabbinical school, her Persian friends told her about it, and her interest was stirred.

Missaghieh asked her relatives for a copy of the long blessings traditionally said over each item. Using her fluent knowledge of Hebrew, she translated them word for word.

"It was a play on words," she says. For example, in Hebrew the date or palm tree is called tamar. The blessing said over the date, using the word yitammoo, asks that evildoers be done away with. The root of yitammoo is tam, directly taken from tamar. Hence the use of the date in the seder.

Four other word associations are included in the seder. They are drawn from the Hebrew or Aramaic names of the foods involved, Aramaic being the common language used in ancient times in the Middle East.

Leeks, vegetables of the onion family, are called kartee in Aramaic. In Hebrew karoot means felled, or cut off at the roots. The blessing over the leek asks that ill-wishers be felled.

Zucchini are called karaa in Aramaic; in Hebrew karoah means to tear or shred. The accompanying blessing asks that any bad judgments against us be torn up.

Peas, called ruviah in Aramaic, are eaten after a blessing, asking that our good deeds will multiply. Ruviah itself means numerous, and the Hebrew verb yirboo (to multiply) comes from the root rav.

A blessing praying that our enemies will disappear from view is said over beets, called salka. The similar sounding Hebrew verb salek means to disappear from view.

There is no wordplay associated with pomegranate or apples and honey. The blessing over the pomegranate, a fruit commonly eaten during the autumn season in the Middle East, asks that we be filled with as many good deeds as the pomegranate is filled with seeds. Apples and honey are eaten after a blessing for a good and sweet new year.

Then there is the matter of sheep or cow’s tongue.

"Me and my cousins always fight over tongue in the kitchen," said Alison Roya Breskin, a freshman at San Diego State University who is Persian from her mother’s side. She considers tongue "something cool" about Rosh Hashana. "It’s so good, even my pseudo-vegetarian cousin has to have some," she said.

Tongue, virtually unknown in the American diet, is considered a delicacy in many countries. Like brains or liver in the Middle East, tongue is considered part of a good gourmet meal.

According to Rabbi David Shofet, Persian rabbi of Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills, the ceremonial eating of tongue on Rosh Hashana is symbolic on two levels. The first is the literal symbolism, tongue being from the sheep’s head, that we will be at the head rather than at the tail end during the coming year. This is also a hope that we will be leaders and a prayer for good, strong leadership among the Jewish people.

"We hope that God helps us to improve ourselves spiritually and emotionally," Shofet said. He explained that tongue from the head, the first part of the body, is symbolic of being progressive. The second symbolic meaning is of the ram sacrificed by Abraham after passing a test of faith in almost sacrificing his son, Isaac. The Torah portion containing this story is also read every year in synagogue during Rosh Hashana services.

Shofet said that another ritual food used in seders in Iran is sheep’s lung.

This element, he said, is not included in seders in the United States because lung is not eaten here. When cooked, lung is very light, and was used to symbolize that our sins should be light so we would not be punished or judged harshly by God.

It may seem that the serious contemplation associated with the seder’s ritual foods would result in a Rosh Hashana more akin to the somber mood of Yom Kippur, where fasting and confessing one’s sins take up the entire day.

This isn’t so, said Mohtaram Shadpour, who immigrated from Iran to Southern California before the 1979 Revolution. Shadpour loves the tradition of getting together with her four children and 12 grandchildren. It takes her nearly two days to prepare all the Persian dishes for the Rosh Hashana seder and main meal, but to her it is definitely worth it. "Yom Kippur isn’t happy until it’s over," she said emphatically. "But Rosh Hashana is a happy tradition with delicious food, when the whole family comes together to celebrate."

The tradition dates back thousands of years. Jews have been in Iran for more than 2,600 years, arriving there shortly before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the resulting exile of the Jews from Judea to Babylon (modern day Iraq).

As a result of the defeat of the Babylonian empire in 536 BCE by Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Dynasty, the captivity of the Jews in Babylon was ended. Many Jews returned to Jerusalem, but others chose to relocate from Babylon to the land of their liberator and a community known as Shushan: the same Shushan where the story of Purim took place, where Queen Esther and Mordechai defeated Haman’s evil plan of destroying the Jewish people.

Purim is perhaps the most widely recognized holiday in which Persian Jews figure prominently. But Rosh Hashana, when thousands of Jews in "Irangeles" come together to celebrate with festive seders, singing, and the infamous delicacy of tongue, is a close second.