Dual Tragedy of the Plasco Building Fire


For many Iranian-American Jews, the fire in and collapse of the historic Plasco Building in Tehran on Jan. 19 was a tragedy many times over.

The heartbreak comes not only from the loss of 75 innocent lives who tried to fight the fire or were trapped in the building; the building’s demise also rekindled the painful memories of the unjust execution of Habib Elghanian, the Jewish community leader who originally built the structure. The Plasco Building was one of the remaining symbols of the Jewish community’s height of success in Iran during its modern “golden age.” Not to acknowledge the Elghanian family’s role in this building’s creation and the tragedy that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the Iranian regime is also a travesty.

Media outlets worldwide have not extensively acknowledged the important role of the Elghanian family in the Plasco Building’s creation or only briefly mentioned Habib Elghanian’s name in passing. Elghanian and his brothers were among the most affluent and successful Jewish businessmen in Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They not only imported an array of goods from the West into the Iranian market and expanded infrastructure but also brought new technologies to Iran that helped the country manufacture its own goods and, as a result, helped employ thousands of Iranians in their businesses. The Elghanian family was equally generous in giving back to countless needy causes in Iran, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The Plasco Building, completed in 1962 and standing 17 stories, was the first privately built “high rise” of the modern era created in Iran. It was also the first modern “mall” of that early era in Iran, with floors that were home to many new stores for various goods and services. The Plasco Building was elegant and modern in design and structure for its time, and a huge departure from the ancient slum-like “bazaars” of Iran’s past where people typically went to buy their goods. At a time when Iran was beginning to modernize, the building was a powerful symbol of both the country’s positive transformation and the immense achievement of Iranian Jews.

It was likewise a symbol of great pride for Iranian Jews who, just four decades before, had been forced by the Qajar kings of Iran to live in poverty and in run-down ghettos.

“Jews were proud, of course, that a Jewish person had built this iconic building, but many elders in the community were apprehensive about its implications and the much expected backlash by Muslims, envious of Jewish accomplishments,” Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist living in Los Angeles, told me this week.

Jewish community leaders in Iran worried about the Plasco Building’s backlash because, according to Shahrzad Elghanayan, Habib Elghanian’s granddaughter, Iranian Shiite cleric Mahmoud Taleghani “objected to the idea that a Jew had built the tallest building of its time in Iran.” No doubt Taleghani, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other Shiite clerics were furious at the Pahlavi kings, who had created an environment of co-existence and tolerance among Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran. The late Shah of Iran and his father had essentially set aside the old Islamic Shariah laws, which were designed to impose or ensure superiority of Muslims over Jews or other “infidels.” The Plasco Building, built and owned by a Jew, was a direct slap in the face to that radical Islamic dogma at the time because the notion of a Jewish building being taller in size than Muslim-owned buildings was a totally unacceptable notion for the fanatic Iranian religious clerics.

When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country.

Those fears turned out to be prescient. On May 9, 1979, Elghanian was executed by a firing squad of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after being accused on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Elghanian first was given a 20-minute sham trial in front of the Iranian Revolution Court and TV cameras, but never was allowed to consult with an attorney, nor any chance to defend himself from the baseless charges. When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country. On that disastrous day, the lives of Iran’s Jews were forever transformed for the worse. It was then that they realized when their beloved community leader could be so easily executed with no real evidence, they too were no longer safe in a country where they had lived for nearly 3,000 years.

In 2009, on the 30th anniversary of his execution, I had the unique opportunity to interview Elghanian family members, Iranian-Jewish leaders and Iranian Muslims who knew Habib Elghanian well and who recalled their memories of his imprisonment and execution. One of the most revealing interviews I had was with Sion Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s brother, who told me that Habib had left Iran during the initial chaos of the revolution but then returned to Iran because of his patriotism and commitment to Iran’s Jews as their leader.

“We all begged him not to go back to Iran — including Israeli Prime Minister Begin, because we all knew the new regime would execute him if he returned,” Sion Elghanian said. “He said, ‘I have done nothing wrong for them to execute me. I’ve created jobs and businesses to help the country grow and helped many Iranians of all faiths. Why should they kill me?’ ”

Sion revealed his family had made plans to bribe officials to help Habib escape the prison and country, but Habib refused to go along with the plans.

“He told us he would not go along with the plan to escape because if he did, the Iranian regime would take revenge by executing Jews in Iran. In this way, he sacrificed his life for the community.”

Another revealing interview was of an Iranian-Muslim businessman named Nasser Oliae, who was a longtime Elghanian friend and had nothing but praise for him. “One day they must create a giant statue of Habib Elghanian in the middle of Tehran for all of the great things he did for that country! He brought the plastics manufacturing industry to Iran, he hired thousands of people, he gave generously to thousands of Iranians of all religions who were needy. He was a man who truly loved Iran and wanted to see the country’s success,” Oliae said.

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian was an innocent Jew who was executed for no reason by the evil Iranian regime, and that regime still has not apologized to Iranian Jewry for this injustice.

Elghanian family members sold the building in 1975 to Hojabr Yazdani, an affluent Iranian-Baha’i businessman. After the revolution, the Iranian regime’s official “nonprofit” organization, called Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, confiscated the Plasco Building from Yazdani in 1979, and has been operating it since then. Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, which translates to “organization for the oppressed people,” was a front established by the Iranian regime’s ayatollahs after the 1979 Revolution to expropriate the assets of any person who they believed was an “infidel” in order to allegedly “redistribute” it to the poor or needy in Iran. Unfortunately for Iran’s poor, the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan has in the past 38 years never given a penny to them. Instead, the money and assets this group has confiscated over the years from Jews, Muslims, Christians and Baha’is have all gone into the pockets of the ruling Iranian ayatollahs. All of the Elghanian family assets and properties were also confiscated by the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan.

What is truly unfortunate about the recent Plasco Building fire was the fact that, since it was owned by the Iranian regime, no one will be brought to justice for the failure to upkeep the building and prevent the fire hazards that brought it down. We will never know what caused the fire or explosion that destroyed this iconic building in Tehran, and sadly, the ayatollahs who profited from the building for the past 38 years will never be held accountable for the fire code violations that resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives.

In the end, the Plasco Building fire disaster not only caused the death of many individuals but the loss of one of the remaining symbols of Jewish contributions to Iran during the 20th century. The building was also a symbol of the bygone era of modernity and new development that an Iranian Jew named Habib Elghanian and his brothers brought to Iran. Today, we cannot forget the calamity that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the current Iranian regime, nor can we forget the tremendous contributions thousands of Iranian Jews made to the betterment of the nation of Iran during the 20th century. 

What turns many Jews away from Trump energizes his Jewish supporters


In August 2015, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) asked 1,030 American Jews to name their favored candidate in the following year’s presidential primaries. Hillary Clinton was the clear winner with 39.7 percent, followed by Bernie Sanders with 17.8 percent. Donald Trump came in third with 10.2 percent, more than any of the other nine Republicans named.

A majority of Jews will almost certainly line up behind the Democrat in the November election: The same AJC poll found 48.6 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats, compared with 19 percent who say they are Republicans.

But some of the same factors that have turned many voters off Trump — his unyielding stance on immigration and fondness for insult, for instance — are some of what’s driving another group of Jewish voters, even some in liberal Los Angeles, to support his candidacy.

“I like the idea that somebody fresh and new and a little bit vulgar is getting ahead,” said Culver City resident Leslie Fuhrer Friedman, who attends the Pacific Jewish Center on Venice Beach.

“Does he say uncouth things?” she said. “Of course. You know, he’s kind of like an Israeli in the Knesset. He’s a little rude.”

For all the offense many Jews have taken to the Republican’s musings, others have found a set of reasons, specifically Jewish ones, to support him — from his close relationship with his Orthodox son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his disdain for an administration many feel has disrespected Israel.

And then there are some Republican Jews who see Trump’s candidacy as merely the lesser of two evils. 

Brian Goldenfeld, a Woodland Hills paralegal who contributes to the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), said he’s disappointed with both candidates but doesn’t view Clinton as an acceptable option.

“I don’t think just because you’re conservative you have to support Trump,” he said. “But what other alternative do we have?”

For its part, the RJC has offered Trump its lukewarm support: When it became clear he would be the party’s nominee, the RJC released a statement congratulating him, but it has yet to endorse him. 

Yet there’s a sense, at least among the Jewish Trump supporters interviewed for this article, that his shoot-from-the-hip style allows him to speak political truths others avoid, especially on issues of foreign policy.

Clinton “has never admitted there is such a thing as Islamic terrorism,” said Phillip Springer, a World War II veteran who lives in Pacific Palisades.

Springer said he supports Trump because he sees him as the candidate most suited to protect the United States from terrorist attacks of the type that are increasingly common in Europe.

“He does not want New York to turn into Paris and Washington to turn into Brussels,” Springer said. “That will happen if the gates are opened to anybody that’s trying to get into this country.”

Among some of L.A.’s Iranian Jews,

Chessmasters: Israel and the Iran deal


Critics of the Iran deal unfailingly say that the American negotiators, including President Barack Obama, were no match for their wily Iranian counterparts.

The Persians, they remind us, excel at the culture of the bazaar. The Persians, they point out, invented the game of chess. “We’re playing checkers on the Middle East game board,” veteran Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller warned in the midst of the negotiations, “and Tehran’s playing three-dimensional chess.”

That may be true, but it obscures the fact that — as long as we’re indulging in vast cultural stereotypes — there is another people I can think of who know how to drive a pretty hard bargain.

Jews.

And when I take a step back and look at where we are with the Iran deal, I think that must be exactly what’s going on here. Either Israeli leaders, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a phalanx of Jewish organizations are really aiming to destroy the deal — against enormous odds and with untold, possibly devastating consequences. Or what we are seeing unfold is that the Israelis have entered the bazaar — and they’re open for business.

Does that offend you? Tough. Is it shameful? Not at all. Israelis are the most upset by this deal because they have the most to lose from it — period. And in chess — or the shuk — no one gives up anything for nothing.

What Israel is giving up should be clear to anyone within earshot of, well, most Israelis. They are convinced the Iranians will cheat and the mechanism for catching and punishing them is too slow. They know Iran will use some of its money to fund terror. And they are incensed that Iran got far more than the right to enrich, which is bad enough. 

[As the Journal went to press, word arrived that Theodore Bikel died. A full obituary appears here, but no words can do justice to a man who lived such a full life. Two days before his death, in frail health, Theo went to hear a public discussion on Israel and Iran — his passion and commitment to his People endured to the end. This column is dedicated to Theo Bikel. — R.E.]

“If it’s just about nuclear weapons,” Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel asked me — rhetorically — “why does it specifically release Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s greatest terror mastermind, from sanctions? This deal will open the floodgates of terror financing.” 

On the other hand, while most Israeli politicians and 51 percent of all Israelis want to block  the deal, many Israeli military and intelligence officials, as well as numerous pro-Israeli arms control experts, have given it their approval. For instance, Uzi Even, a former lead scientist at Israel’s Dimona nuclear weapons facility, outlined why the deal works in a column titled  “Everyone Relax, Israel Can Live With the Iran Deal.” 

But, the Israelis are acting anything but relaxed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined forces with the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to convince American leaders the deal must be junked. Even though the majority of American Jews favor the deal, Israel and AIPAC want to get a veto-proof majority in the Senate to kill it. 

Or do they?

Most experts say that if Congress blocks the deal, the outcome will be far worse for Israel and the world. The sanctions and inspections regimes will crumble. With no deal, Iran could end up with billions of dollars and a bomb in time for Chanukah. 

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff disagrees. A defeat, he wrote, could set off a convoluted process that would force the negotiators and Iran back to Geneva, where better terms could be worked out.

The Israelis could gamble on that, or they could take the deal — the devil they know — and through a very noisy, public fight persuade Congress, the administration and the American taxpayers that Israel needs more weapons, more aid and deals about  the deal. 

I asked someone who has been active in this issue at the highest levels what possible strategy Bibi and AIPAC could be pursuing, knowing that the chances of blocking the deal are so slim. He pointed out that U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was in Israel as we spoke— and he’s not there for the hummus.

If that’s what this is about — good old-fashioned dealmaking — I’m all for it. 

“Israel harbors few illusions that much good will come out of attempting to undermine the agreement,” Ariel Levite, one of Israel’s top nuclear weapons experts, wrote in Haaretz on July 17. “Hence, it is supremely important to get the United States, France and Germany to make complementary commitments to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, contain and diminish the risk inherent in the agreement and strengthen Israel’s capacity to respond to those threats posed by Iran that the agreement might accentuate.”

In other words, Israel can pocket the deal’s upsides, and secure vast and expensive hedges against its downsides. 

“Chess …” wrote Garry Kasparov, the best player who ever lived, “teaches you how to problem solve in an uncertain environment.”

There is no more uncertain environment than being a Jewish island in a Muslim sea. And yes, it’s true the Persians invented chess. But of the 10 best chess players who ever lived, half were Jews — including Kasparov. 

Oh, and none were Iranian.



Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

When wedding traditions collide


Everyone has certain images they associate with a Jewish wedding: the chuppah, the horah, the breaking of the glass and, of course, large spreads of food. But certain elements can get complicated in a place like Los Angeles, one of America’s largest Jewish melting pots. 

Just look at Rabbi Tal Sessler, an Ashkenazic Jew who serves as senior rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He points out that the mix of diverse Jewish communities cannot help but lead to a different kind of intermarriage — between Ashkenazic and Sephardic individuals, for example — that he likes to call “inter-chuppah.” 

The impact on wedding ceremonies is inevitable as traditions meld, borrow from and are influenced by one another. For example, Sessler said: “One [practice] which is a distinctly Sephardic aspect of the chuppah ceremony is placing a tallit over both the chatan [groom] and the kallah [bride]. It has become increasingly popular in Ashkenazi-American circles. While it is not done in Israel, it is done in American Jewry outside Orthodoxy because people feel strongly about not making their ceremony asymmetrical or overly male-dominated.” 

Rabbi Menachem Weiss of Nessah Synagogue (a Persian congregation in Beverly Hills), who also is director of the Israel Center at Milken Community Schools, said different customs evolved naturally out of Jews living in different places throughout history. Ashkenazim were originally from France and Germany, while Sephardim were originally from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

“The way they were acclimating to the society they lived in affected how they practiced Judaism, as Jewish communities were segregated geographically and the various communities did not connect with each other,” Weiss said.

Preserving wedding traditions from each spouse’s heritage, therefore, has become important not only as meaningful visual adornments for the ceremony but also as a means of following one’s family tree.

“If I were to trace my roots back and go through my family’s line — from Spain to Hungary and on to New York City — the various things we do are somehow shaped by where my ancestors lived,” Weiss said. “My spouse brought in Jewish customs shaped by where her family came from through the generations.”

Consider some differences: In the Ashkenazic tradition, the Shabbat when the groom is invited to be called up to the Torah takes place before the wedding and is called “aufruf,” (Yiddish for “calling up”). In Sephardic communities, the groom’s Shabbat takes place after the wedding. Other ceremonial religious traditions that differ include the bedeken (the groom handling the bride’s veil), with Askhenazi grooms veiling the bride before she walks down the aisle and Sephardic ones only unveiling the bride.

There are cultural differences, too.

“As I am Israeli and my wife is American, we noticed there are cultural nuances that come into play that don’t relate directly to customs, but [to] cultural norms from that country,” Sessler said. “American and Jewish Ashkenazis have smaller weddings in terms of the numbers of guests, while Sephardic and Israeli families stage larger weddings.”

The mood of the service can also vary among groups — in the way the betrothed couple walks down the aisle, for example. In Ashkenazi tradition, only the bride and groom go down the aisle, whereas in Persian ceremonies, the entire family participates, and they sing and dance. 

Shimmy Lautman, a Valley-based wedding photographer, is Ashkenazic but will be marrying a Sephardic woman this summer.

“One thing her family is doing, which I was not previously exposed to in my upbringing, is a pre-wedding henna party,” he said. “Another trend I am seeing within my work is [an update of] the bedeken custom. In ceremonies I have covered where an Ashkenazi groom marries his Sephardic bride, he will meet her halfway and do the veiling there, rather than put the veil on before the ceremony.”

It’s all part of making the ceremony reflect the unique personalities and traditions of each couple, he said.

“From my standpoint, it makes a wedding a lot more interesting socially and visually when various Jewish customs from different cultures are included,” Lautman said. “As essential elements of a Jewish ceremony are not going away, they way people interpret them will keep those traditions evolving.”

One issue that can come up in an inter-chuppah wedding is how the ceremony will “sound” to the family guests on both sides. Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with a campus in the Old City of Jerusalem, said that while the songs’ and prayers’ meanings are generally the same, Sephardic variations are more flowery and embellished than Ashkenazic versions.

“The basic wedding layout is the same … but will it play to the audience is what people should consider,” Bouskila said. “If a couple is looking to integrate different traditions, they should consider what the ceremony will sound like.”

If a song or prayer is sung in a Sephardic style, one could direct Ashkenazi guests to read the text and follow along. Couples also can alternate the style in which songs are performed during the course of the ceremony.

“People are finding clever ways to keep different traditions alive, because it is so important to have the traditions of all sides expressed,” Bouskila said. 

Weiss acknowledged that couples will pick and choose what speaks to them and theorized that as younger couples tend to be less dogmatic, there will be more leeway and compromise when deciding which customs to carry forth.

“In today’s times, we’re all living together, our children are going to school together, going to shul and falling in love with one another,” he said. “We have a reintegration going on, mending those segments of the community that were previously divided into Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Persian and others. It is my hope for the future that there will be a time where there will be a complete reintegration of the Jewish people under one title, ‘Israel.’”

Letter to the Editor: Marijuana, Persians and the Oslo Accord


More on Marijuana

It can be seen by the article “Light-Up Nation” (Oct. 4) that medical marijuana is truly a science and has medical and emotional benefits. My hope is that funds will be allocated in the near future so that more research and clinical trials can be done. Why is it considered OK in the Jewish communities to partake of alcohol and, as the distributor might say, “drink responsibly,” but marijuana is still looked at in a different light? Not everyone who smokes is a “stoner,” in the classical sense of the word. There are many of us who use it responsibly and productively. The foolishness of some patients’ use should not outweigh the wondrous benefits of a product. Any product — be it tobacco, alcohol, food, pain medication — can be overused and abused. How is marijuana any different? I know there will come a time in the future when the community will open its mind to see the healing effects of cannabis.

David Perl via e-mail


The article gives many anecdotes of beneficial effects of marijuana. I believe the author should have listed some of the side effects, such as impaired cognition and increased incidence of auto accidents in users.

Dr. Stuart Goldman via e-mail


Perspective on Persian Civilization

I enjoyed reading Gina Nahai’s article “On Being Persian” (Oct. 4). However, the historical information found in her essay is incorrect regarding one issue and disputable regarding another. The Persian civilization is not “the oldest civilization known to man — one that predates Egypt’s by 500 years.” Rather, the Persians first appear in historical documents in the seventh century B.C.E., while Egyptian civilization can be traced back to the fourth millennium B.C.E., predating Persia by close to 3,000 years. 

Further, Nahai refers to the Cyrus Cylinder as a “declaration of human rights,” which “states that all people captured and enslaved by the rulers before him should be allowed to return to their homelands and worship … whichever god they please.” While Cyrus did allow the Temple vessels to be returned to Jewish authorities and the rebuilding of the Temple and the Jewish community in Judah, that these events are based on what we read in the Cyrus Cylinder is not so clear. The contents of the inscription do not clearly mandate that subject peoples are allowed to go home, but only that their gods can. The intent of the inscription is to legitimize Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon and the vast empire that came with it. 

Thus, while Cyrus is viewed very positively in Jewish history for granting permission to the Jewish community to rebuild the Temple and restore Jewish life in their homeland, the contents of his cylinder do not necessarily reflect a recognition of human rights and religious freedom. Will I nevertheless go to the Getty Villa to view the Cylinder during its visit to Los Angeles? You bet.

Elaine Goodfriend, adjunct lecturer in Jewish studies CSUN, The full version of this letter is at jewishjournal.com.


On the Oslo Accords 

I did not attend the American Freedom Alliance conference on “Oslo @ Twenty,” but if the Journal account (“20 Years Later, the Oslo Accord,” Oct. 4) is any indication, the lack of any support for the Oslo accords expressed at the conference means that the attendees were badly served.

Unmentioned in the article, and apparently at the conference, is the fact that the Israeli government itself has used the threat of not cooperating over that part of the Oslo accords that remain in effect to discourage independent Palestinian Authority behavior, such as statehood recognition from the United Nations. The fact is, Oslo is very much alive, especially in the minds of those working for peace. And so are the peace optimists. 

Barry H. Steiner, political science professor CSULB


A Thank You From Cantor Pressman

Thank you for this (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4). Not sure that one of so many people facing cancer deserves such a fuss, but I am honored.

Cantor Joel Pressman via jewishjournal.com


Boyarsky’s Loss Brings Empathy

I have met Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who is beloved by many (“Seeking Consolation,” Sept. 27). I’m glad he was a source of solace. The High Holy Days always lead me into meditation on the losses and the blessings of this life. Bill Boyarsky’s loss of his oldest daughter, Robin, is a wound I cannot imagine. In time, I hope it heals.

Linda Deutsch via jewishjournal.com


A really lovely piece, Bill. I wish I had a Chaim in my life. I think of Robin all the time, as I think about our Cindy.

Al Martinez via jewishjournal.com


correction

An article about Cantor Joel Pressman (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4) mistakenly reported that a cover story on Pressman had appeared in the Beverly Hills Courier. It was the Beverly Hills Weekly that published the story. 

Gina Nahai: On being Persian


Why do they call themselves Persian? 

The first time someone asked me this was during a Harvest Day at my kids’ school. I had just been introduced to a blond, green-eyed American Jewish woman. I didn’t understand her question. 

“Why do who call themselves Persian?”

“The Iranians in L.A. When you ask them where they’re from, they don’t say they’re Iranian.”

“I just told you I’m Iranian.” 

“Yeah, but the others say they’re Persian.” 

“Persian and Iranian are the same thing.” 

“Yeah, but I think they say Persian because they don’t want people to know they’re Iranian.”

“Why not?” 

“Well … you know.” 

Oh. That

It’s been nearly 10 years, and still I feel the sting of that woman’s condescension every time the subject comes up. I’ve been asked the question a few more times since then, except now I know it’s not really a question at all; it’s just someone’s way of telling me what she thinks of us — Iranians, Persians, whatever. 

“I think they prefer ‘Persian’ because it predates the Islamic Republic,” I say. 

I’ve never had occasion to investigate the matter directly, because I don’t know any “Persians,” just “Iranians,” but I can see why some people, here in the West, may not wish to be confused, in the eyes of people they’ve just met and who are (because it’s human, no point pretending otherwise) bound to judge them by traits such as race, ethnicity and the kind of car they drive with a bunch of terror-sponsoring, Holocaust-denying, suck the country dry and wreak havoc around the world so you can make your own nukes, men in bushy beards and dirty turbans in Iran. Still, I don’t think that’s the real motivation behind choosing “Persian” over “Iranian.” 

I think “Persian” is more about what one is than about what one isn’t. 

To be Persian is to descend from the oldest civilization known to man — one that predates Egypt’s by 500 years, India’s by 1,000 years, China’s by 2,000 years. It’s to trace one’s lineage back to a culture that gave the world poetry and art, rug weaving and wine, algebra and tulips. It’s to be made of the same stock as people who invented money and anesthesia, windmills and ice cream, trigonometry and peaches, the use of alcohol in medicine. And the guitar. 

To be Persian is to be as much, probably more, a victim of the mullahs’ crimes, to be as raped and robbed and exploited by their so-called faith, as anyone else, anywhere in the world. 

Most of all, to be Persian, I believe, is to be tolerant of diversity and accepting of change, able to embrace religious and ethnic differences, to accept opposing points of view and to allow dissent. It’s to carry the legacy of the first declaration of human rights in history, issued nearly 3,000 years ago and, in many parts of the world today, still ahead of its time. 

In 600 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus the Great, created the largest empire the world had yet known. His rule extended from the ancient Near East to most of Asia and the Caucasus, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indus River in the east. He governed through a centralized administration that was founded on the principle of respecting the customs and religions of its subjects. The Jewish Bible refers to him as Mashiah — anointed one. A replica of his official declaration of human rights, carved onto a clay cylinder and buried in the foundations of a Babylonian temple, is on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York. 

The original Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879 by a British expedition and usually on permanent display at the British Museum, is currently on tour in the United States for the first time. This week, it went on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu, where it can be seen through Dec. 2. The cylinder, a 10-by-4-inch artifact made of baked clay, is inscribed on its surface in cuneiform script by the “Persian” emperor, Cyrus the Great. It states that all people captured and enslaved by the rulers before him should be allowed to return to their homelands and worship in whatever shrine, and to whichever god, they please. For the Jews who had been enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar and brought into Babylonian exile, this meant freedom to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. That story is told in the Book of Ezra (1-4:5). Just as significantly, for those — Jewish or other — who chose to stay in Persia, it meant they could now live and die with the same rights as any subject of the empire.

“All this,” I want to tell the politely insulting men and women who imply, with their question, that Iranians in the West are ashamed of their origins, “is as much a part of our history as the little bit that is more commonly known in our times.” The mullahs, after all, have been in power for three-and-a-half decades; what is that, really, in the context of 3,000 years? 

In the end, though, it’s not about what we call ourselves, but what we, an ancient people who endured and outlasted every natural or man-made calamity many times over, have given to the world over the millennia. It’s about what we, faithful and upstanding immigrants, grateful for this nation’s generosity and loyal to its laws and customs, are able, and eager, to give back to this country now. 

To recognize that there’s strength in diversity was the great wisdom of the empire that Cyrus built. Two thousand years later, his doctrine would be part of the education of Thomas Jefferson, who adopted its principles, along with the other Founding Fathers of the United States. At that time, the cylinder was still buried in the earth where it would remain for another century, but the ideas it embodies, the values it represents, prevailed over time and circumstance, and will continue to prevail still — beyond all the mullahs and hezbollahs and other tragic little blips in history.


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.

Blending Persian, Jewish cuisine


Chef Louisa Shafia has been crossing culinary borders and bridging gastronomic gaps all her life. Shafia’s father, a Muslim from Iran, and her mother, an Askenazi Jew, raised a family around a very full dinner table laden with traditional Persian dishes right alongside the Jewish ones. Last month, she staged a sold-out pop-up restaurant at Cortez in Echo Park, which, along with the release of her new cookbook, “The New Persian Kitchen,” demonstrated how Shafia has rediscovered her Persian and Jewish roots — to delicious effect. 

“I grew up with a very diverse food background,” Shafia said. “My mom came from an Ashkenazi Jewish background; her repertoire was matzah brei and borscht — traditional Ashkenazi food.” 

Her father brought to their home an array of Persian ingredients and flavors. “Not that he was cooking them himself,” Shafia said. “My mom would cook saffron rice, lamb kabob, yogurt with dill and mint and cucumber. … My mom was a gourmet cook. Her idols were James Beard and Julia Child. At the same time, she was cooking Iranian and Jewish food.”

Shafia returned to her family’s roots to research “The New Persian Kitchen.” Born in Philadelphia and now residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 43-year-old Shafia said she came to Los Angeles for the better part of her research for the book, to be with her father’s Persian family. 

“There’s a huge Shafia tribe out here,” she said in an interview, and from them she learned traditional preparation of various dishes, as well as the best places to source Persian ingredients, and cultural protocol for serving the food. She arrived in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 2010 to begin her research. 

“Ironically, the only thing that was open that night was Canter’s Deli. So I started out the trip with a big bowl of matzah ball soup.” 

Conducting her research in Los Angeles was a critical part of developing the book, as Los Angeles is a nexus for both Persian and Jewish cuisine. 

Shafia said she found inspiration in places like Elat Market on Pico Boulevard. 

“You can get as many kosher Iranian ingredients as you want! I found my favorite Persian gaz candies there, and I could send them off to my Jewish family who keep kosher,” she said.  

“Reprinted with permission from The New Persian Kitchen, by Louisa Shafia, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.” Photo credit: Sara Remington © 2013

This fully cross-cultural experience is indicative of how she approaches her craft as a chef, and her understanding of the food she makes. 

“When I started researching Persian food, it was important that I search out the Jewish contribution. It’s part of my heritage,” she said. 

Iran continues to be home to one of the oldest populations of Jews outside of Israel. Estimates vary on the size of the community in Iran today. It is believed to be between 10,000 and 20,000 — vastly diminished since the 1979 revolution — yet the Jewish population there continues to be one of the largest in the Muslim Middle East. 

“Even though Jews have struggled — like other minority groups since the revolution — there’s so much love and loyalty to the country,” Shafia said. “Their contributions to the cuisine are hard to parse out because Iranian Jews feel like other Iranians. Their food is indistinguishable.”

Almost indistinguishable, that is. With some interesting exceptions. A Persian matzah ball soup calls for chickpea flour and ground chicken to make the matzah balls. There’s sweet and tangy Persian charoset with pomegranate molasses and cardamom, and date-and-walnut-filled cookies for Purim: the Persian hamentashen. 

These are the dishes Shafia remembers from her youth. Her family celebrated Jewish holidays but always with Iranian dishes on the dinner table. 

“We always had my dad’s rice cooked with lentils and dill. Still, to this day, that’s what he makes for Passover, Thanksgiving … every holiday,” she said. 

“My dad was raised Iranian and Muslim, but he wasn’t practicing,” she said, citing this as the reason he ended up marrying her mother, a practicing Jew. Shafia and her sister grew up as Reform Jews, and that cultural identity has manifested in different ways over the generations. “My sister has gone on to have a very full Jewish life. Her children are bar and bat mitzvah,” Shafia said. 

Shafia said she can’t wait to build on the success of the pop-up event at Cortez. For just one night, she took over the restaurant’s kitchen, and with the help of Cortez’s skilled staff and thoughtful approach to sourcing ingredients, presented a unique Persian menu for 60 guests. Shafia is planning similar events for this fall. And with the release of “The New Persian Cookbook,” she’s also auditioned for the Jewish Book Network, an event in New York that helps Jewish authors connect with representatives from Jewish community centers and synagogues nationally for potential book events around the country. 

Shafia said she wants her message to extend beyond just cooking: “I think that food can be a way to embrace differences and find commonality, because it’s something that brings everyone so much joy. Sometimes Jews that have left Iran have felt they’ve been faced with a choice they must leave behind everything they loved about Iran in order to be a good Jew,” she said. “There is a Jewish-Iranian identity, and a wonderful way to embrace it is to appreciate the food.”

Iconoclast


This may be just another useless explanation, the kind of futile attempt at finding meaning and logic that we all resort to in response to grief, but sometimes it seems life has it in for you in a very personal way. You go along for years feeling spared and protected, taking credit, even, for your relatively undamaged life. You go to bed feeling lucky one night and wake up cursed the next day. You tell yourself this is just a glitch in the road, the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you, a deviation from the normal course of things. But then the pieces start to fall out in the most random, unexpected ways; the single crack in your once-gleaming good fortune grows branches and spread roots, and, before you know it, the litany of hard knocks has become a permanent soundtrack. 

So you try to make sense of it, and when you can’t, you sit up late at night and trace the long road  to despair back to its place of origin. When, exactly, did the bad stuff start to happen? 

We all know that no life is entirely charmed, no doorpost really painted with lamb’s blood. But we also know that the Pharaoh was doing just fine until he was sent the Ten Plagues. It wasn’t a random thing, the boils and locusts and death of the firstborn; something out there really had it in for the guy. There was that moment when his luck turned sour and, after which, nothing went quite his way anymore. I haven’t followed up of late, but I’m willing to bet the frogs have come back every year, dependable as the tide, centuries after he let the Hebrews go. 

I asked my cousin-by-marriage once if he believed that a single loss, however great, can alter a person’s luck. It was a Sunday afternoon during Passover, in one of those houses in Holmby Hills where you need a bus to get from one end of the dining room to the other in a reasonable amount of time. Our hosts were a young couple with a pair of beautiful children, the kind of family you think should be posing for pictures all the time. This was in the late ’80s, when many Iranians still lamented the losses they had incurred during the revolution. For some, the loss was mostly financial; for others, like this cousin, it cut much deeper. 

Before the revolution, my cousin-by-marriage, Farhad Nahai, was an English major at UCLA and just about the kindest, most authentic, innocent and funny young man you ever met. He was a writer and a poet and a genuine, reliable friend. He never forgot a birthday or closed his door on a stray, and he deserved all the love and attention he received because he gave it all back in spades. He had a house in Encino and a shiny new Trans Am, three very successful brothers and parents who would have looked out for him, stood between him and any of fate’s perfidies, to the last breath.

Before the revolution, Farhad survived a horrific car accident without major injury, drank cognac and told stories as rainwater rose above his ankles during a storm that flooded the house he was staying in with his best friend and cousin, Homayoun. The worst thing that happened to him was getting arrested for an unpaid jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles. There was no death or illness, no major loss, no reason to think they would ever occur. You could just see him going on like that — loud shirts and D.H. Lawrence novels and a Richard Pryor humor that made the ugliest reality somewhat palatable — for another hundred years.

In the heyday of the revolution, Farhad lost his 54-year-old mother to sudden illness. For him, something big and essential tore in the fabric of the universe and remained beyond repair. One Passover a few years later, he lost his 32-year-old best friend and cousin, Homayoun, to a long illness. Last Sunday, again during Passover, Farhad himself died after a long illness, at age 58. He had suffered more than anyone should, left behind a lovely, devoted and still-young wife, a delightful 14-year-old son, three caring brothers and their families, many a tender friend. 

We sat around last Sunday afternoon at Farhad’s aunt’s house in Los Angeles — “City of Cars and Creeps” is what he called it — and read aloud from his old essays and poems. We talked about him before and after the revolution, about his youth and middle age, how cruel fate had been to him at times, how lucky he was in marriage and fatherhood. I remembered that day in Holmby Hills, how he was convinced that his life would have been different had the revolution not happened. It occurred to me now that I had asked the wrong question that time: Instead of asking if he thought the revolution had changed his life forever, I should have asked if he thought he had changed because of the revolution. 

The one thing I can say about Farhad is that he was not — ever — like anyone else I’ve known. His English professor at UCLA once defined him as an “iconoclast.” To Farhad, this meant “a person who does things in his own way,” and he was very pleased with this, so fond of the title, he would write it into a video he made of his life for his 40th birthday party. He did do everything in his own, sometimes inexplicable, way. That’s how he was throughout, regardless of circumstances. It’s what made him so lovable most of the time, so difficult to understand at others, the one thing that remained constant in the midst of the storm. In the long run, I suspect it’s what will make him so uniquely memorable, the kind of person who never really dies because he never quite complies. 

In his 40th birthday video, Farhad appears in a yellow-and-white silk Versace shirt, next to a shiny new sports car, while the word ICONOCLAST flashes in giant letters on the screen. I’ve always found that image enthralling, but after last Sunday, I think I’ve found new meaning in it: Maybe there really is no purpose, nor a beginning or end, for all the bad things that happen to us; maybe life is just a series of disappointments that happen at random times to random people, and all we can hope for is to have the courage and forbearance to go through it with grace and humanity. 

Maybe defiance is our only hope, intransigence our best revenge.

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.

Iranian Jews honor local Jewish nonprofits, HIAS


Nearly 500 local Iranian Jews packed two auditoriums at UCLA’s Fowler Museum on Jan. 28 for an event honoring three prominent Los Angeles-area Jewish nonprofits and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). 

The gathering, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation and the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), marked the first time in more than three decades that the Iranian-Jewish community has publicly thanked HIAS, the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) and Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) for helping community members immigrate, often under duress, from their native Iran and resettle in Los Angeles.

“Today, after 30 years, we can now stop and recognize these incredible four organizations for the kind help they offered us from the moment we left Iran until today,” Younes Nazarian, chair of the foundation, said. “It is now our community’s duty to return the kindness bestowed on us by these groups by not only donating to them, but volunteering our time and serving on their boards.”

Iranian-Jewish community members at the event expressed gratitude for the help extended by the larger Jewish community as these new immigrants dealt with the trauma of fleeing a revolution-torn Iran in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“These Jewish institutions opened their doors graciously and offered their services to us that were culturally sensitive and confidential — this was vital for our community that has a collective culture in which there is a strong pathology of guilt and shame in receiving help,” said Morgan Hakimi, the event’s emcee, who is also a former president of the Beverly Hills-based Nessah Synagogue.

Individual Iranian Jews shared personal stories with the audience about how each nonprofit had aided them. Elnaz Panbechi, a 20-something recent immigrant and pharmaceuticals graduate student, said she was overwhelmed with joy after receiving a no-interest loan from JFLA.

“I started to realize and appreciate the people that were behind these loans,” an emotional Panbechi said. “I became thankful for being in a community and amongst people that were so caring and have their hands to help another person like me build a better life for myself.”

Among the programs offered by JVS is a women’s career mentoring program, called WoMentoring; according to JVS, over the past seven years, one-third of JVS’ scholarship recipients have been high-achieving Iranian-Jewish students with financial difficulties.

At the same time, the larger Iranian community has also benefited from JFS’ Iranian Peer Counseling Helpline, which offers Farsi-speaking counselors to help with family problems. JFS has also provided seminars and programs for Iranians dealing with drug abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, depression, homelessness, mental illness, poverty and other social problems that are cultural taboos to discuss within the community.

Perhaps the most emotional aspect of the event came in the outpouring of love for HIAS, which since the 1979 Iranian revolution has been instrumental in rescuing and resettling Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, including Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians. 

“HIAS has played a very important role in influencing elected officials in Congress to keep the doors of immigration open to religious minorities escaping Iran — particularly under the leadership of Jerry Teller, one of HIAS’ past chairmen, who was instrumental during some of the most challenging times,” said Elliot Benjamin, an Iranian-Jewish attorney and member of the Resettlement Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Since 1979, approximately 80,000 Jews have fled Iran and now reside in Israel, Europe or the United States. Today, between 10,000 and 20,000 Jews are believed to be still living in Iran and are gradually leaving the country every year with the help of HIAS.

Shahla Javdan, president of IAJF, said HIAS has helped roughly 47 percent of the Jews who have left since 1979 to resettle in Los Angeles, and the organization has also given nearly 350 scholarships to Iranian immigrants in the United States. 

“The immigration experience is unpleasant, and when Iranian Jews or any other refugees are experiencing it, they grumble and complain about it to HIAS just as the Hebrews complained to Moses when they were escaping from Egypt,” Mark Hetfield, the interim president and CEO of HIAS, said. “So it is very moving to see so many Iranian Jews understand today that we at HIAS were trying to help them all to move to a better place.”

Out of fear of repercussions within Iran, HIAS and local leaders have not publicized the group’s efforts in helping religious minorities to flee their country, yet recent political trends in Washington, D.C., have transformed their policy. Specifically, the expiration in September of legislation in Congress known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which allows for religious minorities in Iran to more easily seek asylum in the United States for humanitarian reasons. As a result of the expiration, HIAS has gone public to encourage members of Congress to renew the law.

The evening also marked a growing trend in the often insular and tight-knit local Iranian-Jewish community to connect with the larger Jewish community, as well as a new spirit of volunteerism. 

“It is now time for us as a community of Iranian-Americans to get engaged and involved in these community organizations in order to bring about real change,” Sharon Nazarian, president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, said. “We need to be at the table in order to be relevant, to have a say and to be a part of the decision-making process.”

For more information on the Iranian-Jewish community’s night of appreciation, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews

PBS’ Iranian-American Story


Following more than three decades of Iranians flourishing in the United States, a documentary titled “The Iranian Americans” offers a nostalgic look at how tens of thousands of immigrants resettled in America following the 1979 revolution in Iran. It will air Dec. 18 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS.

After quickly establishing the circumstances behind the political upheaval in Iran during the late 1970s, the film features interviews with various Iranian-Americans who shed light on the difficulty they experienced in leaving their homes in Iran and coming to a land of freedom in which they were unfamiliar with the language or culture. Whether Muslim, Jew, Baha’i, Christian or Zoroastrian, the Iranian-Americans in this film reveal the duality of their cultures and how they succeeded in their new home.

Numerous prominent Iranian-Americans are featured, including former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who is Jewish; Citicorp vice chairman Hamid Biglari; the former head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Firouz Naderi; and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Goli Ameri. All discuss how they were able to achieve high levels of success due to their pursuit of higher education and hard work.

“I think Iranians living in the U.S. are so misunderstood by average Americans, who do not know the tremendous contributions they’ve made to our country and the pride they have for being Americans,” said Andrew Goldberg, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker behind “The Iranian Americans.”

The documentary shows how Iranian-Americans live bicultural lives by keeping alive some of their music, food, poetry and other traditions — such as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year — while at the same time taking on new American traditions, such as Thanksgiving. This cultural juggling shows up in language, too. Citicorp’s Biglari points out that Iranian-Americans today “sometimes speak Farsi and sometimes speak English or sometimes count in English and sometimes count in Farsi.”

Captured in the film is the sense of nostalgia some older Iranian-Americans have for their former homeland — and with it the desire to visit there one day. But at the same time, it highlights the tremendous pride they have in being U.S. citizens.

Numerous Iranian-Jewish scholars, journalists and writers explore the acculturation of Iranian Jews into American society and how a large segment of Iranian Jewry was embraced by Jews already living in the United States.

Despite showing the trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience, the film also has several lighthearted moments, thanks to Iranian-born stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani, a Muslim who pokes fun at the behavior of certain older Iranian-Americans. Jobrani even recites famous Iranian poetry in Farsi and jokes at how some would not approve of his Farsi accent.

For his part, Goldberg said he wanted to educate the public about the Iranian-American community while at the same time celebrating its tremendous achievements and successes over the last three decades. Yet making the film wasn’t always easy, he said.

“I think the two biggest challenges we had [were] obtaining financial support for making this documentary from the community and also interviewing certain people who were afraid that the Iranian regime may take what they say out of context and possibly create problems for their family members still living in Iran,” Goldberg said.

In the past Goldberg has produced similar documentaries for public television about other immigrant groups, including Armenians, Jewish-Americans and a 2007 film regarding anti-Semitism in the 21st century.

While the film accurately showcases the various Iranian-American religious groups and their achievements in the United States, it omits the tremendous sense of friendship, mutual respect and camaraderie Iranians of all religions living in the United States share for one another. 

And even though the documentary discusses the dictatorial nature of the government of the late shah of Iran, it fails to mention the advances in education, prosperity and social tolerance all Iranians experienced for one another in the country prior to the revolution. 

Another element that is missing is how many non-Muslim Iranians, including Jews, Christians and Baha’is, still struggle to live with the significant trauma resulting from persecution they experienced at the hands of Iran’s current brutal regime. 

Overall, though, the “The Iranian Americans” documentary is a fairly good representation of the larger Iranian community living in the United States and how its members struggled to become acculturated into American society over the years. 

Young Persian Jews cool, not cold, on Obama


When the networks projected President Barack Obama’s re-election victory Tuesday night, most of the young, partying crowd at The Parlor bar in West Hollywood erupted in raucous cheers.  Except for one section.

There, a crowd of more than 100 young Persian American Jews remained mostly quiet—at least three-quarters of them had clearly been hoping for victory for Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I think Obama will be spineless when it gets to dealing with Ahmadinejad,” said Michael Hiller, a thirty-something Persian American Jew, echoing a primary reason so many of his friends and family had voted for the Republican. “Romney’s better for Israel.”

Just a few cheers punctuated the silence.

“Maybe there’s 10 of us,” Sam Yebri, founder of 30 Years After, shouted over the din.  He meant Obama backers.

But the quiet that overtook the lively crowd as a bank of giant TV screens announced state after state for Obama didn’t tell the whole story.

When CNN reported victories for a Colorado initiative legalizing marijuana use, the group erupted in applause.  They did so again when Maryland’s initiative for gay marriage passed.

Young Persian Jews, said 30 Years After executive director Tabby Davoodi, lean conservative on economics and foreign policy, but are socially liberal.

But their alliances are more fluid than they seem, or sound.

“I voted for McCain in 2008 and Obama today,” said Michael Yadegaran, a vice president of the group. “I realized Republicans were using Israel as a partisan issue.

Navid Soleymani also switched to Obama.

The 38-year-old lawyer said Sen. Mitch McConnell’s declaration that his job was to unseat the President “put politics above country.”

“To me it’s not about Romney,” Soleymani said. “It’s about the Republican brand that’s been damaged.

“The most important thing,” said Sanaz Meshkinfan, 29, “is 30 years after their parents came from Iran, this generation of Iranian Americans is engaged in civic duty.”

Iran’s Ahmadinejad says election, not war, solution for Syria


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said a national dialogue leading to elections was the way towards a solution to Syria's crisis, in remarks broadcast on Tuesday.

He told Al Jazeera television that war was not the way forward, adding: “There is another way to find a solution, it is national, mutual understanding in order for there to be elections in the future.”

The interview was translated from Persian into Arabic by Al Jazeera.

Iran is a main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been battling an uprising against his rule. Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt, which has grown into a full-scale civil war.

“Syria's case is very complex and at the same time is a very important one,” Ahmadinejad said. “Should I follow those demanding war? I don't think the language of war is a good language.

“There must be a different way to solve problems … I have opposed war, but those who want things to be settled through dialogue are a minority and perhaps the majority are in favour of going ahead in the context of war.”

Ahmadinejad, who made similar comments in a separate news conference in Tehran, said Iran had long had good relations with Syria. He said Tehran had built dams, roads and power stations in Syria and Iranian pilgrims were frequent visitors to the Arab country.

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.

Tunisian pizza


There’s a concept in the Persian language – ghessmat – for which no exact equivalent exists in English. It refers to a person’s unrelenting, inescapable, for better or worse but either way, it was designed and executed specifically for you, destiny.

Like when you miss your flight because the cab got a flat tire, then the plane you were supposed to be on crashes in the Atlantic Ocean. Or when you work a lifetime and hide all your money in your mattress because you don’t trust the banks, then the mattress catches fire and burns to ashes. Or, more immediately in my experience, when you resist eating at kosher dairy restaurants for 30 years because the food gives you heartburn, only to end up in a place at Pico and Bedford on a Wednesday night, eating pizza with cheese, fried egg, and tuna, and living to rave about it.

My mother has been recommending this place – 26 by Shiloh’s – for a year already. She talks about it like it’s Perino’s come back to life in Pico-Robertson, and maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but all I’ve ever seen of kosher dairy is Greek Salad (I make it better myself), humus (they sell a nonfat version at Trader Joe’s), and pizza with a thick, greasy crust and too much cheese. My mother is a very talented artist with an intensely accurate intuition – she dreamt JFK was lying with his head in a pool of blood two days before he was assassinated – but she tends to have one or two blind spots for the people she loves, her entire, very extended, very international family among them. You want to achieve sainthood in under three minutes? Be born or marry into the Merage family, and my mother will see to it that you’re fast-tracked ahead of Mother Teresa.

In this case, one of the owners, Geoffrey Ghanem, is related to her by marriage. Geoffrey is a French Jew who met his wife, Debbie, on the boardwalk in Eilat. They were both 21. He didn’t speak English; Debbie didn’t speak French. Debbie’s parents are Iranians who met and married strictly because of ghessmat: In 1972, Debbie’s mother, Shana, broke up with her fiance the morning of the wedding because she “didn’t know the guy well enough and didn’t want to get to know him anymore.” To escape the heat, she left Tehran to spend a couple of months with her sister in New York. If ever she got married, she told her sister, it was going to be after a long, long, courtship.

One snowy afternoon, an old friend of her sister’s came to visit. The friend had a brother, Ray, who had lived in Pasadena since he was 17, coming to the United States alone and with no money. He slept in a church or at the YMCA, started to work as a busboy at Manny’s Cafeteria in Pasadena; three years later, he was managing eight Denny’s restaurants, but he lost his job because one of chefs left the stove on when they locked up for the night. In the morning, the place had burned to the ground and Ray was told he should think about a career change. He went into banking. In 1972, he was engaged to the daughter of Pasadena’s chief of police when they decided they had rushed into something prematurely and broke off the engagement.

Ray and Shana met on a Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday of the following week, they went to City Hall in New York and got married.

Some 30 years later, their daughter Debbie met Geoffrey on a Wednesday afternoon in Eilat. She didn’t want to live anywhere except in Los Angeles; he had always known that he would live anywhere but Los Angeles. He proposed after a week and followed Debbie to L.A. to work in real estate; instead, he and Debbie opened two restaurants. They’re still happily married and raising 5-year-old twins and 3-year-old triplets. That, too, is ghessmat.

My mother is so fond of the twins and the triplets, she has their pictures framed and displayed all over her house. That’s very sweet, I think, but it does make her recommendation of 26 a little suspect. As far as I know, in Los Angeles you’re lucky if you get a plate with your slice of pizza; you want a tableside flambe and French and Italian tapas? Go to France and Italy. Then again, you can only withstand a force of nature for so long before you have to relent, and that’s how I finally ended up at 26 on a Wednesday night during its grand reopening, and I have to say, I was a little stunned by the elegance and beauty of the restaurant’s interior; it looks like it should be in the meat packing district of Manhattan instead of in Pico-Robertson, down the street from the kosher fish stores and Iranian grocery stores and all those other shops that could stand a few coats of paint and some major renovation.

That already makes it an anomaly. So does “sea bass with pomegranate sauce” and “baked fig with a cheese crust” and, yes, “Tunisian pizza” with fried egg and tuna. I order this last one only because I want to see what it looks like, but then the food arrives, and it’s all very good and not expensive. And then the chef comes out to talk to us about his “concept” of “Western European cuisine” with “essence of international flavor,” and “natural, seasonal, market-fresh items,” and how he was the executive chef at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland and later at the Carlton in Cannes.

All this is great and wonderful and, for someone who has underestimated the potential of kosher dairy for so long, rather humbling, but what are the chances, I’d like to know, that two Iranian Jews would both leave fiances at the altar, meet and marry in three days against all reason and live happily ever after, have a child in Pasadena who will meet and marry a French boy in Israel after a week when neither of them even speaks the other’s language, come back with him to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, have a set of twins and a set of triplets, and open a restaurant that serves pizza with fried egg and tuna that — I kid you not — is delicious?

Persian Tay-Sachs


In the story, a young prince in an old and distant kingdom is mesmerized with salt.

The prince loves the taste of salt on his tongue, the dryness of it on his skin. He loves the way the grains catch the light as they slip through his fingers like so many tiny pieces of glass on a sun-bleached day. While all the other children in the kingdom are doing what children do, the young prince indulges his fascination with salt. He’s so busy with his adoration, he forgets to grow and yet, even in adulthood, he cannot stop the craving for salt.

Disconsolate over his son’s plight, the king falls ill. In his white palace with emerald windows, his grand wizard, when called upon, ordains that to heal, the king must fall sleep and dream of beauty and youth and conquest. The king dreams he’s young again; he stands in a field of wild grass, watching a beautiful maiden with golden locks run toward him from the edge of the horizon. She’s a fast runner with a graceful step, so light on her feet, he wonders if they ever touch the ground, but the closer she comes to the king, the more slowly she runs. He watches as her gait becomes uneven and her legs fold and she falls to the ground. When it’s time for him to wake up, the king cannot bring himself to abandon the injured and struggling maiden in the grass. The grand wizard calls him; the queen and the prince beckon him; the king will not wake. 

Years ago, in “Cry of the Peacock,” I wrote the story of my own family and of other Iranian Jews I had known or been told about. Most of what I wrote was real, but when the book was published the reviewers evoked terms like “fairy tale” and “magical realism.” I didn’t know what magical realism was, didn’t think I had written a fairy tale. If anyone asked, I tried to explain that what seemed “magical” to the Western ear was just a whole lot of “realism” in the East.

In the land of the slumbering monarch, the queen summons her husband’s army and enjoins them to search the land for a spell that will rouse him from sleep. The bravest of all these men, two brothers, go farther and look more assiduously than all the rest. Everywhere they stop, they tell the story of the boy who won’t grow and the king who won’t wake, and they even tell about the maiden in the king’s dream, how she could outrun the goddess Atlanta until she was betrayed by her own limbs, but no one can help. At the last hour of the last day of their quest, the two brothers encounter two wise men who have come to the kingdom from distant shores, and who claim to have the spell.

I wrote a second book about real events in real people’s lives, and I even wrote a third — this one about all the “magical” things that happen in the far and forgotten corners of these United States — and still, I couldn’t convince most people of the veracity of so much of what happens in the books. Nor did I have a logical explanation for the disconnect. All I knew was that, left alone and forgotten for 3,000 years before they immigrated to the West, Iranian Jews had seen the world become, like Alice’s Wonderland, “weirder and weirder.”

At the palace with the emerald windows, the two wise men draw the king from his sleep and free the prince of the curse of the sorcerer’s salt. And though they cannot save the girl with the faltering gait, they vow to deliver the kingdom of all its unusual maladies. The two wise men have rid other kingdoms of other strange and devastating curses, and they know they can do it again. All they ask for in exchange is a drop of saliva and a tin coin from each of the king’s subjects.

In the late 1990s, two young Iranian Jewish physicians announced the existence of an illness that may be unique to Iranian Jews. At first, hardly anyone believed them. Later, most people thought that even if such an illness did exist, it was so rare as to be irrelevant to the general population. In 2001, Hadassah University Hospital in Israel announced the discovery of a gene that, in its mutated form, can cause a progressive muscular disease that attacks the individual in his 20s; it begins with a weakening of the leg muscles and gradually spreads through the body. The illness is called hereditary inclusion body myopathy, or HIBM. One in 20 Iranian Jews is a carrier of the gene.

Other recessive genetic disorders in Iranian Jews were soon identified: a sensitivity to some forms of anesthesia that can result in death (one in 10 is a carrier); a salt-losing disorder that causes great craving for salt and, if untreated, short stature (one in 30 is a carrier); a hormone deficiency that can lead to, among other ailments, diabetes mellitus type 1 (one in 50 is a carrier).

Although gene mutations exist in every ethnic and racial group, they are more common, and therefore easier to find, in isolated societies with a history of intermarriage. Among Ashkenazi Jews, Tay-Sachs disease was the evil giant that remained latent in a person’s body until he or she produced a child with a partner who was also a carrier of the gene. Tay-Sachs was eliminated in the Ashkenazi population thanks to genetic testing and premarital counseling that were a result of the efforts of two of the world’s leading geneticists, Dr. David Rimoin and Dr. Michael Kaback.

The two wise men stand at the gates of the white palace ready to save the denizens of the old and distant realm. They wait, but no one comes. Bewildered, they send couriers and emissaries into the heartland and repeat their pledge. They sound the bells and call from the highest towers and still, no one answers.

Forty years after spearheading the Tay-Sachs project, Drs. Rimoin and Kaback undertook the task of eradicating Iranian Jewish genetic illnesses. At the Cedars-Sinai Medical Genetics Institute, under Dr. Rimoin’s leadership, Iranian Jewish couples who are planning a family can be tested to make sure they’re not both carriers of the gene; if they are, they can guard against having children who are affected by one illness or another by undergoing in-vitro fertilization and choosing not to implant the defective embryos. Parents with small children can detect some illnesses in time to treat them. And even older people can alert their physicians of their sensitivity to some anesthesia medicines. Testing is entirely confidential, and by law, insurance companies cannot deny coverage or raise rates based on test results. The test costs $350 and requires only a few drops of saliva.

And yet, in the two years since a thousand Iranian Jews were tested under the pilot program at Cedars-Sinai, the phones at the center have remained quiet and few requests have been made for testing. Many Iranian Jews have yet to learn about the diseases or the fact that the genes have been identified. Many fear that by speaking openly about the illnesses and the testing, the community would expose itself to adverse reactions from Ashkenazi Jews. Many do not have the $350 to spare. So far, the dozens of religious and cultural organizations, the nonprofits and all the individual donors who have raised so much for, or given so generously to, one Israeli cause or another, have not been called upon to publicize the testing or finance it for families in need of help. Like the two wise men in the fairy tale that could just as easily be true, Dr. Rimoin and his colleagues at Cedars-Sinai are standing at the gates of our ancient kingdom, ready to break the spell and free us of the sorcerer’s curse.

A hundred years from now, if someone were to write the story of Iranian Jews in Diaspora, the existence of such gene mutations would no longer seem fictional. Nor would the ability of science to eradicate them as it did Tay-Sachs among Ashkenazi Jews. What would seem unreal is if we fail to seize this chance to save ourselves and our children from a fate that, for all its mythical veneer, is bitterly and irreparably real.

For more information on the Persian Jewish Genetic Screening Program, call (310) 423-4461, or visit www.csmc.edu/medgenetics.

Gina Nahai is professor of creative writing at USC. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

Author promotes moderate faith for Iranian Jews


After their immigration to Southern California more than 30 years ago, the majority of the area’s Iranian Jewish community poured their energies into re-establishing themselves financially. Following their success, some Iranian Jews have turned their attention to promoting philanthropy in the arts, education and Israel in recent years.

Nourallah “Norman” Gabay, a semi-retired Iranian-Jewish businessman, is one of perhaps a dozen older individuals in the community who has been using his wealth to promote Jewish education and values, among Jews and non-Jews alike.

A resident of Beverly Hills and a founding member of the Magbit Foundation, the 82-year-old Gabay authored and self-published “An Invitation to Reason,” a 2009 Persian-language book that suggests Iranian Jews should reject religious extremism and follow a traditional yet moderate form of Judaism instead.

Gabay said his main motivation in writing the book was to address a divisiveness and sectarianism that has taken root within his community, which he says has strayed from 2,500-year-old Iranian-Jewish traditions.

“I wrote this book to better inform our community and our society of the neglected dangers of the status quo, and to help prevent the further spread of such irrational divisiveness, or even sectarianism,” said Gabay, who poured approximately $80,000 into editing and publishing the book.

For centuries, the Jewish community in Iran followed a traditional religious practice that might best be described as “Conservadox.” After their immigration to the United States, Iranian Jews split among the movements of American Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — a gradual division that Gabay says has often caused great strife among tight-knit families in the Iranian-Jewish communities living in Southern California and New York.

Despite the fact that Gabay has no formal rabbinic or religious training, he has not shied away from this controversial topic. He says that the children of immigrant Iranian-Jewish families have been particularly vulnerable, and that Chasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities have encouraged Iranian-Jewish youth to follow a religious path radically different from that of their parents.

“In effect, this small group of preachers were tearing apart these families at a particularly vulnerable stage in their lives and, by extension, they were destroying the unity of our community, rather brutally,” he said.

In the book, Gabay issues a call to action to adopt a rational approach to religion in order to build stronger communities and a more ethical world for Iranian-Jewish children and grandchildren.

Gabay says the book’s message can be applied to any faith. And if he were to rewrite the book today, he says he wouldn’t single out a specific religion.

“Instead, I would just write about extremist religion as a whole,” he said. “I think that each one of my readers can find certain points in my arguments which would align along their own convictions and beliefs.”

Since its first printing, Gabay has sold nearly 3,000 copies among local Iranian-Americans of various faiths through word of mouth and at an event organized last year by the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization.

Earlier this year, Gabay published an English-language version of “An Invitation to Reason,” which is intended for younger Iranian Jews who were unable to read the Persian-language edition. Gabay has also made both versions of the book online as a free download on his Web site, babanouri.com, and the English-language version can be purchased on Amazon.

For their part, many of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community members said they were supportive of the book’s main theme, which promotes harmony among Jewish families by embracing the traditional customs followed by Iranian Jews.

“Everyone whom I have given Mr. Gabay’s book to read has told me that they have enjoyed its refreshing message of embracing what is positive among about Judaism,” said Nasser Mogeemi, an Iranian-Jewish businessman living in Studio City. “We live in America and it is inevitable that our young people will be lured to other faiths, so we need to avoid pushing them away from Judaism with fanatic religious customs.”

Gabay acknowledges the often-vast religious difference among local Iranian Jews but said he would like his book to begin a positive dialogue between parents and their children as well as among religious leaders. He hopes his work will inspire the community to openly discuss how to unite and find common ground.

Read more of Karmel Melamed’s interview with Nourallah Gabay online on his blog:

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.

Persian Jewish Von Trapp offers new spin on penitence


Growing up, Galeet Dardashti toured and performed with her father, Farid, a renowned cantor, performing Middle Eastern and Persian music throughout the United States and Canada as part of The Dardashti Family.

“We’ve been called the ‘Jewish Von Trapps,’ ” Dardashti says jokingly.

Dardashti, a mother of two in her mid-30s, now is carrying the musical mantle of her family, which stretches back several generations in Iran, on her own. The lead singer of Divahn, an all-female Middle Eastern ensemble, has a new solo show, “Monajat,” premiering Sept. 2 in Miami that will tour several U.S. cities throughout September until the start of Rosh HaShanah.

In “Monajat,” Dardashti has taken the 13th-century Sufi poem of the same name, which means “fervent prayer,” and blended it into the traditional Persian songs and liturgy for Selichot, the penitential prayers recited by Jews in the days leading up to the High Holidays.

“My idea with this show,” Dardashti explains, “was reinventing a ritual”—a task made more difficult by the fact that Selichot isn’t even on the radar of most North American Jews.

The show is the first commission of the New Jewish Culture Network, a partnership between the Foundation for Jewish Culture and performing arts presenters across the United States. It features Dardashti performing some of the Persian piyyutim, or liturgical poems, traditionally chanted by men as part of the Selichot service, as well as other liturgical and secular Hebrew and Persian poetry set to new music.

Dardashti first learned of “Monajat” while listening to recordings of her grandfather, Yona, a famous singer of Persian classical music as well as a cantor. At the end of his recitation of Selichot, he would freestyle to the poem in a manner consistent with other Persian classical singers.

“You choose poets you like and then you basically improvise to their poems,” Dardashti says, explaining her grandfather’s method. “It’s a cool thing he found this poem so thematically related to Selichot.”

But more than serving as the inspiration for “Monajat,” Yona, who had a weekly television program in his native Iran, will accompany his granddaughter during the performance—she plans to sing along with her grandfather’s recorded voice. “Monajat” also will feature video from artist Dmitry Kmelnitsky, who will incorporate images during the performances. Dardashti hopes that the added feature will make “people feel part of the ritual instead of being [merely] audience members.”

Given Dardashti’s lineage, it may seem like her musical path was preordained. Yet it came as a surprise, if not to everyone else then at least to her.

“I didn’t think my music would take a major part of my career,” says the singer, who in 2009 earned a doctorate in anthropology with a focus on Middle Eastern and Arab musical performance in Israel.

She thought that her academic pursuits would occupy a more central position in her life. But, she recalls, in “Austin, Texas, as a graduate student, I started to do some music on the side. The music just took off in a way that I would not have expected.”

Dardashti began to receive recognition for her first album, “The Naming.” The project, which she produced with the support of the Six Points Fellowship, brought together stories about female characters from the Torah, midrash and other sources to create a collage of Jewish texts, which gave voice to the marginalized women in the Bible such as Michal, the daughter of Saul and wife to David, who never bore any children, or Vashti, the wife of Achashverosh, who often is vilified in rabbinic literature.

While “Monajat” has no explicitly feminist message like “The Naming,” Dardashti does recognize that being a woman reciting Persian liturgical poetry is statement enough, especially in a community that does not have female cantors.

“I’m doing this sacred music from the Persian tradition basically as a chazan [cantor], so I don’t think I need to do anything more,” she says.

Yet Dardashti has never encountered any resistance in her immediate family. Her father, recently retired, was a Conservative cantor at an Ashkenazi synagogue who encouraged his daughters to pursue their passions.

“I was never told this was a male realm,” she says.

For Dardashti, her new show is about helping people rediscover a powerful tradition. “I’m hoping,” she says, “that people will come away from the performance with a new appreciation for the ritual of Selichot.”

Gina Nahai: Staying true to our own heritage


I once wrote a novel about an Iranian Jewish woman who grows wings and flies away from her husband’s home. She escapes because she’s in love with another man, and she believes it’s better to abandon her family than to stay and shame them by having an illicit affair. A few months after the book was released, I overheard someone — an Iranian Jew who happened to be very observant and very trusted by Iranians and Ashkenazim alike — remark that the novel had no merit because it was based on an impossible premise. I braced myself for a comment about the implausibility of a woman growing wings and flying off a window ledge like a migrating bird. Instead, the gentleman went on to assert that the really improbable proposition was that any Iranian Jewish woman would ever, under any circumstances and for any reason, contemplate an extramarital affair. 

Now, God knows I’m no expert in Iranian Jewish history, but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time, and I can say without equivocation that by far the majority of our women are, and have always been, impeccably chaste, unfailingly faithful and indefinitely devoted to their spouses. I’m not saying this just to keep up appearances before our friendly American neighbors or to avoid being banished from all Iranian parties forever. I’m saying it because it’s true. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible that, over the course of our 2,500-year history, one of our women has committed an indiscretion of the kind depicted in the book. What fascinated me about the gentleman’s remark, therefore, was not so much his faith in our women’s piety, as his manifest conviction that there are areas of human nature and behavior that remain, to this day, entirely closed to Iranian Jews.

I realize that’s not a terribly uncommon assumption for a Jew to make about other Jews. Just as the world holds us to a different standard, so do we hold, if not ourselves, then each other, to a higher code of ethics. I grew up hearing about a multitude of acts that were the exclusive domain of Muslims and Christians and Zoroastrians and Buddhists and basically anyone at all except for Jews. Murder was one. Adultery (for women) was another. Theft on a grand, gluttonous and unabashed scale was yet another.

According to all the Jewish adults in my Iranian childhood, Jews did not kill, sleep with anyone but their husband, or steal from their friends, neighbors and random old ladies because:

A. They were bound by a higher calling — halachah — than your average penal code.
B. They lived in a country where, by law, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, and would be punished, for the indiscretions of each of its members. And
C. They belonged to a culture in which a person’s good name and reputation was his greatest asset, where his or her children would be duly rewarded or punished for his or her actions, where “shame” was a penance greater than any jail sentence and more exacting than poverty, illness or even death.

That, regrettably, was then.

I don’t know if things have remained the same in Iran, but I hope my fellow Iranian Jews in this country will forgive me for saying in print what we all know and lament in person — namely, that somewhere between Tehran and Los Angeles, some of us became more religiously observant and less personally righteous, more outspoken about the virtues of piety and less capable of feeling remorse, more able to circumvent the law and less fearful of public shame.

And I hope my fellow American Jews in this city will resist the urge to wag a holier-than-thou finger and indulge in the all-too-common tendency to blame the entire Iranian community for the sins of a few individuals. For one thing, that’s rather reminiscent of what the non-Jewish majority did to the Jewish minority in Iran, Russia and even in this country up until the 1950s. It wasn’t right then, and it’s not right now. More importantly, I dare say that Iranian Jews are as Jewish and as American as all the parents and grandparents of the current “native” population. Like us, your parents prized their American citizenship but continued to speak both English and their mother tongue. Like us, they ate both hot dogs and latkes, were made to feel unwelcome in fancy neighborhoods, and were suspected of committing all sorts of offenses, from building unattractive houses to taking over the world.

But I digress.

In the three decades since the revolution, Iranian Jews tried to embrace the best of Western culture while maintaining the positive aspects of their own. The jury’s still out on how well we’ve navigated those waters, but until recently, we were pretty confident that we had indeed gotten one thing right: We had re-created in America a community that, while far from perfect, had nurtured and strengthened us through many a difficult time. Outside our little bubble, the world was moving fast and memories were short, people reinvented themselves with impunity every few years, and nothing was wrong unless the law said so. But inside, we continued to harbor the notion that there were some things in this world a Jew just did not do.

We assumed, for example, that a Jew would not solicit “investments” from other Jews only to use the money to build himself a big, fancy house. Or that a Jew, especially a very observant one, would not empty the trust funds of orphan children into his own wife’s bank accounts. Or rob poor widows to enrich his already wealthy siblings. Or cheat his closest friends to finance his children’s education at expensive Jewish day schools.

We assumed all this with the kind of foolish certainty that had driven the gentleman critic to assert that a Jewish Iranian woman would sooner grow wings than indulge in pleasures of the flesh with a man she was not married to. We were, alas, proven wrong. On the heels of Bernie Madoff and all his lesser likenesses, Iranian Jews discovered their own batch of “toxic assets.” One of them, you may be amused to learn, was our resident literary critic.  In a single year, he and his fellow luminaries did to our community what a 1,000 years of being persecuted by the mullahs and 30 years of living outside Iran did not: They took from us the notion that Jews, especially very religious ones, observed a higher threshold of ethical behavior; that a good name had an inherent value that could not be measured in dollars.

If you can’t trust your own, whom can you trust? 

We are, today, a wounded and perplexed community. The old laws don’t apply, and the new ones don’t protect against Old World behavior. We cannot enter a deal with a handshake, then expect the courts to enforce what we didn’t deem necessary to put on paper. For us, the question is no longer what a Jew will and will not do; it’s what we, as a community, will and won’t tolerate. It’s whether our increasingly Orthodox rabbis will take a public stand against larceny in our own midst, or choose to look away. Whether our fellow Jews will buy and sell with other people’s money, or pass on profiting from ill-gotten gains. Whether we continue to protect the guilty with our silence and save our hate mail for the young Iranian Jewish reporter who relates the news as it happened in this publication. Instead of yelling at him to stop shaming our community by reporting other Jews’ misdeeds, we could, for example, yell at the wrongdoers and their accomplices and enablers.

It’s a funny thing about shame, you know: Those who are capable of feeling it are inevitably at a disadvantage against the rest. That’s always been in the case. There have always been people who chose wealth in disgrace over the simple honor of a life of hard work and sacrifices. In the old country, this was a real, almost permanent choice. “Everything dies,” the old Persian expression went, “except a name.”

But out here, where bootleggers’ children grow up to become president and a few million can get your name above a school or synagogue door, who’s to say that’s not a false choice? Commit the crime, weather the storm, then go out and purchase an even better name than you had before. The question, for our community, is whether we’ll go the American way and buy and sell a name as easily as a used car, or whether we’ll pause, and remember, and stay true to our own heritage.


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.

City, County Officials Celebrate No Ruz at Westwood’s Persian Square


On March 28, nearly 10,000 Los Angeles Iranian Americans of various religions, including local Iranian Jews, celebrated the Persian New Year of No Ruz on Westwood Boulevard in Westwood Village, with the official naming of a street corner as Persian Square.  Los Angeles City Council man for District 5, Paul Koretz, was on hand for the ceremony; he introduced a motion in the council to name the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Wilkins Street as Persian Square earlier this year.

“This sign is in recognition of the first Persian business established in Westwood and the city in 1974, and in appreciation for how the Persian community has given back to the city in so many great ways over the years,” Koretz said.

Last year, Koretz narrowly won his city council seat in a tight election with the wide support of local Iranian Americans in the city who primarily live and work in his district. No Ruz is an ancient secular new year celebrated by Iranians of different faiths worldwide to mark the beginning of spring with parties, dancing and the giving of money as gifts.

Other elected officials on hand for the Persian Square gathering included L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Beverly Hills’ Iranian-Jewish
Mayor Jimmy Delshad. Last month, Delshad was installed to serve his second term as mayor of Beverly Hills, a position that rotates annually among the city council members.

In addition to the No Ruz event in Westwood, the L.A. City Council honored the holiday in an official ceremony at City Hall last month, and on April 4 several thousand local Iranian Americans celebrated the end of the holiday at a Persian festival held at Balboa Park in Lake Balboa.

To view Karmel Melamed’s video interviews with Koretz, Greuel and Delshad on the No Ruz celebrations, visit 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.

Car Wash Brothers Face Labor Abuse Charges


Since two local Iranian Jewish brothers were charged with a 176-count criminal complaint by the L.A. City Attorney’s Office in February for alleged labor law violations at their car washes, many area Iranian Jewish business owners are quietly expressing support for the pair. And some believe they are being singled out for political reasons.

The complaint alleges that Benny Pirian, 38, and Nissan Pirian, 31, the owners of four car washes in Northridge, Hollywood and Los Feliz, routinely refused to pay their workers minimum wage, failed to pay their workers overtime, prevented their workers from taking rest breaks and required their workers to purchase uniforms and equipment from them, in addition to other violations of state labor laws. The complaint also alleges that workers who attempted to unionize the car washes with the help of the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers were intimidated and harassed, and that a manager at one of the car washes brandished a machete and a club in two such union-busting incidents.

The City Attorney’s Office also alleges that the Pirians failed to provide medical attention to workers who were seriously injured by acid burns, deep puncture wounds and severe lacerations while on the job. If convicted on all counts, the Pirians could face more than 80 years in county jail and more than $1.25 million in fines and restitution.

“This was a joint investigation involving the investigators from our office and from the United States Department of Labor,” said Max Follmer, a City Attorney’s Office spokesperson. “Our offices investigated this case for some time, interviewing more than 40 witnesses.”

The Pirians’ arraignment is scheduled for May 7 in L.A. Superior Court.

The criminal charges are just the latest troubles for the Pirians. Bet Tzedek, the L.A.-based Jewish nonprofit law firm, first filed a civil class-action suit against the brothers and their four car washes last May on behalf of nearly 250 current and former workers for unpaid wages as well as denial of rest and meal breaks.

The Pirians declined to speak on the record with The Journal about the criminal charges and other litigation, directing inquiries instead to their attorney, Mark Werksman.

Werksman denied his clients’ wrongdoing and said the criminal and civil cases brought against his clients were retaliation stemming from the Pirians’ lack of support for unionizing activities at their car washes.

“The criminal charges are baseless and rely on frivolous, unproveable allegations made by union organizers who are trying to punish the Pirians and their employees for resisting their union drive,” he said. “The union has launched a campaign of harassment and frivolous litigation to bludgeon the Pirians into submission, and this prosecution is their latest weapon.”

While many local Iranian Jewish community leaders declined to comment on the Pirians’ case, business owners in the community have been quietly supporting the brothers over the past few months.

“This criminal case is politically motivated since the outgoing City Attorney [Rocky] Delgadillo wants to curry favor with the unions before he leaves office in June,” said Houshang F., an Iranian Jewish car wash owner in the San Fernando Valley who asked that his last name be withheld. “These brothers are just being made an example of by Delgadillo to scare the rest of us car wash owners into bowing down to the unions.”

Follmer said that the criminal charges brought against the Pirians were not politically motivated. “The charges were brought by experienced career prosecutors and based upon evidence developed over the course of lengthy and complete prosecutions,” he said.

Bijan Yaghoobia, an Iranian Jewish former car wash owner, said many in the Iranian Jewish community are standing in support of the Pirians despite the numerous allegations of wrongdoings.

“There was shock in the community over the charges but a lot more compassion for these guys because they were the ones singled out over others. The belief is that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Yaghoobia said.

Several Iranian car wash owners said their business has long had problems with monitoring laborers since many of their workers are undocumented; they often come on their off days to work for tips alone and sometimes they leave the country for long periods of time.

“I think the car washes are an easy target in the city for these labor violations, even though there are plenty of garment businesses, light manufacturing companies and even restaurants using illegal labor,” Houshang F. said.

According to California State Labor Codes, a person’s immigration status is irrelevant when it comes to their employers’ duty to pay employees minimum wages, allow for rest and meal breaks and follow all other labor laws.

Yaghoobia, who owned several car washes for 13 years, said car washes have long been popular among Iranian Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles since it is a profitable, low-skill cash business. He added that many car washes use illegal labor to reduce costs and prices, which in turn puts financial pressure on owners who follow labor laws and hire documented workers.

“The problem arises when you’re in an area where there are other car washes who are hiring illegals, or not paying minimum wages or hiring tip workers. You have to compete with them since they have lower prices,” Yaghoobia said.

Bet Tzedek’s current civil case against the Pirians is also not the first, said Kevin Kish, Bet Tzedek’s director of legal services. In 2005, Bet Tzedek represented a Pirian car wash employee in a lawsuit for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime in a case that was eventually settled, he said.

Kish said the latest health and safety citations received by the Pirians’ car washes were in December 2008 from the California Department of Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety and Health division.

According to records from the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, while criminal charges were not previously brought against the Pirians, a different car wash owner was previously convicted of labor law violations in November 2005. In that case, the owner was ordered to pay more than $160,000 in restitution to 11 workers and to complete community service requirements with Caltrans.

Yaghoobia said that while individuals may be quick to blame car wash owners like the Pirians for labor violations, the fault in such cases often lie with both workers and their employers.

“Both sides are at fault because, for example, you tell your worker to take a lunch break but he works through it to make tips and everything is hunky dory until one day the laborer gets upset with the owner for some reason so he goes to the Labor Board and claims he’s been mistreated,” he said. “At the same time many of the owners are uneducated about the state labor laws and the accountants they hire don’t always educate them about these laws.”

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

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.

L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches — big hearted Angelenos


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

Boy, could we use some now.

As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong — either out of evil, in Madoff’s case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.

So we look to The Journal’s fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.

The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.

Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause

It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.

“I had a really bad stutter when I was kid,” the now 27-year-old recalled recently. “My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk.”

Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).

By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.

In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.

“We wanted to do well in our work,” he said. “We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that’s kinda where SYP was born.”

Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn’t until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.

At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.

“He was really seen as a leader even among his peers,” said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.

However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events — big, bold, boisterous events — and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.

“We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms,” Halimi said. “If you’re going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause.”

On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP’s first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.

Approximately 500 young Angelenos — mostly ages 18-30 — raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.

Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn’t directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.

“It was just so beautiful,” Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service’s relief work in Darfur. “We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help.”
“It goes to the principle of tikkun olam,” healing the world, he said.

SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.

“We don’t want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone,” he said.

The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.

In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.

When asked, Halimi said he doesn’t consider himself a mensch — he’s not worthy, he claimed — but he offered up this definition of one: “Someone who can see past themselves.”

But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, “In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe.”

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Kim Krowne: ‘Hakuna Matata’Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids

Kim Krowne thought she’d be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She’s been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.

ALTTEXTOnce a “total planner,” Krowne’s current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata — “there’s no problem” in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. “Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There’s so much work to be done,” she said.

The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.

At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn’t afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.

She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.

The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.

When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.

They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.

Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.

They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic’s roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.

Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.

To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.

Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne’s ability to transcend barriers. “Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched,” she said. “We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives.”

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail kim@knockfoundation.org.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Creditors force Ezri Namvar into involuntary bankruptcy


Businessman and philanthropist Ezri Namvar was once a pillar of the local Iranian Jewish community, a trusted friend to whom many in the community loaned freely and without fear.

Now Namvar and his investment company, Namco Capital Group, Inc., are accused of losing as much as $400 million loaned to him.

For the last three months, lawsuits have been filed and extensive negotiations have been taking place to resolve the hundreds of millions of dollars in disputes between Namvar’s creditors and the Brentwood Iranian Jewish businessman. On Dec. 22, two dozen creditors filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Namvar and Namco.

The petition follows 17 lawsuits filed against Namvar, Namco, entities owned by Namvar and other Namvar family members alleging breach of contract and contractual fraud in a case that attorneys estimate involves 300 to 400 creditors, the majority of whom are Iranian Jews.

“Disputes happen all the time, but the magnitude of this case is huge,” said A. David Youssefyeh, a local Iranian Jewish attorney who is advising nearly 20 Iranian Jewish creditors in this case, of whom only a small group participated in the filing of the petition. “This case hits people in the community from such a broad socio-economic level — it includes everyone, from students that had entrusted Mr. Namvar with their bar mitzvah money, to retired people who invested their entire life savings in Namco and were paying their living expenses from the interest they received from the company.”

The creditors include investors in Namco Capital Group, those who lent money to Namco and received a personal guarantee from Namvar, lenders to Namco who received a lien on property owed by Namvar or one his entities and those who gave profits from their real estate transactions (1031 funds) to Namvar, according to the lawsuits.

“For 1031 money, the IRS will allow delayed payment of taxes on profits people give to a facilitator, such as Mr. Namvar, to hold for them until they find a substitute property to purchase,” Youssefyeh said. “But now that that money is gone, the people that entrusted Mr. Namvar with the money may potentially have to pay taxes on monies that they don’t have.”

Problems first arose nearly five months ago, when various creditors discovered they were unable to retrieve funds they had invested in Namco or given to Namvar, and that they were also no longer receiving interest payments from monies invested his company, Youssefyeh said.

While some community members filed suits to regain their money, the majority hoped instead to resolve the issue outside of the courts, in the traditional manner of the tight-knit community.

“Back in Iran, whenever a businessman in the Jewish community was unable to pay his creditors, the community leaders would get together and devise a plan to help the businessman get back on his feet financially so that he could repay those debts,” said Ebrahim Yahid, a community activist in his 80s who is a close friend of the Namvar family.

Indeed, such a group was organized after a meeting on Nov. 5 between Namvar and Namco’s Iranian Jewish creditors, according to a statement released to The Jewish Journal by the group on Dec. 16. Namco’s creditors first nominated and then voted to create a provisional committee, including prominent, independent community members. The group planned to trace all of Namvar’s assets and propose solutions to the creditors, according to the statement.

The all-volunteer committee included retired banker and former president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) Solomon Agahi and former IAJF Secretary General Sam Kermanian, as well as businessmen Jack Rochel and Nejat Sarshar. They had their first meeting on Nov. 24, according to the statement, and they were offered full authority by Namvar to resolve the disputes. The committee also hired an independent forensic accountant and attorney.

Nevertheless, talks broke down, and Youssefyeh said he advised his clients to file the bankruptcy petition when his negotiations with the local Iranian Jewish community leaders and Namco’s attorney failed to secure a deal to retrieve their investments for his clients and the nearly 200 other local Iranian Jewish creditors.

Youssefyeh said he became frustrated because Namvar’s paybacks seemed designed to protect the wealthy creditors, rather than the small investors whose life savings had been jeopardized. “What particularly made me mad was that with the $12 [million] to $13 million, Mr. Namvar could pay off 190 people, most of which needed the money for their survival, that had entrusted Mr. Namvar with $200,000 or less,” Youssefyeh said. “But people close to him told me that instead of Mr .Namvar paying off these creditors, Mr. Namvar had earmarked the remaining $17 million that he would receive from the sale of his Wilshire Bundy Plaza building to pay his 1031 obligations first, in order to avoid any potential liability arising from the 1031 funds not being available to the investors.”

Youssefyeh said bankruptcy was the only available option to protect his clients, because it allows the courts to distribute Namvar’s assets and even reverses settlement payments Namvar had made to his more affluent creditors, who have the financial means to proceed with litigation against him.

According to the bankruptcy petition, filed in U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court in downtown Los Angeles, the dozen creditors include both Iranian Jews and non-Jews, with more than $7 million in claims against Namco Capital Group and $7 million in personal claims against Namvar.

While members of the provisional committee declined to comment on the filing, legal experts said the petition nullifies the committee’s ability to settle the case, giving the courts the responsibility of distributing Namvar and Namco’s assets.

Some community leaders, who asked not to be identified, argued that the bankruptcy petition could hurt the community’s numerous creditors, because they might never receive their money back, since the case could take years to litigate and any available monies could be eaten up by attorneys’ fees as well as other costs.

Youssefyeh defended the bankruptcy petition. “The [provisional] committee had not taken any steps to take control of Mr. Namvar’s assets and in so many words said that they were not qualified to disperse his assets,” he said, adding, “yes, it will be painful and take a long time, but at the end of the day there was no other viable solution that would have frozen the assets, brought all of the preferential transfers and securitization money back into the pot.”

Local Iranian Jews had been investing with Namvar and Namco since the late 1990s. The relationships were based on his family’s reputation for being honorable as well as his success in real estate development, Yahid said.

Some have compared Namvar’s situation to the Bernard Madoff scandal, which involves a Ponzi scheme, but this is unfair, according to Namvar’s friends and community supporters, who say Namvar’s losses are due simply to the economic downturn.

“I know he [Namvar] did not have bad intentions — the economy around the whole world has gone downward, including the real estate market here in Los Angeles, and everyone is hurting, including himself,” Yahid said. “If he really had bad intentions, he would not have welcomed the committee to resolve this case, but would have instead declared immediate bankruptcy himself and destroyed the lives of hundreds in our community.”

Nessah Young Professionals party like Paris Hilton; New VP for Masorti women


Nessah Young Professionals Party Like Paris Hilton

Dubbed the “Glamour Summer Night,” the Nessah Young Professionals’ Aug. 26 annual gala drew more than 600 local Iranian Jewish young professionals and college students to the Area nightclub in West Hollywood, where they danced the night away to live music while also raising money on behalf of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).

Funds generated by the event this year were set aside for the creation of a mobile recreation facility — a place to relax, socialize, exercise and check their e-mail — for Israeli commandos, who aren’t given enough time off from assignments along the Israel-Lebanon border to visit permanent FIDF recreational facilities.

“It is so very meaningful and heartwarming to realize that although we live in Beverly Hills, we are still able to have fun, mingle and raise enough money to build a mobile club for our brothers and sisters who are defending and protecting our homeland in Israel,” said Simon Etehad, head of the young professionals group based out of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “Some of those Israeli soldiers have just completed high school and are not even old enough to drink.”

As in years past, the fundraiser’s ultra-hip venue was donated by SBE Entertainment, which is owned by Iranian Jewish hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian.

Nessah Young Professionals members said the recreational facility in Israel will also be dedicated in memory of Daniel Levian, a local Iranian Jew in his 20s who died last month in an automobile accident. In past years, the young professionals group has raised funds for other FIDF projects, including the LEGACY Program, which provides all-expenses-paid trips to attend summer camp in the United States for bar and bat mitzvah-age children who had a family member killed in action.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Brandes’ ‘Quarrel’ Opens Off-Broadway

Pico-Robertson playwright/producer David Brandes has turned his 1991 film “The Quarrel” into an off-Broadway play.

Co-authored by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Quarrel” tells the story of two estranged friends — a pious rabbi and a secular writer — who reconnect in an accidental meeting after years of being separated by betrayal and war. What ensues is “a fierce battle of wits and a raw test of friendship, faith and tolerance,” according to publicity materials.

The play opened last week at the DR2 Theatre in New York, where it will run through Sept. 28.

New Veep for Women’s Masorti Movement

ALTTEXTTobie Rosenberg is in line to become vice president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Among her many leadership positions in the Jewish community, Rosenberg has served on the board of directors of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Valley Beth Shalom, as well as on the International Board and Torah Fund Cabinet of the Women’s League.

Rosenberg will be installed at the 2008 biennial convention on Nov. 9 in Dearborn, Mich.

Founded in 1918, the Women’s League is the umbrella organization overseeing 600 affiliated women’s groups in Conservative/Masorti synagogues in the country.


ADL Reunion Brings Together Scattered Graduates

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reunited 100 graduates from its Glass Leadership Institute, a program established 10 years ago that grooms young professionals for leadership in the ADL. The purpose of the event was to reconnect graduates with the ADL, some of who have gone on to leadership positions within the organization and others who have become lay leaders in other areas of the Jewish community.

Each year, 20 to 25 young professionals in their late 20s to early 40s are nominated to the 10-month institute (formerly known as the Salvin Leadership Institute), which provides education on hate crimes, terrorism, Holocaust education and Israel advocacy. The institute has become a significant talent pool for the ADL, giving rise to new generations of lay leaders.

Current ADL regional board chair Nicole Muchnik is a graduate of the program, along with board officer Seth Gerber and former regional chair Murray Levin.

The ADL is currently accepting nominations for next year’s class. For more information, call (310) 446-4243 or visit http://www.adl.org.

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.

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.