Stage dramedy tackles interfaith marriage taboo

If you take Israel out of the equation, there’s little in the Jewish world that gets people as riled up as the idea of intermarriage. For most secular and liberal Jews, intermarriage, which once carried a huge social stigma, has become more acceptable. Visit any Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, and you’re bound to come across all kinds of intermarried families. Indeed, in the liberal Jewish world, intermarriage has even begun to be seen as an opportunity to bring more people into the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, the stigma of intermarriage is as strong as ever, and Maia Madison’s new play “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning,” explores exactly what happens when a girl from a traditional family falls in love with guy who happens to be non-Jewish.

“The play is about an interfaith couple who want to get married and live happily ever after, as long as her Jewish family doesn’t find out,” said Madison, during a phone interview between rehearsals. Her main character, who draws a little from Madison’s own life story, “goes on a quest to find out the real meaning of her Jewish identity and the real meaning of family.”

Madison grew up in an observant home in New York City. Her parents were both from Orthodox backgrounds and kept kosher, to an extent, but Madison was also the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

“I’m a very strong-minded woman, I went to Northwestern University,” said Madison, noting that some in her family were disappointed she didn’t go to Stern College.

The idea that became “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” came to Madison when she watched a close friend’s relationship fall apart after her ill father moved in with her and her partner. “She picked her family over her relationship.”

The experience made Madison realize that sometimes we’re forced into tough situations where we have to choose between family and love.

“Now if you’re 30, you can’t get a job, even though you have an MBA,” said Madison of the economic situation that’s left many post-college grads living at home. According to Madison, that new dynamic has wreaked havoc with the notion of “leave and cleave” that’s presented in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

An additional topic explored in Madison’s play is how Hollywood and the world at large sees Jews. Madison recalled getting a call from a non-Jewish friend at CBS who’d just been pitched a show that he described as “ ‘The O.C.’ meets Temple Beth Israel,” and wanted Madison’s opinion as a Jew as to why it felt “off” to him. “Nobody likes Jews when they’re winning,” Madison told him.

“There are no shows where likable Jews drive around in fancy cars, live in million-dollar homes and spend a $100,000 on a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire, the same way that the people on ‘Revenge’ do, for example,” Madison said. The question of why that’s so is one that dogs her, and she explores it thoroughly in the show.

But lest anyone think the play appeals only to Jews, the director, Diana Basmajian, a non-Jew, says that’s just not so.

“No matter what a person’s background was, they were still talking in that lobby,” Basmajian said of the audience from the show’s staged readings.

Basmajian and Madison have been friends for more than 20 years. “I’m half Armenian, and I think as I got to know more of my Armenian heritage that I was drawn to plays about the human struggle, and particularly the Holocaust,” Basmajian said. “I was always teased by Maia, because my early work as a director was all Holocaust plays and plays on Jewish families.”

Basmajian jumped at the chance to work with Madison on her latest piece, because she realized it was something that was close to Madison’s heart. “It kind of bridges that beautiful gap between drama and comedy. That’s real life — some things are hilarious and some things, you’re on the verge of tears at the same time.”

Producer Laetitia Leon was also eager to work with Madison, and coming from an intermarried family, the piece was particularly poignant for her. “I felt like I wish I’d had this story when I was younger. It’s not that I don’t appreciate religion, I just wasn’t raised with it,” said Leon, whose parents raised her as an atheist. She believes the play will spark dialogue, no matter a person’s background. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I don’t think you were listening,” said Leon, laughing.

“You don’t want to write a play that only has meaning for one section of the population,” Madison said. “All of my gay friends came to me and said, oh my God, this is a coming-out story. I didn’t even realize. Every one of my gay friends had to face going to their parents and knowing that they may turn their backs on them forever.”

Basmajian, for one, is bullish on the piece, and she hopes it will touch audiences of all backgrounds who come to see it at the Open Fist Theatre Company. “We need that other voice out there that watches and listens and says, ‘Oh wait, I agree, I disagree, here’s my opinion, here’s what happened to me.’ ”

“Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” will be playing at the Open Fist Theatre Company through Sept. 8. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit  A scene from the play will also be performed as part of the Temple of the Arts’ ( Friday night service on Aug. 17.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Death and violence in the community (taboo?)

Local Iranian Jewish community leaders on recent incidents of violence in the community and the traditional taboo on discussing the topic.

From Karmel Melamed’s Iranian American Jews blog.

Iranians Facing Up to Drug Abuse Taboo

Three years ago, Raymond P., a 28-year-old Iranian Jew, was a full-fledged member of a notorious Los Angeles street gang. He sold drugs and suggests that he may have participated in violent crimes. He doesn’t want to talk about specifics but explains by saying he was desperate to pay for his drug habit.

Raymond P., who asked that his real name be withheld, is among an uncertain but significant and possibly growing number of Southern California Iranian Jews who have been using and selling illegal drugs. It’s the sort of problem you wouldn’t typically hear about within the Iranian Diaspora community, because the topic embodies cultural shame for family members. Experts say that silence has aided and abetted the problem.

However, now there are efforts under way both to end the silence and help these families.

“I came from a very good family, but I didn’t care who I was hurting, as long as I was getting high,” said Raymond P., who is now in recovery.

He told his story to nearly 200 Iranian Jews gathered recently at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. The gathering late last year was the first of its kind for the community.

Since their arrival in great numbers in the United States more than 25 years ago, Iranian Jews — numbering an estimated 30,000 in Southern California — have become one of the more educated and financially successful Jewish communities. But this has not made them immune from a side effect of the American dream: drug abuse, especially among the young.

Leaders of the Eretz-SIAMAK center have decided it’s time to shatter the long-standing taboo of not publicly discussing the drug abuse plaguing Iranian Jews. It began an open dialogue on the issue late last year by gathering a panel of experts to educate families about drug abuse.

“For years, we’ve been quietly helping addicts in the community to [recover from] their drug use,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “But we finally decided to go public and try to fix this problem when we noticed it has really become widespread among our young people.”

The Eretz-SIAMAK leadership has made a mission of taking on serious and sometimes discomfiting issues within the Iranian Jewish community, including poverty, premarital sex and new Jewish immigration from Iran. It went forward with the drug-abuse awareness event after an anonymous donor provided funding. More seminars and other events are planned this summer after the same anonymous donor recently contributed $5,000 to Eretz-SIAMAK.

There’s no official or reliable data on illegal drug use among Iranian Jews, but psychologist Iraj Shamsian, who specializes in treating addicts of Iranian heritage, said that nearly half of his Iranian patients are Iranian Jews. He and other specialists say they are convinced that, based on their own practices and anecdotal evidence, the problem is growing.

Yet some families are hesitant even to seek help.

“Our culture is the type that wants to keep everything secret and not talk about it, because it’s embarrassing, and people put a label on you,” said Dara Abai, a longtime youth mentor and community volunteer who helps Iranian Jewish drug addicts. “In Iran, I remember that if someone told you to go to a psychologist, they thought you were crazy and had a serious mental problem.”

Cultural attitudes toward alcohol haven’t helped either, he added.

“In our community, we have a lot of alcohol use,” Abai said. “I go to parties and see married people half drunk. Their kids see this, and they think it’s fun. So they try alcohol at a young age, and sometimes that leads them to try drugs.”

Experts said, too, that young Iranian Jews, just like many other young people, experiment with different drugs out of peer pressure or to fit in with friends.

In working with young addicts, psychologist Shamsian draws on his own experience as an addict from 1983 to 1993.

“During those years, I never said no to any drugs I saw,” Shamsian said. “I shot heroin. I used cocaine. I used different downers and uppers — even tried acid and mushrooms.”

Shamsian said his addiction was so intense that he wasted away his savings, as well as family funds brought over from Iran, ultimately ending up on the streets of downtown before finally seeking help.

After becoming drug free, Shamsian obtained professional credentials. Besides his private practice, he works as program coordinator for Creative Care, a respected drug treatment facility in Malibu. He also hosts “Ayeneh,” a Persian-language television program, available on satellite systems, on which he seeks to educate Iranians about the dangers of drug use.

“We answer phone calls from Iranians around the world — even in Iran,” Shamsian said.

Three years ago, Shamsian, along with non-Jewish Iranians, helped found the Iranian Recovery Center (IRC) located in Westwood. The nonprofit offers seminars and education about substance abuse, as well as referrals to those seeking treatment.

“The services of the IRC are totally free and open to the public,” Shamsian said. “We help Iranians of all different religions.”

Other community resources include the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, a treatment facility run by the Chabad organization in the Miracle Mile area, where many Iranian Jews seek help for their addictions. It emphasizes Jewish values and spirituality.

However, the drug problem is not only among the young. Shamsian noted that a significant number of older Iranian Jewish men are using opium on a regular basis, because of their past use and familiarity with the drug from Iran.

Drug use frequently leads to legal difficulties, as well as financial, health and emotional problems, said Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jew and Los Angeles Police Department sergeant.

“I was in court recently with this person from a very prominent Iranian Jewish family, and she was heavily involved in credit card fraud to support her narcotics habit,” said Sameyah, who works in internal affairs. “This issue is prevalent in our community. If you look at the court records every day and see the cases coming up, you will see Jewish Iranian names quite frequently.”

“They get a very very rude awakening once the handcuffs go on,” Sameyah said. “Back in the day if a very well-respected Iranian person got arrested in Iran, they wouldn’t get handcuffed or strip searched the way they do here. It’s such an insult and slap in the face for an Iranian person when they are told to bend over for a cavity search, but that’s the law and public policy in the United States.”

Sameyah said a joint investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Los Angeles police resulted in the arrests last summer of nearly a dozen Iranians in Southern California — many of whom were Jews — for allegedly selling and importing opium, as well as laundering money generated from the sale of opium.

Besides opium and marijuana, heroin has recently made a comeback, said Sameyah.

He added that it’s almost never too soon for parents to begin discussing the drug issue with their children.

“If you want to start talking about narcotics to a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old, you’re about 10 years behind the curve,” Sameyah said. “Because that kid has spent the last 10 years in school with God knows who having glorified narcotics use for them. Education about narcotics starts at the age of 3 and 4.”

He said parents should talk about “what drugs can do to you and what they look like.”

But when children do stumble, make bad decisions and have problems, the taboos must be discarded to leave the path clear for recovery.

“We have to try not to judge people with drug addictions,” said Shamsian. “We have to look at drug abuse as a disease and not from a moral point of view.”


The Circuit

Fun Way to Fund

Dancing, networking, pool playing, raffle bidding and martini drinking were the main themes of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) highly successful Young Leaders Summer Soiree fundraising party. Proceeds from the Aug. 11 event at Gotham Hall went toward the ADL’s fight against hate and bigotry.

ADL summer intern Andrew Gradman won the “name that martini contest” for “Anti-Defamango-tini.” Of the 125 people who joined the fun, half were graduates of ADL’s Salvin Leadership Institute, which is designed to educate a select group of young adults in their late 20 to early 40s about the ADL’s mission through interactive seminars.

For more information about the Salvin Leadership Institute or the Young Leaders of the ADL, contact Tessa Hicks at (310) 446-8000, ext. 230.

Kirk Comes West

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) recently hosted Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) for a series of talks throughout the Southland. Kirk, the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom, offered insight on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and the looming threat from Iran. RJC Director Larry Greenfield called Kirk a “powerful force for intelligent leadership in supporting Israel against 21st-century military threats.”

For more information, visit or call (310) 478 0752.

In the Beginning

Nikki Wallen, a 12th-grader at Oak Park High School, was one of 69 participants in the Genesis program at Brandeis University this past summer. Over the past nine years, 634 students from 37 states and 11 countries have participated in Genesis. Participants live on the Brandeis campus for four weeks and take part in programs that integrate Jewish studies, the arts, humanities and community building. The students also plan different Shabbat programs each week, which includes prayer, study and recreational options and engage in a variety of community exploration and community building activities.

The key goal is to help the students take what they have learned at Genesis, which was established in 1996 with support from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s Foundation, back to their home communities.

For additional information, visit

Saluting ‘Six’

The ACLU of Southern California, “Six Feet Under” producer Alan Poul, former West Hollywood mayor and current councilman John Duran and special guests recently gathered at an exclusive viewing of the final episode of “Six Feet Under.” Guests then proceeded to an invitation-only graveside cocktail reception to celebrate the work of the ACLU Foundation’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

“Like the way ‘Six Feet Under’ characters Keith and David show that any loving person or couple can be an excellent parent, the ACLU Foundation’s work is making great strides toward equality for gay people,” said Duran, who is also an ACLU Foundation of Southern California board member. “It’s sad this great show has to end, but the positive work of the ACLU will continue.”

Student Art Aliyah

Winning designs of a national logo contest for aliyah-assistance organization Nefesh B’Nefesh will be painted on a special El Al flight, bringing with it some 250 North Americans moving to Israel. This flight marks the fifth out of six specially designated flights that have brought nearly 2,000 North Americans to Israel this summer through Nefesh B’ Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Chaviva Sands’ design “Aliyah” captured the unanimous decision by an international panel of judges who called it an “outstanding logo design by a young person.” The 12-year-old budding artist’s design — based on the theme of “Homeward Bound” — has been painted onto a chartered plane. The first prize included round trip flights for the winning artist, her parent and school principal.

The winning logo and the finalists can be viewed at

A Woman’s World

Women’s American ORT, which empowers people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through technological and vocational education, held its annual meeting at the Beverly Hilton on Aug. 7.

For more information on the Women’s American ORT, visit

Tackling the Taboo

Unafraid of confronting controversial topics or community gossip, the leadership of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center hosted an interactive lecture event on Aug. 7 at its Tarzana location, focused on discussing drug and alcohol abuse, frequently a taboo topic among Iranian Jewish families. The audience of nearly 200 Iranian Jewish parents and their children listened to the event’s panel of experts including Iraj Shamsian, the founder of the Iranian Recovery Center in Westwood; Dara Abaee an Iranian Jewish community volunteer helping drug addicts; criminal defense attorney Alaleh Kamran; and Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jewish L.A.P.D. sergeant.

“We have been the only Iranian Jewish organization trying to help drug addicts in our community for years to get them to rehab,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “This is the first time we have gone public with this issue because this epidemic is really getting out of hand with our young people.”

Recovering Iranian Jewish drug addicts also openly spoke to the crowd about the horrors of drug abuse, which in recent years has become more prevalent in the Iranian Jewish community. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer


Cancer and Secrets

I have cancer. It’s thyroid cancer, which has metastasized. In every bone in my body there is a tumor eating it from the inside out.

That’s why I was at the Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center on June 25, 2003, having a bone infusion. I sat there on one of those comfortable chairs as the drug slowly slipped into my veins to make my bones stronger.

And that’s where I saw her — an old friend and a former client who emigrated from Iran. We were so happy to see one another. She was there with a friend, who was there perhaps for a reason similar to mine.

We hugged, kissed and chatted, happy to find one another. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. After two hours her friend was done, so she kissed me goodbye and walked away. But before I knew it she ran back to me.

"Mrs. Homa, Mrs. Homa. I didn’t see you here. I did not see you here. My lips are sealed. I will not tell anyone," she said, and kissed me again.

And I said, "No, please, do tell. That’s alright."

"No, I won’t tell anyone, I promise," she said.

Cancer is scary. It is unkind. It takes away your independence and your freedom. But cancer is a big taboo in the Jewish community, even more so in the Persian Jewish community. Having cancer is kept as a secret of great shame to those involved.

You know I have cancer. Perhaps you have cancer, or someone in your family does. Or you know someone else who has it — a neighbor, a friend. Is it our fault we have cancer? Why should we carry shame? What is there to be ashamed of?

They say that thyroid cancer is from exposure to radiation, especially during childhood. Why do we get cancer? Is it the environment? Is it our diet?

Whatever it is, it’s not our fault.

Isn’t it enough that we have to go through treatment — receive radiation, experience chemo — every day of our lives when we have cancer?

Cancer is not something to be ashamed of. Cancer is an illness, like any other illness. You can take proper measures and appropriate steps to fight it. Cancer is not always a death sentence.

The cancer is escalating in the Persian Jewish community. In every family there are one or two people with cancer. But it’s all being hush-hushed and kept secret.

My girlfriend’s sister has breast cancer. My girlfriend was crying the other day because some woman made fun of her sister wearing a wig, asking her whether she has become Orthodox.

When my girlfriend found out I had cancer, she was absolutely shocked.

"But your father-in-law is a doctor, your brother-in-law is a doctor, your cousin is a doctor. How could you have cancer?" she said.

I told her, "It’s OK. I’m prepared to fight it."

I was at a Cancer Center luncheon, and met some Persian Jews there who nodded their heads and came to me.

"Please don’t tell anyone you saw me here," they said.

Why add additional stress by hiding? Accept it, announce it, fight it and try to beat it. That’s all you have to do. Many people that went to Beverly Hills High School have come down with various forms of cancer. But not all of them are speaking to Erin Brockovich. Instead of participating in her humanitarian effort, they are keeping quiet. What a shame.

What a shame to have cancer.

These days you will see me hanging out at the Outpatient Cancer Center, receiving treatment, radiation and bone infusion. You will see me watching people, observing, asking questions, trying to do something — no matter how small — for someone that could use it. I have always believed in doing random acts of kindness. Perhaps cancer will give me another venue to reach my goal to make this a better world; to tell people it’s OK to hurt a little and do what you can to get a little better.

When my dear uncle (of blessed memory) was shot in downtown Los Angeles, we all gathered at my parents’ house. My mom had gone through severe shock; she would not hear that he had passed away. My sister-in-law pulled me to the kitchen and said, "But his son is a rabbi…. How could this happen?"

"Sometimes bad things happen to good people," I said.

This is true about cancer as well. Having cancer does not make you a bad person. You just have to remember that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Then cancer — like any other challenge in life — can be acknowledged, accepted and dealt with.

Homa Shadpour-Michaelson, a counselor with
the Refugee Resettlement Project for the Los Angeles Unified School District,
wrote this article while she was undergoing cancer treatment last year. She
passed away on Feb. 26, 2004. Her daughter, Shanee, can be reached at