Hide ‘n’ seek no child’s game in fleeing Iran

Ruben Melamed is an 80-year-old Los Angeles-area businessman and a fifth cousin of mine who escaped near death in Iran. I did not know of his story until recently, when I began searching for stories of Iranian Jews who escaped their homeland during the revolution some 30 years ago.

In the late 1970s Iranian authorities wanted the assets of the prosperous businessman and pharmacist. Melamed’s business was valued at nearly $40 million, including laboratory equipment.

He had been an important member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran, which oversaw many aspects of Jewish life in the country. He published his memoirs in Persian a few years ago, and he remains one of only a few local Iranian Jews who have been willing and unafraid to share with me his experiences during the Iranian Revolution.

When the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran began in the early days of the revolution, the normal workaday life of Iran came to a standstill because of widespread strikes. As a result, Melamed and his family left Iran for Los Angeles with few belongings, thinking that they would return home once a new government was formed in Iran.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, Melamed, who had not been able to find work in the United States, decided to return home in mid-1979. He hoped to resuscitate his large business, which had been inactive for months.

“Looking back on the whole event, I can say I was tricked by Khomeini’s assurances that nothing would happen to those who fled Iran but wanted to come back,” Melamed said.

He discovered it was a mistake when Revolutionary Guard members came to his office, seeking to arrest him after interrogating his partner.

“They had just killed Habib Elghanian [leader of the Jewish community in Iran], and I was next on their list — the new Islamic regime that had come to power wanted to get their hands on my assets,” he explained. “So they placed a label on me that I was a Zionist who had worked as a member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran and that I had participated in the World Zionist Congress.”

His company was seized by the regime. He was forbidden to conduct any business in Iran, and he was placed on a list of people forbidden to leave the country. For the next six months, Melamed hid in the homes of both Jewish and Muslim friends in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.

“I was very tired that I had burdened these people while living in hiding with them,” he said. “You have to understand that the Islamic regime had placed ads in the newspapers saying that anyone who helped or hid a person that was on the government black list would face the same punishment as the black-listed person — so everyone that was hiding me was frightened.”

After several months of living in hiding and fear, Melamed’s friends obtained a false passport for him bearing the name of “Ravin Aminpour.” They urged him to leave the country illegally. Being proud and stubborn, he initially refused the false passport and unsuccessfully sought to obtain formal permission from authorities to leave Iran.

“I was so tired from all of this running around that at one point, I was even considering giving myself up, surrendering to the authorities and serving a prison term for a few years,” Melamed said.

His father-in-law convinced him to pay 250,000 in Iranian currency and to accept an offer from a Jewish man who promised to place Melamed on a commercial flight leaving Tehran without having to go through airport security.

A few days before his flight was to leave, the Jewish man who had promised to help Melamed informed him that he would not be able to get him on board the plane. Instead, he would help him at the airport if authorities were going to arrest him.

His friends devised a plan. Two of them would wait outside the terminal in a car with the engine running, in case Melamed had to make a quick getaway. Two other friends and a Revolutionary Guard who had been bribed would wait inside the terminal to help the businessman escape if something went wrong.

On the night after Yom Kippur, in September 1980, Melamed dressed as a construction worker. He had grown a beard to disguise himself and carried the false passport.

The businessman was able to get through the airport undetected, even though signs with photos of him were posted on the airport walls.

“After I boarded the plane, the engines revved up, the plane was readying to take off and I thought I was safe — but suddenly, the plane stopped, and the engines were turned off,” he said.

“Five armed Revolutionary Guards immediately stormed onto the plane and were demanding to see Ravin Aminpour — and that was me. My heart just sank to the floor at that moment, and I said goodbye to my wife and kids under my breath as I approached the guards.”

Suspicious, the armed guards interrogated Melamed for 20 minutes on the plane. They accused him of lying about his identity as a construction worker going to Frankfort, Germany, to have a heart operation.

“The guard asked me if I was a former military general, and at that point, I discovered they were not looking for me but rather a different person they had mistaken me for,” Melamed said.

The guard eventually accepted his story and allowed him to return to his seat after Melamed agreed to see the guard when he “returned to Iran after 10 to 15 days.”

“It was a miracle that they had not removed me from the plane and taken me away, because they would have eventually discovered my true identity,” he said.

After the flight arrived in Germany, Melamed was able to obtain his legitimate passport, which a friend, another Jewish passenger on the plane, had been carrying for him. With a U.S. visa and passport, Melamed was eventually reunited with his family in Los Angeles.

“I was one of the people who managed to survive this revolution after I was truly burned and destroyed because of it — it’s something that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he said.

‘Sex and the City’ Workout

“You’re joining a gym again?” I laughed. “If you could get back even half the money you’ve spent on gym memberships, you could go to Hawaii!”

“This time it’s different,” my friend said. “I’m joining that new one right by the mall. It’s so convenient, I can’t not go! And I’ll even use my free sessions with the personal trainer. I swear to you I am not throwing my money away this time.”

Where have I heard that before? Gym joiners are a dime a dozen here in fitness-obsessed Los Angeles. And you can’t drive three blocks without seeing some kind of gym or studio. Where I live, every time a new Starbucks pops up so does another gym. But I gave up on gyms long ago.

I joined my first gym while in college. My friends and I signed up for a three-month trial together, intending to rid ourselves of the proverbial freshman 10 — the end result of late-night doughnut runs.

We went religiously for three weeks, and then at least twice a week for three weeks after that, and then once in a while for three more weeks, and then we took a break for finals. After finals, the excuses began: “I have too much studying to do.” “I have a date.” “My sister has my car.” “I need to go shopping.”

We didn’t sign up again when the three months ran out.

Over the years I joined a few more gyms, always with the best intentions. But eventually my motivation to workout just wore out. For every reason there was to go, I had at least three reasons not to.

After I swore off of gym memberships, I decided that I needed to come up with different incentives to get moving. I used my dog. My dog loves to walk, and I love my dog. But dogs tend to stop frequently, and my dog must have been concerned that the female dogs on our block were not aware of his existence. So even though our walks were delightful, it became less of a fitness routine and more of a way for my dog to mark his masculinity.

Although the dog-walk routine didn’t pan out, a bit of canine inspiration led me to a workout regimen that finally worked.

When I next ran into my gym-joining friend, she was sipping a low-fat frap at the Starbucks next door to her new gym.

“Hey! How’s the new workout?” I asked.

“Um, good. The trainer was great, but kind of expensive once the freebees ran out. The locker room is very clean, and the juice bar totally yum,” she said, diverting her eyes and concentrating on the whipped cream oozing up her straw.

“You quit, didn’t you?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

“You stopped going?”

“I just needed a break.”

“I told you so,” I said as I ordered a tall decaf latte.

“OK, so you did,” she said defensively. “And what about you? What are you doing for exercise?”

I raised my eyebrows and smiled coyly. “I invented my own routine. I call it the ‘Sex and the City’ Workout,” I said.

“I’m intrigued,” she said. We took a seat in a quiet corner in the back. “How does it work?”

“Do you remember Pavlov? Well, I now am conditioned just like his dog.”

“You drool?”

“Don’t be silly. I developed a system so that I associate exercise with something I really want. I got an elliptical machine and put it in front of the TV.”

“I bet you hang your dirty clothes on it.”

“I do,” I admitted. “Exercise equipment always turns into a clothesline. Anyway, the trick to my workout is DVDs of ‘Sex and the City.'”

“I don’t get it.”

“I love watching ‘Sex and the City,’ right? Well, I allow myself to watch only if I am on the elliptical. So just like Pavlov’s dog learned to associate the bell with food, I associate exercise with my favorite show. If I want to watch, I have to workout. It’s that simple. I got caught up in season five one night, and when I looked down I had burned more than 3,000 calories.”

“That’s amazing!”

“It’s the best idea I ever had. My regular workout consists of two episodes — first episode on the elliptical and second episode stretching and lifting weights.”

“Wow,” she shook her head. “You do look, uh, pretty fit.”

I showed her my upper arm and allowed her to poke my bicep.

“I’m not only in shape,” I bragged, “I am also the ‘Sex and the City’ trivia game champion. I was the only one in my havurah who knew where Carrie and Miranda bought their cupcakes.” (Magnolia Bakery.)

“So you just watch ‘Sex and the City’ over and over?” she asked.
“When I could recite Carrie’s lines as well as she could, I decided to move on. So I addicted myself to ‘Gilmore Girls,'” I said.

“Ooooh, I love that show!”

“Then ‘The Sopranos,’ ’24,’ ‘Will and Grace’….”

Geneva Pact Generates Ray of Optimism

Some thoughts, optimistic ones, on the effects already felt from the Geneva agreement:

1) The view from the Israeli street is that the agreement is another trick, another Palestinian trick to fool Israel into believing that they really want peace, and then, when our guard is down, they’ll swallow us whole.

Yet if that’s the case, why is the Palestinian street up in arms? Yasser Abed Rabbo and his Palestinian delegation to Geneva have been branded traitors and collaborators by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and thousands of furiously protesting Palestinians. This is as good as a death sentence.

Rabbo’s house has been sprayed with gunfire. A campaign of "intimidation and terrorism" has been carried out by Fatah hardliners against pro-Geneva party members, according to The Jerusalem Post.

All this is a reminder that the Palestinians, as a whole, are by no means ready to make peace with Israel. Violent, uncompromising forces are still calling the shots in that society, literally and figuratively. As for the Palestinians’ leader, his view of Geneva, like his view of all matters, depends on how he sees it affecting his power and prestige on a given day.

But all this, on the other hand, says something very different about Rabbo and the several hundred Palestinians who went to Geneva with him. Why are they subjecting themselves to such abuse from their own people, why are they placing themselves and their families in danger, if all they really want is to destroy Israel?

If that was their goal, they would have done much better to stay home, go along with the program, keep Israel bogged down in the West Bank and Gaza and just let demography run its course. That’s the way to destroy Israel.

Instead, despite the bullets, the threats and the fatwas (religious decrees), they left their homes, signed a "virtual" peace agreement with Israelis in the most publicly exposed forum imaginable and came home again. These are brave people.

They are not anywhere close to being in power in Palestinian areas, in fact, they are held in contempt by the powers that be there, but they are a force. Who knows, maybe even one with potential.

For decades, Israelis have been demanding, "Where is the Arab world’s Peace Now?" It was just founded in Geneva.

2) The focus of Israeli criticism of the agreement is that the Palestinians don’t really give up the right of return, that it’s a trick, they actually keep the right of return and all 4 million Palestinian refugees can come swooping down on Israel, and there’s nothing we’ll be able to do about it, because Yossi Beilin signed this agreement, this death warrant.

But again, ask the Palestinian street if the Geneva agreement gives up what they hold sacred as their right of return. This is what all the uproar in the territories has been about.

This is why, on the day of the signing ceremony, "[T]he Palestinian Religious Scholars Association, one of the leading Islamic bodies in the Palestinian Authority, issued a fatwa forbidding any Muslim from signing an agreement that forgoes the right of return for all refugees to their original homes in Israel," as The Jerusalem Post reported.

If this is another Palestinian trick, why aren’t they laughing in the refugee camps?

3) Given the entrenchment and determination of the settlers and their political backers, starting with Ariel Sharon, it’s easy to believe that Israel will never find the strength to cut the rope with the Palestinians. Yet the overwhelming Western support for the Geneva accord is a reminder that the settlers and their friends are up against the aggregate will of every government in the world — including the Bush administration, the best friend the Israeli right ever had in the White House.

The presence at the Geneva signing ceremony of an official U.S. observer and the meeting in Washington between Beilin, Rabbo and Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a rude message to the Israeli government. (Since the Sharon government doesn’t respond to gentle U.S. criticism of the occupation, rudeness has become necessary.)

The Bush administration’s message was that it does not view the takeover of the West Bank and Gaza as part of Israel’s defense. Moreover, it does not view the Israeli takeover as part of the U.S.-led war on terror but rather as a huge obstacle to progress in this war.

By encouraging the Geneva agreement, was the Bush administration out to destroy Israel, too?

4) The agreement is a reminder to the rest of the world that not all Palestinians and Israelis are dug in for eternal war and unmoved by any other possibility. The reaction to Geneva from the street — both streets — is a reminder that this description does fit most Palestinians and Israelis. Not everyone, though. There is an opposition — on both sides, now — and it may have just come alive.

All in all, not bad for a "virtual" peace agreement.

Larry Derfner is The Journal’s Tel Aviv correspondent

Halloween Lessons

Halloween celebrations and trick-or-treating: just clean fun or forbidden anti-Jewish activities? Like most issues in the Jewish community, it depends on who you ask. And not surprisingly, a Jewish school’s stand on Halloween observance may not be shared by the students or their parents.

Dr. George Lebovitz, headmaster of Kadima Hebrew Academy, a Conservative day school in Woodland Hills, felt so strongly about the issue that he sent home a full-page description of the Jewish attitude toward Halloween, together with a photocopy of the World Book Encyclopedia entry detailing the origins of Halloween as an ancient sacrificial festival. The Druids lit huge bonfires and burned crops, animals and possibly humans as sacrifices. Eventually, the medieval church transformed Halloween into a Christian holiday.

Lebovitz prefaced his handout with the school’s policy, “Kadima does not demand or require any practices of you at home,” but went on to take a strong stand against Halloween observance, noting that the Torah warns us not to imitate religious practices of other people. “We want to teach our children to give and not take,” he emphasized.

Lebovitz concedes, however, that “a lot, though not most” of his students will be trick-or-treating this year. Richard Posalski, father of a fourth grader at Kadima, received the handout, but still plans to take his daughter trick-or-treating Saturday night. “It’s fun!” Posalski says with a smile.

“My kids go to shul pretty regularly and go trick-or-treating too. It could be thought of as inconsistent, but without giving up your Jewish identity, there are certain concessions you make living in a non-Jewish environment. I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, just inconsistent.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Ronald, director of education at Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Woodland Hills, says that his school doesn’t deal with Halloween at all, although he personally believes that “Halloween has no place in a Jewish setting.”

“Living in a secular society,” Ronald says, “I don’t think it’s the end of the world if kids do some trick-or-treating and dress up in costumes. I’d rather see them dress up on Purim. Our position is no position one way or the other.”

Over the hill at another Reform religious school — Temple Akiba in Culver City — Miriam Hamrell, director of religious education, initially takes a strong stand against Halloween celebration. “We don’t celebrate it at all here in school,” she says emphatically. She stresses that the school has no Halloween decorations and does not allow costumes. She says the school discourages trick-or-treating, noting that it has become a safety issue.

“But,” Hamrell says, “we let the children do whatever is their family tradition.” She pauses and adds, “You don’t want the child to feel out of place if everyone else is going. You don’t want a kid to feel like an oddball.” Hamrell assumes that most Temple Akiba children will be out in a costume on Halloween eve.

Rifke Lewis, a Temple Akiba parent, has a different take. “I am opposed to trick-or-treating because it’s insensitive, it is rude and it teaches wrong values,” Lewis says. “It says you have a right to demand a treat or else you will trick. You have a right to beg for what you don’t need. You have a right to interrupt people. When I had babies it was infuriating. They’d just about fall asleep, then the doorbell would ring.”

But even some of David Miller’s third- and fourth-grade students from the Orthodox Harkham Hebrew Hillel Academy in Beverly Hills will be out ringing doorbells after Shabbat ends Halloween eve. Miller notes that every year the school’s educational director, Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, makes a statement condemning Halloween observance. Still a small percentage of students will go trick-or-treating, but will discard the non-kosher goodies.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy traditionally sponsors a movie night on Halloween, to provide a “kosher” and safe alternative to trick-or-treating. Miller believes that, especially because of the religious underpinnings on Halloween, Jews should treat it as just a night like any other. His kids stay home. When his elementary school-age son and daughter were asked if they minded not trick-or-treating, they answered with a resounding “No!”

But what happens in families where the children and parents are at odds over Halloween observances? Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president and director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism and author of “The Art of Jewish Living,” states that each family must make a decision about what to do and how to deal with the subject. He, for example, allows his children to trick-or-treat, though not on Shabbat.

Families, Wolfson states, are often called upon to negotiate the dual identities we have as Jews and as Americans. He says that if a family has little traditional observance at home, when the children are faced with Halloween or Christmas, the parents will lose the battle with the kids. “But if a home is filled with Shabbat every week, and Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, and Pesach, and Purim, and Chanukah, and you don’t allow your kids to go trick-or-treating, then they’re not so bereft.”

Kadima Hebrew Academy’s Dr. Lebovitz says that nixing Halloween celebrations can give parents the opportunity to address the issue of peer pressure and not going along with the crowd. However, the bottom line, Lebovitz feels, is being able to tell one’s children “No.”

“In many cases the children rule the home which shouldn’t be the case,” Lebovitz says. “[In the case of trick-or-treating] you’re going and demanding something, and if they don’t give you something, there are dire consequences. That’s not the Jewish way. In Judaism, anything that is tainted with religious practices from another religion we go out of our way to avoid. To say Halloween has no religious overtones is absurd. If a parent can’t say no to this, what are they going to say no to?”