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.