January 19, 2019

Moving & Shaking: Shelley Berman Celebrated, Spotlighting Mizrahi Jews

From left: Actor Cheryl Hines; writer and actor Larry David; Shelley Berman’s widow, Sarah; comedian David Steinberg; and Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center, celebrate the National Comedy Center’s acquisition of late comedian Shelley Berman’s archive of material. Photo by Mike Carano

Comedy stars Larry David, Cheryl Hines, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and Fred Willard gathered on Jan. 30 at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach to celebrate the National Comedy Center’s acquisition of the archive of late comedian Shelley Berman.

Additional attendees included radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Barret Eugene “Barry” Hansen), comedian Laraine Newman, producer Alan Zweibel and National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson.

Sarah Berman, Shelley’s wife of more than 70 years, also attended. She expressed appreciation to the National Comedy Center for preserving her late husband’s legacy.

“No longer the stepchild to the arts, comedy and those who make us laugh are about to have their own place in the world,” Sarah Berman said. “When I found myself surrounded by all of Shelley’s writings, I wondered what to do with all of it. Do I give it to some museum where they let it gather dust before they throw it away? Along came the National Comedy Center, driven by people who have the vision to know that this material and the material of other comedians has a value.”

Shelley Berman died in 2017 at the age of 92. His archive, which spans from the 1940s to the 2010s, includes photographs, contracts, scripts and rare footage chronicling his career in stand-up comedy, improv, television, comedy writing, film and theater.

The National Comedy Center is a nonprofit cultural institution and visitor experience dedicated to the art of comedy. A ribbon-cutting for the center, which is located in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., is scheduled for Aug. 1-4.

From left: Angel and Susan, two Iranian-Jewish participants of the 30 Years After Legacy Project, attend the launch event for the initiative. 30 Years After requested their last names be omitted for their safety. Photo courtesy of 30 Years After

About 300 people gathered at the Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills on Jan. 30 to celebrate the launch of 30 Years After’s new initiative, the Legacy Project, an archive of video testimonies of Persian Jews who fled Iran after the Iranian Revolution.

The Legacy Project aims to professionally record and collect testimonies as a way to link the second, third and future generations of Iranian-American Jews to their history.

During the event, Legacy Project Chair Megan Nemandoust, Iranian American Jewish Federation President Susan Azizzadeh, American Jewish Committee Assistant Director of Interreligious and Intercommunity Affairs Saba Soomekh, 30 Years After President Sam Yebri and 30 Years After community member Liora Simozar shared their reasons for supporting the project.

“With an eye to the future, it is imperative that an easily accessible, professional digital archive exists, capturing the stories and experiences of my family, your family and countless others,” Nemandoust said in her speech at the event. “We are the heirs to Iranian-Jewish history, and through the Legacy Project we’re committed to preserving it for generations to come.”

The Legacy Project is supported by individual donors and families, and 30 Years After is seeking sustained funding from, and partnerships with, institutions and foundations as well as broader community support.

The project also is seeking additional testimonies.

“This project not only preserves these powerful stories and memories for posterity and academia but uses them to connect new generations of Jews of Iranian descent to their rich heritage, traditions and values,” Yebri said. “As we learn from Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), no hurricane can uproot a tree with more roots than branches. It is imperative that our entire community join us in nurturing our roots in order for our community’s branches to flourish.”

The event began with a reception featuring nontraditional Iranian food, dessert and tea. The screening of the recently recorded interviews followed.

Since 30 Years After was founded in 2007, it has served to promote and engage Iranian-American Jews in American political, civic and Jewish life, as well as connect local community organizations with the large Los Angeles community of Persian Jews.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

Cantor Jack Mendelson (far right) is joined by Temple Judea Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Yonah Kliger in “The Cantors Couch,” Mendelson’s one-man show at Temple Judea in Tarzana. Photo courtesy of Temple Judea

Temple Judea in Tarzana held a journey through Cantor Jack Mendelson’s real-life stories based on growing up in 1950s Brooklyn in “The Cantor’s Couch,” which was staged at the synagogue on Jan. 21.

More than 400 people attended to listen to Mendelson paint a picture of a bygone day in Jewish America when Jews would flock to hear cantors at synagogues as if they were performing in a concert hall.

The one-man show wed a relatable story of childhood with joyous memories of music and celebration. Mendelson’s collaborator and accompanist, Cantor Jonathan Comisar, wrote original music for the production. Additional participants included Temple Judea Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Yonah Kliger.

Proceeds benefited the music program at Temple Judea.

Los Angeles Jewish Home honorees Michael Heslov (left) and Dana Roberts. Photo courtesy of L.A. Jewish Home

The Los Angeles Jewish Home’s annual gala on Jan. 23, “Celebration of Life: Reflections 2018,” honored Michael Heslov, a member of the Jewish Home’s board of directors and co-partner at Soboroff Partners, and Dana Roberts, chief executive officer at C.W. Driver, a contracting company that has worked with the L.A. Jewish Home.

The event at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel kicked off with cocktails, followed by dinner and the awards program. Actor and director Mike Burstyn emceed. The Skye Michaels Orchestra performed.

Co-chairs were Lenore and Fred Kayne, Karl Kreutziger, Pam and Mark Rubin, and Steve Soboroff.

“This was a great opportunity for people from the Home and the community to come together and celebrate philanthropy and what they’ve accomplished,” said Kathy Gutstein, senior marketing associate for the L.A. Jewish Home. “We’re always looking toward the future.”

The L.A. Jewish Home is one of the leading senior health care systems in the U.S., serving 6,000 seniors a year.

Rabbi Naomi Levy presents her husband, former Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, with the Americans for Peace Now (APN) Press for Peace award at the APN gala. Photo courtesy of Americans for Peace Now

Americans for Peace Now (APN) honored former Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman and Israeli music icon and peace activist David Broza during its Jan. 29 Vision of Peace Celebration at Paper or Plastik Café/Mimoda Studio.

On behalf of the organization, event co-chair Rabbi Naomi Levy presented Eshman, her husband, with the APN Press for Peace Award. Also presenting Eshman with the award was APN founder Mark Rosenblum, who hired and worked with Eshman at APN, Eshman’s first job in the Jewish world.

In his acceptance remarks, Eshman said he was “very honored to receive this award from the organization where I started my journey in the community, and I still believe what I learned three decades ago: Sometimes dissent is more important than unity, and we must never, ever, ever lose hope.”

APN President and CEO Debra DeLee presented Broza with the Cine-Peace Award.

Following the awards program, Broza treated the audience — veteran and newer supporters of APN, members of the board of directors, executive staff and friends, and family and fans of the honorees — to a short musical performance, closing with “Yihiye Tov” (Things Will Get
Better), a song written in 1977 that became the anthem for the Israeli
peace movement.

APN, the sister organization of Shalom Achshav, was established in 1981 to mobilize support for the Israeli peace movement. It has since advocated for positions that include the evacuation of Israeli settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state.

From left: Odin Ozdil, Los Angeles program coordinator at JIMENA; Iraqi-Jewish activist Joe Samuels; CUFI National Outreach Coordinator Dumisani Washington; Journal contributing writer Karmel Melamed; and Mizrahi Project filmmaker Raj Nair. Photo courtesy of Karmel Melamed

More than 50 local Jewish and Christian pro-Israel activists gathered at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles on Dec. 3 for a viewing of the “Mizrahi Project,” a film hosted by the San Antonio-based Christians United For Israel (CUFI), a nonprofit pro-Israel organization, and the nonprofit Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).

The documentary is a collection of short, personal accounts from nearly a dozen Jews from Arab countries and Iran explaining the persecutions they faced in their home countries and their miraculous stories of escape.

“For almost 70 years, the stories of the nearly 850,000 Jewish refugees who fled or were forced out of the homes in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948 have been forgotten,” said Dumisani Washington, national outreach coordinator for CUFI. “With this film, we are hoping to educate pro-Israel Christian activists and others about these refugees who went on to become nearly 50 percent of Israel’s population and helped grow Israel into the thriving country it has become today.”

CUFI launched the “Mizrahi Project” in July 2016, recording video interviews of Jews living in the United States and Israel who left Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Turkey and Morocco.

Washington said CUFI has shown the film to large groups in St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco, and will continue to have screenings across the country. Likewise, CUFI staff members involved with the project said they will continue to record more interviews with Mizrahi Jews in the coming year to aid the project’s growth and to help their organization’s Israel advocacy efforts. Individual interviews from the film are available on YouTube and have garnered thousands of views to date.

After the film’s screening, a panel of Mizrahi refugees featured in the film spoke to attendees. The panelists included Joe Samuels, a local Iraqi Jewish activist, and Karmel Melamed, a Jewish Journal contributing writer and local Iranian-Jewish activist.

“We do not see ourselves as refugees or a victim because remaining a victim is a miserable way to live life,” Samuels said. “We picked ourselves up after fleeing the Arab lands and rebuilt our new lives in Israel and America — and, thank God, we’re very successful.”

Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Why I support CUFI’s “Mizrahi Project”…

Last year I had the unique opportunity to cover a story about the “Mizrahi Project”, a program launched by the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) non-profit in an effort to help educate Christians and others about the plight of Jews from Arab lands and Iran and to strengthen their pro-Israel advocacy efforts. The program has since interviewed countless Jews from Islamic countries about the painful experiences in fleeing or being expelled from their homes during the 20th century and released their interviews through short videos circulated on social media sites. The organizers of the Mizrahi Project later approached me to share my own family’s painful story of fleeing Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution and here it is…



I thank CUFI for giving us Mizrahi Jews a voice and reminding the world of the horrors we endured in the Arab lands and in Iran during the last century! I chose to participate in this program because for too long the vast majority of Iranian Jews in America, (aside from a handful of passionate activists here in Los Angeles and the efforts of the “30 Years After” non-profit organization), have largely remained on the sidelines of speaking out against the evil Iranian regime. While some Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York have endure horrible hardships, imprisonments, torture and even lost family members at the hands of the Ayatollahs in Iran, they have remained silent about their experiences. In my opinion, their silence has been due to fear of what the regime may due to their remaining friends and family still in Iran, or just because of an indifference to any political activity, or because reliving the memories from nearly four decades ago is too painful of an experience for many of them.

In my humble opinion, now is the time for Iranian Jews in America to stand up and undertake a critical grassroots advocacy campaign to educate every other community in America–  Jewish and non-Jewish alike about the rising threat of Iran’s regime. We as Iranian Jews not only understand the Farsi language declarations of genocide repeated by Iran’s ayatollahs, but the majority of us have experienced the evils of the Iranian regime firsthand. So who better than Iranian Jews, who experienced firsthand anti-Semitism, random arrests, unceasing tortures and imprisonments at the hands of this Iranian regime, to speak out today about the evil nature of the regime? Who else but Iranian Jews, who have had family members randomly executed by the Iranian regime, to educate the public about the regime’s unmerciful thugs? Who else but Iranian Jews, who have witnessed their Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, Sunni and other religious minority countrymen experience unspeakable abuse and murders at the hands of the Iranian regime’s secret police, to speak out? Who better than Iranian Jews to educate the larger American public about how Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other regime strongmen are very openly calling for the elimination of all people who do not follow their radical form of Shiite Islam? While in recent years, individual Jewish-Iranian activists in Los Angeles have indeed spoken out about the cancerous spread of the Iranian regime’s evil among its own people in Iran and the entire Middle East, much more of this type of public advocacy must be done on a larger scale by Iranian Jews in LA and New York. Additionally, while the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has attempted to put on a happy and nicer face for the Iranian regime with his fraudulent public relations campaigns, we as Iranian Jews have a duty to remove the smiling mask from Rouhani and his minions in order to expose their true nature and evil actions to the American public.

I proudly support and applaud CUFI’s efforts to educate all Americans about the plight of Jews who fled or were expelled from the Arab lands and Iran in the last century. Aside from the “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa” (JIMENA) organization based in San Francisco, what other Jewish or non-Jewish organization has stood up and given a voice to Mizrahi Jews in the 70 years? While I have tremendous love and respect for my friends in the Ashkenazi community, they have failed to mobilize in any effective effort to stop the horrendous Iran Deal in 2015 which has emboldened the Ayatollahs in Iran with sanctions relief and a path to an eventual nuclear weapons program. I have personally been deeply disappointed with many leaders in the Ashkenazi Jewish community here in LA who have said little and done next to nothing to raise public awareness of about the growing danger of the Iranian regime with their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Instead many of them blindly followed the Obama administration’s marching orders about how “great the Iran Deal” would be for all.

Today we see the folly of the Iran Deal with the Iranian regime increasing their hegemonic reach from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea, from Syria to Yemen and even to parts of South and Central America. With their sanctions relief and billions in free cash Obama gave the Ayatollahs in 2016, the Iranian regime’s leaders have filled the coffers of their terrorist proxy Hezbollah and other terror groups with billions in petro-dollars to fund terrorism against Israel and anyone else who they claim as their enemies.

Perhaps most importantly, our voices as Iranian Jews in America must be raised even louder in advocacy against this evil Iranian regime today as it is on a daily basis calling for the annihilation of the only Jewish homeland on earth. Likewise how can we remain quiet while this Iranian regime is also calling for destruction of our adopted home America?! The Ayatollahs and Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders are ruling Iran with an iron fist want a world that bows and is submissive to their radical Shiite Islamic theology. Those who rule Iran today have no problems bringing destruction to the world in order to achieve that objective. For nearly 2,500 years we Jews lived in Iran and endured horrific oppression at the hands of different kings and Islamic leaders in that land. Yet after 1979, our once 80,000 strong Jewish community was forced to flee our homes, abandon our business, forfeit our properties and assets in order to avoid destruction at the hands of this evil Iranian regime. Today some 5,000 to 8,000 Jews still remain in Iran either due to poverty, a lack of education or foolishly believe that the regime will not come after them.

In the end how can I or anyone else, Jew or non-Jew not speak about the evils of Iranian regime?! Artists, filmmakers, LGBT advocates, union supporters, musicians, journalists, women’s rights advocates, children’s rights advocates and just lovers of freedom worldwide can no longer stand idle and say nothing while the aggression of this Iranian regime continues? While I do not call for war or violence against the Iranian regime, I do believe we must place international economic, social and political pressure on the regime for its crimes against humanity and calls for genocide against Israel and America. We must join with those in the Christian Zionist community and other communities who cherish life and liberty against the tyranny of the Iranian regime.  We must vocally emboldened and support those voices of democracy and true freedom in Iran who wish to overthrow the chains of oppression that have been shackled to by the Iranian regime.

So to my friends at CUFI and others who stand with Israel and America, I offer you my 100 percent support and help in exposing the evils of the Iranian regime and helping to eventually bring their reign of terror to an end in the Middle East. Only together can we champion the cause for freedom, tolerance and co-existence in that part of the world.