Posted by Danielle Berrin
“Ben Hur was a Jew!” declared a staggering press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in response to an L.A. Times article about the 50th anniversary DVD release of the film “Ben Hur,” in which they referred to the lead Jewish character as a “Palestinian nobleman.”
“As anyone who has seen the movie or read the book knows, this is the story of a Jew, Judah Ben Hur,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “There was no Palestine, nor Palestinians back then. The term ‘Palestina’ was the name imposed by Rome after they crushed the Jewish revolt more than 100 years after the death of Jesus.”
Other outfits, such as conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood have echoed the outrage, angrily calling the LA Times a “reliably anti-Israel newspaper.”
The 1959 epic “Ben-Hur,” starring Charlton Heston as the Judean nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur, is based on Lew Wallace’s novel about a wealthy Jerusalemite enslaved by the Romans who later encounters Jesus Christ. The film, directed by William Wyler, won 11 Oscars that year, including best film, director, actor and supporting actor and is now being released in a special 50th anniversary edition DVD and Blu-Ray.
But some Jewish organizations are not celebrating.
The online media watchdog, Camera, which monitors anti-Israel news coverage, accused the LA Times of trying to “remake” Ben-Hur as a Palestinian. According to their Snapshots blog, this characterization is a departure from the way the Times has portrayed Ben Hur in the past.
Noting, as the Wiesenthal Center did, that there was no “Palestine” until 100 years after the death of Christ, Camera acknowledged the Times’ earlier coverage as being more accurate: “In earlier coverage, the Los Angeles Times had correctly described Ben-Hur’s Jewish/Judean identity. For instance, a March 15, 2001 article referred to ‘the rich, honorable Jewish man Judah Ben-Hur’; a June 17, 1994 article correctly described him as ‘the Judean’; and a Sept. 14, 1990 article referred to him as ‘prince of Judea.’
But even a seemingly simple misattribution begets extreme politicization. With last week’s Palestinian appeal to the UN to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, heightened sensitivities have prompted defensive reactions from Jews.
“Perhaps the paper’s 2011 remake of Ben-Hur, the Judean, into Ben-Hur, the “Palestinian,” is testament to the success of ongoing efforts to misleading the masses into believing that a sovereign Palestinian entity did in fact exist before 1948,” read the post on Camera’s Snapshots blog.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Times had not issued a correction to the article, though several online commenters had chimed in with their disapproval.
One commenter, listed as NotJStreet wrote: “Man! The J word really makes you guys choke up doesn’t it?”
Another, posted by SRiley wryly remarked, “Ben-Hur was Palestinian? So does that make Pocahontas an American instead of Powahatan?”
Big Hollywood blogger Robert Avrech did not withhold any of his vehemence for the Times, accusing the paper of denying both Jewish and literary history. In a militant tone, Avrech portrayed the Times as a kind of co-conspirator in what he calls “Palestinian history replacement ideology.”
The Times’ ill-informed claim that Ben Hur was a Palestinian may be off-base and factually false, but perhaps it was an innocent mistake. If it was intentional, it was wrong. But, even more frightening than intentionality is the possibility that it was not; this would mean the ubiquitous efforts made to delegitimize the Jewish state are having a very powerful and very real affect.
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September 26, 2011 | 6:17 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It is perennial fun analyzing the ways in which Hollywood filmmakers express their discontent. Sometimes it comes in the form of the classic anti-Semitic tirade, and other times, in the case of Roman Polanski, statutory rape (oh I’m sorry, the rape charge was thrown out in favor of the euphemistic “Unlawful Sexual Intercourse with a minor”).
“It’s no wonder I sometimes yearn for the good old days when directors were anonymous hires instead of beloved auteurs who sometimes say and do the darnedest, most awful things,” wrote the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis on the occasion of encountering a great artist with a grotesque character.
Those directors—and in this article she refers directly to Lars Von Trier and Roman Polanski—“who make it hard to watch their movies without wincing, who force you to reconcile your love of their work with their flawed humanity, as Mr. von Trier did when…he expressed ostensibly sincere admiration for the Nazi architect Albert Speer.”
About Von Trier, whose next film “Melancholia” is earning the filmmaker the best reviews of his career and which is garnering early Oscar buzz (lead actress Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes even though the director was declared persona non grata), Dargis confessed, “I believe he was joking about being a Nazi, and that he was also saying, self-seriously or not, that as someone of German heritage he was inherently guilty.”
What Dargis is getting at in her piece is the problem of egocentric artist types who run their mouths because they can (or have sex with whoever they want because they can), without giving thought to the consequences of their declarations and actions. Von Trier may not be anti-Semitic—in the same press conference that he admitted admiration for Nazi aesthetics, he said that for most of his life he believed he was a Jew and he was “happy being a Jew”—but the question as to the deeper significance of his sudden admission that, “Ok, I’m a Nazi” does beg better understanding. In other words, what was he saying? And what the heck did he mean by all that?
It was readily rationalized in the press as a filmmaker who delights in provocation. But in a very smart and balanced piece, Dargis suggests that’s only the easy answer:
“When ‘Melancholia’ hits America, the debates over Mr. von Trier may rekindle, and anyone who suggests he is merely a compulsive attention getter or rejects the idea that an author’s stated intentions offer the last (or only) word on his work, can look forward to being criticized.”
She is less kind to Polanski, of whom she wrote (in maybe one of the greatest sentences in entertainment journalism ever): “Mr. Polanski belongs to a long line of liars, adulterers, sadists and slaves, wife beaters, rapists, miscellaneous miscreants and even murderers who helped make Hollywood great.”
It is a difficult thing separating artists from their art. This is well expressed in the recent news that Mel Gibson will produce a movie about the Maccabees and the outrage it inspired—though, for some reason, Dargis makes no mention of Gibson in her column. She also doesn’t offer any conclusive salve for how audiences—and perhaps America at large—should respond to the messy humanity of these skilled and lionized artists.
“Judging filmmakers along with their films is a favorite critical pastime, and it was fascinating to wade through the confusion of responses to Mr. von Trier’s statement, in particular the struggle to reconcile a superb work like “Melancholia” with his words. The mistake was thinking that the two could be reconciled rather than admitting that some contradictions remain insoluble.”
September 21, 2011 | 4:35 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
As loathsome and absurd as it may seem, Mel Gibson’s plan to produce a movie about the Maccabees is not an existential threat to Jews. That is, unless he decides to change the ending so that the Maccabees lose. But that's another matter.
That a man who, in 2006, turned a drunk-driving arrest into an opportunity to assail Jews for waging all the wars in the world should now set about making a film based on two of the Jewish holy books does seem utterly bizarre. Is this Gibson’s attempt at some kind of perversion of teshuvah (repentance), or just a deeply insensitive expropriation of Jewish lore?
At best, the notion resonates as a kind of grand farce.
“If you were making a satire of Hollywood, you would have the anti-Semitic, drunk, racist, misogynistic movie director making the Judah Maccabee biopic,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg said to me by phone from Washington, D.C. “It’s an act of outrageous chutzpah for an anti-Semite to appropriate a Jewish hero for a movie. Would you have a person who is widely believed by black people to be a racist involved in a movie about Martin Luther King Jr.? Would you have a person most gay people believe is a homophobe direct ‘Milk’?”
At worst, the film could become a kind of insidious Christian propaganda film, à la “The Passion of the Christ,” in which Jews were mostly depicted as extremely unattractive, blood-lusting and demonic, not to mention complicit in deicide. “If this [movie] were shown in the theater during the Third Reich or in Iran, people would cheer that the Jews, who rejected Christ, are finally shown for what they are,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, said.
But, in fact, no Jews were harmed in the making of that film — or in the movie theaters that showed it, or even outside of them. Mostly, “The Passion” played out in the pages of the press, and life went on. Hurt feelings aside, the worst grievance Jews could direct at “The Passion of the Christ” was that it made its already wealthy anti-Semitic creator even richer.
Any Gibson-produced Maccabee movie is unlikely to pose actual danger to Jews. In an age of real violent threats, “This is not a crime against humanity,” Goldberg said wryly. But even so, that is not why many Jews oppose it.
When the story broke, Jewish outrage was palpable. Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman told The Hollywood Reporter that the decision was a travesty: “Judah Maccabee deserves better,” he said. Hier called the project antagonistic and disrespectful — “an insult to Jews.” Others called it “bottom-feeding on the bottom line.”
The danger, as these Jewish leaders see it, is that allowing an anti-Semite to have his way with Jewish history in this far-reaching and influential medium casts him as a kind of cultural authority on the subject and lends legitimacy to his worldview, which they believe comprises deep theological hostility to Jews and Judaism.
They don’t look at Mel Gibson and see a great artist; they see a Nazi.
As one friend put it, “Had Mel Gibson lived in 1940s Germany, he would have been one of those Nazis who shot Jews from a rooftop and then went inside and listened to Bach.”
But the Jewish leaders who flooded the pages of the Hollywood trades with their dismay and disgust do not know Mel Gibson. And the portrait that emerges from talks with some of the Jews who have worked with Gibson, including Alan Nierob, his publicist of 17 years, is one of a loyal, caring friend and a consummate professional.
“People love working with him,” said Dean Devlin, producer of “The Patriot” and a close friend of Gibson. “He is one of the few movie stars who doesn’t bring any ego to the set, and he was always making people laugh.” Devlin said Gibson would help carry equipment and play practical jokes, and that he helped set up a clinic for battered women near their South Carolina set, as well as a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose meetings Gibson attended. “But,” Devlin added, “he also has this reputation for being a guy who would say outrageous stuff and infuriate people; Mel is a guy who loves to shock.”
Richard Donner (nee Schwartzberg), who directed Gibson in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and has known him for three decades, agreed that Gibson is “one of the nuttiest guys” he’s ever met but does not believe he’s anti-Semitic. He described Gibson as an “off the wall” creative genius who can sometimes do bizarre and outlandish things. He said he was “thunderstruck” when he heard about Gibson’s 2006 tirade.
“I couldn’t believe it — I didn’t want to believe it,” Donner said. “And yet, in my heart, having known how he was brought up, I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe this is something that’s been suppressed for so many years and it decided to raise its ugly head now.’
“If you’re brainwashed from infancy,” Donner added, referring to Gibson’s Vatican II-
rejecting father, Hutton Gibson, a Holocaust denier, “that probably causes great emotional anguish.”
“Mel has never, ever said anything against the Jews on the record,” Devlin insisted. “Somehow, in a drunken, crazy rage, he was reported to have said some ridiculous things; but I gotta tell you, if every single one of us had every word recorded in the height of drunken anger, we’d all look like lunatics.”
Whether Gibson’s colleagues are defending a friend or in denial, it’s clear there is also little consensus in Hollywood on what constitutes anti-Semitism.
As recently as December 2010, the actress Winona Ryder revealed to GQ Magazine a disturbing encounter she’d had with Gibson long ago: “I remember, like, 15 years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk,” she told GQ. “I was with my friend, who’s gay. He made a really horrible gay joke. And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about ‘oven dodgers.’… I’d never heard that before. It was just this weird, weird moment. I was like, ‘He’s anti-Semitic and he’s homophobic.’ No one believed me!”
Perhaps an industry-wide malaise of shame or self-hate makes it too difficult to call anti-Semitism what it is. With few exceptions, like Amy Pascal, who decried Gibson’s 2006 outburst in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and Ari Emanuel, who wrote on the Huffington Post that, “alcoholism does not excuse racism and anti-Semitism,” the silence has been deafening. Calling out anti-Semitism where it exists seems too tribal and parochial for such a worldly industry. God forbid Warner Bros., the studio that greenlighted the Maccabee film, should bear any moral responsibility for assigning a Jewish story to a storyteller who has repeatedly antagonized Jews. All that its Jewish studio head Barry Meyer could muster through a PR rep was: “No comment.”
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership based in New York, said he couldn’t care less about analyzing the vagaries of Gibson’s attitude toward the Jews. “I worry about anti-Semitism when it actually wields power that is going to hurt the Jewish people,” he said. Kula has been consulting with Gibson about the Maccabee movie and said Gibson has as much right to produce the story as anyone.
“No one owns the Jewish story; this is a historic story,” Kula said, adding that the Jewish community should view the film as an opportunity. “More [Jewish] people celebrate Chanukah than any other festival — 80 percent of American Jews claim they celebrate some sort of Chanukah, which means Chanukah is bigger than Rosh Hashanah, bigger than Yom Kippur. What if, when the movie comes out, we were able to create a national conversation around one of our most important stories?”
After all, not even Gibson’s critics deny that he is one of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers. And his penchant for archetypal good-versus-evil stories could wind up highlighting Judah Maccabee’s heroism, omitting some of the harsher, more ambivalent aspects of the Book of Maccabees, such as the zealous persecution of secular Jews. What if, in the end, Mel Gibson makes a darn good movie extolling Maccabean virtues that would make Jews proud?
“People say to me, ‘You know what? Maybe he wants to make amends with Judah Maccabee and this is his way of saying, ‘Welcome me back,’ ” Rabbi Hier said, confessing that as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he voted for Gibson back in 1996, when he was nominated for “Braveheart.”
“Why can’t the Jews just forget Mel Gibson?” Hier asked, rhetorically.
“Because he himself has not allowed us to forget, because he hasn’t done anything to correct the way he’s thought of. I’ve seen nothing in Mel Gibson to make me think he’s worthy to be put in trust of a film like Judah Maccabee; he wants us to trust him, but he has not earned our trust.”
September 20, 2011 | 5:48 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Once again Danish director Lars Von Trier is running his mouth and running amok.
“I’m not sorry. I am not sorry for what I said,” he reportedly told GQ. “I’m sorry that it didn’t come out more clearly. I’m not sorry that I made a joke. But I’m sorry that I didn’t make it clear that it was a joke.”
As I wrote at the time, Von Trier’s statements sounded more like a thoughtless ramble than the feelings of an anti-Semite—for goodness sake, the director admitted he believed himself to be Jewish for quite a long time and that he had been “very happy being a Jew”. Just don’t get him started on Israel, which he called, “a pain in the ass.”
His recent clarification, which no doubt will be misconstrued (it’s already being called a “retraction”) strikes me as having the same tone as the statement he made after Cannes banned him from the festival: “I’m very proud of being persona non grata. I’ve never been that before in my life, and that suits me extremely well…I’m known for provocations.”
Indeed, which means, ignore.
September 19, 2011 | 3:28 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Not even a last minute save by Leonard Nimoy could save the Emmy Awards ceremony from its usual sterile simplicity. Relying on its predictable mix of soft comedy and repeat honors, the show was safe from controversy but sorely lacking in entertainment.
Nimoy’s appearance in the “schlocky and too long” opening number, as host Jane Lynch described it, came after Alec Baldwin defected from the show when Fox refused to air his joke about phone hacking.
“Naughty behavior was banned,” New York Times’ television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote. “This was a night that was streamlined to avoid controversy or criticism. Acceptances were brisk, and not all that embarrassing. The show even finished on time.”
Indeed, as far as awards shows go, the best thing the Emmys has going for it is that the telecast is shorter than the Oscars. Still, both could borrow a lesson or two from MTV, whose Video Music Awards and Movie Awards are the most enjoyable of the annual trophy-giving ceremonials, largely because they allow entertainers to entertain, without hindering them with silly scripts and stiff rules. Staying so carefully inside the lines puts the Emmys in the awkward position of having the opposite impact of what it celebrates, which is good entertainment.
Even Charlie Sheen was surprisingly sober. A message he said was from “the bottom of my heart” did not include a single offensive slur. Usually titillating, Sheen was tame. It is hard to believe that that was the same guy who only a few months ago, as television’s highest-paid actor on CBS’s highest-rated show, was canned for losing control, having denigrated “Two and a Half Men” showrunner Chuck Lorre by calling him “Chaim.” Casual anti-Semitism gives way to contrition.
Despite the Emmy show’s evident lack of excitement, it was an energizing night for the creators of “Modern Family” and “Mad Men.” Steven Levitan, co-creator of “Modern Family” saw his show sweep the comedy category, including supporting actor awards for Julie Bowen and Ty Burell, outstanding writing honors for himself and Jeffrey Richman, and the top honor—outstanding comedy series. Levitan dedicated his award to his “somewhat satisfied wife and three traumatized children,” who, he explained, were the real-life inspiration behind the award-winning episode in which children walk in on their parents having sex.
Also big on sexual themes, the perennial favorite “Mad Men” took the top award for outstanding drama series for the fourth year in a row. The critically acclaimed 1960s-era drama, which is also big on Jewish themes, has won each season the show has aired, though that didn’t stop creator Matt Weiner from an embarrassing moment of hubris: “I did not think this was going to happen,” he blurted from the stage. Instead of banning peppery political jokes, all variations of feigned-surprise-upon-winning should be stricken from awards show acceptance speeches (hear that, Kate Winslet?).
Elsewhere on television, being politically astute and unafraid is actually rewarding. Jon Stewart proved this by taking home an Emmy for best variety, music or comedy show for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Noting a perceptibly different gender balance from years past, The Times’ Stanley wrote, “Mr. Stewart quite noticeably surrounded himself onstage with many women as well as men — in past years, Mr. Stewart has been chided for having almost no women or minorities in his army of writers.”
“Mad Men’s” Weiner has also taken heat in the past for turning out his female writers once they’ve been of use to him. But these incidents – or issues – stand in stark contrast to the upcoming season of television, which, as many have noted, is amply peopled by women writers, women characters and women actors. Perhaps as television, the reputed domain of family, becomes more fully infused with women, some of the craziness that transpires among families at home will be allowed to impact what happens on the Emmys stage.
September 15, 2011 | 5:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
L.A. Jewry’s most prominent women philanthropists gathered at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the luncheon honoring Tishby, arts education advocate and philanthropist Virginia Beutner and the pediatric oncologist, Michal Yalon-Oren, an Israeli medical hero who specializes in pediatric brain cancer. Among those in attendance was the peppy Daphna Ziman and the philanthropic icon Marilyn Ziering, whose daughter Rosanne was luncheon co-chair.
After an emotional documentary highlighting Yalon-Oren’s work at Sheba Medical Center, the actress/model/producer was lavishly praised for her success introducing Israeli content to Hollywood as well as for her outspoken support of Israel.
Having landed her first major theatrical role at age 16, Tishby’s young success led to a television and modeling career. She starred in the hit Israeli drama series “Ramat Aviv Gimmel” about the goings-on in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood and has played a handful of minor roles in major Hollywood productions, including the Michael Bay-directed “The Island”. But Tishby is best known for re-packaging the Israeli hit “BeTipul” (“In Therapy”) and selling it to HBO as “In Treatment,” the award winning series starring Gabriel Byrne.
Tishby has made a second career out of Israel advocacy and in 2010 launched the non-profit “Act for Israel.” According to the organization’s Website, its main goal is to become the “number 1 organization representing Israel in the digital media world” using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to share information.
At the podium, Tishby exhibited her entertainment chops by giving her audience some politics to ponder. She talked about the upcoming UN Vote for Palestinian Statehood, and borrowing a lesson from the Arab Spring, emphasized the importance of mobilizing a response online. She also said how humbled she was to be in the company of people like Yalon-Oren and emphasized Israel’s underrepresented accomplishments.
September 14, 2011 | 3:05 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Here’s a line no movie star ever wants written about them: “Scarlett Johansson is the latest celebrity wrapped up in a nude photo scandal,” this, according to cbsnews.com, though of all the actresses subject to this type of news/gossip/scandal, Johansson’s misfortune is likely another’s marvel.
The actress has reportedly enlisted the FBI to help investigate an alleged hacking incident that may have led to some fuzzy nude photos surfacing on the Web. Though it isn’t entirely clear that the subject is Johansson, the photos were described by TMZ as being “self-shot”.
The incident did not come as a surprise to some, according to the LA Times, who reported that Johansson’s name appeared on a list of casualties of an alleged hacking ring that targeted celebrity email accounts and smartphones.
The lesson? Nothing in cyberspace is safe or private; and if you prefer your nude photos remain unpublished, the thing you should do is not take any to begin with, or if you must, use 35mm film and do not, under any circumstances, scan, copy or upload.
September 14, 2011 | 11:32 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The bells at the door tinkle, and the fashion designer Simin jumps up from a velvet bench and politely excuses herself.
“My next fitting is here,” she says, promising to return to her life story a little later.
Outside her 4,000-square-foot Robertson Boulevard studio, a leggy brunette steps out of a Lincoln Town Car. Lisa Vanderpump, the British-born actress and restaurateur, better-known as one of the six “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” has arrived for the final fitting of a gown she will wear to her daughter’s wedding this weekend. True to her nickname, “Pinky,” the gown is a long, satiny, light-pink strapless, with hand-beaded Swarovski crystals adorning her décolletage. A second dress — with a tight-fitting bodice in navy-blue lace and a skirt that flares at the calf — Vanderpump plans to wear to “The Real Housewives” Season 2 premiere. (Nevermind that on this day in late August, the show’s future was precarious, in the aftermath of a castmate’s husband’s suicide.) When it comes to Beverly Hills fashion, one can never be too prepared.
“We need to pull it tighter here,” Simin, the 57-year-old haute couture designer, says, tugging at the custom-made creation tautly tailored to Vanderpump’s curves. “Less fabric here, and less fabric here,” Simin instructs her assistants. “Have you lost some weight?” she asks Vanderpump.
As Simin and two other seamstresses gather fabric at the folds and poke it with pins, the chatter erupts into Farsi.
“They’re artisans,” Vanderpump says, admiring herself in the mirror. “This is why I come here — because they’re perfectionists. It’s very difficult to find somebody that’s going to put this much care into it.” And, she adds, in her elegant British, “It’s a very comforting fact that if I wear one of Simin’s dresses; I know not anybody else will be wearing it. If you go into Roberto Cavalli or Dolce & Gabbana or something like that, you’ve got a very good chance of someone else wearing the same thing.”
In “Housewives” speak, that means: utter disaster.
For Simin, an Iranian-born dressmaker, haute couture provides exclusive assurance: “It’s one of a kind,” she says breezily. The French term meaning “high sewing” or “high dressmaking” was introduced in Paris in the mid-19th century and today is guarded by a strict set of standards that admits only the most exclusive fashion houses in the world, including Chanel, Christian Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier. Having studied in Paris under legendary couturiers Pierre Balmain and Pierre Cardin, Simin does her best to apply the principles of high fashion to her self-created storefront in Beverly Hills.
“Everybody has a different figure,” she says. “Some are bustier, some have thinner tops than bottoms — so we just tailor it. To do a couture is fantastic; it’s done for you, made for you. It’s a person’s character.”
Simin’s reputation for detail, extravagance and expert, feminine tailoring have won her a high-profile following. She counts Paris Hilton, Paula Abdul and Ivanka Trump among her celebrity clients, and her dresses have become a fixture on the red carpet. At the Sept. 18 Emmy awards, Cloris Leachman, “Glee’s” Amber Riley and “CSI: Miami’s” Eva La Rue all will prance past paparazzi in hand-sewn Simin gowns. The young actress Abigail Breslin helped popularize Simin, when, as a best supporting actress nominee, she wore a pink dress dappled with a flower to the 2006 Oscars. Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian-born actress and longtime friend of Simin, also wore the designer when she was nominated for “House of Sand and Fog” in 2003.
But Simin cemented her reputation as a daring member of the design elite when she became the creator of “the world’s most expensive wedding gown,” a $19 million diamond-studded dress produced in collaboration with Beverly Hills jewelers the Kazanjian Brothers. Last month, she received a glut of attention when Madame Tussauds Hollywood asked her to design a selection of wedding gowns for the unveiling of its Kim Kardashian wax figure. The public was invited to vote for its favorite.
Simin insists she isn’t in it for the glam. “I get approached to do everything,” she admits, citing fashion shows, fundraisers and red carpet events. “But when I see a bat mitzvah girl in school, and they come to me and say, ‘I told all my friends: Simin is doing my dress!’— My god, that is like the highest accomplishment.”
Simin was nearly bat mitzvah age herself when she began her foray into fashion. Born Simin Taghdiri in Tehran, her family moved to Manchester, England, when she was 14. While her father, a major Middle East distributor for the Japanese-manufactured YKK zippers, pursued a business opportunity, Simin became the youngest to enroll at Hollings College in Manchester to study art and design. There, she discovered she could draw, figuring, “I could become a painter or I could become a designer — I chose to become a designer.” She graduated by age 16, just before her family returned to Tehran. Before they left, Hollings awarded Simin a Paris internship with designer Pierre Balmain, who was then “the god of women’s fashion,” she said.
By the time she turned 17, Simin had won national acclaim in Tehran. The Empress Farah Pahlavi, queen of Iran, became a fan after Simin repurposed an Iranian Termeh, a popular handwoven silk, often used as a tablecloth, into an evening gown, which the queen then wore. “The press went crazy,” Simin recalled. “I was in the newspapers and magazines constantly.”
At 18, she launched her first fashion show, and more than 800 attendees, including members of the royal family, came to see her collection of hand-sewn dresses. “Don’t forget,” she said, adding some context, “I was a Persian girl from a luxury family, and women didn’t work much at that time.” The recognition was intoxicating. “I was loving living in Iran,” she said. “Things were like a dream. Everything was perfect — until the revolution started.”
After three family members were executed, Simin’s family fled. “It’s not like you had to decide,” she recalled. “You had to run for your lives.”
In 1980, Simin settled in Los Angeles with no intention of restarting her career. But after more than a decade of being a stay-at-home mom with a husband and three children and designing dresses on the side, she opened her first shop in Brentwood Gardens. Two years later, she expanded to San Vicente Boulevard, and a decade later, moved to her current studio on Robertson.
During breaks from sketching or sewing, Simin has also donated full-scale fashion shows for charity events, including on behalf of Hadassah, Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the Magbit Foundation. Her support of Israel and other Jewish causes has won her a devoted following within the Iranian-Jewish community of Los Angeles, which, she said, accounts for more than half her clientele.
But some would be surprised to learn that this granddaughter of a well-known Iranian rabbi converted to the Bahá’í faith 30 years ago, insisting, “I’ve become a better Jew.” Simin still maintains a kosher home, celebrates Jewish holidays and visits Israel frequently. The conversion, she explains, was an affirmation of her personal philosophy: “It’s not like I’ve become a different person or have less love for my background,” she said. “The Bahá’í faith is about equality, and this is what I believe, that we are all one.”
In case anyone is fooled by the façade of her elaborate window displays, she says, “I don’t call myself a star. It’s not me who’s doing all this — it’s God. God gives it to us, and God takes it away.”