Posted by Karmel Melamed
Yesterday a close friend of my family Bill Belinson, former chief of the Fire Department in Buffalo, New York passed away. For more than 30 years Bill and his wife Helen have been a close part of our family and a reliable source of strength for us since we immigrated to the U.S. Although we were Jews from Iran and they were Ashkenazi Jews from America, they always welcomed us with open arms. Bill and Helen were one of the hundreds of American Jews who befriended Iranian Jews before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Their kindness, friendship and unconditional love toward everyone especially other Jews in my opinion is what I think Judaism is truly about.
The story of how our two families came together is one I frequently share with individuals who often ask me how my family was treated by American Jewry upon our arrival in the U.S. The Belinsons’ ties to our family began in 1974 when my uncle Robert was studying at New York State University in Buffalo. He was introduced to Helen and Bill by their mutual non-Jewish friends who thought Robert should have ties with other Jews while living away from home. He was a foreign student from Iran who spoke limited English, had no friends or family in the U.S. and knew no Jews in snowy Buffalo. A prior to my uncle’s arrival, the Belinsons had tragically lost their son also named Robert in an accident. So overtime you could say my uncle became like another son to them and they became surrogate parents to him when he had no one else to turn to. The Belinsons welcomed Robert to their family gatherings and for the Jewish holidays. Through their kindness they help Robert maintain his ties to Judaism even though he was thousands of miles away from his own family in Iran. They took in a Jewish kid who they did not know and accepted him into their hearts. All the while the Belinsons stayed in contact with our family in Iran through letters and updated my grandparents on Robert’s progress in college. Eventually my uncle completed college and then went on to become a podiatrist. During the upheavals of the Iranian Revolution, the Belinsons again opened their home to my grandmother, mother, and myself (I was an infant) when we had briefly left Iran amidst the chaos unfolding in Tehran.
After our family immigrated to Southern California we still maintained our ties with the Belinsons who were living in Buffalo. On July 28th of this year our family was reunited with Helen and Bill who were visiting L.A. for my uncle’s children’s b’nai mitzvah. I personally drove Helen and Bill to the party and they shared their fond memories from years past. Still after so many years apart we were elated to see the Belinsons and my grandmother showered them with praises for their kindness toward my uncle three decades ago. While the news of Bill Belinson’s passing has been particularly difficult for our family, we are still grateful for having one last opportunity to have shared precious time with him along with our family’s simcha.
Our family’s most sincere condolences go out to Helen and the Belinson family. I know Bill is smiling down on us from his spot in heaven….¦we love you Bill and will miss you warm smile!
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August 14, 2007 | 8:08 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
They don’t have joints sticking out of their mouths nor do they have long braided Rastafarian hair—they’re just two good Iranian Jewish boys playing Reggae music. Their bandâs name has nothing to do with the popular Middle Eastern eggplant dishâ¦ nor anything from that part of the world, itâs just a random funky name “Baba Kazah”. The funky name goes well with their unique sound that mixes various musical styles created by two Iranian Jews who have shattered all the rules of what most people expect from Reggae music. About nine years ago Robert Kavian and Sam Dagighighian, the two young aspiring musicians living in Los Angeles, began creating the music that has given birth to their cutting edge band Baba Kazah. While most young Jews in the Iranian community have taken on careers focused on financial gain, Kavian and Dagighighian have broken the mold and decided to pursue their creative dream of sharing their music with the world.
Since 1998 the band has gone through several changes but the current line-up has been together since 2001. Other Baba Kazah band members include saxophonist Al Kirk who has played with legendary Reggae artist Sugar Minott and acclaimed Reggae guitarist Lesterfari, from the world famous “Boom Shaka” Reggae band. More recently, the band has received acclaim from critics and knocked the socks off audiences at clubs through out Southern California. They have their own independent label and have been performing at local popular venues including The Roxy, The Whiskey, The Temple Bar and The Mint.
I met Kavian by luck at a local Iranian Jewish gathering two years ago. During the course of our conversation I discovered his love for music lead him to compose the music and lyrics for his own band. “When Baba Kazah performs, we put all of our heart and soul into it” said Kavian. “The goal is to make rhythm propel that feeling and leave everybody with that excitement”. The band is a part-time labor of love for Kavian who heads a successful property development and management company and for Dagighighian who runs a public contracting company. Yet the music of Baba Kazah is not strictly Reggae but rather a hybrid Rock/Reggae sound that has been influenced by such bands as The Police, Bob Marley and the English Beat.
Careers in the entertainment industry have been and are still to an extent frowned upon in the Iranian Jewish community as many people do not think the industry offers job security. Nevertheless, Kavian and Dagighighian have looked to other contemporary Jewish musicians for their musical inspiration. “While itâs true that some Persians may look down on young musicians pursing an entertainment career, we have both always recognized our Jewish background of fine world musicians—including Vlamidar Horowitz, George Gershwin, Yehodi Menhuin, and Bob Dylan,” said Kavian.
Interestingly enough, Iranian Jews for centuries kept the folk music of Iran alive in their country when playing for royalty and other affluent members of society. This was the case because the country’s Muslim majority was religiously prohibited from playing music.
Those who are curious to hear what funky Rock/Reggae music coming from Iranian Jews sounds like, can catch Baba Kazah playing at the Backstage Cafe in Beverly Hills on September 6th at 10:00 pm. For more information call: (310)777-0252.
August 13, 2007 | 10:45 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
“Why are those Iranian Jews dressed in black hats and black suits like Ashkenazi Hasidim straight from the Shtetl?” asked an American Jewish friend of mine this past weekend. We were taking a stroll in the Pico-Robertson area here in Los Angeles when he spotted a group of Iranian Jews, who from their garb looked like they were Eastern European Ashkenazi Hasidim fresh off the boat. He looked at me with a puzzled expression and I tried to explain the complex story of how Iranian Jews living in Southern California and New York have joined the ranks of American Jews by selecting from the different forms of Judaism available to them in the U.S. to practice.
Since their arrival to the U.S. in the late 1970âs and 1980âs, the Jews who fled Iranâs fundamentalist Islamic regime were suddenly taken from a fairly sheltered, slow and third world environment and overnight transferred to the most vibrant and advanced country in the world. For many Iranian Jews, this new environment offered them variety and different options to choose from for every aspect of their lives including religion. Since many did not have their own synagogues established when they first arrived in the U.S., Iranian Jews in the Los Angeles area chose to attend synagogues closest to them including Sinai Temple in West L.A. (Sinai even today has a substantial Iranian congregation). They were exposed to Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism through Ashkenazi synagogues. Each one of these movements appealed to different segments of the local Iranian Jewish community, who had previously never had a âcornucopia of Judaismâ to choose from in Iran.
For nearly 2,700 years, the Jews of Iran had practiced their own form of traditional observant Judaism which can best be described as a mix between Conservative and Orthodox. For example, in Iran even though men and women sat separately during services in synagogue, a microphone was still used by the rabbis and cantors when reciting prayers. The Jewish community in Iran was so tight-knit and everyone practiced this form of traditional Judaism and nothing else. There were no Reform Jews and no Hasidic Jews wearing black hats and suits in Iran. So with the communityâs arrival in the U.S., many Iranian Jews were now free to pick and choose from whatever form of Judaism they pleased. As a journalist who has covered this community extensively, I can tell you that there are those within the Iranian Jewish community who see this new found freedom to choose different forms of Judaism as a great tragedy. They believe this new found freedom will eventually lead to the loss of the old traditions and the beginning of assimilation for Iranian Jews living in America. On the other hand, I have spoken to others in the community who believe change is productive for Iranian Jews in order for them to be able to adapt and survive in the U.S.
“Alright already, so how come these Persian Jews are looking like old school Litvaks with the knee high white stockings, bushy fur caps and long beards?!” inquires my friend. “When did they turn into Chabadniks?” Well, I explainâ¦Iâm not a historian, but from my exposure to the community as a journalist, Iâve discovered that the origins of Iranian Jews adopting the religious lifestyle of ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi Jews can be traced back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In late 1978 and 1979, a number of American Jewish organizations including Chabad, helped airlift a substantial number of male Iranian Jews out of Iran. Their families were more than happy to leave their young sons in the hands of fellow Jews in America, away from the threat of Iranâs radical Islamic regime. Many of these young Iranians were in their formidable teens and taken in by orthodox Ashkenazi yeshivas and schools. They were given shelter, fed and trained as any other Jew attending these schools. Essentially their exposure and training in these schools motivated these young Iranian Jewish men to adopt the ultra-orthodox lifestyle of Judaism. Thereafter they returned to their community here in Los Angeles and parts of New York with a new Jewish identity and formed their own synagogues and schools. These “black hat wearing” Iranian Jews then began outreaching to the local community here and offered yet another option as far as Judaism for their fellow Iranian Jewish brethren to choose from.
Critics of the new Orthodoxy say that it has broken up families, because the young adult proselytes frequently reject their parentsâ generation for not being religious enough. Those who are more religious insist they are addressing the communityâs true spiritual needs, which were suppressed in Iran but can achieve full expression given the religious freedom of the United States. Many local Iranian Jews caught in between the religious and non-religious movements have been seeking to return to their traditional roots of Judaism from Iran. These individuals have so far had little success. What direction the Iranian American Jewish community decides to take with regards to their level of religiosity as far as Judaism still remains to be seen.
August 13, 2007 | 12:16 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
A few weeks ago, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (D) from California’s 27th district which includes the San Fernando Valley, chatted with me about the new Iran divestment legislation recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sherman, who is also Jewish, co-sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2007 that will enable Americans to more easily apply economic pressure on the Iranian regime through divesting from companies that do business with Iran. This past May, the bill was introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Sherman, who is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, wrote an amendment to the bill that would protect state and local governments from litigation after they enact their own Iran divestment measures.
In 2000, Sherman was one of a number of U.S. officials helping with the effort to prevent 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz in Iran facing imminent death on trumped up charges of espionage. Eventually the Jews were not executed but imprisoned and eventually released. Since then Sherman has been active in Congress on a host of issues concerning Iran and even opposed the Clinton Administrationâs lifting of certain U.S. sanctions on rugs, caviar, and other goods imported from Iran.
Sherman discussed the opposition Iran divestment bills have faced from the White House who he said is more concerned with the profits of international companies than pressuring Iran to end its nuclear weapons program. The following is a portion of my interview with Sherman:
Why did you decide to co-sponsor this bill with regards to Iran divestment?
Just this week Congress has passed two bills dealing with Iran, weâre hoping its going to pass in the Senate. Both of them are opposed by the Bush administration, both of them got overwhelming votes in the House. The first is a bill introduced by a group of us, especially Chairman Frank of the Financial Services Committee and Chairman Lantos of the Foreign Relations Committee. What that bill is designed to do is allow and encourage government pension plans, private pension plans, and mutual funds to divest from companies that are doing anyone of the following three things with regard to Iran: (1) investing money in the oil sector, (2) lending money to the government or (3) selling munitions. The second bill is designed to strengthen the Iran Sanctions Act that was put forth by Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, myself, and others. As a provision in it to say that the foreign subsidiary of U.S. based multi-national corporations cannot do business in Iran. Itâs got a number of other provisions all designed with one purpose and that is to turn to multi-national corporations and urge them to stop doing business with the Iranian government. Our friends in Europe have been hostile to this because they seem much more concerned with the profits of European based multi-national corporations than with the effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program, I disagree.
Can you explain the purpose of a recent bill you wrote that passed in the House regarding Iran and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation?
Last week we passed another bill also on the same purpose that I wrote and went through my subcommittee, that deals with the âOverseas Private Investment Corporationâ which is an agency of the U.S. government that gets involved as a partner in foreign projects. And this bill was perhaps the toughest of all in that it says that if a multi-national is going to partner with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, then the top guy at the top corporation has to certify in writing that none of his/her companies is investing in the Iranian oil sector or lending money to the Iranian government. So the goal is to effect the behavior of multi-national corporations in an effort to effect the behavior of the Iranian government and to effect the thinking of the Iranian people. It is a complicated approach, it does not have the support of the Bush administration, but it does have the support of Congress.
So why has the Bush Administration been opposed to Iran divestment legislation that Congress has passed?
First and foremost the administration has never ever even thought of doing anything that would inconvenience even a single multi-national corporation. It takes courage to send American troops into battle looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and it takes courage to sign those letters to the widows and mothers and fathers. They may have that level of courage, but they do not have the courage to send a letter to a multi-national corporation telling them theyâre going to do something that the multi-national corporation does not like. Six years in office and nothing done that would inconvenience multi-national corporations. I will say this, we are not letting American companies sell advanced weapons systems to Iran. Thank god for small favors. The first rule of this administration is “never do anything that annoys the C.E.O. of a multi-national corporation”. The second thing that they have is that they are almost instinctively anti-Russian. Iâm not saying the Russians are right, or the Russians are not right. Iâm just saying that there is nothing more important than stopping Iranâs nuclear program and we at least ought to link what Russia does in the (U.N.) Security Council on Iran with what we do on a host of issues that are obscure and insignificant issues to Americans. And instead, the attitude of the State Department is that âwe want to fight Russia everywhere, we donât want to give in on anything, we will ask for Russiaâs help on Iran but we wonât give them anything, and they should do it because itâs a good ideaâ. So they keep sending another big wig to Moscow every few months to tell the Russians what a good idea it is to help us out and the Russians just shrug their shoulders. This is because every time we go to Moscow, we go empty-handed. Whether the United States takes this or that position on issues relevant to Russia, is so important to them and so unimportant to us, yet we wonât give in on anything. The result is that if you wonât inconvenience even one multi-national corporation a little bit and if you wonât moderate your view on an issue important to Russia, then what tools do you have left? A legislation that we have passed would inconvenience those corporations investing in terror and for that reason it is likely to be vetoed by the Bush Administration.
How do you respond to critics who that Iran divestment legislation is counter-productive in bringing about regime change in Iran and can possibly backfire with groups calling for Israel divestment?
First if we said nothing about Iran, the enemies of Israel would still be out there. Those who are trying to isolate Israel are found more among groups of Europeans than here in the United States. So good people to remain silent, will not silence the bad people.
Iranian opposition groups in U.S. and in Iran who opposed the regime, have repeatedly dismissed calls for attacks on Iran. Instead they have requested various forms of support from the U.S. to help them in their efforts to bring down that regime from within. What steps if any in Congress have been made to aid these groups?
The opposition may someday prevail. If they prevail at a time when Iran has nuclear weapons that could be most dangerous of all us because Ahmadenjiad may decide to go out with a bang. Bombing would solidify the support for the Iranian regime and might delay their nuclear program as little as three years. It has to remain an option first because the other options may fail, especially if youâre like the Bush administration that blocks doing anything. Technically just keeping force on the table strengthens the hands of those in the Iranian regime who say âwhy are we doing this nuclear program, itâs going to get bombed anyway?â So I think it remains reasonable to keep our present ambiguity on military actions. As to those who want to overthrow the regime, I think what America does will play very little role. I realize that there is this folklore in Iran, about Mosadeq and the Shah and this and that it all depend on upon America. If you look at the history of Iran you see that itâs mostly written by Iranians. Sometimes when there are exactly equally balanced forces then maybe the British or the Americans can tip the balance. But right now the forces are not so equally balanced, the regime remains in control of well more than 50 percent of the power. I certainly pray for the success of the democracy movement in Iran. At least the bombing would do something to the Iranian nuclear program, support for the democracy groups may not have effect for many many years. So we pray for them, we wish them well, but we cannot depend on them.
Alright, so how do you propose we stop the Iranian nuclear program?
We do so by convincing the Iranian elites and the Iranian people, by broadcasting in there on so many radio and television stations the message that if Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, it will be economically an diplomatically isolated. The problem with that program is I canât lie that well in Farsi. That is to say right now the potential sanctions on Iran and its business partners are tiny. When you look at the possible non-lethal tools available to the U.S. government, economic and diplomatic tools, they are quite numerous and very powerful. If you look in the toolbox you see all the tools. The good news is that weâve got a lot of tools in the toolbox, the bad news is all the tools are still in the toolbox because we havenât had the political courage or will to use any of them.
Iâll give you a few examples. The World Bank has approved 1.3 billion dollars worth of loans to Iran, of which $800 million has yet to be disbursed. But hundreds of millions has been disbursed by (Paul) Wolfowitz, but who would have thought super-hawk from the Bush Administration would be signing checks to Tehran? Well he did. We currently import from Iran. I gave a letter to the President in December that talks about how we can cut a deal with Russia to isolate Iran and why that is so important. But the fact is this administration is unwilling to give the Russians a single Kopek, a single concession on the most irrelevant issues in order to secure Russiaâs support on the Iran issue. So we have many tools in the toolbox—diplomatic tools for Moscow and Beijing, economic tools at the World Bank and multi-national corporations and international lending institutions.
In you tenure in Congress you have been heavily involved in many issues concerning Iran. Aside from the fact that you have a substantial Iranian American constituency in your district, why have you continued to focus a lot of your efforts on Iran related issues?
I do have a large Iranian American constituency compared to my friend from Nebraska, but itâs still way less than one percent. Iâm not taking these positions in order to curry favor with the Iranian Americans in my district, most of whom are Jewish and would tend to support me if only I focused on Israel and the Palestinians—which I of course do. The reason I focus on Iran is first because of human rights and terrorism, but more recently and more intensely because Iran is the greatest threat to American national security and Israelâs national security. Their nuclear weapons program is not quite as advanced as North Koreaâs but North Korea is far less ambitious and therefore less dangerous. The greatest threat to Americaâs national security is nuclear weapons smuggled into the United States from Iran. That is why we have to stop their nuclear program and work for a democratic Iran.
Congressman Sherman, thank you for chatting with me.
The complete version of this interview was originally published by the Iranian Jewish Chronicle magazine: http://www.ijchronicle.com/article.php?idcat=35&idart=188
August 9, 2007 | 5:46 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
A few weeks ago I had stopped by to visit an old friend at his medical practice in Santa Monica when he asked me if I would help give a ride to one of his elderly Iranian Jewish patients. The man in his mid 80âs had no way of getting home as it was late and there were no buses left to return him to his Fairfax apartment. I warmly agreed to give this older gentleman a ride to his place and immediately his face lit up with tremendous joy. He began to shower me with praises in Persian because I was willing to help him out.
After helping him into my car and heading back toward L.A., we hit rush hour traffic. We exchanged small talk in Persian and he began to tell me the story of his life in Iran. He starting from his childhood while living in the “Mahaleh” or the Jewish ghetto in Tehran. âYou know youâre very lucky,â he said. âWhen we were living in the Mahaleh, we never had enough to eat, we lived in extreme poverty and we were regularly beaten and constantly harassed by the Muslimsâ. As he slowly relived his memories in the car, this older gentleman began shedding silent tears and then weeping. I tried to comfort him and he apologized for his breakdown. âI used to have a large pharmaceutical company in Iran, we made millions—and overnight they took it all away from me,â said the older man. âAnd now look at me, Iâve come full circle and Iâm living in poverty again!â
This older gentlemanâs story was just one of hundreds Iâve heard from various older Iranian Jews living here in Southern California and New York over the years. Still after nearly 30 years, many of them have not overcome the depression and trauma they experienced following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. After struggling to make ends meet, these older Iranian Jews were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and out of the Jewish ghetto in Iran. The Pahlavi dynasty in Iran created an atmosphere of tolerance for religious minorities in Iran and as a result, the countryâs Jews were able to educated themselves. They soon gained prosperity through commerce and trade without the fear of harassment by certain Islamic groups. It was a special time or as one older Iranian Jewish man to me, “a Golden Era of the Jews”. By the 1940âs Iranâs Jews began moved out of the Mahaleh in Tehran and other cities. With the help of the French “Alliance Israelite Universelle” schools, this generation of Iranian Jews soon became successful professionals and captains of industry in a country that was on the verge of modernization in the 20th century.
Yet just as they were beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labor and set aside the painful memories from the Mahaleh, the rug was literally pulled out from underneath them in the late 1970âs. With the collapse of the Shah of Iranâs government and the rise of the radical fundamentalist Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a handful of Iranian Jews were executed as supposed “enemies of the state”. The executions and confiscations of Jewish property by the new regime created a great fear among Iranâs Jews who fled the country by the thousands. Some were able to salvage their assets by selling them at the start of the revolution or by having assets outside the country. Yet the majority was forced to sell what they owned at bargain prices or just leave everything. I still cannot fathom how difficult it must have been for these Jews who had come out of the Mahaleh and attained prosperity, to just walk away from their homes, businesses, and livelihoods that they had spent lifetimes creating.
Unfortunately the story of Iranâs Jews is tragic and not much different than that of Jews from other countries. The revolution of 1979 radically changed the fabric of Iranian Jews many of whom have now been able to readjust to new lives in the U.S., Europe and Israel. Yet the older generation who once lived in the Mahaleh, is still struggling to survive and cope with aftermath of the revolution.
August 8, 2007 | 1:48 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
On July 9th Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially launched its first Persian language website called “Hamdami” (http://hamdami.com). The site not only provides regular updated news about Israel for Persian language readers around the world, but gives Iranians living in Iran unique information about their own government that they normally would not be able to attain through their government controlled media outlets in Iran.
Hamdami, which is Persian for “camaraderie”, is the latest effort by Israelâs government to outreach to average Iranians in hopes of winning their hearts and mind in a time when their leadership has repeatedly called for “Israel to be wiped off the map”. Nearly three quarters of Iran’s population is under the age of 30 and this Persian language site seems to be geared toward opening the eyes of this key group.
Several weeks ago I had a chance to chat with Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch about the Hamdami website and get some of his insights about the motivation behind launching the site. The following is a portion of my interview with him:
How important was it for Israel to launch this Persian language site at this point in time when Iranâs leaders have repeatedly called for Israelâs destruction?
This is the first time you’re seeing Israelâs Foreign Ministry is opening a direct channel to the Iranian people. We have always distinguished completely between the people of Iran—who we believe are striving for peace—and the Iranian regime which is very radical. If you think about it, there has been relationship between the Iranian people and the Israeli people for many years that started over 2,700 years ago when Jews were in Iran. This is where one of the ancient populations of earth began, not to mention Cyrus the Great who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their holy temple.
What is the main objective of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in launching this Persian language site?
The main objective is to open a window for the public in Iran to learn about Israel. It’s for them to receive information about the state of Israel, the society in Israel, the Jewish people, who we are, what Israel is all about, that we are a nation of peace—and we are a nation that strives for peace. This is information that through out the years was prevented from reaching the public in Iran. As you know they (Iranian regime) control completely the information the people receive and unfortunately the information they provide the public is hatred toward Israel and incitement against the State of Israel. We want to make sure that they will have another venue to understand and learn about Israel without any interference.
Obviously this site will have news and information about Israel, but can you share some of the specific issues the site will cover?
It is important to mention that visitors to the site will see discussions of issues of the day about political declarations, cultural issues, the arts, sports, the peace process, Israel’s agriculture, economic issues, the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, new books in Hebrew about Iran and new books in Farsi about Israel. Also political pundits will be replying to viewerâs questions from Iran and receive answers about Israelâs democracy and about the democratic institutions in Israel. They will also find information about the Holocaust, stories from the Holocaust, chapters of history about the lives of Jewish people before the rise of the Nazis, life in the ghettos and concentration camps, resistance and courage of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, Eichmann trial. There will be another section about Holocaust deniers where you will see 20 main claims from Holocaust deniers including the denier of the Holocaust Ahmadinejad and a lot answers about issues that he brings up. There will be a Q&A for people from Iran to ask questions from the government of Israel through this internet site and will answer us from directly. The site will also have information about the ministry of Foreign Affairs—about work that we do in Africa, Latin America and humanitarian issues that Israel is involved in internationally. So image all those issues being in Farsi for them to understand. We believe that itâs a tremendous step in Israel’s public diplomacy when it comes to the issue of Iran.
How effective do you think the Hamdami site will be as the Iranian government in the past has been able to block out sites that they deem unfavorable?
I don’t know exactly what the regime in Iran will do to prevent their people to see this site. But I can tell that you there was a huge press conference when the site was launched and there was a lot of media there. The Persian media did not give out the internet siteâs address but many people in Iran understood that there was a new internet site to see. Now it is unprecedented the number of people in Iran that are using the internet. Three years ago the number was about a million and today you have 11 million Iranians out of a 70 million in their population who are receiving information through the internet. The assumption is that a vast majority of young people that know how to operate the internet will visit this site. What do they know about their regime’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah? Do they know a large part of the Iranian government’s budget goes in support to terrorist activities? So it’s very important that they will be able to have another venue not only to learn about Israel, but also see how their own regime supports terrorism rather than supporting the prosperity of the people.
What type of response has the site received so far directly from Iranians in Iran since its recent launch?
The response has been unbelievable. We are planning on having an event here at the Consulate to launch the site and invite people from the Iranian community who are not Jews. We believe this site will be very successful just as the same ones have been in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Thank you for your time and chatting with me.
This article was originally published by the online Iranian Jewish Chronicle magazine: http://www.ijchronicle.com/article.php?idcat=19&idart=187
August 7, 2007 | 12:41 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
For the past 20 years or so Iranians and Iranian Jews living in Southern California have been seen in our society as affluent, very well educated and even at times snobbish for remaining in their own enclaves of Beverly Hills and Encino. While covering the Iranian Jewish community, I have come across many Americans who have asked me why the Iranians have not embraced the greater community and still move within their own circles. Iâve read articles in the L.A. Times about the grand âPersian palacesâ being built on small residential lots in Beverly Hills and the Iranians being big show offs with their money. The reasons why Iranians and Iranian Jews may have not been as active in the greater community are countless and I havenât a clue why Iranians or anyone else shows off. But I as a journalist I am witnessing an incredible emergence of the younger Iranian Jews who also see themselves as Americans and are beginning to give back to the larger community here in L.A.
The work of Beverly Hills resident Jennifer Chadorchi is perhaps one of the best examples of younger Iranian Jews getting involved firsthand with grassroots non-profit work. I covered Chadorchi last year as one of the Jewish Journalâs âmenschesâ for her work on behalf of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition in organizing a small army of volunteers (many of whom are local young Iranian Jewish professionals) to help feed the homeless in West Hollywood. Her enthusiasm for aiding the homeless has become contagious and motivated her volunteers to form their own volunteer groups in feeding the homeless. Chadorchi also spearheaded âProject Feedâ, a campaign allowing Beverly Hills school district students to donate food and time to the coalition in exchange for school credit. Her unselfish work for this important cause is a symbol of how Iranian Jews are now beginning to give back and also advancing Tikkun Olam.
Recently, Reza Moosavi, a local Iranian Muslim filmmaker completed a short film called Guardians of Hope about the homeless in Los Angeles. This emotional film highlights the problems of homelessness in L.A. as well as the efforts of Chadorchi and other groups that have responded to the plight of the homeless.
So while some may think Iranian Jews are riding their fancy BMWs and living high in Beverly Hills, this close-knit community is now making a difference. Not only are Iranian Jews increasingly donating their money to important Jewish and non-Jewish causes, but more importantly they are volunteering their time and energy to movements in the city that are making a change for the betterment of our society.
Those interested in getting involved with Chadorchi’s efforts are asked to call:310-288-0090
August 5, 2007 | 1:48 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
If you passed by the small Fine Arts Theatre located on Wilshire Boulevard before La Cienega Boulevard on Saturday mornings, you might find it stranger to see random local Iranian Jews entering it without paying any admission. At first glance you might think these Iranian Jews might be gathered at the small theatre to view an early morning matinee of foreign films. But if you enter the theatreâs main screening room you might just be shocked to find the “Or Emona” congregation of Iranian Jews participating in Shabbat morning services!
Yes, Hebrew prayers chanted in the traditional Islamic-style melody echo through out the newly refurbished plush 1940âs style theatre and a performance stage standing in front of the giant white screen serves as a bima. To some, this Persian shul set inside an old school Hollywood movie theatre might seem like a funky surrealistic painting because youâd probably never find these two elements come together in any other circumstances. Yet for the near two dozen Iranian Jewish congregants, the theatre is their sanctuary for spirituality for three hours every Saturday morning. Not many local Iranian Jews even know of this small congregation gathering at the theatre and the congregants who are between the ages of 65 to 90 have not made much of an effort to outreach to anyone else. I myself would have never known the congregation even existed had I not attended services with my grandparents who are regulars.
Young people are welcomed to join the congregation but perhaps only two or three men in their 20âs make it there regularly. This might be because the services are conducted in Persian with the ancient traditions brought from Iran only appealing to the older generation. Typically when I attend, Iâm greeted by Benjamin Davidoff, the synagogueâs unofficial and generous caretaker. Heâs a jolly short round man with fair skin and rosy red cheeks in his 70âs. Davidoff greets everyone who enters with a friendly handshake and his signature million dollar smile. This very successful businessman volunteers his help every week without seeking the limelight or praise for anyone. His love of Judaism, our tradition, and the community is heartfelt through his efforts to make the theatre like a real synagogue. Davidoff and the synagogue’s other leader Solieman Aghahi have been the glue that has kept this congregation together for nearly two decades. Before renting out the Fine Arts Theatre, the two men had the congregation gathering inside the banquet hall of the Gaylord Indian restaurant on La Cienega and prior to that inside the Le Meridian Hotel also on La Cienega.
The congregation is neither orthodox nor conservative, but practicing a traditional form of Judaism from Iran that somehow manages to combine the old and new. Men and women sit separately during services but a microphone is used for anyone to hear the prayers. Holding steadfast to their norms from Iran, the congregation does not collect membership but individuals raise money for the shul through bidding on the aliyot, the opening of the torah arch and the carrying of the torah in a type of auction during the services. For example, one man may bid $18 for the reading of the Maftir but he may get outbid by another who will bid $52. Typically the sale of each prayer ends with the rabbi asking for any other bids and then counting in Hebrew; âAhadâ¦Shetayimâ¦Shaloshâ¦Zakhal!â Another interesting aspect of the service involves the participation of the women who during the Torah readings made in honor of a newlywed couple, a new birth, or a happy occasion make some traditional loud sounds with their mouths. These loud sounds cannot be described very well but are very similar to Native Americans chants during an attack on the Cavalry back in the old West. While non-Iranian Jews may be frightened by these sounds, they are an expression of joy and tradition carried over from Iran by women during times of happiness. At the same time men also get their chance to express their joy at the services by singing brief traditional Persian language songs for the person making the aliyah at the Torah with a happy occasion. These traditional songs have been carried down from generation to generation by Jews in Iran and are filled with well wishes and prayers for a newlywed couple or a newborn child.
Even though a small number of Iranian Jews attend the weekly services held inside the Fine Arts Theatre, their numbers expand to nearly three hundred during the High Holy days. This is because Iranian Jewish families who do not belong to any other synagogue buy tickets to attend the services at Or Emona.
One last aspect of the Or Emona congregation that continues to fascinate me is that the congregants do not attend the large and very elegant Nessah Persian synagogue just a few blocks up the street on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. If you ask them why they continue to meet at the Fine Arts Theatre rather than attend services at Nessah with other Iranian Jews, they will give you a whole host of excuses. But the sad reality is that many of them have differences of opinion with those at Nessah over traditions and community politics.
For the record it should be noted that Or Emona is not the only traditional Iranian shul in the city that gathers at a funky location, there are more than a dozen similar Iranian synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area and along Ventura Boulevard in Encino. Some of these other shuls have much smaller congregations that have rented out old stores, banquet halls, and even restaurants to pray together on Saturday morning. So in the end the popular saying that âwith two Jews you always get three opinionsâ, also applies to local Iranian Jews who like most any other Jewish group sometimes may not always get along together but strive to still hold onto their traditions.