Posted by Karmel Melamed
Last night, more than 500 affluent Iranian American Jews from the Los Angeles area gathered for a night of festivities at the elegant Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills for fundraising on behalf of the Etta Israel organization. This was not just another glamorous fundraising event for local Iranian Jews, but a historical night for the community at large which for centuries had considered publicly displaying children with mental and learning disabilities as taboo.
Etta Israel is local community based non-profit organization dedicated to helping children with special needs including those with Autism, Down’s syndrome, Dyslexia and other forms of mental retardation. In 1997, local Iranian Jewish social worker and volunteer Manijeh Nehorai introduced Etta Israel and the need for support to children with special needs to the local Iranian Jewish community. At a time when many families in the community with mentally disabled children would hide their special needs children away from the public, Nehorai was brave enough to tackle this taboo and educate these families that there was help available for their children. “Many in our community unfortunately kept these children in the closet because they were afraid of people judging them,” she said. “But today as we can see, when these children come into the community they can have better lives”. The taboo of not exposing their mentally disabled children in public also stems from the fact that a substantial number of Iranian Jewish families feared that they would jepoardize their other children’s chances of finding spouses from within the community.
While the taboo has not totally been lifted, the fact that such a large contingency of Iranian Jews in the Southern California area came out to support this cause speaks volumes about how the community’s views about these special needs children has transformed in recent years. Moreover, Nehorai said the contributions from the Iranian Jewish community to Etta Israel has enabled the group to provide homes and Jewish activities for local young adults with special needs. Those interested in becoming involved with Etta Israel are asked to visit: www.etta.org
The following are just some of the sights from the evening I captured:
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10.20.13 at 10:40 pm | Since the new Iranian president's inauguration in. . .
10.10.13 at 11:25 pm | Rabbi Mark Diamond, the Regional Director of AJC. . .
10.2.13 at 6:48 pm | Iranian president's latest use of Twitter is only. . .
8.18.13 at 11:10 pm | Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei spews his. . .
6.30.13 at 11:22 am | Young Iranian Jews are breaking old community. . .
1.28.08 at 9:30 pm | (89)
10.25.07 at 9:11 pm | (48)
4.3.08 at 7:12 pm | (45)
November 29, 2007 | 4:11 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
If you ask your average Iranian Jew in the U.S., Europe or Iran who Hubert Leven is, they wouldn’t have a clue. However, his family’s generosity to the Jews of Iran more than a century ago significantly transformed the fabric of our once isolated community. At the turn of the 20th century when Iran’s Jews lived in extreme poverty and persecution by the Muslim majority, the
Alliance Israelite Universelle” (AIU), an educational non-profit organization his great-grandfather helped establish schools through out Iran. This valuable education Iranian Jews obtained helped them lift themselves up and out of their ghettos. They were able to reconnect with Judaism, they found hope that they were not alone and there were other Jews in the world who cared about their well being. The ripple effect of the AIU can still be felt today in the Iranian Jewish community in the U.S., which is by far one of the most prosperous and successful Jewish communities in North America.
Fortunately, Leven has been able to reconnect with our community in Los Angeles as his new non-profit organization is seeking to help the less fortunate in Israel. This week my piece in L.A. Jewish Journal gives some insight into his meeting and the following is an excerpt of my interview with Leven:
Can you share with us a little about your great-grandfather and the work of those who helped established the AIU?
My great-grandfather’s Narcisse Leven was part of a group of seven who established the AIU in 1860 and also served as their President. This group of founders were very much influenced by the liberal and humanistic ideals of the 1848 French Revolution one of the achievements of this revolution was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Adolphe Cremieux, one of the founding members of AIU served as Minister of Justice and gave French citizenship to all the Jews of Algeria. The AIU also provided a platform for French Ashkenazi Jews to reach out to their Sephardic brothers who did not benefit from the Enlightenment which advanced civilization in general and to the French Jews in particular. The Hebrew name of AIU in Israel is Kol Israel Haverim or “all Jews are friends/brothers”.
Why has your family had such a dedication to Jewish philanthropic work?
Narcisse Leven was not wealthy, he gave his time, competence and dedication to the cause. He also transmitted a sense of responsibility and duty towards to his son Georges and who in turn passed it on to his children. Philanthropy is to a large extent an element of culture, a way of life and if you are immersed in it from an early age, it becomes almost genetic. Gustave Leven, my father’s younger brother made a significant fortune and wholeheartedly believed that it would be put to much better use if invested in the future of the Jewish people rather than in making a few wealthy heirs—a philosophy that I fully share. Because of Gustave’s philosophy our family has been privileged to establish the Rashi Foundation and continued its extensive support to AIU.
Are you aware of the extent to which the AIU’s schools have substantially benefited Iranian Jewry?
Of course I am aware and proud. And especially when you remember what the AIU did in Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, etc. Let alone those in central Europe and Russia by allowing thousands to flee the pogroms for the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, etc.
The remainder of my interview with Leven can be found at the: Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine.
November 28, 2007 | 9:15 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
The Christian Science Monitor in its article today regarding the Iranian Television Series “Zero Degree Turn” became the latest U.S. publication to inaccurately report on this fictional drama on Iranian state-run television with the Holocaust as its back drop. The show has been hailed by reporters at the AP, Wall Street Journal, and NPR as sympathetic to the issue of Holocaust—a supposed change of rhetoric coming from Iran in light of the anti-Semitic comments spewed by Iran’s president in the last few years. But as a responsible journalist who has covered this story before, I’m here to say that these news media outlets have totally been inaccurate in their coverage of this TV program!
To the contrary, my own accurate article last month in the L.A. Jewish Journal revealed that “Zero Degree Turn” in no way sends a positive message about the Shoah or Jews. It is clear that the AP, Wall Street Journal, NPR and other reputable news outlets failed to properly review and translate the program with the help of experts. My investigation of the new Iranian program revealed that “Zero Degree Turn” is nothing more than the same old anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda put out by the Iranian government. The following is the truth indicated in my article about this TV show that the Monitor and AP failed to pick up on:
“This TV program lists in its credits a man named Abdollah Shabazi, who was an ideological strategist for the Iranian government, and he gave this idea to make this propaganda film to show that Iranians are ‘good with the Jews,’” said Bijan Khalili, a Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish activist and Persian-language book publisher. “But in reality, this man is the author of many anti-Semitic and anti-Bahai [Persian-language] books.”
“One of the objectives of this program is to show that Jews are corrupt, because they are shown as both giving bribes and accepting bribes,” Khalili said. “The story includes a character called Homayoun Talab, an Iranian diplomat, who accepts bribes in order to provide false papers to Jews.”
Talab, Khalili said, is loosely based on Abdol Hossein Sardari, Iranian ambassador to German-controlled France during World War II, who forestalled the deportation of 200 Iranian Jews living in Paris at the time.
Fariborz Mokhtari, a professor of Eastern studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., recently completed a book on Sardari’s life. He said “Zero Degree Turn” egregiously misrepresents Sardari, who never accepted money for giving Jews in France Iranian passports.
“Sardari was duty-bound to look after the interests of Iranians. Whether they were Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish or Muslim was not very important to him,” said Mokhtari, who is Muslim and has been researching Sardari since 2002. “As he was quoted having told his inquiring nephew, ‘It was his duty to his country and to God.’”
Khalili also said that other episodes of “Zero Degree Turn” make repeated references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which are historically out of place, because the issue was not prevalent in the 1940s. Likewise the Jewish characters in the series are shown in a poor light, because they speak an improper form of the Persian language, as compared to the Muslim characters, Khalili said.
“We have a responsibility as Iranian Jews living outside of Iran to reveal to the rest of the world how anti-Israel and anti-Semitic the Iranian government is through this program and others like it,” Khalili said.
Shame on the Monitor’s editors and shame on the reporter Scott Peterson for failing to do better research to expose the REAL TRUTH about “Zero Degree Turn”. Instead, Peterson and the Monitor in this story continued to spread the one-sided propaganda feed to them by the Iranian government concerning this show! Supposedly the Iranian leaders are now “good people” after producing this show that does not deny the Holocaust. What a bunch of hog wash! When articles like these fail to expose the “spin” put out by Iran’s radical leaders this is a discredit to journalism and in a way helps the Iranian regime continue to help cover up their President’s anti-Semitic comments about the Holocaust. While reporters in Iran cannot freely cover the news in Iran without being imprisoned, tortured or executed by the regime’s leaders, U.S. and western journalists have a duty to expose the truth of what is going on in Iran and not helping to cover it up.
If you don’t believe me about the anti-Semitic nature of “Zero Degree Turn”, just view this clip accurately translated by The Middle East Media Research Institute!
The Christian Science Monitor and other news media outlets have a responsibility to retract their articles about “Zero Degree Turn” and issue apologizes to their readers for not giving the full truth regarding this show!
November 25, 2007 | 7:59 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
A follower of the Bahai faith in an AP article I recently came across said “I love Israeli people for the fact that they are very united. Israel wouldn’t be a possibility if the Jewish people weren’t united. We’re grateful to Israelis. We wouldn’t be here without them”. I found this man’s comments and the fact that Israel has enabled those of the Bahai faith to maintain their world center in Hafia, quite ironic considering the religion’s long history of missionary work that converted thousands of Jews in Iran to their faith more than 100 years ago. Founded less than 170 years ago, the Bahai faith believes that Persian-born prophet Bahuallah, who died in Israel, brought a message of unity, equality and world federation to save mankind from the plagues of the modern world.
According to Dr. Habib Levy’s book “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran”, since people of the Bahai faith were persecuted themselves, they had to be careful in proselytizing among the Muslim majority living in Iran at the time. Since there was no such danger from proselytizing among the Jews in Iran, this made Jews a prime target for the new Bahai religion to target. Unfortunately at that time, the Jews of Iran who lived in certain urban areas were exposed to a steady stream of persecutions and pogroms which did not give them much time to explore their Jewish heritage. Likewise many Jews in Iran at that time did not know how to read Hebrew and were ignorant about their traditions while living in extreme poverty. Those Bahai proselytizers offered the Jews of Iran both money and social support, two major factors that lead many Iranian Jews to abandon their ancestor’s faith. Unfortunately when one member of a Jewish family converted to the Bahai faith many times others in the family would follow suit. Ultimately this very intense proselytizing by the Bahais, devastated the already dwindling number of Jews in Iran who had for centuries been forced to convert to Islam by the Muslim majority or face death.
Today there are a substantial number of Iranian Bahais who can trace their Jewish roots and also many Iranian Jews who have distant relatives that are Bahais. Iranian Bahais and Jews typically have good relations nowadays, the Iranian Jewish community is still cautious about their social interactions with Bahais because the Bahai faith requires continuous proselytizing. For this same reason, the Israeli government has allowed followers of the Bahai faith to maintain their center in Israel, but prohibited them from proselytizing in the country. It is a well known fact that Bahais who still live in Iran today as religious minorities have no rights unlike Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. The current Iranian government not only persecutes Bahais, but readily executes those of the faith who it discovers have been proselytizing in the country.
No doubt the State of Israel has proven that unlike people of many other faiths and countries, the Jewish people are tolerant of other religions and are willing to co-exist with them. How many Roman Catholic or Islamic countries would allow the Bahais to have a center in their country if the Bahais had similar success in converting substantial numbers of Muslims and Christians in their countries? Not very many!
November 20, 2007 | 7:33 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
This week’s Newsweek magazine story on “presidential physical” exams offered to the public by Dr. Raphael Darvish, a local Iranian Jewish physician, caught my eye. Darvish is the latest example of how rising stars in our community are really making a splash on the national scene with their new ideas and unique innovations. His Brentwood clinic, “Concierge Medicine L.A.”, is the first and the only clinic in the country offering individuals the same comprehensive medical tests the President of the United States receives each year. His clinic’s unique physical exam has also been covered by the local media including the L.A. Daily News and local television news broadcasts on KTLA Channel 5 and KTTV Fox Channel 11. The Newsweek article suggests that the clinic’s presidential physical is not only saving lives by spotting unknown health problems, but giving patients the peace of mind that they’re receiving the “best of the best” possible care:
“The presidential program goes further, making each patient feel like the leader of the free world. The price of a Presidential Physical starts at $1,400. Since the clinic started offering them last November, about 600 people have had one, says Concierge’s medical director, Dr. Raphael Darvish.”
Darvish is by far not your run of the mill Iranian Jewish doctor. He’s a fourth generation physician who has an MBA from UCLA and a rich family history known for being pioneers in the Iranian Jewish community. Most folks in our community are not aware that his great-grandfather, Dr. Habib Levy , was one of the first Jewish officers in the Iranian military and among the first Jews to leave Iran and obtain higher educations in Europe. Levy returned to Iran not only to treat members of the Iranian royal family as their dentist but also dedicated his life to recording Iranian Jewish oral history. Levy’s book, “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” is perhaps the most read and accurate record of our community’s history in Iran during the last 2,500 years. So the apple certainly doesn’t fall from the tree with Darvish who is following in those same foot steps.
Recently I chatted with Dr. Darvish about his clinic’s presidential physical and his family’s longstanding ties to the medical field:
How did you come up with the idea to provide the presidential physical to your patients?
When I started the practice here, I realized that the president gets such terrific care and wondered why folks are not getting the same kind of care. Every year on TV you hear about the president getting his physical and they say he’s doing great when he’s leaving the medical center there. So I was interested in knowing what this physical entails, I called the White House and got in touch with physicians of the president. I obtained a copy of his physical examination report—it’s on our website and from that we replicated exactly what he was getting for our own patients. So folks can go on the site and compare their physicals to President Bush’s after the fact. Each year as the physicals get changed,as the technologies change, as the doctors of the president modify their physicals for the president, we do the same and update it.
What kind of responses have you had from your patients and what of kinds of results have come from this presidential physical?
Every patient whether they’re 20 years old or 50 old receives a very complete test. We check every inch of their body from the top of their head to bottom of their feet. During the physical we do different tests to check for a variety of things. Every patient who comes for our physical finds something interesting whether it’s a strategy to help them be healthier and happier or hopefully to living a long life. They also find interesting things about their health that saves them headaches down the road. We had two patients this week that had the presidential physical and one had a heart blockage that he was unaware of. If that heart blockage was not treated it would have exploded and he’d have a heart attack with serious heart damage and even risked morbidity. We also had another patient who was eating a lot of fish because he wanted to be very healthy but his mercury level was toxic. There are an extensive battery of tests that we do as a part of the presidential physical and mercury level is one of them. So we were able to detect that and to direct him as to which fish to have that aren’t so high in mercury and to decrease his fish intake. The last patient that comes to mind is one who had kidney stones and was unaware of it since he was passing blood in his urine. We picked up blood in his urine test and also did an abdominal ultrasound. Then we advised him on what to do to address that because if he didn’t do anything about it, those kidney stones could end up being a problem.
What’s the motivation behind investing more time in treating your patients through this type of physical exam that no one else is offering?
This physical is a lovely item that someone can get done annually. It really allows them all the time they need to ask as many questions they have regarding anything that they may be curious about. It’s wonderful because the standard physician practice allows you 15 minutes with your doctor and those questions you have don’t get answered. Furthermore, not only do your questions not get answered but your problems don’t get addressed. In a 15 minute physician office visit you can only talk about one, two—maybe if you talk really fast, three problems. So as a physician, you can’t really treat the person as a whole because you are working under such time pressures. In this practice we do a presidential physical and have all the time we need to really address every last issue. It really should be done on everybody but unfortunately the way the health care system is structured, we don’t have the time and no doctor would be able to survive providing such thorough care in a standard practice.
Your family members have been working in medicine for many generations, tell me a little bit about that and if was there any pressure on you to get into the medical realm?
I come from a long line of doctors. My great-grandfather was in medicine and my grandfather was a physician who trained in Paris, France. He left Iran at a young age after high school and spent 10 to 15 years training, he returned to Iran to take care of the Iranian population armed with very good knowledge he had gain in Europe. My father followed in his father’s footsteps and went to Bordeaux to complete an eight year medical school program. He subsequently worked in different hospitals throughout France to get his specialty training in internal medicine and gastroenterology. The education back then in Europe was more highly regarded. Growing up here in L.A. with a father as a physician and an older uncle as a physician, it was a pretty easy choice for me to go into medicine and at a young age I got interested in the sciences. I went to Berkeley for college and got into my first choice for medical school which was UCLA, close to my family here. Obviously Persian Jewish folks are family oriented and it was nice to be here with my family during medical school.
Why do you think young people in the Iranian Jewish community are so successful and thriving in such fields as the law, medicine, business and other areas?
I think there’s a lot of drive and encouragement from the close family structure in the Jewish community. There’s quite a bite of encouragement and support for them to go on and become lawyers or doctors and get through those different programs—whether it is financial support or social and emotional support. Beyond that I do think there is some kind of materialism that exists in the community which may encourage folks to involved in more lucrative professions.
Thank you for chatting with me and good luck in your practice.
November 19, 2007 | 3:28 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Almost on a weekly basis I am approached by folks in the Jewish community and non-Jewish community who asked me the same question; “why are you Iranian Jews living in the U.S. so successful?” I’ve been asking myself that same question for the past eight years as a journalist who has been covering the community and looking at them from afar. With the 30th anniversary of the start of the Iranian revolution approaching next year, sociologists and anthropologists should take a close look at the overall impact the migration of Jews from Iran to America has had on this community.
In my opinion, the massive wave of immigration of Iranian Jews to Southern California and New York in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was perhaps one of the most unique and incredible social experiments of the 20th century. Here was a tight knit Jewish community who was just beginning to pull itself out of poverty, had not had much exposure to the rest of the world while living in a developing third world country—which was quite abruptly transplanted into one of the most dynamic, technologically advanced and free countries in the world. Dariush Fakheri, the founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, California, has frequently compared the Iranian Jewish immigration to the U.S. to “suddenly placing a lobster in a boil pot of water”. With the circumstances surrounding our exile from Iran and the necessity to quickly getting adjusted to life in America, it is simply remarkable that the Iranian Jewish community in the U.S. has not only been able to survive but has flourished. Now totally 30,000 in Southern California alone, we have countless doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen and even folks working in the film industry in Hollywood from our community! An even more amazing aspect of this social experiment concerning Iranian Jewry, has been the fact that our community has achieved this substantial success within a fairly short amount of time since our arrive in the U.S.
For me, perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the Iranian Jewish immigration to the U.S. has been the new found freedoms our community has been granted in America. While the late Shah of Iran and his father Reza Shah had provided an environment of significant social and religious tolerance for Jews living in Iran, the Jewish community in many ways still faced discrimination, was barred from certain professions such government posts and were often treated as second class citizens. From what I’ve been told as a journalist, Jews in Iran typically did not voice their political opinions or get involved in politics for fear of what potential danger may fall upon them at the hands of certain Muslim political elements. We no longer have to hear some Muslims refer to us with the derogatory term of “bad joohood” which translates to “bad Jew” in English and is the equivalent of the “N” word for Iranian Jews. In America we can now openly support Israel and hold fundraisers for Israeli causes without fear of the potential backlash from anyone, whereas this was not possible in Iran. I must emphasize that not all Muslims in Iran are currently or in the past have been intolerant and disrespectful to Jews. We as Iranian American Jews still maintain close friendships with other Iranians of the Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and Bahai faith in the U.S. So for our community to be able to stand proudly and have the freedoms to pursue politics, religion, and business is a significant dream come true.
The next time you hear or read about the successes of a person in the Iranian Jewish community, you should keep in mind that that person’s parent or grandparent once struggled to survive in Iran and maintain his or her Jewish identity. Who would have throught that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Jews that were mistreated and living in poverty in ghettos in Iran could flourish when given the opportunities? America is truly a great country!
November 18, 2007 | 7:08 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
It’s not often I come across anyone in the Iranian Jewish community that has worked in journalism or in anything slightly related to the news business. Typically Iranian Jews from the older generation are doctors, engineers, educators, or businessmen. So it was a unique surprise when I recently sat down to chat with Elias Eshaghian, a Los Angeles area Iranian Jewish community leader and former reporter for the “Journal Du Tehran”, a French language newspaper that was once based in Tehran. Eshaghian, now in his 70’s, is retired but currently serves as Chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, an umbrella group consisting of nearly a dozen local Iranian Jewish groups. He has been battling lung cancer for the past few years, so hearing about his work in the Jewish community in Iran was all the more important for me to hear directly from him. Thankfully he’s been healthy enough to share his experiences from years past.
Eshaghian’s essential involvement with the Jewish community in Iran stems back from the time he worked as a teacher and director of various schools established through out Iran by the Alliance Israelite Universelle , (AIU) a French Jewish non-profit organization. The AIU was established by wealthy French Jews in 1860 as a means to provide western education to poverty stricken Jews in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The goal was for these educated Sephardic Jews to improve their lives and livelihoods by means of using their education. However it was not until 1898 that the Qajar monarch of Iran permitted the AIU establish schools in Iran for the Jewish community. In total between 1898 and 1929, 11 boys and girls schools were set up through out Iran in the following cities; Tehran, Hamedan, Esfahan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, Nahavand, Kermanshah, Bijar, Bourjerd, Yazd, and Kashan. Some of these schools were set up in the most remote places where Jews lived in extreme poverty in their ghettos. The AIU schools were referred to as “Alliance” and literally helped all Jews living in Iran to pull themselves up by their boot straps. These schools not only provided secular education but also offered Jewish and Hebrew education to Iran’s Jews. Eventually the educational foundations Iran’s Jews gained from the Alliance schools enabled them to pursue high education in Iran, Europe and the U.S. Today a substantial number of Iranian Jews living in Southern California, New York and elsewhere around the world owe their prosperity directly or indirectly to the AIU organization.
Eshaghian was one of the many Jews who helped make the AIU such a success in Iran. He has directly and indirectly helped our community gain the education that it needed to survive in a country where they lived in poverty as second class citizens. The following is just as small except of my interview with him:
How did it come about for the AIU to establish schools in Iran in 1898?
In 1872 Alliance established its schools in Damascus and Baghdad. The Jews of Iran gradually saw how the Jews of Baghdad were becoming successful, so they found out it was from the education they had received from the AIU. So the Jewish leaders in Iran sent a letter to the Alliance in Paris saying that “we are a poverty stricken Jewish community and need your help as well”. In 1874 Nasser-a-din Shah, the king of Iran at that time, went to Paris for vacation and one of the founders of the Alliance school when to visit him. They spoke and the Alliance representatives told the Shah that the Jews of Iran were indebted to Iran and it was Cyrus the Great that freed them and enabled them to rebuild their holy temple. They basically tried to encourage him to allow for their schools to be set up in Iran. They said “the Jews in Iran are living under pressure and their schools for the Jews would benefit Iran and it would also help them”. The Shah told his advisor to take care of the issue but nothing was done. Then again in 1892 Nasser-a-din Shah visited Paris and again the Alliance founders meet with him. They ask his permission to set up a school in Iran and he finally gave them permission, so their first school was established in Tehran in 1898.
What was your experience like studying at the Alliance school in Tehran?
I studied at the Alliance school in Tehran up to 9th grade at that time, but 10th grade I attended a non-Jewish government school in Tehran. Nevertheless I still had contact with the Alliance school and the teachers encouraged me to go to Paris and attend their teacher school and I did in October of 1947. I was 17 years old then and many of friends told me not to go but I had a real love for the French language, so I decided to go. I signed a contract that obligated those who received a scholarship to study in Paris to return back to Iran and work for the Alliance school as a teacher for at least 10 years. At that time, two or three of the brightest students from each respective country every year was given a scholarship to attend the school in Paris. They learned French, were trained to be teachers and later returned to their country to teach at the Alliance school. I was the first student from Iran after the World War II to go to Paris and study.
So what work were you involved in upon your return to Iran after your schooling?
When I returned back to Iran in October 1951, they told me to go to Esfahan and work as an assistant director of the Alliance school there. I worked there for a year where I also taught French language. Then after a year they told me to go to the city of Yazd and become the director of the school there. I briefly returned back to Tehran got married and after three months we went to Yazd. It not an easy three day journey as there were no paved roads. When I arrived I found a very old and broken down school there with an old outhouse for a bathroom and old kitchen. I immediately started to renovate the place but never gave orders to anyone but called on the group of people to help me do things together. There was a Jewish community with leaders that were much older than me but I quickly became friends with them. Every director of the Alliance schools in each city in Iran was called “Mousier” and they called me “Mousier Izakian”. I worked at Yazd for two years and did a lot to improve the school there. At one time I rolled up my sleeves and began digging in the yard of the school to clear the rocks and lost my wedding ring the process! We did landscaping and renovating the kitchen. The Alliance schools in Iran gave food to the students studying there as well. During that time in Yazd, there was no indoor plumbing; there were only 70 to 80 meter deep wells which you had to draw water out of to use. So we were able to get a pump to get the water out more easily. I realized that in the community there was not a single Jewish doctor and the people told me that there was no Jewish high school in their city. I asked them why they did not send their kids to the non-Jewish government run high school and they said the Muslims in Yazd were religious fanatics and harassed their children for being “najess” or religiously unclean. They also did not want their kids to travel on Shabbat, so their kids only went to school until 6th grade. At that time I decided that we also needed to open up a Jewish high school in Yazd.
Can you share with me a little about your experience running the Alliance school in Sanandaj?
Then after two years of working in Yazd, Alliance sent me to their school in the city of Sanandaj. The school there was better established because it had been around since 1903. We had 300 boys and girls students in Sanandaj. Some of the classrooms were run down and Sanandaj had some very cold winters. They didn’t have heating back then, but only old heating stoves that burned coal. They had no money for these heating stoves in the classes, so when I came there I helped gather the funds to purchase them. In Sanandaj the Jews were much more educated than the Jews from Yazd, so were the Muslims in the city. Now the difference between the Muslims in Sanandaj and those in other cities in Iran was they that they are Kurdish Sunnis. The Sunnis don’t believe Jews are “najess” or “unclear” as the Shiites believe Jews are. Therefore the Muslims in the city were not religious fanatics and even sat down and ate food with us on many occasions. I remained in Sanandaj for five years and really enjoyed working there because of the kind hearted Jews who lived there. At one time I noticed a group of young Jews who were sitting around unemployed and doing nothing. I asked them why they were not working and they replied that their French language skills were poor, therefore they were unable to pass the national university entrance exam. I gave all 12 of them free French classes and 9 of them passed the exam. Some of them went to the university in Tabriz and some went to the university in Tehran. One of these Jewish youth passed the exam but refused to register for university in Tehran. When I asked him why he didn’t register he told me that his father was poverty stricken and he needed to stay with him. So we raised money among the teachers to take care of his father while he went off to college and I called a Jewish woman in Tehran to help him find a place to stay when he arrived in Tehran for university. There was a special fund set aside by the Jews of Tehran to provide money for poor or orphan Jewish students who wanted to go university but could not afford to do so. Now this young Jewish man from Sanandaj went on to study psychiatry and is still now head of a psychiatric hospital in Tehran. He is just one of my successful students.
When did you return back to Tehran?
After Sanandaj, I came to the Alliance school in Tehran around 1960 and became a French language teacher. Then I was later made director of one of the Alliance schools in Tehran which was located on Cyrus Street near the Jewish ghetto. There was also another Alliance school on Jaleh street. Later I became director of both schools in Tehran which had 1,500 students.
When did you start working as a reporter?
In 1970, I resigned my post as director of the school and remained on only as a teacher because I had a love of journalism and wanted to pursue work in that field at nights. I worked part-time as a reporter at “Journal Du Tehran”, which was the French language newspaper in Tehran. At the same time I taught French at three different universities in Tehran. Later on an opportunity arose where UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization needed a Persian to French translator, so I applied for the position and worked for them as well. Subsequently I worked as a French translator at many of the international conferences that took place at Tehran. I was a bit of an expert in working as a translator because when I was a student in Paris when my French was not so good, I took notes in Persian language in class. So that skill later helped me. Then in 1974 I stopped working at the Alliance school as a French language teacher to pursue my work in journalism and as a translator. So for nearly 23 years I had worked with the Alliance schools in Iran. Then in 1980, after the revolution my family and I fled Iran.
In your opinion what would have happened to the Jews of Iran if the AIU had never established schools there?
I’ve said it many times before, if the Alliance school was not around then, the Jews of Iran would never have been as successful as they are today. They went from being harassed by the Muslim majority in Iran to becoming educated in the country and respected. Once you became educated, people would not look at you in a bad light anymore. Since they became educated, they went onto universities, began doing international commerce and gained a tremendous amount of wealth. Today in the U.S. we have people who directly gained their education from Alliance or their parents gained their education from Alliance and subsequently influenced them to gain higher educations. This was been one of the main reasons why such a high percentage of Iranian Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere are so successful.
Mr. Eshaghian, thank you for chatting with me and for your contribution to education in our community.
November 15, 2007 | 11:16 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
It’s been nearly 30 years since Iranian Jews arrived in the U.S. and many in the Southern California area are still frightened to publicly discuss serious problems within their families and the tight knit community. I have previous written about the taboo that exists within the community when it comes to talking about sensitive issues such as drug abuse, divorce, spousal abuse, fraud in business, pre-martial sex, etc. Yet this problem among local Iranian Jews of self censorship and real fear of talking about these important issues has still not been tackled by anyone in the community.
I am continuously talking to different community members and am approached frequently by parents. They share their social problems and are genuinely concerned for their children and families. They constantly ask me; “why don’t you write an article about such and such topic?” When I ask them to go on the record with me by using their names and sharing their stories, they immediately turn a pale white color and go quiet. I also receive the following responses; “Well can’t you write something without using our names?”, or “We have children that are of marrying age and we’re afraid of using our names because it might jeopardize our child’s chances of getting married with another Iranian Jew”, or “We work within this community and speaking about these issues on the record would jeopardize our business”.
One of the latest examples of a crisis in our community that has not been addressed has been alcohol abuse by underage drinkers at family parties. The owner of catering company that primary has Iranian Jewish clients recently told me that teens as young as 14 and 15 are drinking beer and hard liquor at open bars during their family parties. He refused to go on the record about this subject matter for fear that he may loose clients and even face criminal charges. He told me that family members frequently give teens liquor and the folks who have thrown the party are unaware of the potential criminal liability they face for allowing underage individuals to consume alcohol. Of course with no one in the local Iranian Jewish community having the courage to address this very serious issue in a public forum and with complete candor, this crisis continues. I for one can’t cover the topic as a reporter because almost everyone in the community refuses to go on the record.
As a journalist I have a responsibility to accurately report what is occurring in the community, but the role of changing our behavior and advocacy lies in the hands of the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California and New York. Our rabbis, synagogue leaders, and parents need to gather some courage, accept responsibility and tear down the taboo of not openly discussing certain topics. Yes, I can understand that many Iranian Jews do not want to put their dirty laundry out in public but our community cannot grow without acknowledging these serious issues and talking about them.
Until you all decide to show some bravery and use your names, my hands are tied!