Posted by Karmel Melamed
Mayor Jimmy Delshad is not the only Iranian Jew working in the city of Beverly Hills these days. Recently two others from the local Iranian Jewish community were appointed to serve as city commissioners. Earlier this month the Beverly Hills City Council appointed businessman and activist Joe Shooshani to the Public Works Commission and psychologist Sharona R. Nazarian to the Human Relations Commission. “I wanted to give back to the community and the work on the commission was within my expertise which is multicultural psychology,” said Nazarian. While working as a city commissioner is a volunteer post, there is plenty of prestige and reflects the recent trends that members of the Iranian Jewish community here in Southern California are increasingly getting involved in government. By the way, Nazarian and Shooshani are not first in the Iranian Jewish community to serve as city commissioners, my fourth cousin Shahram Melamed previous served on the Beverly Hills Planning Commission.
The Iranian Jews’ decisions to serve in public offices not only reflect their desire to give back to society but is also a historical milestone as they were historically denied political participation in Iran for centuries. Jews have lived in Iran for 2,500 years but rarely have held positions in government or within the political realm. Since Iranâs Constitution was passed in 1909, Jews have been permitted to select one person from their community to serve in Parliament. This denial of political rights to Iranian Jews is a far cry from the latest news that Century City Iranian Jewish attorney H. David Nahai was nominated to head the L.A. DWP. Of course we in the Iranian Jewish community are proud of the achievement as it is a very important public office within the largest public water and power entity in the country.
On a side note, Shooshani is no novice when it comes to local politics since he became the first Iranian American Jew to run for public office in the U.S. during his 1996 bid for a seat on the Beverly Hills City Council. While he did fall way short of the votes necessary to win, Shooshani became a pioneer within the community since he decided to venture into politics—a area which Iranian Jews had previously not even considered getting into. He subsequently supported Delshad’s efforts to get elected in 2003 to the Beverly Hills City Council. “I did not believe I would win, but I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about the system and open the way for others,” Shooshani said to me in an interview earlier this year. “I’m very happy I did; it was one of the best decisions of my life.”
Earlier this year my piece in the L.A. Jewish Journal uncovered two other Iranian Jews, who in addition to Delshad, were vying for two vacant seats on the city council. While Delshad was re-elected by a narrow margin this year, the three Iranian Jewish candidates collectively earned more than 50% of the votes cast in the election. This substantial voter turn out from our community reflects the reality that Iranian Jews in Beverly Hills are an important constituency for candidates to court for both fundraising purposes and for public support.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa knows how important Iranian Jews are as a constituency because in April 2005, a fundraising event at the Beverly Hills home of Iranian Jewish businessman Leon Farahnik, helped raise $40,000 for his campaign. Hopefully the Iranian Jewish community’s strong financial strength and high voter turn out will prompt more candidates to focus on issues important us—such as support for Israel and weakening Iran’s economic situation. Perhaps the best description of our community’s growing involvement in politics was given to me by Sam Kermanian, secretary general for the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles who said;
“It took a while for us [Iranian Jews] to take care of our immediate needs in the U.S. This is a community that came here as refugees and had to put its foundations in place, so getting involved in politics only became a priority after all these other issues were taken care of.”
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November 12, 2007 | 3:57 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Two years ago, my sister and I were invited by our mutual friend Jennifer Chadorchi, a Beverly Hills Iranian Jewish resident, to volunteer our time one night to feed the homeless in West Hollywood. I was not only surprised by the large turnout of homeless individuals waiting for food, but more shocked to see the larger contingency of volunteers who were local Iranian Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. I soon discovered that Chadorchi has been almost single handedly spearheading the volunteer efforts on behalf of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition for nearly the last 10 years. Her dedication to the cause and the dedication of other young local Iranian Jews was truly inspiring.
In fact, I covered Chadorchi in 2005 as one of the Jewish Journal’s “mensches” for her work on behalf of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition in organizing a small army of volunteers. 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 headed “Project Feed”, 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.
More importantly, Chadorchi makes me proud to be an Iranian American Jew because she represents the generous and loving spirit of our community. Unfortunately there are many in the Southern California Iranian Jewish community who because of their wealth are often arrogant, flashy and down right rude—but by in large we are a very giving Jewish community when it comes to social causes and Israel. I am still baffled at how the Beverly Hills City Council has still NOT honored and formally recognized Chadorchi for her tireless efforts all of these years!
Earlier this year, 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.
I recently sat down to chat with Jennifer about the “10 days before Thanksgiving” program which the Coalition has launched this year to help attract more volunteers to help them:
What is the 10 days before Thanksgiving program about?
What we’re doing instead of having one large group of people volunteering during the holidays is we’re breaking up the days so there is more for them to do and have the hands on experience. We could essentially divide it up so there could be 10 to 20 people coming out each day to help.
What is the experience like for a person who wants to volunteer?
They show up at Sycamore and Romaine at six o’clock, the truck shows up between six o’clock and six fifteen. A line of 200 to 250 show up to get foods. There is a security guard checking people in and out, the volunteers are given gloves, stand behind a folded table and do various tasks from handing out orange juice to handing out soup or the main dish. The food is replenish and people can keep coming back into line as much as they’d like. When we have extra food we often box it up for people to take it with them.
Can people who can’t make it out to physically help also donate money?
People who want to donate can do so by sending their checks to our mailing address. Every single dollar we receive goes to the population it’s intended for—we don’t have any one on staff except for a driver. All of our items and food we use have been donated.
What are some of the unique successes the Coalition has had this year?
Reza Moosavi’s movie came out this year which profiled the Coalition. Many of the people who have seen the movie at the premiere came up to me and asked how they can get involved. Also a lot people that have come down to help have started formed their own groups and used their own resources to help us in any way they can. We’ve had doctors that are now volunteering with the mobile clinic next to were we hand out the food. Also had students from the Marlborough School come down to volunteer and even sponsored one of the days before Thanksgiving.
How does one get in touch with the Coalition?
They can contact our volunteer hotline at 310-288-0090.
November 11, 2007 | 11:17 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Kaveh Lahijani and his family have been close friends of my family for many years. I’ve known of his friendship with my cousin for a number of years, but was never fully aware of the story behind his father’s mysterious disappearance. This week, my article in the L.A. Jewish Journal takes a closer look at the recent news his family received that Iran’s Islamic government was indeed responsible for his father’s death.
Although the murder of Kaveh’s father, Isaac, was nearly 26 years ago, we in the Jewish community worldwide cannot forget it. This was an innocent man with a successful business, loving family and a bright future—a man who had that all suddenly taken away from him just because he was Jewish. When will the world wake up and realize the true evil that exists among the leaders of Iran’s government? How can anyone in their right mind think that Iran is a great and safe place for Jews to live when the regime has so easily taken the lives of Isaac Lahijani and other innocent Jews in Iran?
We cannot remain silent and forget the crimes against humanity Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic leaders have committed against Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahais, and others in Iran. Moreover, we cannot permit these same Iranian leaders get their hands on weapons of mass destruction because they will not hesitate to murder other innocent lives as they have done in Iran.
Since Kaveh’s decision to dedicate a Torah in his father’s name to the Chabad in Laguna Beach, California, he has encountered unique incidents where he has felt his father’s presence. The following is an excerpt Kaveh wrote of one of his recent unexplainable but touching events concerning his late father:
“Before we left for the Israel trip, I had a Torah scroll written in honor of my father, Isaac Lahijani, who was kidnapped about 26 years ago in Iran. The scroll was started about a year ago in Israel and was just completed with a ceremony a day before most of us left for Israel on September 9th, around the birthday of my father.
About a week before the completion of the scroll, after 26 years of agonizing search and denial by the Iranian authorities telling my mother to go and come back few weeks from, my mother found out from the Iranian government via a two sentence letter that they indeed have killed my father and that they want to pay restitution for his blood. This is a common practice in Iran, and a way for the government to limit their liability, the price for the restitution is half for anybody that is not Muslim, (Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) and if a women, then again half. The timing is not a coincidence.
My mother, obviously distressed and depressed arrived in California few days before the September 9th completion ceremony. When my sister, brother and I picked her up at the airport, I asked if she had the letter with her and she said that it was in her suitcase. When we took her home that night, I asked to see the letter and when she went to get it. She realized that she had picked up a wrong suitcase at the airport that looked like hers. I asked her if she thought it was a coincidence that she did not want to accept the news and that she had picked the wrong suitcase, she said “whatever”.
Her attempt to retrieve her suitcase was unsuccessful that night. I wrote the name and number for the wrong suitcase, left a message on the voice mail and realized that the phone number was a Orange County number, where I live with a Wilshire, Los Angeles address, next to my mother’s place. Another coincidence?
The next day I woke up all stressed out, with the ceremony for the Torah Scroll completion pending, getting prepared to go to Israel. I was finishing my business obligations in California before leaving, finding out about my father’s faith after all this time in such a way and trying to deal with it and digest it while all was going on. There were many other things on my mind and on my plate.
Then I remembered what my father used to tell me: “whenever you get stressed out, the best thing you can do is to exercise”. With this thought I left my home to walk to the gym which is a five minute walk away. While walking on the street, I felt something kissing me on my right arm, it was a small wood chip. When I looked up I saw a squirrel in the tree eating a pine nut and a part of the shell had softly glided and landed on my right arm. I thought it was strange and continued with my walk.
When I arrived at the gym, my cell phone rang and it was the lady whom my mother had accidentally taken her suitcase, we talked and it came to a point where she informed that she had attended the Kabala of Orange County and was introduced to it by my good friend, Roberto, who has the same birthday as my father. Another coincidence?
That afternoon I went to visit my mother again and to calm her down with all that was happening. When I arrived I asked if she had found her suitcase, she said yes, I asked if I could see the letter from the Iranian government. While I was looking at the letter she handed me a bag and said “this is a gift I bought you from Iran”. When I opened the bag there was a bubble wrapped gift inside I opened part of the bubble wrap. It was a very nice dish made from silver in shape of a leaf. Then my mother said: “no open the whole thing it has a very cute handle”, I opened it all the way and the handle was a squirrel eating a pine nut. I cried. Then asked if the letter was in the same suitcase with the gift. My mother said yes and why do you ask? Another coincidence?
When I told my mother what had happened that morning with my experience with the squirrel in the pine tree, she said that she had bought me another silver gift, but that the person that had sold her called her claiming that he had made a miscalculation in the weight of the silver and that he wanted more money. So she had taken that gift back and bought this silver leaf with the squirrel and the pine nut handle from someone else instead. Another coincidence?
Now (in Israel) when my Bus 11 was traveling to Safat, we stopped at Rabbi Youssi’s grave. Rabbi Youssi was one of the students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi, the author of Zohar, and he was a great commentator and revealer of the secrets of the Zohar.
On the way Eliyahu (a friend) was explaining to us as we approached the pine forest the amazing miracle associated with Rabbi Youssi when he had died. At his death, his 5-year-old son kept crying and with his tears the gates of heaven opened up. When he kissed his father’s lips, Rabbi Youssi came back to life and lived for another 22 years. If you remember, the place was surrounded by pine trees! And out of Rabbi Youssi’s grave itself today is a large pine tree that had grown! I cried and cried. This was and is an amazing miracle that the site that we visited together that had the father and son connection and death and rebirth, was the one with all the pine trees.
Like I said I do not think we were on the same bus by accident. Time and a bit of divine inspiration will reveal the truth and the true reason.”
November 8, 2007 | 1:40 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
New York fashion mogul Elie Tahari, is one of the many very successful individuals in the world hailing from an Iranian Jewish heritage. Even though he was born in Israel and came to New York 35 years ago without a penny to his name, Tahari now 55, commands a $500-million sportswear empire. In a recent interview with the online fashion magazine, Portfolio.com he revealed the reasoning behind his family leaving Iran in the 1950’s after the late Shah of Iran was temporarily deposed:
“My father had a fabric store, and he used to sell fabrics, and uh, one of the reasons he left Iran was because of persecution. They burned the store down. Yes, a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment the shah kept at bay as long as he could. But as soon as, you know, the shah died or had left Iran, a lot of Jews fled” said Tahari.
While many people are well aware of the mass exodus of Jews from Iran in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s because of Iran’s radical fundamentalist Islamic regime, others are unaware of the small migrations of Iranian Jews to Israel during the 1950’s. Despite the significant environment of religious tolerance that was fostered under the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran between 1925 and 1979, Jews in Iran still encountered anti-Semitism and discrimination from the Muslim majority. I personally have relatives who immigrated to Israel in the 1950’s for this exact reason, since they were fed up with being harassed by close minded intolerant Muslims. Leaving Iran and making new roots in Israel at that time was not easy because Israel was a new nation that was not developed. At the same time many Jewish families in Iran had attained substantial prosperity through trade and commerce. So there was less of an incentive for Jews to leave the country in 1950’s and 1960’s.
Today we see the children of those Iranian Jewish immigrants flourishing in Israel; with Moshe Katsav the former Israeli President, or Shaul Mofaz the Israeli Minister of Transportation, or Dan Halutz the former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, or Eitan Ben Eliahu the former Israel Air Force chief. It simply amazes me that despite the intolerance and hardship Jews endured in Iran and in leaving behind livelihoods in the 1950’s or 1970’s, they have still managed to thrive in all aspects of life. Whether it be business, science, medicine, law, government, art, or even comedy—Jews of Iranian heritage seemed to have risen above the hardships to succeed in a substantial way.
Elie Tahari’s story along with the stories of Jews from Iranian heritage are heart warming but need to be kept alive for future generations to appreciate their history.
November 7, 2007 | 12:10 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
After 13 years, Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, today finally decided to hold Iran and terrorist members of its regime accountable for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Even though justice has been slow and Iran’s regime has not been held accountable for taking the lives of innocent Jews in Argentina, the world is finally waking up and going after these murderers who have been living freely all these years.
The six people targeted with Interpol wanted notices are former Iranian intelligence chief Ali Fallahian; Mohsen Rabbani, former cultural attache at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires; former diplomat Ahmad Reza Asghari; Mohsen Rezaei, former leader of the elite Revolutionary Guards; Ahmad Vahidi, a general in the Revolutionary Guards; and Hezbollah militant Imad Moughnieh, one of the world’s most sought-after terror suspects. These men along with members of Iran’s clerical leadership were key in planning and carrying out the attacks on the Jewish center in Argentina. Even though Interpol’s “red notices” do not compel any country to detain the suspects, it does put the men on the agency’s equivalent of a most-wanted list. Hopefully the growing media attention on this case will cause the Iranian government to either hand over these terror suspects or cause other countries to stop trading with Iran until it hands over these terrorists.
In an interview on September 22, with Fox cable news, Miguel Angel Toma, the former head of the Argentina’s intelligence service, revealed that the Iranian government directly ordered terrorist bombings of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center that killed 85 people and injured 300. The Iranian President at the time, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and members of the Iranian Supreme Council of Security met in Mashhad, Iran, on August 14, 1993 to plan the bombing, Toma said.
Just as Nazi war criminals, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were tried for their crimes against humanity, so should these Iranian terrorists be tried for their crimes. They can run and they can hide in Iran or in the Islamic world, but eventually justice will be served. We in the Jewish community and Iranian Jewish community have a responsibility to keep this story alive and make sure the world exerts pressure on Iran’s regime to turn over these terrorists for the crimes they’ve committed.
For those who are not familiar with the Iranian terror suspects of the 1994 bombing, here are their photos:
(Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian President, currently chairs Iran’s State Expediency Council and is deputy chair of the Assembly of Experts. He was the president of Iran during the 1994 bombings and was key in its planning).
November 6, 2007 | 11:25 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Iranian Jews living in Southern California and New York these days always seem to have an excuse to throw parties whether it be for a wedding, bar mitzvah, brit milah, engagement, new home, or for one of the many Jewish holidays. While giving money or various sized Swiss gold ingots as gifts have been the norm among members of the community, in the last few years I’ve notice the generation of young Iranian Jewish professionals being more socially conscious when giving their gifts. By in large they have been giving gifts that have a positive philanthropic impact on the greater Jewish community, Israel and the world.
Just recently I was chatting with a cousin of mine who told me that his son had received Israel Bonds as a bar mitzvah gift from a young couple in our family. “I was surprised at the pure genius of this wonderful gift because it’s a great investment for my son as a bond and it also benefits Israel in so many ways,” said my cousin. I’ve also noticed that Iranian Jews are increasingly requesting that their guests give to both Jewish and non-Jewish charities such as the Los Angeles Mission in lieu of money or any other gift. Another young Iranian Jewish friend of mine gave me a certificate for my birthday that indicated he had donated $260 in my name to “Pups for Peace”, an organization that helps train and provide bomb sniffing dogs for security use in Israel. I was not only amazed by his generous gift on my behalf but became somewhat emotional. “Why should I give Swiss gold to anyone after all they’ve done with the Nazi gold issue?” asked my Iranian Jewish friend. “Why not give the money toward a gift that benefits an important Jewish causes and doesn’t just make the Swiss government wealthy”. I was touched because it occurred to me that despite the showing off that often goes on among Iranian Jews in the U.S., there is a growing number of young folks in community that do care enough about Israel’s security to put their money toward supporting these important causes.
My only hope is that these trends in philanthropic gift giving in our community, which is fairly prosperous, continues. We as Iranian Jews living in the U.S. need to think more about “tikkun olam” or healing the world more than just doing well in business. Hopefully just as having lavish parties and driving fancy cars have become the fashionable thing for Iranian Jews to do, so will giving gifts of charity become the same.
November 2, 2007 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
“I’ll teach you Hebrew if you teach me Persian!” joked Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who is teaching a 5 week free crash course in Hebrew at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. The educational Hebrew classes, also know as “Read Hebrew America” were created by the National Jewish Outreach Program in New York and offered to nearly 600 synagogues in the North America to promote the Hebrew language. Since its introduction at Nessah on October 15th, the program has been a surprising success in the Iranian American Jewish community in L.A. with more than 300 people attending the last three courses. “I’ll tell you that I was really amazed that so many people from this community (of Iranian Jews) really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol who has single handedly been directing the classes on Monday nights between 7 pm and 8:30 pm. Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the National Jewish Outreach Program said that while her organization did not know if Nessah had had the largest turnout of people attending their course in the country, but they were quite pleased with the substantial number of Iranian Jews participating. The “Read Hebrew America” program was launched 10 years ago and has thus far educated thousands of American Jews to speak Hebrew.
Earlier this week I stepped into one of the courses at Nessah and was surprised to find the large contingency of Iranian Jews who had packed the banquet hall in order to learn Hebrew. They were mostly older Iranian Jewish women and some teen, but the majority of the students were in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They were given their Hebrew books and like grade school children repeated out loud the Hebrew words Benchimol announced. They would chant in unisen “AVI—AV—AVIV” or “ABBA—BA—AV” and it was heartwarming to see members of the community showing a serious interested in improve themselves.
I also found the dedication of these older Iranian Jews to learning Hebrew admirable because you don’t typically find individuals in the Jewish community who are advancing in age that want to pursue their Jewish education—especially on a Monday night. I personally think these older Iranian Jews have decided to learn Hebrew because they may not have had the opportunities to do so in Iran due to their business schedules or lack of funds. It is also possible that the chaos of the 1979 Iranian revolution coupled with immigrated to the U.S. and trying to set up new lives for themselves might have made learning Hebrew less of a priority for Iranian Jews.
I also found Benchimol, who is not Iranian, to be hilarious with his creative use of Persian words to keep the crowd awake, laughing and interested in learning Hebrew. Since coming on board as a rabbi at Nessah this past June, he has been able to really connect with both Iranian Jewish parents and children—a task which is in no way easy for an outsider to our community. “During Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, I presented this ‘Read Hebrew America’ program as a challenge to them to learn Hebrew and it worked,” said Benchimol.
Those interested in attending the remaining two free Hebrew courses at Nessah should contact: 310-273-2400.
November 1, 2007 | 12:30 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Several weeks ago following the publication of my article regarding the extravagant spending by local Iranian Jews on their weddings, members of the community have engaged in a rare but important dialogue concerning this issue. While it’s flattering to me that the story has really circulating through e-mail, what I applaud is the courage of young Iranian Jews to openly speak to their parents about having smaller and less expensive weddings.
I personally have received both praise and insults from various individuals for shedding new light on this pressing topic. While the comments do not really make a difference to me, I’m glad to see a discussion in the community about our weddings getting out of hand. Typically issues such as expensive parties, pre-martial sexual relations, drug abuse, spousal abuse, and other sensitive topics are “hush hush” in the Iranian Jewish community. There’s been a shroud of silence because of the stigma attached to these hot button issues. For too long members of our community have been too ashamed or frightened to talk about these crises and I’m glad to see that slowly changing.
The feedback from couples to my wedding story has also been tremendous and unique altogether. For instance, I was recently informed that one engaged Iranian Jewish couple kept putting off plans for their wedding because of their families fighting over the number of guests. Finally one weekend, the couple spontaneously invited both of their parents to a trip to Las Vegas and—four hours later the couple and their parents found themselves in a Vegas synagogue with a rabbi marrying the two love birds! The parents were shocked beyond words and worried about what to say to their respective families upon returning to L.A. Well in the end, everything turned out fine as the would-be guests were informed of the Vegas incident and the couple ended up donating some of the money set aside for their wedding to a charity in Israel. To me, this was a brave move by this Iranian Jewish couple and my hope is that more couples will stand up to their parents and families when it comes to their weddings.
For the record, I can understand the tremendous pressure young Iranian Jewish couples feel to please their parents when it comes to their weddings. Yes, we love and respect our parents. We also do want to let them down because we know the sacrifices many of them made by leaving their lives behind Iran so that we could enjoy freedom and better opportunities in the U.S. Yet at the same time, the sad reality is that we not longer live in Iran and cannot afford to invite so many guests. While it was possible for different reasons for extended families and friends to be invited to weddings in Iran, today in America it is just not logistically and financially possible to do the same. Besides the $100,000 to $300,000 that some Iranian Jewish families spend on one night of partying could be better used as a down payment for a house for the newlyweds!
We as younger Iranian Jews really need to outreach and communicate this key message better to our relatives who have such high expectations of being invited to every single party or gathering nowadays. For those who don’t know what to say, the simple answers is; “we love you guys, this is not personal, but the family has gotten too large and we cannot have a big wedding or bar mitzvah or brit milah party, etc.” Now if your relatives choose to cut ties with you and throw a fit because of your choice to have a small celebration, then perhaps you’re better off without them. Those who really respect and love you will respect your decision and wish you all the best regardless of being invited.
Keep your comments coming and keep the discussion alive on this topic…only then will enough folks from within the community with common sense realize how utterly ridiculous it is to spend extravagantly for one night of a wedding!