Posted by Karmel Melamed
Southern California’s vibrant Iranian Jewish community has been abuzz during the last few months with recent news of the election victory of Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz as the new leader of the Kadima party in the Israeli Knesset in late March and when earlier this month with his decision to join in a unity government with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. News media outlets worldwide have been busy trying to gather as much information as possible on Mofaz’s background to learn more about this man but have failed to go his true roots which lie within the Iranian American Jewish community based in Los Angeles and New York. Fortunately, having covered this community as a journalist for more than a decade, I have gathered a substantial treasure trove of information regarding Mofaz’s family background from his friends and distant family members.
One source that was closely familiar with Mofaz and his family was the late Iranian Jewish community leader Ebrahim Yahid. Sadly Yaid who passed away earlier this year in Los Angeles, spent many hours chatting with me about his life and even shed light on Mofaz’s family from Iran in an exclusive 2008 interview. Yahid who originally hailed from the Iranian city of “Esfahan” recalled his close childhood friend with Mofaz’s father Eliyahu that blossomed over the years. “Their family name was originally ‘Mofassaskar’ in Iran and his (Mofaz’s) father Eliyahu helped establish the ORT Jewish trade school in Esfahan,” Yahid said. “Shaul, whose Persian name was ‘Shahram”, was Eliyahu’s first child and we played with him day and night— he even peed on me once! And when he became Minister of Transportation some years ago, I saw him in Israel and told him ‘I hope you know that you peed on me Shaul!’”.
Yahid, along with Mofaz’s father and former Israeli ambassador to Iran, Meir Ezri— all attended the “Alliance Universalle Israelite” a French Jewish school based in Esfahan that was established to educate local improvished Iranian Jews and help them improve their future lives. On an interesting side note Meir Ezri is also a Mofaz relative. Yahid also shared some special insights into Mofaz’s Iranian heritage and his attitudes towards the people of Iran. “I know that Shaul Mofaz comes from a very Zionist family but he still has pride in his Iranian Jewish roots,” said Yahid. “I once asked him if there would ever be war between Iran and Israel— and he told he had serious doubts because Iran and Israel had always had close bonds with one another and the people of Iran were generally very good people”. What has particularly sadden for me during the last several months is that Yahid, who praised Mofaz as a great Iranian leader of Israel, passed away and never had the special opportunity to witness Mofaz’s recent political successes.
Interestingly, Mofaz has remained close with friends and family in the Iranian Jewish community living in Los Angeles and New York over the years. He had spent a substantial amount of time forging ties with community members in Los Angeles during his 2002 visit and over the years welcomed community leaders such as former Beverly Hills Iranian Jewish Mayor Jimmy Delshad during their visits to Israel. Sources close to me in the community indicated that even certain affluent Iranian Jewish businessmen held dinner fundraisers to support Mofaz’s Kadima party leadership race earlier this year. There is no doubt that Iranian American Jews are proud of Mofaz’s achievements in Israel’s military and political realm since he is one of their own. But Mofaz’s recent successes have been especially meaningful for the community following the tragic downfall of former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who also hailed from an Iranian Jewish background. While I covered the community’s initial support for Katsav, sadly his scandal was something community members quickly shied away from because it caused them great shame. Fortunately with Mofaz, they have a new and better example of success from a man of Iranian Jewish background that they can point to with great pride today. One can only guess what policies and attitudes towards Iran Mofaz will have considering his Iranian roots.
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May 26, 2012 | 7:18 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Yesterday nearly 50 of Southern California’s prominent Iranian Jewish community leaders and activists gathered in the L.A. area for an informal breakfast meeting with Israel’s Consul General for the Southwest region, David Siegel. The gathering allowed Siegel, who just last year assumed his post based in Los Angeles, to connect on a closer level with the area’s Iranian Jewish leaders who have for the past 33 years been strong supporters of Israel. “I’ve been here for a quarter of a year already and there isn’t a day where I haven’t come across your community’s leadership, friendship and hospitality,” said Siegel to both young and older leaders at the meeting. “What an incredible story of success your community has had after moving to the U.S. and all along you have not forgotten Israel”. Some of the community’s prominent leaders included Nessah Synagogue’s Rabbi David Shofet, former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, former L.A. DWP C.E.O. David Nahai, Beverly Hills Public Works Comissioner Joe Shooshani and “30 Years After” president Sam Yebri.
Siegel also gave extensive insights about Israel’s tremendous technological growth in recent years, even mentioning that the computer chip manufacturer, “Intel” that has just announced the creation of its sixth plant in Israel’s city of “Kiryat Gan”. Likewise Siegel discussed the unrest in the Middle East as well as the threats Iran’s nuclear program possess to Israel’s existence. More importantly Siegel announced the Consulate’s upcoming program to outreach to younger Iranian American Jews through a series of new exciting events and activities. “Having the younger generation connect to Israel after the Birthright trip and in college is a priority for us,” he said. “We will be focusing on the Persian Jewish community and calling on their young leadership to help us connect”.
After the meeting with community leaders, I had an opportunity to interview Siegel about his impressions of L.A.‘s Iranian Jews and their connection to Israel. I found his desire to embrace this tight-knit Jewish community which has tremendous sense of Zionism to be quite refreshing. Siegel, like many of Israel’s past Consuls in L.A., realizes the substantial economic, philanthropic, cultural and even political impact Southern California’s Iranian Jewry have in the region. The Consulate of Israel’s efforts to outreach to the younger generation of Iranian Jews growing up in L.A. must be applauded because (with the exception of Sinai Temple in west L.A.) many in the larger Ashkenazi Jewish community in the city have made little if no effort to build bridges with local Iranian Jews. No doubt the substantial impact local Iranian Jews have had for Israel’s betterment cannot be ignored. After all it was L.A.‘s Iranian Jews that first established the “Magbit” organization that for the last 20 years has been offering millions of dollars in interest-free loans to college students in Israel. Or Newport Beach Iranian Jewish philanthropist, David Merage, who’s Merage Foundation, established the “Ayalim” program in Israel that has helped fund the building of new settlements in Israel’s Negev region. Or the Iranian Jewish “Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation” that has poured millions of dollars into establishing UCLA’s newest Israel Studies Center. The list of L.A.‘s Iranian Jewish contributions to Israel goes on and on, not to mention the tremendous Israel philanthropy done by New York’s Iranian Jewry.
Yes many in the Iranian Jewish community often close themselves off to non-Iranian Jews, but I have found they are increasingly opening up and assuming a leadership role when it comes to issues of Israel. Perhaps the best example of this opening up process comes from the L.A. based “30 Years After” organization that has motivated many young Iranian Jewish professionals to get involved with civic and political activity. In fact this year’s AIPAC Conference had a large contingent of Iranian Jews from L.A. and New York in attendance, reflecting the community’s growing political involvement with all things Israel. What I hope to see is a larger number of Iranian American Jews in the coming year opening up to Americans of all backgrounds about the painful experiences they endured while living under and escaping from the current regime in Iran. I think no other group in the U.S. would have a greater impact on public opinion when it comes to issues of Iran’s nuclear weapons program than Iranian Jews living in the U.S. who know firsthand the very serious dangers the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran posses to the world.
The following is a portion of my recent chat with Siegel about his thoughts on L.A.‘s Iranian Jews…
Here is another discussion I had with Siegel about the attitude of average Israelis regarding the people of Iran…
May 18, 2012 | 5:13 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
On May 17th, the Iranian Jewish Los Angeles reserve Sheriff’s deputy, Shervin Lalezary was honored “30 Years After”, (30YA) an L.A.-based Iranian Jewish community non-profit for his heroism in January of this after arresting an alleged arsonist threatening the city. Overnight, Lalezary, a 30-year-old Iranian Jewish real estate attorney by day, was thrust into the media spotlight and also became a source of tremendous pride for his community. Aside from a brief January appearance on the nationally syndicated “Ellen” show, a very humble Lalezary for the most part has declined repeated requests for news media interviews and publicity regarding his role in the case. I had a rare chance to chat with him that evening for my upcoming article in the Jewish Journal regarding his community’s reaction to his volunteerism on behalf of the Sheriff’s department. Lalezary receives only $1 a year salary for his law enforcement work and shared some insights about his true love of giving back to the larger community. He accepted the honor from 30YA in an effort to promote the Sheriff’s deputy reserve program among local Iranian Americans.
Lalezary represents what is best and accurate about Southern California’s Iranian American Jews contrary to what has been portrayed about the community in recent bogus reality television shows or in news stories about businessmen involved in ponzi schemes. The Iranian Jewish community living in the U.S. is perhaps one of the most educated, hardest working, entrepreneurial and family oriented immigrant groups in the country. After re-establishing themselves in this country they have now turned to giving back in any and all ways possible— and indeed Lalezary is the best example of this spirit among Iranian American Jews. (My blog posting on Lalezary can be found here).
That evening 30YA also honored out going California Assemblyman Mike Feuer for his civic work and support for young Iranian Jews who are getting involved with politics. From the inception of 30YA, Feuer has been a strong supporter of the local Iranian Jews and will be looking to them for support for his upcoming race for L.A. City Attorney. Also on hand were a number of candidates running for California Assembly seats; including Andrew Lachman, Richard Bloom and Betsey Butler who were courting Iranian American voters at the gathering for their support. “As the one candidate from the Jewish community in the 46th, I will make sure that we actually enforce these laws to ensure that no company doing business with Iran sees a penny from the state of California and that we invest in growing jobs here in California,” said Lachman who is running for the Assembly’s newly established 46th district seat.
For their part, 30YA remains the only active Iranian American Jewish organization in L.A. and New York who are motivating their community members to get involved with politics and civic activity. This is indeed refreshing nowadays considering the lack of community leadership from the older generation of Iranian Jews. Here are some photos I captured of the 30YA evening honoring Lalezary and Feuer….
May 9, 2012 | 8:58 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
In September 2006 I had the unique opportunity to interview Jewish philanthropist and hairstyling legend Vidal Sassoon for the now defunct “Iranian Jewish Chronicle” magazine based here in Southern California. With the news of his sad passing this morning, I felt it was appropriate to share that exclusive interview with readers as an special insight into Sassoon’s strong sense of Jewish identity and profound sense of Zionism.
While the name Vidal Sassoon has become synonymous with the glamorous world of hairstyling and haircare products for nearly five decades, the man behind the brand name had been equally well known for us unwavering support for Israel during this period. Before becoming known as the “father of modern day hairstyling”, Sassoon was born in the east end of London’s improvised Jewish ghetto in 1928. Despite his family’s financial problems, by age 14, the young Sassoon began working as an apprentice in a Jewish barber shop and learning his famous craft. During this same time he joined the “43 Group” a popular anti-fascist organization that combated post-World War II anti-Semitic groups parading in London’s streets. When the state of Israel was established, then 20-year-old Sassoon bravely volunteered and served in the Israeli army in the War of Independence.
After the war, Sassoon returned to London and over the years created his famous hairstyling empire that included forming hair salons, hairstyling schools, and haircare products bearing his name. Today he is credited for establishing the foundations of modern hairstyling after having created geometric hairstyle cuts, the popular wash-and-wear perm, as well as other hairstyling techniques that are widely used. In addition to his career, Sassoon had also dedicated his time to aiding worthy philanthropic and educational causes in Israel. In 1982 he founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was also involved with the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jews, a group that provides educational and sports programs for young Ethiopian Jews visiting the U.S. from Israel.
The following is a portion of my 2006 interview with Sassoon…
Your family name ‘Sassoon’ is very popular among Iranian Jews and Sephardic Jews, can you please give us a brief background of your family’s origins?
My father was actually from Salonika in northern Greece where the family had lived for some years. I think there was a population of about 90,000 Jews there and after the Holocaust there was 3,000 left which is quite dreadful. But I am Sephardic from my father’s side and my mother was born in London and her people are from the Ukraine, Kiev. So I guess on my mother’s side it was Ashkenazi, she spoke both Ladino and spoke Yiddish. She was quite a remarkable woman.
What prompted you to start working at a barber shop at a young age?
Well I had no choice. First of all it was World War II, we were in London and we used to sleep in the shelters because the German air force was rearranging the streets of London every night with the bombings practically every night in those days. This was in 42’ and I was 14. My mother didn’t have the luck that she might have had and my father had left us at an early age, so we lived in the east end of London with an aunt until I was five. Then my brother and I were put in a Jewish orphanage until I was 11, when the war started. At 14, that was the school leaving age unless you had money which we didn’t, or you had an extraordinary brain and won scholarships. Of course I didn’t have that either. My mother had a premonition and she felt that hairdressing would be very very good for me. She took me along to a man named Adolf Cohen at 101 White Chapel Road which was in the Jewish ghetto where I had my apprenticeship. He was a great disciplinarian which served me for the rest of my life, he was very good for me. It took me a long time of studying and working in different places around London.
As a teenager you joined the British Jewish organization known as the “43 Group” in London, what activities was this group involved in and how were you involved?
It was a rather strange situation because the war was over. Before the war there was quite a strong fascist party led by Oswald Mosley and he and his cohorts were put in detention (jail) during the war by Churchill. After the war they came out and immediately started up again with their anti-Semitism and running through the streets and having meetings, it was quite ridiculous. Many truly brave Jewish ex-servicemen started the “43 Group” because there were 43 people at the first meeting they had. These were tough men who had been through the war. Of course volunteers were needed, I was 16 or 17 at the time, most of my friends joined the 43 Group and there were quite a few hundred of us. Truly the fascists were smashed in the streets and yes if you were scared at times because it was scary. But after we saw the pictures that came out and the whole story of the Holocaust, there was actually no way we could allow fascists to run through the streets. I was arrested one night and put in jail, the following day the judge told me ‘to be a good boy’ and let me go. That was our life in those days, we decided that we were absolutely not going to allow what happened pre-war when Jews were just beat up indiscriminately in the streets. It worked beautifully because of mainly the tough Jewish characters that were in the British armed forces during the war, they were the people that did it. But also there were quite a few gentiles who had seen the camps, the horror of Europe and fought with us.
After Israel was established in 1948, what motivated you to suddenly leave your family and join the Palmach (Israeli army) at such a young age?
Through my mother who was an ardent Zionist and who used to hold Zionist meetings were we lived in the East End, so I grew up with Zionism. My sense was that without a strong Israel, Judaism would die out with only a few religious Jews in the world but basically as a philosophy of life it would be very much on its way out. Israel was so important. An Israeli officer, a “Sabra” came to London and had a meeting way before 48’ in late 47’ and say ‘that if a war breaks out which they were expecting, we would like volunteers’. He came to see the 43 group and I hadn’t a clue who he was. You’ve got to remember that I was just a private, a very insignificant member of the group, just one of the ordinary…I guess you call them G.I.’s. A few us put our names on a list, we couldn’t leave until the British left (Palestine) for obvious reasons because we were British.
Did you see any action while you were a soldier then?
I was very lucky, I was very fit and I joined the Palmach. I was living in a young fishing kibbutz with young beautiful Sabras, tough from their work and strong in their minds. We were three English guys— I was one of them, there was one American we were accepted into the group and became a part of the Palmach. We trained for two months, it was the hardest physical exercise I’ve ever had in my life. We marched through the night through the northern Negev through Arab lines because in those days you couldn’t truly get through by transport, we were building up the kibbutzim inside those lines. When Egypt attacked with tanks, many comrades were killed, many were wounded but I was very lucky. Out of the three Englishmen and one American, two of the English guys were wounded and the American and myself were unscratched. It was an extraordinary experience and I think that experience in Israel gave me the sense that anything could be done. I thought I saw a miracle happen, you think that 600,000 people beat back five Arab armies…it was an extraordinary feat. Frankly no one realizes how it was done.
After the war what motivated you to get back into hairdressing in England?
My mother. The war was over, we were in Tel Aviv waiting and deciding what to do with the rest of our lives. I got a telegraph from my mother who said that my step-father had had a heart attack, come home and earn a living. So I went back to England and the only thing I knew to earn any cash was through hairdressing. I got a job and many many jobs, it took quite a few years. In 1954 I opened my own salon after working for a wonderful man called “Raymond”, I learned so much from him about cutting.
Over the years you’ve been given the title of “father of modern hairdressing” for your contributions to the profession, where did you get the motivation for developing these haircutting techniques and what is it like to be considered a legend?
Well I opened my own salon in 1954 and by that time I was totally fascinated by what you could do with hair, the possibilities of changing things. For nine years I worked to change what was hairdressing then into a geometric art form with color, perm without setting which had never been done before. There were many innovations that we—I say we because I trained a team that was much involved with me. Many innovations we created that changed the craft, so I guess that’s why they call me the ‘father of hairdressing’…or maybe it’s because of my age, I’m 78 and possibility the grandfather.
In recent years, you have sold your chain of salons and the haircare products that bear your name to other companies. Have you decided to move away from the industry or are you still involved?
I haven’t moved away from it, in fact I did a live show at the ‘Albert Hall’ three months ago. There were over 5,000 people and we actually sold out the Albert Hall. I’m doing a show in Israel in May of this year. There’s a big hair show in Israel and they’re inviting the Jordanian hairdressers so I hear, which I think should be very interesting. I speak now, I don’t actually physically work on heads on hair, but I speak. In June my hairdressing team will be doing a show in Barcelona as well. We’re invited to so many places just to show up and talk to young hairdressers and tell them about our experiences. It’s very very nice, it a great compliment. So I haven’t really deserted the craft at all, I’m still involved.
Nowadays you do not see many prominent people in the public eye taking a strong stance on behalf of Israel, why have you remained active in fundraising efforts and a vocal supporter of Israel?
I honestly believe that without a strong Israel, Judaism is doomed. If you look at our center in Jerusalem that has done a survey about anti-Semitism in Europe, in France it is horrendous—it’s practically a quarter of the population there that doesn’t like Jews. In Britain it’s about 15 to 18 percent of the population that don’t like Jews. My sense is that as the world is today, there is an extraordinary rise of Islamic anti-Semitism utilizing much of the Nazi propaganda. When you have a situation were there is indigenous anti-Semitism it can become endemic and all you have to do is a start a spark. Frankly I don’t trust the world, there are very nice Christians in this world as there are Muslims, as there are Hindus etc, but there are only 13 million Jews left in this world. Where did they all go? They were all murder or they had to convert or be murdered. So a very strong Israel is absolutely necessary to our survival as a people.
You seem to be visiting Israel often and are active with social programs there, what is your sense of the Arabs that are citizens of Israel?
I do believe that Israeli Arabs should be equal citizens in Israel. They now vote for their own people the Israeli parliament, that’s good for democracy. But I do believe that the Israeli national anthem should be inclusive of all, it should not just be ‘nefesh yehudi’ it should be ‘nefesh Israeli’—everybody should be included. They’re either loyal Israelis or not, and if they’re not we’re creating a fifth column in Israel because there are 1.2 million people of the Islamic faith living there. I just believe we have to change our relationships with Israeli Arabs. I think it’s very important that they feel that they are very much a part of the society and they are Israeli. The ‘Druze’ for example who are loyal Arab citizens and serve in the Israeli army, we need to welcome them and have them included more in Israeli society.
What was your objective in founding the International Center on Anti-Semitism at Hebrew University that bears your name?
I was always involved with Hebrew University before then, but there was this wonderful professor, Yehuda Bower at the university and we had very similar views and feelings about Judaism and where Judaism was going and if there was a future for Judaism. It was terrifying to think that the people who created Einstein would be eliminated from the earth. It’s terrifying to think of all those extraordinary elements in society that made up Judaism that have been wiped away and could have been so creative for the rest of this universe. Yehuda Bower was speaking in his most brilliant way and his knowledge of past history was so valid and vivid, that we followed him. He talked to me and he said “how would you like to be involved in creating a center for the study of anti-Semitism.” So I said, could we also include other related bigotries (to study) because you’re trying to fathom the mind and hate of humanity and not just Jews. So this was a man that had great appeal, dynamic energy, and I was fortunate to meet him. I was also fortunate considering my background where I came from to have the necessary finances to help create the center. The center has grown extraordinarily. Yehuda Bower is close to 80, he still lectures but he is not in charge of the center anymore. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the center is going and I’ll be visiting it in May.
Can you tell us a little bit about the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jews which you’ve become involved with?
It’s quite wonderful. We are developing programs where the money goes partly for education and partly for sports because the health body and healthy mind is were it’s at. Many people are involved; it’s really an honor to be a part of this. You know there’s something (the author) Camu said that has stuck with me all my life and it’s “too many people have forsaken generosity to practice charity”. I hate the word “charity”. The generosity of soul, if you give, you’re giving because you’re pleasing your own soul. The word charity means something totally different, “oh those poor people over there let’s do something for them”. Generosity is the spirit that is within you and I love the way Camu put it.
What advice do you have for young young Jews living in the U.S.?
It’s hard to give advice. There are so many people, how do you give major advice to a group of people, it’s very presumptuous. If you look into yourself as an individual, find your strength, and work on your weaknesses, have courage of your convictions…what more can you do. Feel a sense of pride, not false pride but a sense of pride in the extraordinary production in every area that the Jews have given to civilization.