Posted by Karmel Melamed
Nourallah Gabay is perhaps one of only a dozen open minded and well rounded older individuals in the Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community that I have come to know over the years. Aside from being a successful businessman, he has long been involved with countless community and Israel related philanthropic causes— an all around caring individual who has shown he genuinely cares about the continuity of our ancient community. Without any religious scholarly background, Gabay recently authored and personally financed the publication of a new book “An Invitation to Reason” to make the case for Judaism to steer away from religious fanaticism and to embrace a more moderate and modern approach. Gabay’s book was originally published in the Persian language and more recently translated into English for younger Iranian Jews who cannot read Persian. “An Invitation to Reason” is not just Gabay’s notions of what moderate Judaism but, uses hard facts from a collection of words of wisdom from Jewish scholars and others to make the argument that Jews today need to avoid following religious extremism.
While the book is not targeted toward Iranian Jews specifically, but rather to Jews of all backgrounds— the book comes out at an interesting period for Iranian Jews living in the U.S. who over the past three decades have been attracted to the various different movements of Judaism in America. During this time many Iranian Jewish families in Southern California and New York have in recent years been torn apart after their children have joined the Hasidic or ultra-orthodox sects of Judaism and nearly abandoned their own families who have not been as religious. This trend has been particularly heartbreaking for countless Iranian Jewish families who in Iran historically did not follow any specific movement of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox) but rather embraced a traditional form of Judaism which could best be described as “conservadox”.
Proceeds from the sale of the book will go directly to the “Bikur Cholim Hospital” in Jerusalem and with the publication of his book in English, I recently sat down with Gabay to discuss his motivations in authoring this new book. The following is a portion of our conversation…
You are not a religious scholar nor a rabbi but rather a successful businessman in the community. So what motivated you to write this book about moderate Jewish theology?
As you know, unity is an essential element for the very existence of any community. Without some degree of unity ruling over any given social formation and by extension, over the society at large, the word community would be rendered meaningless. Throughout the mass immigration of the Iranian Jewish community to America, a process which began roughly in and around 1979, I became involved in assisting the relocation many immigrants in their new country. During this period I came to realize that a small group of extremist so-called religious individuals, acting under the guise of “promoting our religion”, were encouraging the children of these wandering families to follow a path radically different from that of their parents. In effect, these small group of preachers were tearing apart these families at a particularly vulnerable stage in their lives; and by extension, they were destroying the unity of our community, rather brutally. That’s how I ended up writing this book, after having already published more than 100 articles in various Persian publications in the United States. I wrote this book to better inform our community and our society of the neglected dangers of the status quo, and to help prevent the further spread of such irrational divisiveness, or even sectarianism. I did so, because I believe that the mistakes of this small circle, even if motivated by good intentions, are in effect no different than if they had been spurred by ill intentions; and as such, they ought to be confronted.
The book has repeated warnings for the reader about religious fanaticism and extremism in Judaism that has often pulled families apart. Have you found that is an issue among Iranian American Jewish families today? If so, please explain.
The Iranian Jewish community is the oldest, and possibly the most intact, of all Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Unfortunately, exactly when the parents of this rather uniform community had lost control over their own lives due to the sudden shocks of an unwanted emigration, this so-called religious group, just like a businessman having found a fresh new market, albeit wishing well to prevent the youth from becoming “corrupted”, drew our youngsters into a path of divisiveness and factionalism. But these young men and women were not being simply relocated, but they were also moving from one time, one era, to another. As such, they justly needed to keep step with modern sciences and civilization, instead of following, as it happened, in the footsteps of the ghetto culture. I should emphasize that to preserve the culture of the ghettos is not the same as preserving our Jewish identity: It rather means preserving slavery. Those who promote this culture of slavery do not realize that all of us human beings, before presuming a religious, traditional, tribal or ethnic identity, we’re all endowed with a human identity, which is common to all members of human-kind. And yet, given all the accidental, superficial differences between us, humanity will never be able to achieve world peace without having first reconciled world’s religions.
Over the years there has been some controversy in New York and Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community about many Iranian Jews who have joined the ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism and followed that movement’s religious teachings. Is your book a response to those who have increasingly been drawn to that movement among Iranian Jews? If so, what are your feelings about this trend in the community?
In my opinion, the best way to fight a wrong idea, or a mistaken lifestyle, it’s to offer and maintain a better idea, a better lifestyle, a better model. My goal has been to prevent the further spread of this present form of regression by the way of informing people of some paramount yet neglected truths, and warning them of our surrounding realities. Otherwise, considering the bitter experience, which I once had to endure during a 100-day stay among a religious settlement of Jerusalem, I can’t see any hopes for changing the ways of those already plagued with such indoctrinations. You see, historically speaking, within our rich Iranian Jewish culture, there had never grown such classifications as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or even Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi. In the eyes of an Iranian Jew, to be a Jew and to remain a Jew, it simply meant one thing; and it also meant to get married to a Jewish spouse. Hence, it was not until these so-called religious groups intervened that this priceless, ages-long unity was disrupted and diverted. They turned our youth into some confused, rootless wanderers, to the point that today, some of them are facing major troubles when they wish to get married; or that in such no basic issues as food and clothing styles, or even in their relationships with parents and siblings, they find themselves in serious conflicts.
Your book makes many references to examples of “moderate” Judaism and how Jews over the centuries have kept their traditions but adapted the Jewish faith according to the environment and times that they lived in. In light of your book’s message, how do you respond to rabbis and other religious figures in the U.S. today who may argue that your approach, that is not a strict adherence to Jewish laws, may be resulting in high levels of Jewish assimilation and religious intermarriage among younger generation?
To respect all religious authorities and their opinions has always been an honored aspect of Jewish culture. But the question is, which leader which rabbi, and what knowledge?! Today, for every one of those handful of truly informed, realistic and sophisticated rabbis among us, there are scores of rabbis, whose every word is telling us that they do not deserve their given titles and that their teachings would cause stagnation and regression for our future generations. Therefore, neither a diploma, nor a given status, by and in itself, should be taken as the validation of the words of a speaker in any religion It’s thus left to the perceptive mind of the audience to hopefully evaluate for themselves the words and arguments presented by these preachers; and then, accept or reject them according to their own fair judgment and reasonable convictions. As for the increasing number of regretfully inappropriate marriages, I might say that this has its roots in ignorance; in the easing of global interactions and in the indifference of oblivious parents. Ultimately, it remains the duty of the parents to maintain a healthy balance from the outset and to raise their offspring, from the early stages of childhood, as informed, moderate and balanced individuals—so that as they grow up, they would not lose their own balance. And so that they wouldn’t fall into the traps spread on the road by friend or foe—by “one of us” or by a stranger.
What responses have you received from the older generation of Iranian Jews in the community to your book that was first published in Farsi?
The response has been generally warm and encouraging. I think that besides the kind attention which the book received in our community’s published media, the considerably large sum of voluntary donations to Bikur Cholim Hospital of Jerusalem, underwritten by those who had received a volume of the book, is enough evidence of the readers’ appreciation of my humble sincere efforts. Moreover, I’m pleased that the book has been welcomed by both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.
Were you expecting any opposition to your ideas presented in the book from the community? How has the response differed or remained the same as your expectations?
If I were to write this book today, I wouldn’t single out any specific religions. Instead, I would just write about extremist religion, as a whole. As for the pro and con opinions of my critics, I take solace in the axiom that no author could possibly write in a way which could satisfy every individual or group. But fortunately, the content of this book is relevant to the followers of all religions, and not only my fellow Jews. I think that each one of my readers can find certain points in my arguments, which would align along their own convictions and beliefs. However, as a matter of principle, the rigid-minded fanatical groups seldom read the voice of the dissent, if they do read such things at all! And this in itself speaks of their neglect towards the realities of their time, and their perpetual evasion from the truth.
Unlike many other older Iranian Jews who have written books in the community, you have decided to have your book translated into English for the younger generation of Iranian Jews who cannot read Farsi. What is your objective in doing this and how do you plan to outreach to the younger generation with your book?
The reason for translating this book to English—amid undertaking the entire burden of its considerable expenses—as you pointed out, was first and foremost, reaching out to the younger generation— particularly, the younger members of my own extended family. Yes, this book, in Persian and English, is being widely distributed via the Internet, either for free download at my own website, www.BabaNouri.com, or through purchase of copies at Amazon.com. But at the end, it’s essentially a gift: a memorabilia left by a grandfather for his grandchildren and his great grandchildren.
What dialogue if any are you hoping to start in the community with your book?
Fortunately, as far as I’m aware, people are already discussing the issues raised in the book, among themselves as adults, with their children, in their gatherings etc. As I’ve heard, they’re evaluating the positions taken in the book, and the arguments presented therein, whether they agree with them or not. I think this alone is bound to help us reach at a better understanding of the issues put forward in this book.
You’ve lived a pretty full life and had any successes. What words of wisdom do you have for younger Iranian Jews living in the U.S. about achieving success in their lives?
The best advice which I could give to our youngsters would be this; be up-to-date and be well-rounded.
To learn more about Gabay’s book, visit his website.
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June 12, 2011 | 7:51 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
A few hundred of Los Angeles’ Iranian and American Jews gathered on June 2nd at a UCLA Hillel dinner gala honoring the L.A.-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization (IJWO) because of the groups long standing financial and community support for the UCLA Hillel center. The gathering was unique and special because it was one of the few occasions where both Iranian Jews and other Jews in the L.A. area came together to support a group that has helped foster the growth of Judaism among young Jews in the city. Indeed a sense of Jewish unity filled the room that evening that is rare to come across nowadays. According to Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA’s Hillel Center, Iranian Jewish students make up a plurality of the Jews on the UCLA campus and their interaction with Hillel was critical to the group’s continuity.
For their part, the Iranian Jewish women of the non-profit IJWO have been quite active in fundraising on behalf of UCLA’s Hillel center. About 10 years ago the IJWO provided the funds for the creation of the current lounge area at UCLA’s Hillel center and offered countless donations for UCLA’s Jewish students to enjoy Friday night Shabbat dinners at the center. At the same time the IJWO has raised money to provide college scholarships to Iranian Jewish students who have recently emigrated from Iran to the U.S. through the HIAS organization’s help. The group has also offered scholarships to students of Iranian origin or students studying Iranian Studies at Hebrew University and Netanya College in Israel. At the same time the IJWO had donated to the “Iranica” program at New York’s Columbia University that has a focus on Iranian Studies. On an interesting historical note, the IJWO was established in the late 1940’s in Iran by Jewish women in the country who were seeking to have a positive impact on the lives of other Jews in their community. Subsequently the group was revived when a substantial number of Iranian Jews emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970’s. The members of the IJWO at the gala event said they were proud to financially support UCLA’s Hillel Center which has been critical in helping younger Iranian Jewish students at the university to retain their Jewish identity.
Speaking at the event, both former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad and the Nessah Synagogue’s head Rabbi David Shofet praised the IJWO and Iranian Jewish women in Southern California who have helped to strengthen the bonds of Judaism among their children and families. “I’m a proud to have been born from an Iranian Jewish woman,” said Shofet at the gala dinner. The following is a portion of Shofet’s speech that evening…
Here are some additional photos from the evening I captured….
May 30, 2011 | 5:26 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York who have pursued creative careers in the entertainment industry have made a splash during the last 10 years— especially those involved with comedy who draw from their own community’s experiences to produce plays, films and even stand-up comedy routines. Two of the community’s emerging Iranian Jewish comedic minds, Amir Ohebsion and Fariborz (David) Diaan have recently written and produced a hit musical comedy play “Death, A Very Serious Comedy”. Interestingly enough, the topic of their production is ripped straight from the latest news headlines of business fraud facing Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community. Their play focuses on the trials and tribulations of an Iranian Jewish businessman who suffers a massive heart attack and dies after he discovers his wealth has disappeared because of his investments in a ponzi scheme. The main character must then deal with what unique and hilarious fate awaits him in the afterlife.
The two sold out February showings of “Death, A Very Serious Comedy” in Los Angeles opened to rave reviews from L.A. audiences. I recently had a chance to chat with both Amir and Fariborz before the upcoming performance of their play at California State University Northridge on June 5th. The following are some highlights on my interview…
You both are Iranian Jews, the main character in the play is an Iranian Jew and there are some themes in the play that the community here in the U.S. has been grappling with for years. Why did you decide to draw content from the community and how do you think it will impact the perceptions non-Iranians have about our community?
AO: Our aspiration was to hold a mirror up to the Iranian community and at the same time have cross-over appeal to American audiences by offering a glimpse into the lives of their Iranian-American neighbors a la “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”— except ours is more like “My Big Fat Persian Funeral”. That’s why we chose to present the play in English at the risk of alienating some of our Iranian fan base. We believe that the non-Iranians will relate to the play because the themes we touch on are universal.
FD: Through satire, we aimed to help our community look at itself from an outside point of view. No community is perfect and we cannot grow if to start with we cannot laugh at our own habits and lifestyles!
Undoubtedly, those familiar with the Namvar case can see how that case may have influenced the content of this play. This is obviously a touchy subject for the Iranian Jewish community, so what approach did you take in writing this comedy and were any special efforts made not to offend the audience?
FD: We made an effort to ensure that the play is not perceived as being about any particular individual or individuals. Among other topics, our play explores ‘greed’ and the relentless pursuit of material wealth at all costs, and therefore it is NOT about any of the individuals who took advantage of others in the past few years by embezzling money.
Many younger Iranian American Jews often find humor in the interaction of their parents and grandparents with the larger American community. How funny is our immigrant community and how well does our experience as Iranian Jews in the U.S. translate into the making of a comedy play or film?
FD: As Middle-Easterners, we are so emotional and dramatic in the way we express our thoughts and feelings, which makes us the perfect subject for a comedic story. A Westerner says “I love my grandchildren”. A Middle Eastern person says, “I sacrifice my life for my grandchildren”.
AO: Our play indeed contains several comedic cross-cultural interactions which the younger generation will find amusing. For example, the main character, David is trying to schmooze his way into heaven or the chutzpah with which he tries to justify his vices on Earth…
Death and dying seem to be very dark themes for the comedy genre in any creative production. Why did you choose these themes for your play and how has the content resonated with the audiences?
AO: I’ve always found it perplexing that as Persians, we Jews and Muslims alike, treat Death as a taboo subject, as though by ignoring it, we can somehow avoid it! In stark contrast, the Buddhist tradition regards Death as a natural part of life, and deliberately examines it in an effort to minimize the suffering that it can bring if we are not prepared for it. My personal motivation for writing this play was thus to employ comedy to present Death from a perspective that inspires us to cherish every fleeting moment we are alive. The feedback we have received thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, and many have gone out of their way to express to us that they were moved by the play’s message.
FD: Yes, this play is actually not about DEATH. It’s about celebrating LIFE. It’s about being in the moment. It’s about happiness and joy. Sometimes, the best way to appreciate life is to be reminded of our inevitable death.
Even though you both wrote the play and one of you stars in it, why was there a decision to have the play directed by non-Iranians and what do you think that brings to this particular production?
FD: Initially we intended to direct the play ourselves but later we decided to bring in an outside perspective. It paid off. We enlisted two professional American directors with a solid background in theater. They embraced our project and brought a lot of artistic value to the work, for which we are grateful.
This play seems to have been quite the labor of love. Can you share some insights into the time and effort that went into putting this production together?
FD: We kept writing and writing and making improvements. We did not want to rush the work. It took us over a year to feel comfortable with the content. We then took another six months to cast the play, choreograph the musical numbers and rehearse until we finally thought we had a work of art to present to our loyal fans. It has been an amazing experience and we have been paid back tenfold by the amazingly positive reaction of the audience so far. We are so thankful for the love and appreciation we have received.
Are there any plans to take the play on the road to other cities and if so, what do you have lined up?
FD: We will eventually take the play to all other major cities including New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. We welcome feedback from promoters and producers in other cities who may want to partner with us.
You both have obviously chosen careers in entertainment and the creative realm which is unique for most Iranian Jews in the U.S. who are typically lawyers, doctors, engineers or business people. What prompted you to get into the business and what reaction have you had from family members about this career path?
AO: Well, I can tell you that it’s not easy to overcome years of conditioning. I myself was in the business world for 10 plus years but ultimately found it unfulfilling. So I finally mustered up the courage to take the plunge in pursuit of my true passion, writing. My family was a bit concerned at first but has been increasingly supportive seeing that this is what makes me happy. I should also mention that this very topic comes up in our play when David is reminded at the gate of heaven that he gave up his passion for singing and instead pursued material wealth only to lose it all in the blink of an eye.
FD: Many of the most successful individuals in the world have said that true success is in doing what you love the most. Yes, we both have been entrepreneurs and have tried to make a living in different areas. But obviously this is where our passion lies. We love to write, perform and bring joy to the community.
What plans if any do you have for future creative endeavors containing subject matter pulled from the Iranian Jewish community?
FD: We will see what life puts on our path. Hopefully we will be able to continue to bring fresh and relevant work on to the stage or the screen as we go along.
AO: By the way, “Death” is not our first collaboration. We previously wrote and produced “The Belind Date & The Vedding” which was a satirical look at the Iranian-Jewish dating and wedding scene.
What advice do you have for younger Iranian American Jews who might be considering a career in the entertainment or creative field?
FD: Don’t get into this field just for the glamour of it. It is like any other field. You should get into it knowing that it will take hard work and discipline to succeed. You will only be able to keep up if you are truly passionate about it. Of course like any other field, one should hope that the required talent for that field is also present.
AO: Follow your bliss!
For more information and tickets for the June 5th production of “Death, A Very Serious Comedy” at California State University’s Plaza Del Sol, visit the play’s website.
May 30, 2011 | 11:09 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Nearly 300 people packed a banquet hall in West Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple a few weeks ago for the launching of a new book, “From Laborer to Entrepeneur” complied and edited by Professor Goel Cohen who is perhaps one of the Iranian Jewish community’s few distinguished and respected writers and historians. The book is a biography and memoir of Iranian Jewish businessman and philanthropist, Jack Mahfar who is in his 80’s and resides in Geneva nowadays. Mahfar who obtained significant wealth in the pharmaceutical business in Iran as an importer of European drugs, also gave back to Iranians of various faiths. In addition Mahfar has indicated that proceeds from the sale of his biography will go to the non-profit “B’nai B’rith” organization.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Cohen’s books is his signature “research based memoir-writing style” where he writes his books in the first-person speaking to the reader as if he were the individual the memoir is about and also includes in hard historical facts. In his latest book Cohen not only tells the life story of Mahfar, but he also weaves in detailed history about the lives of Jews from the Iranian city of Esfahan that he has painstakingly researched from historical, governmental and academic archives from around the world. “This is a new methodology of historical analysis by research and a role playing personality from that time period,” said Cohan when I inquired about his writing style. While his current book is in Persian language, he said there are plans to have the book translated into English and French as well. “From Laborer to Entrepeneur” is Cohen’s fourth installment of Persian language books about the lives of Iranian Jewry in the early part of the 20th century and his previous three other books have been widely received not only among his own Iranian Jewish community, but also used by scholars teaching literature and history in Iran’s universities today.
The May 12th event at Sinai Temple drew mostly older Iranian Jews from the Los Angeles area who still yearn for their happier days in Iran before the revolution and enjoy reading about the remarkable successes of once poverty stricken Jews like Mahfar who worked hard and became very affluent. Interestingly enough, I chatted with a number of older Iranian Jews who were born and raised in Esfahan and they shed light on their often difficult lives in the city’s Jewish ghetto that was know as “Joubareh”. The Jews of Esfahan— like Jews in many other Iranian cities during the centuries faced tremendous anti-Semitism, regular beatings and even horrid pogroms on occasion where many in the Shiite Islamic majority would try to force them to convert to Islam. My hope is that the younger generation on Iranian American Jews living in the U.S. will take the time to read about the difficulties their ancestors encountered in Iran in order to preserve and retain their Jewish identity. Likewise I believe the Iranian Jewish community here in Southern California needs to better fund scholars like Cohen who spend countless hours on their own, with limited funds tediously researching, writing and editing the history of our community. Where are the other Mahfar’s in the community who are willing to fund his worthy scholarly endeavor?
On an interesting side note, one of the speakers at the book signing event was the Chairman of the local Iranian American Jewish Federation, Dr. Kamran Beroukhim who shed light on the fact that Mafar was not only philanthropic to Jewish causes in Iran, but also to countless non-Jewish causes and needy individuals in Iran who were not Jews. The following is a portion of Beroukhim’s Persian language speech where he praises Mahfar for providing pharmaceuticals to one of the Tehran hospitals that was treating wounded individuals that had been protesting in the streets at the brink of the 1979 Iranian revolution:
“Upon the Wings of Wisdom” was the third in a series of research based memoir-type books Cohan has written over the years. His first book was called “A Tale of Culture” which covered the life of the late Jewish teacher Mashalah Farivar and the lives of Jews during the early 20th century living in the Iranian city of Shiraz. His second book completed in 2008 was called “A Follower of Culture” and was a memoir regarding the life of the late Elias Eshaghian, the director of the Alliance Israelite Jewish schools based in the Iranian cities of Tehran, Yazd, Esfahan and Sanadaj.
The following are just some snapshots of the evening I captured…
May 27, 2011 | 7:01 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
For the last 30 some odd years L.A. area Iranian Jewish activist, George Haroonian has been involved with a whole host of community related issues from religious and traditional controversies to political matters concerning Iran and the Jews still living in Iran. Yet during the last two and half years, as a creditor in the Namvar case that has plagued his community, his involvement with the community with regards to this case has been intense. Like the handful of other L.A. area Iranian Jews who have been vocal about the case of now convicted Iranian Jewish businessman, Ezri Namvar, Haroonian has not been spared the verbal attacks and criticisms from some in the community for his making his voice heard. Even though he and his family have financially suffered as a result of Namvar’s alleged business fraud, Haroonian has chosen to take the high road, been a voice of moderation and urged creditors and community members to resolve their differences in a conciliatory manner.
I recently sat down with him to discuss his reactions to the recent Namvar conviction and the impact it has had among Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community.
You were one of the victims of Namvar’s alleged ponzi scheme, what was your immediate reaction to news of his conviction?
My immediate reaction. was one of sadness and uncertainty. I am sad for our community and the creditor body, that has had to go through this divisive ordeal. This is also a sad day, because it is another chapter in the downfall of someone who was once considered a successful and benevolent businessman and now faces a bleak possibility. Uncertain, because it is very difficult to appraise this community’s internal relations once we are through with this case. It would take a lot of work to unify the community or create mutual respect.
Can you please share any feedback or reaction you have heard from other Namvar creditors from the local Iranian Jewish community as to his recent conviction?
It has been a mixed reaction. Most people do not see any closure or satisfaction in this. After all, the case is not about the case of unsecured creditors of Namco Capital but the Namco Escrow company. There are few who have expressed delight and satisfaction. I find this completely contrary to Jewish teachings, when one does not even enjoy witnessing the demise of his enemies.
What message do you think this conviction sends to others like Namvar in the Iranian Jewish community who may be involved in similar schemes?
These people should come clean and show what they have done with other people’s funds— the sooner the better for every one. Unfortunately, some of the people committed the fraud, act as if the funds that were entrusted to them are their own personal funds. The long term message is that “greed” should be controlled and financial success cannot come at the cost of taking other people’s life savings.
There has been a lot of verbal and e-mail criticisms for the local religious leaders of the Iranian Jewish community for their response or lack of response to this Namvar affair. Can you please explain why or why not you think this criticism has been fair?
First of all, the e-mail campaign and spreading of rumors was started primarily by one person, who is not even a creditor and has a personal vendetta against the Namvars and the Rabbis— whom he proposes do not follow his readings of the Torah and Judaism. I can say with certainty, since I have attended many meetings on this matter, that our rabbis, particularly Rav David Shofet, were involved even before the case was taken into bankruptcy, so to resolve the matter without causing so much hardship. Now some in this community wrongly expect the rabbis to have executive power, which they don’t. The rabbis did suggest to leaders of the creditors and Namvar to seek resolutions through Bet Din, but this was rejected. The rabbis sat in on many meetings to bring an internal resolution to the case, but again due to some intransigence, their offers were rejected. What is unfortunate is that only a handful of our so called “community leaders” took the time to be involved and try to make a difference. Those who claim to be in the “umbrella” organization of the community, were not any where to be found regarding this case.
What response have you given individuals spreading rumors that the community’s rabbis have been involved with Namvar’s business dealings?
Many, wrongly thought that the rabbis were financially involved with Namvar, but this has been proven to be a false and a vicious rumor. A letter by the bankruptcy trustees proves that there was never such involvement. I think there was a slowness in responding to public dissatisfaction by some leaders. They acted as if this will go away. But they were mistaken. Our rabbis do not have very good public relations. The fact is that a lot of work was done to resolve this case, but many are not informed about it. That is a criticism that one can fairly mention. It was necessary to inform people what you have done, so people could judge fairly. It also has to be mentioned that the case was too complicated and mutli-dimensional to be resolved by one or two people. It needed and still needs a team of volunteers with various talents to step forward. I have asked for this on different occasions from different individuals.
Earlier on when this Namvar affair began you were critical of the community’s leadership, but it seems now that you have taken a moderate tone and approach to community dialogue when it concerns this issue. Why if at all has there been a change in your attitude?
I don’t believe there has been any change of attitude by me. In October 2009, when I concluded that Nessah’s board of directors was not reacting properly to the situation, through an open letter I suggested to them that Mr. Namvar’s membership of the board of directors has to be suspended, until the verdict on the case is out. This I did because I thought the community’s values were under question. They finally suspended or removed him. Maybe a little too late. Since early 2009, I have actively involved myself in the case. I maintain that the bankruptcy case has not only caused a lot of financial losses to many, it has also caused a lot of “unnecessary enmity” among people— or in Hebrew “sinat hinam”. While there could be valid differences of opinion about how to achieve the most return to the creditors, for me the long term issue is what will happen to us, as Jews and as people who have a common destiny. This is how I believe I have acted.
Some in the community have criticized you for taking a moderate more conciliatory stance regarding this Namvar matter and accused you of being a Namvar “collaborator”. How have you responded to these personal attacks?
There is one person who has made it his life mission to spread this dirt. He is not even a creditor and has shown he has ulterior motives. Like the dirt thrown at rabbis and anyone who felt responsible to step in to make a difference. I have not been spared. The fact is that my family and I have not gotten back a dime of our money, where a couple of the people who support this lie, have gotten back some of their money from Namco. So what should they be called? Traitors? No I won’t go that route. As I mentioned, my goal has been to bring a logical approach to a business and legal fiasco, not experienced before. Unfortunately it is very tough to bring about “reason” when “emotions” are dominant. But I guess if I had to do this based on the unfair comments of a few, I should have been out of this affair much earlier.
How has this Namvar fiasco transformed the Iranian Jewish community here in Southern California and do you believe there will be healing in the community eventually over this issue?
I compare these past two years, to a “taking advantage of a lonely orphan” syndrome. A community were more or less, there was some “trust” among people to do business, there is not longer trust. Those who disliked the “observant” section of the community, found additional excuses in this case and expanded their unfair bashings. Our image as a dependable and ethical business people has severely been hurt, both within and outside the community. I refer to the community as an “orphan” because we have seen it does not have many who care and are capable of doing something about its communal problems. There is a lot of talk and acts of kindness, but this issue needed our communal organizations and activists to step forward and ask “what can I do? what can we do?” No they did not do that. To be fair, fortunately many did. Of course there will be healing, but I hope we come out of this, not only wiser individually in handling of our personal affairs, but our community will finally realize that, communal institutions are not only to deal with disasters when they happen, but also to avoid them or prepare for them.
What lessons do you think our community can learning from this Namvar case?
Our first generation immigrant community has been dealing with the social values of America since its arrival here. Our religious, cultural and family relations have been challenged and for some it has changed. Good or bad is not the issue. The fact is they have changed or adapted. Our business relations among ourselves could not have been exempted. The same way that many learned the hard way, how expensive “divorce” and settling the difference between husband and wife is, now it has experienced that it would be ideal if business matters are handled out of court and without all the expenses that are incurred through the legal system. This is also a testimony to the basic “unfairness” of the bankruptcy legal system, where the real winners are the attorneys and their team of professionals and not the creditors. My hope is that we do not lose site of the fact that our forefathers continued through thick and thin and we learn from the mistakes we make and be a better community in future.
May 24, 2011 | 7:18 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Los Angeles-based attorney A. David Youssefyeh has been insulted, had vicious rumors spread about him and even been verbally threatened by many in his Iranian Jewish community here in Southern California over the past three years for speaking in support of his client—many of whom are also Iranian Jews and victims of an alleged ponzi scheme by the now convicted Iranian Jewish banker, Ezri Namvar. To many of the hundreds of now poverty-stricken Namvar creditors in the community he is considered righteous for helping to bring legal action against Namvar and also being their voice while the community’s leaders have remained silent. For other Namvar creditors, he is seen in a poor light because they believe that they could have regained their investments or parts of their money back from Namvar if attorneys like Youssefyeh had not encouraged their clients to pull Namvar into involuntary bankruptcy. Like him or not, he has been one of the more vocal public voices from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community regarding the Namvar case in a time when the community’s leadership has largely remained silent on the sidelines while countless families have had to endure tremendous financial hardship.
Last year my webcast interview with Youssefyeh went viral worldwide and his courage to speak up about the plight of Namvar’s victims and start a community dialogue has been applauded by Iranian Jews and others familiar with the case. Youssefyeh sat down with me recently to discuss both Namvar’s recent criminal conviction and more background regarding the bankruptcy case.
What does Namvar’s conviction mean to the victims of Namvar and Namco that have been furious these past two and half years?
They have some relief knowing that Mr. Namvar won’t be able to run around town from one party to another while they are wondering how to pay for their schooling, retirement or even their next meal. One the one hand they are happy to see some justice done. On the other hand the verdict has brought back all of the bitter feelings that they felt when they realized that their money was gone.
Where you surprised at the jury’s quick response in this case?
Not at all. This case was a slam dunk for the prosecution.
You were criticized, attacked and your name was besmirched by many in the Iranian Jewish community for being one of the few people who were vocal against Namvar for his alleged fraud early on. What does the jury verdict mean to you?
Although I see Mr. Namvar’s conviction as a positive step towards justice for his victims, the verdict does not make a difference to me in terms of what I think about the whole affair. At the end of the day, I am confident in the decision that was made by myself and my clients to put Mr. Namvar and his company into bankruptcy as we took every step possible to avoid a bankruptcy. At the end of the day, however, it was Mr. Namvar’s actions that forced our hand. For about a month prior to the filing of the bankruptcy myself and my clients sat with Mr. Namvar, his brothers and “elders of the community” trying to come up with a solution that would avoid a bankruptcy filing but at every turn we found that Mr. Namvar would tell us one thing face to face and do something else the second that we walked out the room. For example, he would promise us that he would cease transfer of his properties but that same day I would get calls from people close to him, or other creditors about Mr. Namvar’s attempts to dispose of his assets. Another good example is the Wilshire-Bundy building. This is the main asset in Mr. Namvar’s bankruptcy estate and the bulk of the payment to the creditors is going to come from the proceeds of this asset. At the time that myself and my clients became involved in the case, Mr. Namvar had the building in escrow scheduled to be sold to a select group of creditors. The proceeds of that sale were going to pay the money that Mr. Namvar had taken from his 1031 exchange customers—even back then he knew he had criminal liability for his 1031 misdeeds.
On multiple occasions prior to the bankruptcy, we asked Mr. Namvar to stop the sale and or to keep the proceeds of the sale within Namco since it was from Namco’s creditors that Mr. Namvar had obtained the money to purchase the building in the first place. Mr. Namvar, however refused to ever consider sending the proceeds anywhere but to his 1031 exchange customers. The icing on the cake was when Mr. Namvar, seeing our determination, began a series of threats against myself and my clients. It was always through third parties as he was never man enough to do it in person. He event sent a group of people to “protest” against the bankruptcy outside one of my client’s residence on Shabbat. Finally the bankruptcy trustees’ report which accused Mr. Namvar of treating Namco as his personal “piggybank” is probably the most damning evidence against him. If after reading that report, you still don’t believe that he was a fraudster, then probably nothing will change your mind.
How do you respond to the critics and even some of the victims of Namvar’s alleged ponzi scheme that argue his conviction is meaningless to them as it will not help them regain their lost savings?
The government can’t force Mr. Namvar to bring back the money that he is hiding overseas, but they can prosecute him for theft of money if he doesn’t bring it back. The reason that we are out over two years from the bankruptcy and Mr. Namvar’s victims are still waiting to be paid is because of Mr. Namvar’s lack of cooperation with the trustees. We still do not have a declaration of assets from him that is signed under the penalty of perjury. I just hope that the verdict causes Mr. Namvar’s brothers to step up to the plate and at least compensate his elderly and poor victims. This will go a long way towards healing the pain in the community.
Only Namvar and his controller Tabatabi were convicted last week. What have you heard from the Namvar/ Namco creditors as far as their desires to see the federal prosecutors pursue criminal charges of conspiracy against the other Namvar family members?
A lot of the creditors had expressed to me their desire to see the federal government investigate the dealings of the entire family because they worked so closely with each other. I know that the bankruptcy trustees have filed multiple lawsuits against members of Mr. Namvar’s close family and companies controlled by them for causes of action that include preference, fraudulent transfer and breach of fiduciary duty. However I don’t know if any of them are being criminally investigated. I’m sure that the trustees are working closely with the FBI to report any illegal practices that they see. If anyone has any information, they should also contact the FBI.
I understand that many of the Iranian Jewish Namvar and Namco creditors have been frustrated with their community’s leadership regarding this case. Can you please shed light on the response or lack of response from the Southern California Iranian Jewish community’s leadership regarding this case?
One of the issues here is that our community has been in America for too long and is too spread out to have one set of leaders. On any given Saturday, there are more Persian Jews praying in “American Synagogues” than in “Persian Synagogues”. Consequently, the Iranian Jewish Federation is not the central hub to go to in times of need. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of frustration by the victims because at a private meeting, Rabbi David Shofet, whom a lot of people in the Iranian Jewish community look up to, expressed that as a matter of rabbinic law, he holds the entire Namvar family liable for the losses caused by Mr. Namvar. Rabbi Shofet, however has refused to affirm the statement publicly and this has caused a lot of frustration for victims that want to use this statement to negotiate with Mr. Namvar’s family. There are also many creditors who are mad at “Chabad of Brentwood” for allowing Mr. Namvar into its synagogue after the scandal hit. At the end of the day, this scandal showed that we need to be organized as a community.
Do you believe Namvar is a flight risk and may leave the country even though he has surrendered his passport? If so, is Iran an option for him to flee to?
I don’t think that he is a flight risk. Where is he going to go? He has money in Israel but they would deport him in he fled to Israel and Iran is such a bad place for Jews—so why he go there?
The Iranian Jewish community has been plagued in recent years with several other similar alleged ponzi schemes and financial fraud cases from individuals similar to Namvar. These individuals have not yet been criminally charged, but what message does Namvar’s conviction send to them and other who may be planning similar schemes?
The message to people that haven’t been charged yet is very clear—you are next! Hopefully Mr. Namvar’s conviction will deter anyone else who is contemplating doing something similar. But the reality of life is that soon enough there will be others.
This case has shattered the trust among individuals in the Iranian Jewish community and its leadership. Is there any hope for a healing and return of that trust anytime soon?
At some point we will move on from this and everyone will move on. But it is going to take a long long time.
May 20, 2011 | 2:24 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Yesterday, Los Angeles Iranian Jewish banker and real estate investor Ezri Namvar, 59, was convicted on four counts of fraud in a downtown L.A. federal court. After only three hours of deliberation, the jury found that Namvar had failed to return $23 million given for safekeeping to his company, Namco Financial Exchange Corp. (NFE), and instead invested the money in risky real estate deals.
The NFE’s controller Hamid Tabatabai, 62, was also convicted on four counts of working out a scheme with Namvar from March 2008 to August 2008 to defraud five of NFE’s clients of 1031 funds, which, according to the federal tax code, refers to profits realized from the sale of a business or investment property that are not immediately liable for capital gains taxes if the money is used to purchase a similar replacement property.
Namvar’s September 2010 indictment had charged that he returned only $4 million of the $27 million NFE’s clients’ 1031 funds gave his company for safekeeping, and that these funds were used by Namvar without authorization for various purposes unrelated to the clients. The indictment had also indicated that Namvar, with the help of Tabatabai, used NFE’s clients’ funds to pay off creditors and investors of Namvar’s investment company, Namco Capital Group Inc. as well as Namvar’s personal creditors.
Several Iranian Jewish victims of Namvar’s ponzi scheme expressed satisfaction at the jury’s verdict today since Namvar has long denied any wrongdoing among those in his community.
“Many of us victims feel that justice has been served somewhat today with this conviction,” said Abraham Assil, an Iranian Jewish business man and victim of Namvar’s ponzi scheme. “But we still believe more criminal charges need to be brought against the other Namvar family members involved for their role as accomplices to the criminal actions of Ezri Namvar”.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice statement, both Namvar and Tabatabai face statutory maximum sentences of 80 years in federal prison. U.S. District Court Judge Anderson ordered Namvar who is free on bond to be subject to home incarceration with electronic monitoring. Anderson has scheduled a June 1 hearing to determine if Namvar should be taken into custody prior to his August 22nd scheduled sentencing.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown L.A. and Namvar’s attorney did not return calls for comment on the case. A. David Youssefyeh, a Century City Iranian Jewish attorney representing some of Namvar’s Iranian Jewish creditors in other civil cases against Namvar, said the banker’s conviction has been a long time coming for his victims.
“The fact that Ezri Namvar was convicted of fraud is a surprise to no one,” said Youssefyeh. “However, justice is not done yet. Justice will be done when Mr. Namvar is sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.”
Namvar was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in December, 2008, and accused by investors of creating a Ponzi scheme that lost as much as $500 million loaned to him — most of it by Los Angeles’ Iranian Jews. The petition followed 17 lawsuits filed against Namvar, his company Namco, entities owned by Namvar and other Namvar family members, alleging breach of contract and contractual fraud in a case that attorneys estimate involves 300 to 400 creditors, the majority of them Iranian Jews.
Youssefyeh said Namvar’s victims have been particularly frustrated during the last near three years because they have had to endure tremendous financial hardships while Namvar has continued to enjoy his lavish lifestyle and made a concerted effort to hide his assets during the bankruptcy proceedings.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Namvar has no one to blame but himself,” Youssefyeh said. “If he hadn’t spent so much time and effort trying to hide his assets from his victims, he would probably not find himself here today”.
A report released in early 2010 by the trustees in Namvar’s bankruptcy case, Namco owes more than $500 million to more than 170 secured and unsecured creditors. The report also states that Namco is owed more than $600 million from loans it made to 16 members of Namvar’s family, various limited liability corporations owned by Namvar and to more than 60 individuals and entities. In addition, the report indicates that Namvar gave himself a loan of more than $32 million, and he also gave $50 million to each of his four children.
Many of Namvar’s Iranian Jewish creditors are low- to middle-income couples, individuals or retired seniors who invested their small savings with Namvar and his company, hoping to receive higher interest rates than what most banks were offering at the time. Their investments ranged anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000, and most said they had lost all hope of regaining their funds.
The Namvar case has bitterly divided many in Southern California’s tight-knit Iranian Jewish community, with many of the Namvar victims expressing frustration with the community’s social and religious leadership for remaining largely silent about Namvar’s culpability.
“Early on Rabbi David Shofet (of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills) indicated in a formal letter that if Namvar was proven in court to be a thief, then he and his family must give back the money they took from people,” said Assil. “Today I’d like to see what the rabbi’s response is to Namvar’s conviction”.
April 25, 2011 | 7:01 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community has been abuzz following news last week that one of their own, businessman and toymaker Isaac Larian won his second lawsuit against U.S. toy giant Mattel over a seven year dispute regarding copyright ownership of the widely popular “Bratz” toy dolls Larian’s MGA Entertainment created and sold. The jury last week awarded MGA nearly $89 million in damages. Larian throught out the lawsuit has become an underdog hero to many local Iranian American Jewish business owners who have come to admire his strength in standing up to a major competitor who has been trying to crush his successful business from the start.
Local Iranian Jews have by in large stood by Larian despite his 2008 lawsuit loss to Mattel which claimed that his company had stolen the idea for the “Bratz” dolls. The 2008 jury decision was overturned last year by an appeals court, which ruled that MGA deserved “sweat equity” for producing and marketing the dolls. The appeals court said Mattel couldn’t claim a monopoly over dolls and ordered a new trial in U.S. Federal Court. This time around, jurors heard not only the copyright claims but also accusations from each company that the other side stole trade secrets. Among its claims, MGA accused Mattel of sending employees into its showrooms at industry trade shows to spy on its products and also accused Mattel of passing out an internal “how to steal” manual.
While this lawsuit may continue with Mattel potentially appealing the second trial, I can’t understand why in god’s name they have spent nearly $400 million to fight Larian for all these years. From a business perspective it seems like a financially unwise move and downright vindictive! It seems as if their hope was to drive Larian out of the toy business with all these years of litigation. In 2007 I interviewed Larian and found him to be a genuine and hardworking individual who was indeed living the American dream. He came to the U.S. as an immigrant teenager who worked hard at a minimum wage job and over years finally achieved tremendous success through his own hard working efforts. His ties to the local Jewish community and support of various charities has been widely publicized over the years.
My 2007 interview with Larian can be found here.