Jewish Journal

Iranian Jews gathering at movie theatre for Shabbat services

by Karmel Melamed

August 5, 2007 | 1:48 pm

If you passed by the small Fine Arts Theatre located on Wilshire Boulevard before La Cienega Boulevard on Saturday mornings, you might find it stranger to see random local Iranian Jews entering it without paying any admission. At first glance you might think these Iranian Jews might be gathered at the small theatre to view an early morning matinee of foreign films. But if you enter the theatre’s main screening room you might just be shocked to find the “Or Emona” congregation of Iranian Jews participating in Shabbat morning services!

Yes, Hebrew prayers chanted in the traditional Islamic-style melody echo through out the newly refurbished plush 1940’s style theatre and a performance stage standing in front of the giant white screen serves as a bima. To some, this Persian shul set inside an old school Hollywood movie theatre might seem like a funky surrealistic painting because you’d probably never find these two elements come together in any other circumstances. Yet for the near two dozen Iranian Jewish congregants, the theatre is their sanctuary for spirituality for three hours every Saturday morning. Not many local Iranian Jews even know of this small congregation gathering at the theatre and the congregants who are between the ages of 65 to 90 have not made much of an effort to outreach to anyone else. I myself would have never known the congregation even existed had I not attended services with my grandparents who are regulars.

Young people are welcomed to join the congregation but perhaps only two or three men in their 20’s make it there regularly. This might be because the services are conducted in Persian with the ancient traditions brought from Iran only appealing to the older generation. Typically when I attend, I’m greeted by Benjamin Davidoff, the synagogue’s unofficial and generous caretaker. He’s a jolly short round man with fair skin and rosy red cheeks in his 70’s. Davidoff greets everyone who enters with a friendly handshake and his signature million dollar smile. This very successful businessman volunteers his help every week without seeking the limelight or praise for anyone. His love of Judaism, our tradition, and the community is heartfelt through his efforts to make the theatre like a real synagogue. Davidoff and the synagogue’s other leader Solieman Aghahi have been the glue that has kept this congregation together for nearly two decades. Before renting out the Fine Arts Theatre, the two men had the congregation gathering inside the banquet hall of the Gaylord Indian restaurant on La Cienega and prior to that inside the Le Meridian Hotel also on La Cienega.

(left to right Or Emona Rabbi Nourani and President Solieman Aghahi)

The congregation is neither orthodox nor conservative, but practicing a traditional form of Judaism from Iran that somehow manages to combine the old and new. Men and women sit separately during services but a microphone is used for anyone to hear the prayers. Holding steadfast to their norms from Iran, the congregation does not collect membership but individuals raise money for the shul through bidding on the aliyot, the opening of the torah arch and the carrying of the torah in a type of auction during the services. For example, one man may bid $18 for the reading of the Maftir but he may get outbid by another who will bid $52. Typically the sale of each prayer ends with the rabbi asking for any other bids and then counting in Hebrew; “Ahad…Shetayim…Shalosh…Zakhal!” Another interesting aspect of the service involves the participation of the women who during the Torah readings made in honor of a newlywed couple, a new birth, or a happy occasion make some traditional loud sounds with their mouths. These loud sounds cannot be described very well but are very similar to Native Americans chants during an attack on the Cavalry back in the old West. While non-Iranian Jews may be frightened by these sounds, they are an expression of joy and tradition carried over from Iran by women during times of happiness. At the same time men also get their chance to express their joy at the services by singing brief traditional Persian language songs for the person making the aliyah at the Torah with a happy occasion. These traditional songs have been carried down from generation to generation by Jews in Iran and are filled with well wishes and prayers for a newlywed couple or a newborn child.

Even though a small number of Iranian Jews attend the weekly services held inside the Fine Arts Theatre, their numbers expand to nearly three hundred during the High Holy days. This is because Iranian Jewish families who do not belong to any other synagogue buy tickets to attend the services at Or Emona.

One last aspect of the Or Emona congregation that continues to fascinate me is that the congregants do not attend the large and very elegant Nessah Persian synagogue just a few blocks up the street on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. If you ask them why they continue to meet at the Fine Arts Theatre rather than attend services at Nessah with other Iranian Jews, they will give you a whole host of excuses. But the sad reality is that many of them have differences of opinion with those at Nessah over traditions and community politics.

For the record it should be noted that Or Emona is not the only traditional Iranian shul in the city that gathers at a funky location, there are more than a dozen similar Iranian synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area and along Ventura Boulevard in Encino. Some of these other shuls have much smaller congregations that have rented out old stores, banquet halls, and even restaurants to pray together on Saturday morning. So in the end the popular saying that “with two Jews you always get three opinions”, also applies to local Iranian Jews who like most any other Jewish group sometimes may not always get along together but strive to still hold onto their traditions.

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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