On March 27th nearly 600 Iranian Jews and Muslims from the Southern California area gathering at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills to honor the memory of Professor Amnon Netzer who had died on February 15, 2008 at the age of 73. The event was the Iranian Jewish community’s final farewell to a man who had opened their eyes and reintroduced them to their long lost history.
Netzer had dedicated a greater part of his life to the near impossible task or uncovering, analyzing and recording the literature, culture and 2,500 year history of Iran’s Jewry. After having countless works published, he slowly became one of the academic world’s giants not only in the field of Iranian Jewish Studies but also for Iranian Studies in general. The night’s memorial event was both a tribute to Netzer and the remarkable legacy/gifts he left his community. “He awakened our community about it’s roots and history that we had forgotten,” said George Haroonian, an Iranian Jewish activist speaking at the memorial. “It is our duty to remember and honor this man who spent day and night dedicating his life’s work for the benefit of our community”.
Special messages of condolences were also read at the memorial coming from letters submitted by Iranian Empress Farah Pahlavi, Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, and Israeli Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz. The Persian language news media based in the U.S. were also at hand broadcasting the gathering via satellite around the world and even into Iran, through the Voice of American television program. The popular host of Israel Radio in Persian language, Menashe Amir, had also flown in from Israel and spoke briefly about Netzer’s contributions to the program in its infancy during the 1950’s. “I don’t see this as an event honoring Amnon Nezter, but rather a gathering to honor our community,” said Amir who became emotional a number of times during his speech. Interestingly, Amir said Netzer’s work in the radio program during the 1950’s had helped foster the first cultural bonds and interactions between Israel and the government of Iran during the reign of the late Shah.
Yet praise for Netzer’s work did not only come from Iranian Jews, UCLA’s Director of Iranian Studies, Dr. Hossein Ziai, spoke of Netzer’s prominence in the field of Iranian Studies worldwide. What I particularly enjoyed about the memorial were the short video clips shown of Netzer’s speeches over the years where he spoke about his love for researching Iranian Jewish roots and sharing his findings with the community. In one video speech Netzer said that he was motivated in 1963 during his studies at Columbia University to take up the substantial task of recording Iranian Jewish history after reading Dr. Habib Levy’s book on Judeo-Persian history that had previously been lost or unknown to the community.
In 1970, Netzer returned to Israel where he co-founded the Iranian Studies department at Hebrew University and began his research on Iranian Jewish history as well as the ancient Judeo-Persian language. He not only authored scores of articles about Iranian Jewish history but helped compile, “Padyavand,” a rare and comprehensive three-volume book detailing various significant events in Iranian Jewish history.
What I personally found disappointing about the memorial for Netzer was the fact that the crowd that had turned out for the event was by in large in their 50’s or older. Aside from myself and Nezter’s close family friend Shireen Oberman, there were not too many younger folks at hand to listen to the speakers and to learn more about Netzer. What a shame it was that not more younger Iranian Jews were at hand to learn more about their history that had been uncovered by Nezter and translated into English. Despite this shortcoming, I was pleased to hear some local Iranian Jewish leaders calling for individuals in the community to donate funds in an effort to complete seven to eight uncompleted books Netzer had been working on prior to his death! Hopefully Netzer’s legacy and work will live on for future generations despite his exit from this world.