Posted by Karmel Melamed
For the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles, remembering the Shoah has taken on a new, sorrowful resonance in the wake of recent statements denying the Holocaust by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the same time, this year’s observance will be buoyed by the presence of Iranian Muslim participants who will gather with them on April 23 at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills to honor the memory of those who perished.
“This program is unique since it connects two large communities, Jews and Iranian [Muslims],“said George Haroonian, president of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations (CIAJO), who helped create the event. “We hope there will be a large turnout, and I am proud that we Iranian Jews are the bridge for this connection.”
Local non-Jewish Persian language satellite radio and television outlets will cover the event. It will later be broadcast into Iran. Keynote speakers include Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“History has shown that we as Jews are not good experts at judging the character of dictators like Hitler, so it would be foolish to dismiss the comments of the Iranian president about his desire to annihilate the State of Israel,” Hier said.
Milani said that Ahmadinejad is “trying to create an atmosphere of crisis. The primary purpose is to divert attention from a number of things; one of them is [the Iranian government’s] blatant incompetence.” Ahmadinejad, he added, “is trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator in politics, because he thinks that if he engages in anti-Semitism he will have some support in the Arab streets.”
He said that the majority of non-Jewish Iranians do not share the regime’s extremist beliefs.
“The Jews have been living in Iran longer than Muslims have been there,” Milani said. “The people ... are far more enlightened than their leadership.”
Other experts linked Ahmadinejad’s comments to deep-rooted anti-Semitic and even pro-Nazi sympathies.
“This issue of Holocaust revisionism is not just a diversion or demagoguery,” said Frank Nikbakht, public affairs director for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations. “It is really what the Iranian government officials believe and not just what Ahmadinejad believes. It is part and parcel of their long-term program of global jihad as embodied in the current Iranian constitution.”
Nikbakht noted several milestones of pro-Nazi sympathies in Iran that carry over to the nation’s current politics. In the early 1940s, the notorious Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Hussieni, a Nazi collaborator, came to Iran, where he influenced Ayatollah Kashani and other Iranian clerics. Kashani is well known in Iran for promulgating Al Hussieniâs anti-Semitic beliefs, and he also mentored the regime’s late founder, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Ahmadinejad’s own education was influenced by the late Ahmad Fardid, who taught university courses on Nazi ideology, racial purity, and Holocaust revisionism to thousands of students, first in the 1940s and later after the 1979 revolution, said Nikbakht.
Over the last 10 years, the Iranian regime has welcomed international neo-Nazi groups and European Holocaust revisionists to visit Iran, while translating and publishing into Persian the anti-Semitic literature of American white supremacist groups, including the National Alliance.
Despite Ahmadinejad’s calls to destroy Israel and his comments about the Shoah, the regime has not moved against Iran’s remaining Jews, whose numbers range from 10,000 to 25,000, according to various estimates.
Still, the climate of hostility had made the community fearful, Nikbakht said.
Also in attendance at the Nessah Center event will be Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch and 88-year-old Menashe Ezrapour, the only Iranian Jewish Holocaust survivor known to have been interned in Nazi concentration and work camps during World War II.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
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February 11, 2007 | 7:57 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Three years ago, Raymond P., a 28-year-old Iranian Jewish youth was a fully-fledged member of a notorious Los Angeles street gang and involved in violent crimes, activities that were helping him fund his near lethal drug habit.
Now in recovery, Raymond P.—who asked that his real name be withheld—is just one a growing number of Southern California Iranian Jews that have been using and selling illegal drugs at alarming rates during the last ten years.
âI came from a very good family but I didnât care who I was hurting as long as I was getting high,â said Raymond P. to the crowd of nearly 200 Iranian Jews gathered at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana this past August to discuss the communityâs drug abuse epidemic.
Since their arrival to the United States more than 25 years ago, Iranian Jews â now totally 30,000 in Southern California â have become perhaps one of the most educated and financially successful Jewish communities in the country. Yet with many in the community having experienced the American dream in such a short time span, a portion of Iranian Jews have not been immuned to problems such as drug abuse within the American society.
Shattering the communityâs long standing taboo of not publicly discussing drug abuse problems plaguing Iranian Jews, Eretz-SIAMAK became the first local Iranian Jewish organization to begin an open dialogue on the issue by gathering a panel of experts to educate families about drug abuse.
âFor years weâve been quietly helping addicts in the community to get recovery for their drug use,â said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. âBut this year we finally decided to go public and try to fix this problem when we noticed it has really become widespread among our young peopleâ.
The leadership at Eretz-SIAMAK, often working as trailblazers within the community and unafraid of addressing serious issues such as poverty, pre-martial sexual relations among young people, and new Jewish immigration from Iran, decided to go forward with their drug abuse awareness event after an anonymous donor provided specific funding for their program.
âThis generous donor who has asked to remain anonymous was responsible for helping us put on this event and we are already planning more upcoming drug education seminars because of his donation,â said Fakheri.
Community activists said illegal drug use among Iranian Jews of all ages has increased in recent years because most Iranian Jewish families have been afraid of seeking professional help for fear that any news about their family members using drugs would cause others in the community to look down on them or even ostracized them.
âOur culture is the type that wants to keep everything secret and not talk about it because itâs embarrassing and people put a label on you,â said Dara Abai, a community volunteer. âIn Iran, I remember that if someone told you to go to a psychologist they thought you were crazy and had a serious mental problemâ.
Abai, who has also worked as a mentor to local Iranian Jewish youth for the last 20 years, said some young Iranian Jews have indirectly been influenced to experiment with drugs after seeing their parents drinking alcohol excessively on a regular basis.
âI believe that in parties in our community we have a lot of alcohol use and I think alcohol has a lot to do with our drug problem,â said Abai. âI go parties and see married people half drunk and their kids see this and they think itâs fun so they try alcohol at a young age and sometimes that leads them to try drugsâ.
Despite the drug issue growing with the community, some Iranian Jews have conquered their drug addictions and are trying to outreach to the community. Iranian Jewish Psychologist, Dr. Iraj Shamsian is perhaps the one of the best examples of a former addict who took his negative experience and turning it around to help other addicts in the community.
âDuring those years I never said no to any drugs I saw,â said Shamsian who was a full-blown drug addict from 1983 to 1993. âI shot heroin, I used cocaine, I used different downers and uppers, even tried acid and mushroomsâ.
Shamsian said his addiction was so intense that he wasted away his own savings, his familyâs funds brought over from Iran, and he ultimately ended up living on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles before finally seeking his familyâs help in getting recovery.
After become drug free, Shamsian obtained his credentials in order to help other addicts with the community and is now working in private practice as well as the program coordinator at âCreative Careâ, one of the most respected drug treatment facilities in the country located in Malibu. In addition Shamsian also hosts âAyenehâ his own Persian language television program featured on the satellite network N.I.T.V., which is specifically geared to educate Iranians around the world about the dangers of drug use.
âWe discuss different topics about drug use on the program and answer phone calls from Iranians around the world â even in Iran, that is now the number one country with the most drug addicts in the world,â said Shamsian.
Shamsian and other experts said that young Iranian Jews, just like most young people, at first experiment with different drugs out of peer pressure or to fit in with their friends, then this experimentation often results in them become addicts.
Shamsian also said that while many younger Iranian Jews have been primarily using marijuana, a significant number of older Iranian Jewish men working in Downtown Los Angeles are using opium on a regular basis because of their past use and familiarity with the drug from Iran.
Unfortunately problems with drug abuse have also lead many Iranian Jews to face criminal prosecution for their illegal drug habits, said Iranian Jewish L.A.P.D. Sergeant Dariush Sameyah.
âI was in court recently with this person from a very prominent Iranian Jewish family and she was heavily involved in narcotics and credit card fraud to support her narcotics habit,â said Sameyah who works in L.A.P.D. Internal Affairs. âThis issue is very prevalent in our community and is not isolated at all, if you look at the court records everyday and see the cases coming up you will see Jewish Iranian names quite frequentlyâ.
Despite having lived in the United States for nearly three decades, Iranian Jews have by in large not had exposure to law enforcement here and are completely unaware of the legal consequences of their drug use, said Sameyah.
âThey still think the old system in Iran can be applied here, unfortunately they get a very very rude awakening once the handcuffs go on,â said Sameyah. âBack in the day if a very well respected Iranian person got arrested in Iran, they wouldnât get handcuffed or strip searched the way they do here. Itâs such an insult and slap in the face for an Iranian person when they are told to bend over and spread your butt cheeks for a cavity search, but thatâs the law and public policy in the United Statesâ.
Sameyah said a joint investigation lead by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Los Angeles Police Department led to the arrest of nearly a dozen Iranians in Southern Californiaâmany of whom were Jewsâthis past summer for allegedly selling and importing opium as well as laundering money generated from the sale of opium.
âThe profits are so high from the narcotics trade that you canât go deposit it in your bank account because now you have to show where that money came from and pay taxes from it,â said Sameyah. âIn order to hide their activities, they have to launder that money by some how taking it out of the country and bringing it back through another methodâ.
Aside from marijuana and opium use among Iranians living in California, heroin has recently been making a huge comeback as the drug of choice within the Iranian community, said Sameyah.
Community volunteers said many Iranian Jews have mostly sought recovery for their drug addictions at Chabadâs Treatment facility located near the Miracle Mile area because of the facilityâs strong emphasis on Jewish values and spirituality.
Three years ago, Shamsian along with a handful of other Iranians from different religions helped found the Iranian Recovery Center (I.R.C.) located in Westwood. The non-profit organization primarily offers Iranians seminars and education about substance abuse as well as referrals to those seeking treatment for their addictions.
âThe services of the I.R.C. are totally free and open to the public, we help Iranians of all different religions, some more wealthy, others without much money get their questions answered about drug use,â said Shamsian.
Drug abuse experts said that despite the cultural and generational gap between Iranian Jewish parents and their children, the best way to prevent drug use among young people is to educate them before their teen years about the dangers of drugs.
âIf you want to start talking about narcotics to a 15, 16 or 17-year-old, youâre about ten years behind the curve because that kid has spent the last ten years in school with god knows who having glorified narcotics use for them,â said Sameyah. âEducation about narcotics starts at the age of three and four, about what drugs can do to you and what they look like are keyâ.
Abai, Shamsian and Sameyah, all of whom appeared as panelist at the Eretz-SIAMAK drug awareness event said they would like to see greater involvement from local Iranian Jewish leaders in drug prevention programs.
Local leaders and volunteers also said Iranian Jews must first change their outlook and perspective on drug addicts within their own ranks in order to overcome the communityâs taboo and make real progress in battling the communityâs drug problem.
âWe have to try not judge people with drug addictions, we have to look at drug abuse as a disease and not from a moral point of view,â said Shamsian. âWe have to also accept the fact that because of the exodus from Iran and changing countries, this [drug abuse] is normal, this is what happens and itâs not the parents fault that the kids are using drugs but the whole experience that makes us vulnerable.â
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Iranian Jewish Chronicle magazine:
February 11, 2007 | 7:47 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
In August 1939, Menashe Ezrapour could have escaped the horrors of the Holocaust by boarding a train in the French city of Grenoble, but instead, he chose to stay, ultimately becoming the only known Shoah survivor of Iranian Jewish descent interned in concentration and work camps.
Earlier this year, Ezrapour, 88, was honored at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills after coming forward for the first time in more than 60 years to publicly share his story of survival, perhaps bringing the local Persian Jewish community closer to the Shoah.
A number of Holocaust experts, including ones from Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Ezrapour is probably one of the few - if not the only - Iranian Jewish survivors held captive in the camps.
“To my knowledge, I have not heard of any Iranian Jews being held in camps during the war,” said Aaron Brightbart, head researcher at the Wiesenthal Center.
For the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles, remembering the Shoah has taken on a new, sorrowful resonance following recent statements denying the Holocaust by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obviously Ezrapour’s story is especially significant .
Upon learning of Ezrapour’s experience, several local Iranian Jewish leaders said his story may personalize the Holocaust for Iranian Jews who in the past may not have been as impacted by its effects as most European Jewry was.
“We have always felt a close bond with the Shoah,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. “This new revelation for the community just makes it so close to a personal experience for us.”
EZRAPOUR CAN still recall the names, dates and events surrounding his internment in various camps in southern France.
His life-altering experience began when he and his brother, Edward, left their home in the Iranian city of Hamadan and went to Paris in September 1938 to pursue higher education. In August 1939, they journeyed to Grenoble in southeastern France. Shortly afterward, when war in Europe seemed imminent, they decided to return to Iran.
“As we were preparing to leave, my friend from Baghdad, Maurice, who was an Iraqi Jew, encouraged me to stay,” Ezrapour said.
His brother returned to Iran, but he remained in Grenoble and continued his engineering education at a local university. For the next three years, Ezrapour said that neither France’s German occupiers nor the Vichy government bothered him. However, he was eventually forced to register as a Jew in 1941, in accordance to Vichy laws.
In late 1942, he and several hundred other Jews in the area were rounded up and sent to nearby detention camps. The French police took Ezrapour to a work camp called Uriage. He said the prisoners there were worried that they’d be deported to Germany.
“After one month there, I got permission to return to Grenoble for two days, and I never returned to the camp,” Ezrapour recalled.
He said he stayed in the Grenoble home of a Christian woman for two weeks and used false identification papers to get around. He was ultimately arrested after the woman was tricked by a police officer into revealing his whereabouts.
After 45 days in jail, Ezrapour said he was convicted of using false papers and sentenced to serve 40 more days in the Shapoli work camp. From Shapoli, he and other Jewish prisoners were taken to the infamous Gurs concentration camp, 80 kilometers from the Spanish border.
According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Gurs was the first and one of the largest concentration camps in France, with approximately 60,000 prisoners held there from 1939 to 1945. According to the 1993 book, Gurs: An Internment Camp in France, the internees included approximately 23,000 Spanish Republican soldiers who had fled Franco’s Spain in 1939, 7,000 International Brigade volunteers, 120 French resistance members and more than 21,000 Jews from all over Europe.
EZRAPOUR SAID living conditions there were unbearable, with too many people crowded together into small barracks and very little food.
“Every day, the only food available was one bowl of watered-down turnip soup and 75 grams of bread, which is the size of a teaspoon,” he said.
Gurs held thousands of Jews prior to their final deportation to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor. However, more than 1,000 detainees died of hunger, typhoid fever, dysentery and extreme cold.
After a month at Gurs, Ezrapour said he and 40 other prisoners were sent to a work camp near Marseilles called Meyreuil, instead of being deported to Auschwitz with thousands of other Jews.
“After two days there, an officer issuing identification cards asked me if I was Jewish, and I told him I was not, and he luckily did not identify me as a Jew,” Ezrapour said. “This was an incredible miracle, because later in 1944, two Gestapo officers came to the camp and saw my Jewish name on the list and asked for me. The camp commandant told them I was an Iranian-Iraqi, and they didn’t ask for me any further.”
Ezrapour said he was subsequently sent to labor long hours in the coal mines near Meyreuil. He also worked as an electrician.
In August 1944, he said, Meyreuil was liberated by American forces, and he left the camp. He sought refuge with rebels in the Spanish underground living in a nearby border town.
For the remainder of the war, Ezrapour returned to Grenoble, where he completed his education in engineering. He returned to Iran in June 1946 and worked in the spare auto parts business.
DESPITE ENDURING tremendous hardships at camps, Ezrapour said the experience has not made him bitter but only reinforced his belief in God.
“After witnessing all of the miracles I encountered then, I have always been grateful to God,” he said. “I had, and still have, a strong belief in God and his powers; that’s what got me through the experience.”
The list of Dachau prisoners in Paul Berben’s book Dachau 1933-1945: The Official History (Norfolk Press, 1975) indicates that there was one survivor of Iranian nationality at the camp when it was liberated by US forces in April 1945. However, the list does not identify the prisoner’s religion.
Records from Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names reveal that five Jews born in Iran perished in the Holocaust.
In April 2004, the Wiesenthal Center posthumously honored Abdol Hossein Sardari, the Iranian ambassador to German-controlled France during World War II, who forestalled the deportation of 200 Iranian Jews living in Paris. In addition, he was also honored for saving several hundred non-Iranian Jews in Paris in 1942 by giving them Iranian passports.
Ezrapour said that while he did not encounter any other Iranian Jews during his internment in the French camps, most Iranian Jews he has known over the years have expressed great sorrow over the loss of their brethren at the hands of the Nazis.
“They do feel great pain, because their co-religionist brothers were murdered,” he said. “Perhaps my experience will give them a better idea of the seriousness of what happened.”
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post:
February 11, 2007 | 7:24 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
You have probably seen her at many local Iranian Jewish gatherings around town or even at parties with one or two cameras in hand shooting everything around her. Sheâs not your typical hired photographer, but American Jewish artist Shelley Gazin has been trying to capture the essence of Southern Californiaâs Iranian Jewish community for almost two years through a series of unique photographs from the perspective of an outsider. Aside from teaching photography at UCLA, her work has been on display in various exhibitions in London, Los Angeles and Pasadena. Likewise Gazinâs photographs of national leaders and celebrities have appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, Forbes and numerous other national publications.
Following her successful âLooking for a Rabbiâ exhibition in 2001 at the Skirball Museum & Cultural Center here in Los Angeles, Gazin became interested in our community. Since then she has taken on her latest project âBecoming Persian: A Photographic Narrative with Text Threads Illuminating the Persian Jewish Communityâ. Selections from this work-in-progress have been presented in conjunction with programs for the local Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, UCLA Jewish Studies department and USC. This coming November, Gazin will be presenting a small group of her photographs from our community at a Los Angeles cultural research event held at the Huntington Library. Recently I sat down with her to learn more about her artistic work within our community.
What motivated you to begin this endeavor of photographing the Iranian Jewish community locally?
When I was preparing for my exhibit on at the Skirball Musuem (“Looking for a Rabbi”) I encountered the Persian Jewish Community for the first time. I was amazed that right here in my own neighborhood, where I grew up and was a part of Jewish life for my entire life, there was this community that has made major contributions in science, medicine and business. I realized that this might be the greatest untold saga of 20th century immigration. And I was delighted to be the first artist to receive a commission from the California Council for the Humanities to trace and artistically represent this incredible story. I knew that, as with past CCH grants, this was a chance to build tolerance and strength by sharing stories. The photos I’ve taken are powerful and Iâm not finished yet! Thereâs much more to come.
As an outsider to our community who is Jewish, what do you think has most surprised you and or impressed you about our community?
As a documentary artist I am the perpetual outsider. But I found Persian hospitality so encompassing that I was pulled in, almost as if by a magnet. And I am surprised by how deeply I feel a part of it.
Where have you generated the funding necessary for this project and where are you looking to for continued funding?
Throughout history, the arts have been supported by patrons who recognized the need for inspiration and glorification of their civilizations through images. Likewise, this project’s initial funding was seeded by the CCH and then by Righteous Persons Foundation with the expectation that other foundations or people of vision would step up to help it reach its full potential. So far, additional contributions from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, The Durfee Foundation and special people in the Persian Jewish community including those at the Laura & David Merage Family Foundation have made work-in-progress exhibits possible with the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History (Skirball) and with UCLA Judaic Studies at the Autry Museum and at USC/Doheny Library. I have another presentation coming up in November at the Huntington Library with the USC -LA Subject Archives partnership. Significant grants are still needed from those with vision, and of course, the means. I expect what is necessary will come from a member, or a few members of this, temporarily-my, community from someone who loves education and values their culture and wants this story honored. I am affiliated with two Jewish not-for-profit fiduciary organizations based in New York who have long track records in this field and can answer questions about sponsorship.
Will any of your photos be up for sale to our community?
About the sale of photographs there have been many inquiries. But the goal is to complete the project rather than put time into running a business selling original prints. These arenât wedding photos! The corpus is a work of art and needs the sort of consideration any major collection receives. All of my images are considered raw research notes and are not ready for release until they have been edited for the various exhibitions under consideration. A few selected prints are available for acquisition now to underwrite the project. What works best for this kind of project is that prospective buyers become donors. By making a grant to the project they can be part of this historical project, and then, selected images can be gifted as a thank you.
Youâve been photographing our community in various settings from weddings to funerals to political rallies, are there any that have particularly photographed really well and revealed what we are really like?
Well, as the great American poet Robert Frost said, âpoetry is whatâs lost in the translation.â If I could tell you in a few words, we wouldnât need art. But, I can say this: big stories like this are revealed in context as in a book or exhibit. This context will reveal a mosaic of soul, energy, intelligence, sense of humor, and cultural clues of a community undergoing rapid changes Â¦made up of moments, each one co-existing with structural perfection caught and artistically rendered on a little piece of film.
Where do you plan on exhibiting your photographs and will they be available for sale down the line in prints for individuals after the project is done?
I am fortunate to be in discussion with several prestigious academic and cultural venues. I am also planning a traveling exhibition, and when the schedule is finalized, Iâll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll be presenting a few samples of work-in-progress at the Huntington-Library in November as I did last year with the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History (Skirball) and UCLA Jewish Studies (Autry Museum). Because they have already been exhibited, a selection of archival prints are available for acquisition now through the projects not-for profit fiduciary in order to underwrite the project. Others will be available as time goes on. Each print is hand-printed and ideally, a donor will enable the master set of prints to be gifted to an appropriate museum either here or in Israel or both.
Iranians and especially Iranian-Jews are often very tight-knit and do not typically interact as much as the American Jewish communities, can you share how this aspect of our community has been an obstacle for you to overcome?
I was fortunate to be properly introduced into the community by the âCenter for Jewish Culture & Creativityâ and my credentials preceded me. It takes time and commitment to convince others you are making a contribution to community life. I think it is more an obstacle that they must overcome. In order for them to play on a world stage they have to be visible. I think that is why they welcome me, even though at the same time they exhibit a certain reluctance and reserve. Perhaps they are afraid of what I may reveal. They can help me or hinder me. But I have an unbeatable work ethic. In a way the situation is a perfect mirror of the Persian Jewish experience coming to California.
Our magazine was informed that you have been offered funds to potentially travel to Iran and photograph members of our community there. Can you share with us a little about this potential future project?
Right now there is much to do about life in L.A. so that the project can be completed in a meaningful timeframe. I will do the trip you mention as soon as the sponsorship is available. Traveling to Iran would be ideal. One of my recent projects told the story of the changing Marais, and going back and forth to Paris, to see the changes gave the project texture and depth.
The arts are not typically reinforced among Iranian Jewish families and what you are doing is in essence preserving our current history. How can support of the arts benefit Jewish life and Iranian Jewish life in Los Angeles?
I am a link. I am an artist, a Jew, and I can help start a process that is perhaps overdue. No one wants their children to grow up to be artists because they are afraid they will be poor. But I can show them how it works—a successful artist is a working artist, an artist with credentials—while I tell their story. It paves the way. We all know that art has always been a way of saying I exist—we exist, with the intention of preserving our identities forever, be it through sculpture, abstract painting or photojournalism, it contributes to survival on many levels. But to have real impact it has to be valued just like other respected occupations. Often that appreciation comes too late, after the culture is in decline. We have a real opportunity right now, with this project, so well under way, to get to the next level while the community is still in vibrant growth. I hope to be part of the new sophistication that will add joy and help create a place in history. When I was a child I loved to read books and watch movies about and by creative geniuses and I still do. That’s part of wanting to make a difference in the world. Since photography is a relatively new art only coming into its own in the past 30 years, I am proud to be a pioneer, educating at the same time I produce the actual art.
Artistically speaking are there any special methods or uses of lighting you typically use in your photographs that are distinctive to you?
As a documentary artist my work is executed for historical preservation at the highest possible resolution. I shoot film actual film that can be touched and mediated in the real world. I use materials with weight and heft and permanence in at least three dimensions. That is what history and art have required so far. I do not deal in ephemera, even if what I capture might otherwise be ephemeral. Each print is processed by hand with archival methods and no two are alike so each print is an original.
How do you best want to capture the subject being photographed?
When it comes to the professional work I have produced for corporations, public relations agencies and magazines, whether celebrity or family portraiture, I’ve used both hard and ambient lighting. That translates to this project. Whether I’m lighting Joni Mitchell, Jesse Jackson, or Dr. Rahbar, I light as needed to bring out the truth in the subject, for the dramatic essence that makes an impact and makes us think. There is so much of it if we simply look and this is what I am here to do; make people look and think! I want the viewer to feel the subject viscerally, close-up with me, to make contact. Each time I point the camera at someone, I feel it.
If a non-Iranian artist or journalist asked you for advice on how to approach and interact with our community, what advice would you give them?
Whenever one travels to a new world, one must show respect.
This article was originally published by the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine:
February 11, 2007 | 7:15 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
This past August the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored an array of actors, directors, producers, and creative artists for their work on various television programs that aired this past year. Lila Yomtoob, a 30-something Iranian Jewish resident of New York became the first Iranian Jewish recipitant of an Emmy Award this year for her sound editing work on the HBO television documentary film âBaghdad ERâ. While she did not travel to Iraq for the film, she handled the post-production sound editing. The film chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility at the 86th Combat Support Hospital located in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Yomtoob is one of a growing number of young Iranian Jews who have recently broke with their communityâs career expectations by working in the competitive entertainment industry and achieving success. After completing film school in 2000, she has worked as a freelance sound editor on various film and television projects. Yomtoob has also produced and directed her first independent feature film âHigh Lifeâ that takes a look at one day in the unique lives of five Brooklyn teens. Following her recent Emmy win, I had a chance to chat with Yomtoob about her award and her blossoming career in the entertainment industry.
Can you give us a little background on how you got involved in sound editing?
When I was in high school I started getting really interested in films and film making. I watched maybe three films a day back then and I would write about them. I started to notice one film in particular called âBarton Finkâ that had some really amazing sound and I realized that I so intrigued by what sound can do for a film. I never actually thought I would work in sound, it was just one of those things that brought me to film making. When I went to film school, I realized that I was really terrified by all the equipment and all of the technology. Later on I did an internship at a sound company in New York that was the same company that had done the sound on âBarton Finkâ, then I got hired.
What was it like to win the Emmy award?
I wasnât expecting it at all. When I saw that I was seated in the sixth row I had a gut feeling I was going to win. Everyone at work and my family has been very happy and congratulating me, it been great. Itâs really exciting to be recognized and go there and see what the Emmyâs are like.
Are there any other noteable projects have you worked on as a sound editor?
I work mostly on independent films, different size films. The biggest film I worked on which is the most recognizable was called âTwo Weeks Noticeâ with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant. I work on a lot of documentaries, small art films, films that go to the Sundance Film Festival. Iâve also worked on the film âDave Chappellâs Block Partyâ and on the T.V. show called âThe Wireâ on HBO.
Iranian Jewish parents seem hesitant to allow their children to work in the often unstable entertainment industry. What was your familyâs reaction when you told them you wanted a career in show business?
I would say that my decision was met with skepticism. My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers and my father wanted the same for me. My mother had a little of an artistic streak, so she thought it was ok. But I was raised to be very practical and make sure I could make a living. I honestly wanted to go to art school and pursue a career in photography, but I didnât think it was very practical. And for me film making was more practical because if you could get a job, you could make a really good living. I wasnât particularly encouraged but I went ahead an did it anyway, thatâs always been my mentality. I havenât been criticized in anyway and when getting recognized with an award like this it opens peopleâs eyes because theyâre very proud and excited for you.
Did you want to continue on this path of sound editing or do you have other career aspirations?
Ultimately Iâm hoping to be a director of my own films. I do consider myself a director already because Iâve made a film. Iâd like to parlay my sound editing into a career in filmmaking. My film is called âHigh Lifeâ, it takes place in one day and itâs about a group of teenagers who grew up together in Brooklyn where on the friends who has been missing for a week comes back. Itâs basically a coming of age story for a group of 19-year-olds growing up.
What advice do you have for younger Iranian Jews wanting a career in the entertainment industry?
I would say that if you have a passion, you should follow it because thatâs what lifeâs about. Walk with humility because you have to do a lot of grunt work, you have to be friendly with people and work hard. I think theyâre really lucky to be in the United States, because if you really want something you can get it if youâre prepared to pay the cost.
This article was originally published by the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine:
February 11, 2007 | 7:07 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
He’s not your typical yenta, and heâs certainly not JDate.com, but 70-year-old Asher Aramnia spends every Sunday afternoon working the phones at his Los Angeles office to make national and international love connections for Jewish singles of different backgrounds.
With countless successful matches to his credit, Aramnia’s matchmaking activities, based out of an Iranian Jewish community center called Eretz-Siamak, have become something of a phenomenon in the local Jewish community, where typically women and online dating services have helped Jewish singles find their soulmates.
“I know people think this is for women, but I don’t care about that,” said Aramnia, an Iranian-born Jewish businessman. “What’s important to me is the mitzvah of two single Jews finding the loves of their life.”
In the past four years, Eretz-Siamak’s Peyvand-e-Delha (Union of Hearts) program has helped bring together more than two dozen Jewish couples from various cultural backgrounds. Eretz-Siamak’s co-founder, Dariush Fakheri, originally developed the program 12 years ago to enable divorced Iranian Jews in Southern California to meet potential mates. “This program was first called ‘Another Spring’, and we wanted divorced Jews to make connection with each other, because there was a taboo for divorced people to remarry in our community,” Fakheri said. Union of Hearts has now expanded to include Iranian Jewish singles elsewhere in the United States, Mexico, Europe and South America.
“We’ve had a couple of successful marriages recently between Mexican and Iranian Jews and many Iranian Jews wanting to marry American Jews,” Aramnia said. Jewish seniors as old as 80 who are seeking companionship have been paired up, too.
Though a one-time $100 processing fee is requested by the organization to cover its program expenses, Aramnia does not get paid for introducing couples. In fact, he and his wife often stay up late on weeknights to keep in touch with singles he has introduced.
“The secret to our success is not asking them what they want, but rather asking what they don’t want in a mate or would despise in a mate,” Aramnia explained. “This allows us to better match up couples.”
Information sought by Jewish singles in the program includes age, height, weight, hair color, number of children and their ages, alimony receipt or payment, religious observance, education, occupation, hobbies, drinking limits, turnoffs, smoking or nonsmoking, and priorities in a companion, according to the application sheet.
In addition, Aramnia said he does extensive background checks on singles participating in the program and works closely with them to ensure compatibility and that their relationships last.
“After they fill out an application, I personally and confidentially interview them,” Aramnia said. “Our whole objective is to make sure that if anyone does get married, that it will last forever.”
“I have been really blessed to know Mr. Aramnia,” said Soheil Bamshad, a Southern California accountant who was introduced to his wife, Rozita, through the Union of Hearts program four years ago. “I think what he does is invaluable with all the time he puts into this at nights and on the weekends; it all takes away from his own family in order to help Jewish singles meet each other”.
Aramnia, who has been married for nearly 50 years, said he was first drawn to matching Jewish singles after seeing the collapse of many marriages and families.
“When a couple divorces with one or two children, the weight of the breakup is on the children’s shoulders who are tremendously impacted,” Aramnia said. “This breaks my heart, and I’m willing to do anything to prevent that from happening.”
For more information on the Union of Hearts program, contact: (818) 343-2390
This article was originally published by the Forward newpaper:
February 11, 2007 | 6:46 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
By Karmel Melamed
The generation of Persian Jews who escaped Iranâs 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.
Whether itâs producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their communityâs traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.
Perhaps the most notable success came earlier this year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yariâs independent film âCrashâ won the Best Picture Oscar and generated $93 million in worldwide sales.
âI had a gut feeling that it would be something special but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,â said Yari, 44, whose four production companies have backed 25 films in three years.
Yari made his fortune in real-estate development, but heâs no novice when it comes to Hollywood: After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film âMind Gamesâ for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until four years ago, when he began producing.
âIâm always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,â he said. âOne of the things thatâs always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.â
Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 30, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group.
His production company Element Films has produced five films so far and anticipates producing up to a dozen a year, each budgeted at less than $15 million, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.
Young Iranian Jews also have been writing and directing independent features. Prior to forming her own production company, Azita Zendel worked for four years as an executive assistant to Oliver Stone and collaborated with him on films including âJFK,â âNixonâ and âNatural Born Killers.â
âI guess I have stories inside of me that need to be told, and I just love the work,â the New York-based Zendel said. âGod knows itâs not an easy route but I really couldnât see myself doing anything else.â
The movie she wrote, produced and directed, the 2003 independent film âControlled Chaos,â won rave reviews upon its theatrical release as well as best feature awards from Winfemme Film Festival and the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.
Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a Los Angeles-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.
âDocumentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,â said Haim, 44.
In the meantime, Haimâs production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, recently completed shooting the independent film âWhen A Man Falls In The Forest,â starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton.
Slated for release in early 2007, the film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small midwestern town.
Yari, for his part, said heâs looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the shahâs regime.
The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in âCrashâ in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.
âItâs really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,â said Soomekh, 31, who lives in Los Angeles. âItâs so different than anything else because in the corporate world you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.â
Since âCrash,â Soomekh has landed roles in other major films including âSyriana,â opposite George Clooney, and âMission: Impossible 3â with Tom Cruise.
Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 16, was a regular last season on the Fox television series â24,â playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.
âMy biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and itâs become a much bigger part of American culture,â said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. âI donât want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.â
Ahdout made his acting debut three years ago in the acclaimed film âHouse of Sand and Fog,â alongside Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley, a film about an Iranian family in the United States.
New Yorker Dan Ahdoot is another Iranian Jewish entertainer who defied his communityâs traditions. Six years ago, Ahdoot almost entered medical school, but â to his familyâs chagrin â decided to take a shot at comedy first.
âMy whole family was basically against it, but I used that as a motivation to prove them wrong,â said Ahdoot, who hails from the Iranian Jewish enclave of Great Neck, Long Island. âLife is too short and you have to take risks. Thatâs basically what I did, and thank God itâs paying off.â
Ahdootâs routine about life as a second-generation Iranian American landed him a spot as a finalist on the 2004 season of NBCâs reality show âLast Comic Standing,â as well as awards from national comedy competitions. Heâs currently touring the country doing his routine at various colleges and universities.
âIâve seen a lot of changes in our community. After my TV appearances Iâve received e-mails from other Iranian Jews saying âIâm a lawyer or a doctor and I donât want to do this anymore,â â said Ahdoot, 27.
Ahdoot said many Iranian Jewish families push their children toward higher education and conventional careers rather than entertainment. While thatâs common in any ethnic group, Iranian Jewish parents are particularly concerned about financial security because so many were forced to leave behind their life savings when they fled Iran, Ahdoot said.
âEducation is almost as important as money in our community because itâs something no one can take away from you,â Ahdoot said. âMost parents in the community believe that âwe came here with nothing and we built this, so youâre supposed to carry the torch and donât go down.â â
This article was originally published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency International Wire News Service:
February 11, 2007 | 6:09 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
While the Iranian Jewish community has countless renowned doctors, attorneys and other professionals to point to with admiration, the very talented Bahar Soomekh has become the first and so far only Iranian Jewish actress to have achieved substantial success in Hollywood after landing prominent roles on network television series and major blockbuster films including âSyrianaâ and the soon to be released âMission Impossible 3â. Her on-screen magic has made Bahar the pride and joy as well as envy of every young Iranian Jew aspiring to enter the entertainment industry. Baharâs heartfelt and remarkable performance was captured two years ago after she played âDorriâ, a young Iranian woman in the Academy Award-winning film âCrashâ that attracted the attention of Hollywood insiders. Her career has since been launched into orbit with supporting roles in other prominent films. Recently she shared with me her experiences of growing up in our community here in Los Angeles and her difficult journey in making it big as an actress in the entertainment industry.
Can you share with us some background on yourself and where you grew up?
I was born in Iran, Tehran on March 30th. My father is poet and he wanted to name me Bahar, which means âSpringâ and named my sister âSabaâ which is a âlight wind in springâ. We traveled around a little before we moved to Los Angeles but we moved from Iran in 79â before the revolution. I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles, I learned English literary from watching TV and I went to private Jewish school called Sinai Akiba Academy. I then I went to Beverly Hills High School.
What type of training have you had for acting or on stage performance?
I did a little bit of theatre as a kid, I was in an opera but my father who is a lover of music was very encouraging of me playing the violin. I played the violin for 13 years and I used to play with the junior philharmonic. So when I was in school I wanted to act, but acting at that time was just for funâ¦yet it was always my passion and what I yearned to do. But my father really wanted me to continue playing my violin, so I was the girl in the orchestra pit who would be playing the violin for all the shows that they used to do at Beverly but would enviously look up on stage and wish I was one of the performers up there. From our generation, I was one of the first Persian girls to go away (for college) so I went to U.C. Santa Barbara. There were no Persians, no Jews there and I was just able to lose myself, have fun and enjoy the college life. What I studied at Santa Barbara was environmental studies and just doing theatre for fun thereânever thinking I could pursue it as a career. I later came back to Los Angeles, got a corporate job and I was just miserable and devastated working behind a computer in a building, not doing what I loved which was acting. My experience was with theatre but Los Angeles is more of the place for television and film as opposed to theatre, and I had no real training for television. So I had a daytime job doing motivation sales, but meanwhile after work would end, Iâd run to Hollywood to take acting classes that started at 7 pm and end at 2 am. I did that for a couple of years to get myself trained and get a better understanding of the world beyond theatre. I had to support my career and get an education at the same time.
When did you know you wanted a career in acting and what motivated you to enter the profession?
I always wanted to. I went to Beverly and all my American friends were acting and everyone I knew and their mother was in the industry. But it was not encouraged in the Persian community and all my American friends were struggling at it, so I decided to keep it as a hobby and not a career. Once I got into a real career in the corporate world I was seriously miserable and I just didnât want to be 40 and looking back and thinking âwhat if I couldâve but never gave it a chance?â Itâs really scary but with acting there is no guarantee. Itâs so different than anything else because in the corporate world you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition and 90% of time there is rejection. So itâs really trying on your self-confidence and thereâs no financially stability, so thatâs why I needed to keep my full time job and study on the side. So at lunchtime I just went out for an audition, sneaked out here and sneaked out there, ran across to Burbank and auditioned and ran back to the office. But I had to do it, ultimately the turning point was when I said âIâm ready, I think Iâm trained and I just have to give it a tryâ—so the scariest thing I ever did was quit my full time job to pursue acting full time. That was two-and-half years ago. I quit my job, started pursing acting seriously and not even three months later I booked âCrashâ.
The entertainment industry is very competitive, how difficult was it for you as a person of Middle Eastern background to break into Hollywood as an actress?
The most difficult part was being type-casted. In the beginning it was especially tough after 9/11, all the parts I was going out for said that they were willing to see me for a terrorist, the terroristâs wife, or the terrorist who blew himself up. For every other part I had to have a Middle Eastern accent—I played an F.B.I. agent on a show and I had to have an accent. But the reality would be that if I was working for the F.B.I., living in the United States I wouldnât have such a hardcore Middle Eastern accent, I would have assimilated by then and lost the accent. Even though I donât necessarily only look Middle Eastern, I could play Italian or Spanish, if youâre Middle Eastern you can only play a Middle Eastern. So that was one of most frustrating things, I knew I had to do that to build up my resume until something phenomenal would come by and it doesnât matter than Iâm Middle Eastern I could play anybody in any movie or TV show. So âCrashâ was that movie for me.
How did you come about landing the role of âDorriâ in the film âCrashâ?
I fought very hard to get this part. When they were auditioning people, my agent wasnât very good at the time I had heard about this film. I had read the script and I was dyingâ¦my heart was aching to be part of it. I loved my character Dorri so much and really related to her and how she was feeling, so I kept calling my agent and said âtheyâre auditioning for this partâ. The way I found out was that there was this Indian girl who wanted to hire me to teach her how to speak Farsi for the movie. I had been waiting six months for them start casting for that film and I said âno way am I going to teach this girl how to speak Farsi, this is my part!â I kept calling my agent and he wouldnât even try, he was like âyeah, yeah Iâll take care of youâ and I heard through the grapevine that they were going to offer another woman the part. So in desperation I called the one person I knew, another Jewish Persian girl in the industry at a very prestigious agency called William Morrisâher name is Ashley Daneshrad. I called her and said âI need you to do me this favor, thereâs this part and my agent canât get me in, can you try to get me in?â She called them and said donât give the part to this other woman until you give Bahar Soomekh a chance. So I went in there totally as the underdog, but I went in there and gave them my heart, my soul, and love for Dorri. I felt like I owed it to all the people that came to this country and loved and took care of their parentsâ¦I owed it to them to breath life into Dorri. I sobbed my eyes out in the audition, they said âthank youâ and I walked out. I went into my car and literary cried for about forty minutes because I loved her so much and it hurt me think that I wouldnât be able to do this film. And then two days later I got the call that I booked it.
In âCrashâ your character frequently speaks Persian to the character playing your father, has knowing Persian and the culture been an asset to landing your roles?
Oh absolutely. Itâs a story about L.A. and Persians are a significant part of L.A.âs population. My character was a first generation in the United States, but my character didnât necessarily have to be Persian it could be any culture whose kid goes up in the United States and whose parents still have not assimilated. I canât tell you how many people outside of the Persian community related to my character. When youâre a first generation who almost takes on a parental role with your parents, and my character was the same way, that kept going to the store when something went wrong. I related to it on a Persian level because Iâm very protective about my parents, since I knew English better and understood the American culture better that I had to take care of my parents. I understood the dynamics of a strong family bond.
What has the experience of working opposite major Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise on large-scale films been like for you? Is the work as glamorous as people think it is?
First of all itâs so surreal. You just brought up M.I.-3, Tom Cruise was my childhood crush, and I was obsessed with Tom Cruise since âTop Gunâ. I can recite every single line of that film and here I am, I get to meet and work with himâ¦itâs just surreal. Not just with him, but also with so many other phenomenal actors, in âCrashâ I got to work with Don Cheadle. Don is probably one of the most talented and remarkable artists I have ever known. I got to work with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible 3, and heâs just another creative genius. Itâs real, exciting, and so fun to see the people that Iâve watched on TV, to be collaborating with them and make art with them.
Iranian Jewish parents seem to want their children to join professional occupations, what was your familyâs reaction when you told them you wanted to be an actress?
My parents were not encouraging in the beginning. Of course who wants to see their daughter out of work all the time because theyâre not booking something and every parent wants their child be a doctor or lawyer. But my sister and I have always been non-traditional and doing things we were passionate about like environmental work. At first they were definitely hesitant, now theyâre so proud and excited. My parents have been such good role models for me and represent what a lot of Persian Jews in L.A. represent, which is hard-working people that love their families. They really committed their lives to making a good living for their familiesâ¦and not giving up. Even though they werenât excited about me becoming an actress, they never ever said âdonât do itâ and they never tried to say âdonât do it and you should become a doctor or lawyerâ. They said itâs not the best industry and this is a tough world, but if this is what you want to do, then we support you.
What type of response or feedback have you received from the Iranian Jewish community since youâve achieved success in landing roles on major television and film projects?
Itâs so sweet and I am so grateful. Itâs so nice to have a community that really supports you and is proud of you. Wherever I go, people I donât even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community. Itâs really a lot of brotherly and sisterly love â Iâm overwhelmed and honored by it all. The older generation has been so encouraging and telling me how proud they are and itâs unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me âitâs always been my dream and Iâm living vicariously through youâ.
How important is Judaism in your life now and how are you involved in the community?
Judaism a significant part of who I am in my life. I went to Sinai Temple, I learned my English there, and Iâm a member of that congregation. I think Judaism has enriched my life and developed who I am. I hope to raise my family with the values and ideals of Judaism, and the big one for me is âTikkun Olamâ. I studied environmental education and one of the things I think is important is the health of our environment or childrenâs issues. One of my dreams is to utilize whatever I can and utilize my name to bring attention to certain causes involving environmental and childrenâs issues.
Youâve landed amazing roles on widely movies like âCrashâ, âSyrianaâ, and âMission Impossible 3â, as so whatâs next for you?
Acting, I love acting and thatâs where I want to be. Right now my agent, manager, and I are in the process of deciding what my next move is.
What advice do you have for other young Iranian Jews looking to enter the entertainment industry but are facing opposition from their parents?
I would say their passion and commitment to it should be a 110-percent and honestly donât give up. Even as an actress it might take several years to establish yourself, get recognized in the industry and build a resume of good work until you get acknowledged and recognized. So itâs constant hard work and chipping away at it. Tell your family that âI need you to support me because this is going to be the hardest thing Iâve ever doneâ.
This interview was originally published in the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine: http://ijchronicle.com/article.php?idcat=19&idart=19