Posted by Karmel Melamed
Another member of the local Iranian community has been arrested for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme.
Shervin Neman, also known as Shervin Davatgarzadeh, a 31-year-old Iranian man, has been accused of defrauding nearly a dozen people — most of them local Iranian Jews — of more than $3 million. He was arrested by the FBI on April 26 in his Century City home after three criminal charges were brought against him for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme.
The three fraud charges in the indictment each carry a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, according to an FBI press release.
According to the federal indictment, from June 2010 to June 2012, Neman claimed to be a hedge fund manager and lured primarily Iranian Jewish investors into giving him $7.5 million on promises of investing their money in foreclosed residential properties and stocks, including pre-initial public offering shares.
In April 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil complaint against Neman, his firm, Neman Financial Inc., and his wife, Cassandra Neman, in allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme whereby Neman took his investors’ money and used it to pay back his earlier victims or on a lavish lifestyle for himself and his wife.
The civil complaint against Neman alleges that he spent nearly $1.6 million of his victims’ money to pay for his wedding and honeymoon, his wife’s $60,000 engagement ring, luxury cars, VIP tickets to entertainment venues, jewelry, hotels and restaurants, as well as to lease and redecorate a new office in a high-end Century City office building.
The complaint alleges that in most instances Neman had his victims wire their funds to his personal bank account or to write checks to him personally, which he deposited into his personal account.
A federal court judge also issued a restraining order freezing Neman’s assets and shutting down his Ponzi scheme last year, according to an SEC press release. Yet in May 2012, Neman again allegedly solicited $2 million from another investor — with false promises that Neman could obtain pre-IPO shares in Facebook, according to the indictment — to pay for his attorneys and pay back other earlier victims of his Ponzi scheme in violation of his restraining order. In June 2012, Neman sent a later victim a check for more than $2 million that purported to be the return on the Facebook investment, but that check bounced, the criminal indictment states.
The criminal charges brought against Neman are not unique for Southern California’s tight-knit Iranian-Jewish community, which has been devastated in recent years by Ponzi schemes perpetrated by members of its community.
In March, John Farahi, a popular 56-year-old Iranian-Jewish radio talk-show host and investment adviser, was sentenced by a U.S. District Court to 10 years in federal prison for operating a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme against local Iranian-Americans. Farahi was ordered by the court to pay more than $24 million in restitution to close to 60 victims.
Prior to that, Ezri Namvar, 62, a longtime leading Iranian-Jewish businessman and philanthropist in Los Angeles, was sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in federal prison for stealing $21 million from four clients. Namvar also was ordered by the court to pay back $21 million in restitution to his victims, yet he is believed to have allegedly bilked investors — who put money into his $2.5 billion real estate portfolio before the 2008 market crash — out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Iranian-Jewish community leaders and victims have kept quiet about Farahi and other Iranian-Jewish investors charged in recent years with running Ponzi schemes, in keeping with a long-standing community taboo against publicly discussing potentially embarrassing incidents. Iranian-Jewish community leaders at the Beverly Hills-based Nessah Synagogue and West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation did not return calls seeking comment.
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April 1, 2013 | 6:26 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Last year when the Bravo network debuted their new reality television program “Shahs of Sunset” which was depicted the lives of young Iranian Americans living in Los Angeles, I watched a few episodes of this show and was disgusted. I am not a fan of reality television in general but found this program, which was produced by television personality Ryan Seacrest, to be an utter waste of time because of its highly inaccurate portrayal of Iranian Americans living in Los Angeles. In her excellent piece last year in the L.A. Jewish Journal, Iranian Jewish author, Gina Nahai perhaps gave the best response from our community to this simply revolting television program that portrays Iranian Americans in the worst possible light; as selfish, self-absorbed, materialistic, shallow, money-hungry, sex-addicted, unattractive and uneducated buffoons living their supposed “lavish” lifestyles in L.A. At the time the program came out I made a decision as an Iranian American journalist not to give any additional exposure to this garbage excuse for television programming that would financially benefit Seacrest, Bravo or the others related to this show. Yet with the passage of time and the tremendous amount of recent positive events surrounding L.A.’s Iranian Americans, I believe the time has now come for me to break my silence about Seacrest’s stupidity and his vile television program.
As a journalist who reads about the daily repression of free expression and free speech in Iran today, I am perhaps one of the biggest supporters of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. I realize reality television is one person’s form of expression and supposed entertainment which is created to generate revenue. I also realized that most television programming today is not meant for any other purpose than a mind-numbing passage of time. Yet when television producers like Seacrest go out of their way to pick the most extreme and most backwards people within a community as examples of all Iranian Americans just for the purpose of making money, he is being reckless in destroying their image or reputation in this society. I also understand that there are foolish people everywhere willing to make complete asses of themselves on national television in order to make money or become “famous”. Yet at the same time shinning the spotlight on the fools shown on the Shahs of Sunset directly or indirectly sends a very negative message about Iranian Americans living in this country. Seacrest not only does a disservice to Iranian Americans with his idiotic programming, but he does a disservice to all individuals watching television, by showing what is wrong within our society instead of what is right about our society.
The irony of the Shahs of Sunset program is that it does not reflect the true reality of Southern California’s Iranian American community. Yes, there is a small segment of our community which lives in Beverly Hills and is affluent, but the majority of us are not ridiculously wealthy. We also live elsewhere in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and have average incomes. For the most part, Iranian Americans are perhaps one of the most educated and entrepreneurial immigrant groups living in Los Angeles and one of the driving forces in the state’s economy through their vibrant businesses. Likewise, we as Iranian Americans are also among the most philanthropic communities living in this state and the country. We are not only donating our money and time to many non-profits, but we are also active in raising millions of dollars for countless worthy causes. For example, earlier this month I reported on a story about close to 120 young Iranian-American Angelenos who volunteered to feed nearly 1,200 homeless at the Midnight Mission, which is centered in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles. Where was Seacrest and local television news cameras when these very unselfish Iranian Americans were giving back to the most needy in our city? Who at the Bravo network or any other television network was on hand to shed light on this very good deed that our community undertook in honor of the Persian New year? The volunteer work done at Skid Row by Iranian Americans is just one of the numerous ways Iranian Americans show their generous and loving nature, something that you would never believe if all you knew about the community was from Seacrest’s vile television program. Another example of Iranian Americans generous nature came in January 2012 when Iranian American Jewish volunteer sheriff’s deputy, Shervin Lalezary, caught the infamous serial arsonist that was terrorizing the city of Los Angeles. Lalezary, who is an educated attorney, volunteers his free time to help local enforcement for the benefit of all of us. Why are Iranian Americans like this outstanding young man not shown on reality television as prime examples of what is good about our community? Why hasn’t Seacrest taken his cameras to downtown L.A. to show all of the business districts that were once blighted, but are now revitalized and thriving because of Iranian American businessmen? Why aren’t Seacrest and his cameras not going into UCLA Medical Center or Cedar-Sinai Medical Center and other major hospitals in the area to see the hundreds of highly educated Iranian American physicians or researchers saving thousands of lives daily? The list of Iranian Americans that have benefited our lives in Southern California and the U.S. is endless. Another remarkable example is Dr. Firouz Naderi, an Iranian American engineer who headed NASA’s successful “Mars Rover” missions. Or better yet, Goli Ameri, the successful Iranian American who was the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs and also once headed the International Red Cross. Why hasn’t Seacrest shown any of these successful Iranian Americans on his television program? If anyone should be portrayed as selfish and brainless it should be Seacrest who decided to make money by showing a group of fools and claiming that they represented the Iranian American community in L.A.
Countless Americans and members of Iranian American community will continue to ignore and disregard the garbage shown of Seacrest’s program. They, like I know it is purely stupid entertainment. Yet at the same time we as journalists and responsible members of the media need to make a concerted effort to shine the limelight on all the positive things Iranian Americans continue to do in this city and the country. It is bad enough many Americans often see immigrants of Iranian origin in a bad light because of morons who run Iran’s current regime and who threaten other countries with annihilation. Therefore we do not need Seacrest to continue trashing the image of what I believe is a remarkable immigrant group contributing greatly to life in America. If Seacrest or the equally brainless executives at the Bravo network do not want the labels of “idiots”, then they should make an effort to show all that is right about Iranian Americans living in Southern California. I’m certain that television programs that would spotlight the successes of Iranian Americans or any other immigrant group which is succeeding in the U.S., would garner higher ratings, greater popularity and generate greater advertising revenue than the type of pure trash shown on the Shahs of Sunset program.
March 31, 2013 | 11:16 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Earlier this month perhaps one of the most important efforts to document the tragic loss of life and property that Jews from North Africa and the Middle East experienced during the 20th century took placed here in Los Angeles. Members of the San Francisco-based “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa” (JIMENA) gathered at local Sephardic synagogues to video interview 10 L.A. area Jews who escaped their native lands in North Africa and Iran when those countries had turned violently against their Jewish populations during the last century. While the world has been obsessed with the “right of return for Palestinian Arabs” that were supposedly “exiled” in 1948 and 1967 from Israel, no one seems to care about the near 1 million Jews expelled from Arab lands during the same period. What about the loss of property, finances and life Jews from these Islamic lands and Iran suffered? What about the thousands of Jews who were forced to leave their assets behind in Iran or had their assets confiscated by the new Islamic regime in Iran after 1979? Who is speaking out on their behalf and speaking up for justice for their right of return? The answer is simple; JIMENA!
JIMENA was founded by Regina Waldman and Joe Wahad, a Jewish woman born in Libya and a Jewish man born in Egypt, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The new JIMENA websites tell the stories of Jews from each of the Islamic lands using videos, photographs and written narratives. They also include oral history testimonies of Jews who fled Arab countries for North America.
I recently had a chat with JIMENA’s director, Sarah Levin about her organization’s efforts to document the stories of the injustice Sephardic Jews experienced in their native lands during the 20th century. This was her most compelling statement about the process was; “L.A. has large Mizrahi and Sephardic populations of Jews who come from all over the Middle East and North Africa and their stories of material losses, displacement, and fractured identities, have not been documented. I think it’s fair to assume that Jews from Arab countries and Iran now residing in Los Angeles had at least hundreds of millions of dollars of property and assets confiscated by Arab governments and Iran. Their losses, both financial and cultural, have never been quantified and acknowledged”.
The information regarding the escapes and experiences of Iranian Jews following the horrific 1979 Iranian revolution can be found on JIMENA’s new site here.
The following are just some photos of those individuals interviewed by Jimena in Los Angeles earlier this month…
(Iranian Jewish immigrant Abe Berookhim interviewed by JIMENA at L.A.'s Kahal Joseph synagogue, photo by JIMENA)
(Moroccan Jewish immigrant Andre Chriqui interviewed by JIMENA at L.A.'s Em Habanim synagogue, photo by JIMENA)
(Moroccan Jewish immigrant Max Barchichat interviewed by JIMENA at L.A.'s Em Habanim synagogue, photo by JIMENA)
March 29, 2013 | 12:02 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
With the start of Spring this year, many Iranians of all faiths living in Southern California and elsewhere worldwide celebrated the Persian New Year of 'No Rooz' on March 20th. My recent piece in the Journal highlighted the efforts by local Iranian Americans to give back to the larger community during No Rooz celebrations this year. Suprisingly No Rooz is a secular Persian holiday that marks re-birth and giving back-- a celebration of life that brings together Iranian Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahais and Zoroastrians. Local elected officials on hand to celebrate with Iranian Americans in Westwood Village on March 24th included; L.A. City Councilmembers Dennis Zine, Paul Koretz, Eric Garcetti, L.A. City Treasurer Wnedy Gruel, and U.S. Congressman Tony Cardenes who first began the tradition of honoring No Rooz in L.A. City Hall near eight years ago.
Here is some video of traditional Persian dances taking place at No Rooz Festival in Hollywood...
Here is video of L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz speaking at a No Rooz event in Westwood Village on March 24th...
The following are just some of the photos I captured of No Rooz celebrations in Los Angeles this year...
(Iranian American businessman Alan Semsar and L.A. City Councilmember Eric Garcetti at Hollywood's No Rooz festival, photo by Karmel Melamed)
(Cooks preparing traditional Persian kebabs at Hollywood's No Rooz festival)
(Young Iranian Americans making No Rooz designed eggs)
(Young Iranian dancers at Hollywood's No Rooz festival)
(Photos of ancient Persian reliefs at No Rooz festival in Hollywood)
(left to right; L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, Iranian American businessman Alex Helmi and former California Assemblymember Mike Fuerer, photo by Karmel Melamed)
(left to right; U.S. Congressman Tony Cardenes and L.A. City Treasurer Wendy Gruel, photo Karmel Melamed)
(Former California Assemblymember Mike Fuerer speaking at No Rooz event in Westwood Village)
(Popular No Rooz table known as "Half Seen" table)
March 15, 2013 | 10:38 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Earlier this month close to a dozen L.A. area young Iranian Jewish couples gathering a retreat in Oxnard for a three-day program organized by the “Go Sephardic” organization. The retreat was designed to help them strengthen their relationships based on Jewish traditions and teachings. The retreat also featured a series of fun games, singing, great food, prayer, Tai- Chi exercises, wine tasting and informative lectures from the organization’s Rabbi Chaim Levy. This particular outing was organized by Jonathan and Afsoun Delshad, a local young Iranian Jewish couple who nearly two years ago decided to bring together their young married friends in the community for monthly gatherings to help them learn new skills in strengthening their marriages. I recently sat down with them to learn more about their recent “Go Sepahrdic” retreat and their efforts to help young couples like themselves in the Iranian Jewish community. The following is a portion of that conversation…
Can you please give us some insights into why you and your wife began this young couples' program with “Go Sephardic” in the local Iranian Jewish community?
Prior to getting married, my wife and I were very involved with community events. We would attend many events related to personal growth and fun singles events. Once we got married, we realized that we didn't feel comfortable going to the same events and we weren't finding any personal growth events focused on married couples. After speaking with the Rabbi Chaim Levy of “Go Sephardic”, we were encouraged to start something small and see what interest there was in the programs we were contemplating.
How long has the program been going on and how do you choice the topics for discussion or the experts to lecture on?
We have been having monthly lectures for just over two years now. We never choose the topics for discussion rather we find different lecturers each time and invite them to people's houses on a rotating basis. The person who hosts pays for all the sushi and drinks and the lecture is free to all who want to come. The lecturers-- usually rabbis from different places-- will choose their own topics related to marriage growth and fulfillment.
Your group has regularly monthly get lectures at people's homes and you recently had a young couples retreat in Oxnard. What was the motivation behind having the retreat?
This was our second annual retreat. After doing the monthly lectures, people realize how important it is to spend at least once a month focused on making their marriages better. The retreat provides a weekend to do the same while at the same time providing fun and a relaxed getaway for friends that we made during the monthly lectures. Also, Rabbi Levy and his wife wanted to increase their investment and involvement in the young couples lives and feel that this is the best opportunity for them to interact and engage the young couples on a personal level.
What feedback have you receive from young couples who have attended the retreat this year and in years past?
Luckily, each year we hear that it exceeds people’s expectations. We focused on having more "activities" and less lectures in the hopes of keeping the environment light and fun, but we are seeing that people are thirstier for the knowledge of the rabbis and the lectures. Most people who come on the retreat find it very rejuvenating and are more than happy to come back the following year. We have seen people come to epiphanies at these lectures when they realize how they are supposed to go about strengthening their relationships. It's a beautiful thing.
You have a group of both religious couples and some that are not as religious attending. What kind of atmosphere do you offer where couples whom are not as religious feel welcomed and feel at ease?
First, the monthly classes have nothing to do with religious observance. The focus is just on how to have a better marriage. We are all aware that the divorce rate in the religious communities is much less than non-religious and so we fell like it’s OK to tap into their knowledge and wisdom and apply it to our lives. Most of this can be done without the feeling of being unwelcome. Further, we make sure the food is always kosher so that those who are more religious don't feel excluded. On the retreat, we make sure to have religious services for the those who want, but they are always optional and they are there for everyone to feel comfortable attending.
You and your wife have a full plate with your own lives and also raising a newborn. How do you find the time and energy for organizing these events for young couples in our community?
It's very challenging and often times we wonder where we can find the time ourselves. Honestly it's a sacrifice, nothing ever comes for free. But we really believe in the program and we believe that we can affect peoples lives in a profound way when you start with peace in the home. The little we do to sacrifice our time away from work or home is nothing compared to what Rabbi Levy or other community leaders do and so we just see it as our duty to help. You make it work.
Divorce has become more common in our community in the U.S. in recent years where it was unthinkable in Iran for the Jewish community before to 1979. Is there a way to reverse this trend and how can Judaism help?
Like I mentioned, divorce is less common in the religious community, but one is not immune simply because they are religious. My personal belief is that there are some divorces that happen because the marriage was flawed from the beginning and built on a wrong foundation. But I think the vast majority of marriages fail because the couples stopped investing time into the marriage. Before becoming a doctor, lawyer, or even a business person you invest many years and time and money into these professions. Imagine what the world would look like if each married couple spent three months out of their lives after their marriage to invest time and energy into just the marriage. What we are providing is a forum where people can spend 12 days a year focused on their marriage-- it's not enough, but the hope is that the days they spend in the program will lead to more time spent investing in the marriage outside of the program confines.
What aspect of this program are personally fulfilling to you both in organizing this program? And how do you see the program changing in coming years?
We would have stopped doing this a long time ago if people weren't appreciative of the work we were doing. We have probably personally invested thousands of dollars into the classes and I can't even count the hours. When people tell us how much they are getting out of it, it makes it all worthwhile. My wife is drained at times and keeps getting frustrated by scheduling issues and other things that happen. At the end of a class she is more full of energy and excitement and is already onto planning the next one. As of now, we have been told that there is a replica of our group and events being made in New York. We haven't put much thought in the future other than the idea of maybe making gift certificates for the retreat that can be given as a wedding gift to newlywed couples. At some point we need to start to transition the leadership to the next group of young couples to carry the torch and maybe move on to another aspect of marriage and parenting.
The following is a brief video from the retreat with an attendee toasting Rabbi Chaim Levy...
Here are some photos captured from the retreat...
(Rabbi Chaim Levy singing with young Iranian Jewish couples on Oxnard beach)
March 11, 2013 | 6:13 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
More than 100 community members joined the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on March 6th to honor Dr. Sharon Nazarian, the Iranian Jewish president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation at the ADL’s annual “Deborah Awards” at the upscale SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. The ADL’s awards recognize women in the community who have shown courage, wisdom and leadership in their activism. Dr. Nazarian was honored for spearheading her family’s founding of the Israel Studies Center at UCLA nearly three years ago. This move was significant as it the center became the first of its kind in the western U.S. to have a sole focus on the academic study of Israel. The Y & S Nazarian Family Foundation has made donations totaling $5 million to the university, which helped establish the Israel Studies Program in 2005 and created an endowment for the center. It offers courses on such varied topics as Israeli politics, law, economics, film, theater, environmental policy and the early history of Zionism. The center also presents speakers and organizes conferences that highlight Israel’s history, cultural diversity, and economic and technological achievements.
Dr. Nazarian said she was honored for the recognition from the ADL and hoped it would draw more local Iranian Jews to join the ADL’s efforts in fighting bigotry and anti-Semitism in the world. “It’s important to see our community of Iranian Jews that has a vested interest in this country to get more involved with the great work of the ADL,” she said. “I think the work that the ADL does is not only good for Jews but the entire world because they fight hatred and issues of genocide that face all of humanity”. Interestingly, the SLS Hotel owned by Dr. Nazarian’s brother, hospitality entrepreneur, Sam Nazarian proudly hosted the ADL event. The ADL gathering is the latest effort by the organization to outreach to L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community and seek their support. In January, 30 Years After, an L.A.-based Iranian Jewish non-profit co-hosted an event with the ADL which exposed to anti-Semitism developed and spread worldwide by Iran’s regime.
February 25, 2013 | 5:46 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
In November 2006 I had the opportunity to interview the American Jewish artist and photographer Shelley Gazin. Since 2001 she has been slowly capturing various unique aspects of Iranian Jewish life here in Los Angeles through her remarkable photographs. Gazin was given on many occasions very rare opportunities into our community as many outsiders (non-Iranian Jews) are typically not as readily welcomed into the private lives, celebrations and intimate gatherings of the tight-knit Iranian Jewish community. Over the years these special photographs of the Iranian Jewish community have been exhibited in New York and also locally at the Skirball Museum, Huntington Library, USC and now at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. In fact on March 3rd at 2 pm, Gazin will be speaking about her photographs that are on display at the Fowler’s “Light and Shadows” exhibition that focuses on Iranian Jewry. After seven years since my last interview with Gazin, I caught up with her again to discuss how her work has been received by both Iranian Jewish audiences and other visitors to the Fowler Museum. The following is a portion of our conversation.
You have been working on this project of photographing the Iranian Jewish community for a number of years now. Can you please share some of the reactions you've received from the community to your work, which has been on display at the Fowler Museum in recent months?
Many, many words of appreciation for “putting a face on the community,” “illustrating that there has been so much Iranian-Jewish contribution,” “staying committed to telling an objective story…” There is a sincere interest in seeing more of my work and an overriding respect for the quality of the prints that I’ve produced for the Fowler exhibit. I think that some viewers have questions about the choices made for this installation but a few fearless community spokespersons have qualified the work within the academic setting. Professor David Myers led the way at the recent L & S Conference by remarking on the beauty of my images and their importance in representing the local community within the context of the larger L & S story. Morgan Hakimi urged a closer viewing during her opening remarks at the Conference’s panel on Women in Iran, pointing out a few of her own favorites and making it safe for others to both enjoy and comment upon it outwardly, and thus promoting the use of art for social engagement. Both Shula and Sharon Nazarian showed support. Shula, during the planning stages when I presented my concept of making the assigned gallery space a focus for the spirit of women, and then, with Sharon’s graciousness during the Night of Appreciation reception. Everyone has wondered about how I would interpret my experience. I had met and photographed far too many unsung heroes along with the already recognized community leaders for the space of this exhibit and I have more to go, so those portraits will be saved for the future. Because I have been inspired by the strength of Persian women, my wall became a metaphor for liberation, and the video is a work-in-progress, representing the rest of my archive and embracing the entire community. I think some of my subjects feel a little self-conscious seeing themselves up on the wall and they don’t know what to say. But, most have encouraged me to take artistic license because of their own desire toward free expression. One of my favorite conversations was with a 20 year-old museum security guard and yesterday I gave two talks to over 60 docents from the Skirball Museum and Cultural Center and they all loved it. So I am very happy about the potential for this work to serve a meaningful purpose to a wide audience.
The Iranian Jewish community in L.A. is very insular and tight-knit, how were you able to gain access into their inner circles in order to capture these remarkable photos?
My initial introductions came through such respected community members that a trust was established early on and I’ve done my best to stay true to the course. After my signature portrait of Hacham Yedidia was exhibited at my exhibit, looking for a Rabbi [Skirball, 2001 and again at his memorial services at Nessah, 2005], doors continually opened. Mansour Sinai, Professor Netzer, and Massoud Haroonian led me to Dr. Baravarian who respectfully made introductions to Homa Sarshar [who presented me at CIJOH], Nahid Pirnazar [who allowed me to audit her history course], Jamshid Maddahi’s family; they all embraced the value of my project. At the same time, Dariush & Roya Fakheri, Shirley Nowfer, Soraya M. Nazarian, Manijeh Yomtoubian, Dara Abaei…these friends and their organizations could have been gatekeepers but they were forward-thinking and gave me access. After a couple of years, Fakheri published an article about my work in the Iranian Jewish Chronicle, and a reader phoned to invite me to photograph Etta Israel’s Chanukah fundraiser. That was a very special experience because I really felt to have made it to the inside at that moment, seeing everyone I knew from all corners of the community, all coming together for this wonderful purpose; I was honored to be there. The same is true for photos of the A.R.M telethon with actress Shohreh Agdashloo helping out. And then I was supported in showing work at the first 30YA Conference via the efforts of Jason Massaband and Sam Yebri’s Board. Speaking of which, I love the image of 30YA first- time voters, looking at their peers, also newly minted voters from across the country, on the TV news during the Presidential election returns. But, I was also in the courtroom during Ezri Namvar’s hearing, to try to understand something of that situation for myself.
Which of these photos from the collection are your favorite and why?
From a professional viewpoint, my favorites should be based on artistic values so that the story is elevated and appreciated as art as much as it is for its ultimate historic relevancy. And that’s what makes it such hard work. I scrutinize every image for aesthetic and compositional strength as well as the story-content, the latter being the main point of a documentary project. So, sometimes, a would-be favorite doesn’t make the cut. And, because each photo session has been imbued with emotion resulting from countless heart- heart conversations, attendance at events where I am the only non-Persian in the room, the physical labor of carrying a heavy camera around, I usually can’t separate my feelings from the curatorial job that comes later. I love all of the dance images because they remind me of the music that transports me into another dimension and the time when Gity Brouchhim asked me to join her and her friends on the dance floor at the first IWJO Awards dinner where I was publicly introduced into the community, so to speak. In black & white, those images emphasize and elicit a sense of joy and function artfully because the figures are sculptural and sensual, with glamour and spontaneity all at once. The layered tableau of Mrs. Ravanshenas with her grandsons has a lot of architectural and psychological components and a further analysis of the spatial relationships in it would be interesting. The poignant portrait of Jasmine Banayan was made when I saw her in a moment of repose after her turn on the stage; we are all alone at times, even in the middle of a crowded party. The girls praying in a private girl’s yeshiva in Los Angeles; Mrs. Tehrani in tears, clutching the photo of her son lost in Evin prison; my video of Rabbi Zadmehr which I secretly made during the memorial for Yomtoubian’s mom… I didn’t know his story of imprisonment and release until we were all standing in the parking lot afterwards. One of the most symbolic of images is Homa Sarshar, confidently poised, giving light to a subdued TV studio as she broadcasts her weekly program around the world. The Golnaz suite was made when I was asked to pick up the grandparents at LAX, who [through the efforts of HIAS] were unexpectedly arriving from Tehran on Shabbat. In the Fowler exhibit, Golnaz, [now a UCLA Dentistry student] looks out to meet the viewer eye-to-eye – to make a connection. That’s what this is all about. Then there was the day that Ezat Delijani was honored downtown. The death of music icon Michael Jackson was being reported on the radio as I drove to and from the Civic Center on a sweltering summer day – but all I cared about was making a portrait of Mr. Delijani walking down the street to the magnificent LA Theatre that he saved and treasured. I drove out to the City of Hope for the first time in my life just to photograph Dr Rahbar. These experiences contribute to the way I value every picture in the archive. And we haven’t even touched on my video interviews: Gina Nahai’s is great and was edited for voice over on the 45- minute video archive loop; Amanda Maddahi speaks about the risks she has taken as a women athlete; Shuku Darvish addresses health issues; a single mother, being assisted by the Jewish Federation, is helped with English translation by her 10-year old daughter; the late Massoud Haroonian remembers the early days of acquiring visas, etc. Most of the video interviews in my archive still need to be edited.
What message or feeling would you like outsiders who are not Iranian or Iranian Jewish to walk away from after viewing your work at the Fowler and elsewhere?
I could cite a simple sentiment akin to “open your heart when you are looking at the pictures; feel the moment; make a connection….but that would oversimplify the hard work of creating relationships which is what the corpus of material and my whole process stands for. People need to understand that the images resulted from a complex commitment and involved the navigation of conflicting perceptions and relinquishing the restrictions of insider/outsider dynamics. Assimilation is a two-way process but it isn’t a straight line from A to B and can manifest a lot of stress around what can be revealed and what is concealed. I continually struggled with the question of “How do I choose a portrait for the wall that will maintain the dignity of my subject and at the same time fit in with all the artistic criteria that’s required to make a strong overall statement as a professional in my own right?” And, worrying all the while, about the reaction of my subject, who must maintain grace in an insular community. Establishing an authentic comfort level is a dance, of back and forth steps. And the trust that is developing or assumed can be nullified at any moment. But the photos are evidence of the process and a positive outcome. They capture moments in time but there is nothing definitive about a moment, although my idealism wants to take it in as such and have faith in it. I hope viewers will take the time to consider what it takes- their own ability- to create a similar body of work and to think of it as analogous to creating new relationships that are challenging. It takes a long time and a lot of stamina and love.
February 18, 2013 | 6:26 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Yesterday the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish “International Judea Foundation” (SIAMAK) was honored for creating a program that nurtures and develops innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU). Dubbed “Project Jacob” after the biblical patriarch, the program is the brainchild of Dariush Fakheri, SIAMAK’s president, an entrepreneur and community activist. Fakheri is no novice when it comes to philanthropy in the local Iranian Jewish community since SIAMAK under his leadership has been one of the primary non-profits helping needy families struggling to make ends meet in L.A. since 1979. The following are two videos of Fakheri being honored at a ceremony hosted by BGU in Beverly Hills yesterday:
With an initial investment of $200,000 in February 2010, SIAMAK funded three projects at BGU. While development for the three BGU projects continues to move forward, SIAMAK’s board members have been encouraging other local area Iranian Jews to invest in Project Jacob. SIAMAK’s goal is to help Israel expand its economic strength by providing seed money for developments of products to be made in Israel and also spread “tikkun olam” with the use of such products around the world.
It is indeed no surprise that SIAMAK would partner up with Ben Gurion University in Israel, since the university is center Israel’s cutting edge technology and medicine. Prior to the honoring of SIAMAK, BGU’s distinguished panel of experts discussed the latest advances they have made in the homeland security arena. The university’s researchers have worked on projects pertaining to satellites, remote sensing, unmanned robotics systems, emergency response systems, developing building materials that can withstand the shock of rocket attacks, software for cyber-attack protection, night vision technology and thermal imagining technology. Interestingly, L.A. County Sherriff Lee Baca was also in attendance to learn about Israel’s latest homeland security advances.
(BGU professor Amos Drory, photo by Karmel Melamed)
(Fakheri family & friends at BGU event, photo by Karmel Melamed).
More information on BGU can found here.