In 78 years of lifetime experiences, ranging from abject poverty and humiliation to great wealth and prestige, Younes Nazarian accepted his highest honor on Tuesday night, standing atop Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
He stood among 12 men and women selected to light an equal number of torches in a ceremony marking the end of the solemn Day of Remembrance for Israel’s fallen and the beginning of the joyous Independence Day.
It is a ceremony known to few diaspora Jews, but it is transmitted by every Israeli television and radio station and is ingrained in the heart and memory of every Israeli.
The 12 torchbearers, representing the 12 biblical tribes, are selected by the prime minister’s office from among a cross-section of Israeli society.
“The selection of a non-Israeli for this honor is extremely rare,” Israel Consul General Yaakov Dayan said. “In this case, it reflects the immense contributions by Mr. Nazarian to the state of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv.”
This year’s ceremony paid tribute to Tel Aviv, which is marking the centennial of its founding; the 11 other torchbearers are all natives or residents of Israel’s largest city. The others include former mayor Shlomo (Cheech) Lahat and noted scientist Menachem Gutman, but also a blind sculptress, a musician and a 16-year-old Israeli Arab boy from Jaffa.
Nazarian’s connection to Tel Aviv started in 1949, when the 17-year-old Tehran native arrived, served with the border police and then worked as a tool and die maker in a small, family-run business in southern Tel Aviv.
“I lived in a one-room dwelling without a ceiling, which had been left unfinished by Arab workers before the War of Independence,” he recalled. “There was no water, sewage disposal or electricity, but these were some of the happiest days of my life.”
Since then, Nazarian has repaid Tel Aviv for those happy days through his wide-ranging support of the Tel Aviv Foundation, school enrichment programs in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, food and emergency assistance for the needy, musical performances at the municipal opera house, sending Los Angeles students to Israel, and as a major funder of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.
Nazarian spends four months of every year at his home in northern Tel Aviv, and when a reporter sought him out for an interview, he had already departed for Israel.
However, he left behind some autobiographical notes and his daughter, Sharon Baradaran, reminisced about her parents’ lives just before catching a plane herself to join her father in Israel.
Younes Nazarian was born in the South Tehran ghetto, which was not a fanciful literary description, but an actual enclosed area.
When he was 2, his father died, and he was raised by his Russian-born mother. At age 5, he started selling newspapers and light bulbs on the streets.
School days were no happier, with his Muslim classmates taking turns beating up Younes on his way to and from school. On rainy days, he had to stay inside the ghetto, because Muslims believed that the Jews’ filth would wash off and stain the believers.
What might have embittered or discouraged another child instead spurred Younes’ resilience and ambition. These character traits allowed him to build up one fortune, lose it entirely, move to a new country, and create a new and larger fortune.
Here are a few milestones on that long road:
In 1953, after four years in Israel and with Iran in the midst of the Middle East oil boom, Nazarian returned to Tehran. Within a short span, he and his brother, Izak Parvis Nazarian, founded some of Iran’s largest construction, manufacturing and import-export companies, often in partnership with Israeli firms.
Well established, married to Soroya and with four children, life seemed secure and promising for Nazarian. But sensing the impending Islamic Revolution, the Nazarian family left everything behind and moved to Israel in 1978.
It was a tough time, and a year later the family packed up once more, traveled to Los Angeles and started all over again. However, Nazarian had not left behind his entrepreneurial drive. He regained his wealth through ownership and investments in tool and die manufacturing and digital communication technology firms as well as in hotel and real estate development in both the United States and Israel.
Looking at the holdings of the extended Nazarian clan, the Israeli financial publication Globes last year judged the two brothers “the wealthiest Iranian Jews in the world.”
Baradaran described the usual division of labor between the brothers as “Parvis would bring in the business and Younes would implement the development.”
The children are also doing nicely. In chronological order, David is a venture capitalist, now focusing on renewable energy sources; Shulamit is an artist and owner of a contemporary art gallery; Sharon is a UCLA political science lecturer and president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation in the United States and the Ima Foundation in Israel; and Sam is a leading Los Angeles hotel and nightclub owner and developer.
The Ima Foundation, honoring the memory of the family matriarch, Younes’ mother, supports the previously cited projects, as well as the recreational needs of Israel’s soldiers and long-term planning for the country’s economy.
In Los Angeles, Nazarian functions as a bridge builder between the Iranian and other Jewish communities, serves on The Jewish Federation’s board of directors and initiated the Israel studies program at UCLA.
Baradaran is beginning to build bridges of another kind, between Iranian Jews and Iranians of Muslim, Baha’i and other faiths in the United States.
The daughter, who grants that she is not an unbiased observer, describes her father as “very optimistic, who has never complained about past losses. The lesson he has taught us is to go for it, to seize the day.”
She sees a temperamental, and perhaps generational, difference between herself and her father. “My father treats everyone with respect and dislikes confrontations. It may be part of the Iranian style of ambiguity, but he just can’t turn anyone down outright,” Baradaran said.
“By contrast, I am very direct and forthright. So as president of the family foundations, when we get a funding request for a project that doesn’t fit into our mission, in the end I am the one who has to say ‘no.’”