Month: June 2006

Iranian Jews turn to showbusiness

LOS ANGELES, June 28 (JTA) —The generation of Persian Jews who escaped Iran’s 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, JTA News reports. (With thanks: Albert)

Whether it’s 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 community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came earlier this year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film “Crash” won the Best Picture Oscar and generated $93 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 44, whose four production companies have backed 25 films in three years. (…)

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s 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.”

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 “JFK,” “Nixon” and “Natural Born Killers.” (…)

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.

“Documentaries 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,” said Haim, 44. (…)

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the shah’s regime.

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Damascus’s disappearing Jewish heritage

There was a Jewish community in Syria from the time of King David, but the fact that only 14 Jews still live in Syria makes the preservation of the Jewish heritage all the more urgent.

The Jerusalem Post reports on the tortuous efforts to set up a Damascus Heritage Centre in Israel. (With thanks: Albert)

“The Syrian Jewish community is the oldest Diaspora community in the world, dating back to the time of King David, Moshe Sasson (the man behind the heritage centre project) told (President) Katsav. He added that Damascus is mentioned no less than 36 times in the Bible.

“There is a cemetery in Damascus where only great Jewish sages were buried and each year on the eve of Yom Kippur, people would come to a window erected around the graves to pray that the sages should intercede on their behalf.

“Sasson, who was born in Damascus but taken to Turkey and then to the land of Israel as an infant, worries that the cemetery may have fallen into disrepair. “If peace ever comes we must do everything we can to restore it,” he said. “It is one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in the world.”

“Sasson said the Damascus Heritage Center was not a “nostalgia project,” but rather a project of substance designed to preserve the history of Damascus Jewry for future generations.

“The initiators of the project had hoped to interest the remnants and descendants of the equally famous Aleppo, or Halab, community, but they wanted to do their own thing, said Shemer. He said that while Damascus was known as a stronghold of Zionism, even before modern political Zionism, Aleppo was known for its affluence.

“Damascus Jews helped to populate the pioneer kibbutzim, said Kalush, citing members of Afikim and Hulata who came as early as 1920. However many of the Syrian expatriates living in Israel today were brought on foot as children in 1944.

“The Association of Damascus Jews in Israel had been founded two years earlier, primarily to rescue Syrian Jews.

“Israeli prime ministers didn’t allow the organization to engage in that work until Yitzhak Shamir came to power. He gave them his blessing, but advised them not to court the assistance of Europe because the Europeans were not well disposed toward Israel.

“He advised them instead to seek the help of then-US president George Bush.

“The older Bush was indeed instrumental in getting most of the remaining Jews out of Syria.
The Syrians allowed them to leave on condition that they did not go to Israel.

“Most went to America, and a large proportion continued to Israel.

“Shemer said the Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that there are approximately 40,000 Syrian Jews in Israel, but the community says there are more.

“Jews of Syrian origin with non-Israeli passports occasionally travel to Syria, where only 14 Jews remain, to see that Jewish community property such as synagogues are still intact.

“There are approximately 20 synagogues in Syria that are being cared for by the authorities, said Eliahu Sasson, who has launched a project in which elderly Syrian-born Jews, in Israel and abroad, are interviewed so that their memories can be recorded for posterity.

“Sasson also wants to bring to Israel all the sacred and ritual objects that were taken from Syria to the wider Diaspora, and have them permanently stored in the Heritage Center once it is constructed. He is desperately keen to bring a beautifully written and illustrated 300-year old Torah scroll that is currently in New York.”

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Moroccan Muslim wants to stay in Israel

The Jerusalem Post has this unusual story: a Moroccan Muslim woman living in Israel wishes to convert to Judaism and is fighting extradition by the Israeli government. If she went back to Morocco, her own family would kill her. (With thanks: Albert)

“A Muslim woman from Morocco, who has been living in Israel for the last 10 years and dreams of converting to Judaism, is fighting an Interior Ministry decision to extradite her, where she claims she will be murdered by her family for deserting the faith of her birth.

“Sitting in the courtyard of the women’s foreign worker section of Maasiyahu Prison near Ramle, Achoura Abbadi seems out of place among the sea of Eastern European and African faces. It is not only her Semitic features – olive skin, black hair and dark brown eyes – that set her apart from the others but also the small sparkling Star of David that hangs around her neck and her fluent Hebrew, peppered with standard Israeli phrases such as “motek” and “kapara.” Abbadi, 49, came to Israel legally in 1996 to work as a caregiver for an elderly lady in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Kiryat Shaul near Haifa. It was during her two and a half years there that she started to become interested in Judaism.

“I had a few Jewish friends in Morocco but here I met some very religious people,” says Abbadi. “There were so many things that I did not know about the religion. I liked the fact that the people I met seemed to really care for one another and for their religion. Even though I was born and raised a Muslim, I started to feel more Jewish.”

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Ahmadinejad keen to prove he is not anti-Jewish

The Guardian have discovered the Jews of Iran and their sole Majlis representative, Maurice Motamed. They have also managed to interview a childhood friend of President Ahmadinejad. To prove he is no antisemite the president is about to make some symbolic gesture towards the Jews of Iran, the friend confides.

We can hardly wait, Mr President… (With thanks: Albert)

“Although he took on Mr Ahmadinejad over the Holocaust, Mr Motamed supports the president on other issues, including the stand-off with the US, Europe and Israel over the country’s nuclear programme. “I am an Iranian first and a Jew second,” he said.

“He acknowledged there were problems with being a Jew in Iran, as there were for the country’s other minorities. But he said that Iran was relatively tolerant. “There is no pressure on the synagogues, no problems of desecration. I think the problem in Europe is worse than here. There is a lot of anti-semitism in other countries.”

“Most of his family, including his mother, father and sisters, left after the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, as did 75,000 other Jews, heading mainly for Israel, the US and Europe. But Mr Motamed, 61, an engineer, opted to remain. “I love my homeland.”

“Jews have been living in Iran in large numbers since Cyrus the Great freed them from slavery when he captured Babylon in 539BC. Members of the Jewish community in Iran today, for the most part, keep a low profile and many Iranians are unaware of their presence. Mr Motamed said there were about 14,000 Jews in Tehran, which has 20 active synagogues; 6,000-7,000 in Shiraz; 2,000 in Estafan and small groups scattered throughout the rest of the country.

“He confirmed Jews and other minorities were all excluded from “sensitive” senior posts in the military and judiciary. And the authorities refuse to allow Jewish schools to close on the sabbath, a normal working day for the rest of Iran.

“But Mr Motamed said there had been improvements in other areas. Legislation was introduced three years ago overturning a judicial practice of awarding more compensation to the families of Muslim accident victims than to those of Jews. And when he complained in the chamber about a TV soap opera regularly portraying rabbis as evil, he said the speaker of the Majlis expressed support for him.

“Nasser Hadian-Jazy, associate professor of political science at Tehran University and a childhood friend of the president, said Mr Ahmadinejad was keen to put the Holocaust row behind him.

“I asked him, ‘Are you anti-Jew?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ I said, ‘Why not go to a synagogue to express regret for what Iranians have done to Jews?’ … He said, ‘I have another idea, a better idea.’

He will do something to show he is not anti-Jewish. I hope he will do it soon. He will make a gesture to the Jews in Iran and that has implications for Jews elsewhere. What he will say is very important and will remove the idea that he is anti-semite.”

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and another close friend of Mr Ahmadinejad, said the Jewish seat in the Majlis “tells you that we have no problems with Judaism” but he added that he had not heard of any planned gesture by Mr Ahmadinejad.

“The Jewish community in this country are very fairly treated … Of course, a symbolic gesture is good and well, but we think that what we do is more than symbolic.”

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Further reading on the Farhud

The Farhud pogrom of June 1941 is the singlemost important event responsible for bringing about the end of the Jewish community of Iraq. Here is a list for further reading:

Dr Heskel Haddad’s and Phyllis Rosenteur’s 2001 article for Midstream magazine (subscription required). Dr Haddad is the author of Born in Baghdad (stocked by Amazon and Barnes & Noble).

The Sephardi Holocaust recognition projecthas a useful page about the Farhud compiled with the assistance of Banking on Baghdad author Edwin Black. Black devotes an entire chapter of this book to the Farhud.

In 1992 Dr Zvi Yehuda of the Babylonian Heritage Center at Or Yehuda and Professor Shmuel Moreh published Hatred of the Jews and the Farhud in Iraq.

Articles commmemorating the 50th anniversary of the Farhud appeared in the Babylonian Heritage Center’s magazine Nehardeano.5 (June 1991).

In his weblog Emet Mi’Tsiyon Eliahu Mi’Tsyon has six posts about the Farhud, the role of the British army and a French historian’s account.

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