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.
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.
Yari made his fortune in real-estate development, but he’s no novice when it comes to Hollywood: After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film “Mind Games” 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.
“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.”
“I guess I have stories inside of me that need to be told, and I just love the work,” the New York-based Zendel said. “God knows it’s not an easy route but I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
The movie she wrote, produced and directed, the 2003 independent film “Controlled Chaos,” 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.
“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.
In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, recently completed shooting the independent film “When A Man Falls In The Forest,” 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 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.
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 “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.
“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, 31, who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s 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.”
Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films including “Syriana,” opposite George Clooney, and “Mission: Impossible 3” with Tom Cruise.
Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 16, was a regular last season on the Fox television series “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.
“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”
Ahdout made his acting debut three years ago in the acclaimed film “House of Sand and Fog,” 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 community’s traditions. Six years ago, Ahdoot almost entered medical school, but — to his family’s chagrin — decided to take a shot at comedy first.
“My whole family was basically against it, but I used that as a motivation to prove them wrong,” said Ahdoot, who hails from the Iranian Jewish enclave of Great Neck, Long Island. “Life is too short and you have to take risks. That’s basically what I did, and thank God it’s paying off.”
Ahdoot’s routine about life as a second-generation Iranian American landed him a spot as a finalist on the 2004 season of NBC’s reality show “Last Comic Standing,” as well as awards from national comedy competitions. He’s currently touring the country doing his routine at various colleges and universities.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in our community. After my TV appearances I’ve received e-mails from other Iranian Jews saying ‘I’m a lawyer or a doctor and I don’t want to do this anymore,’ ” said Ahdoot, 27.
Ahdoot said many Iranian Jewish families push their children toward higher education and conventional careers rather than entertainment. While that’s 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.
“Education is almost as important as money in our community because it’s something no one can take away from you,” Ahdoot said. “Most parents in the community believe that ‘we came here with nothing and we built this, so you’re supposed to carry the torch and don’t go down.’ ”
Karmel Melamed is an internationally published freelance journalist in Southern California.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Telegraph Agency
New Initiative Launched to Restore Memories and a Legacy
On Tuesday January 30th, Thirty Years After (30 YA) hosted the Legacy Launch, one of their largest, most innovative and interactive projects to date, at the Ahyra Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.
Sam Yebri, President of Thirty Years After, explains the Legacy Project, “The Project is a grassroots initiative that will help preserve and honor the Iranian Jewish experience through video for future generations, and provide an opportunity for every family to capture their parents’ and grandparents’ most compelling memories and anecdotes before it is too late.”
Doors opened to guest at 7:00 pm where they were greeted with smiles from 30 YA volunteers and staff members. The lobby was packed with guests who were treated to wonderful Iranian street food not often seen or eaten in the United States. The delicious cuisine included Labu (beets baked in their own juice, and typically served steaming hot in a street cart during the dead of winter), Baghali (beans topped with spices, typically served the same way as Labu), Dizi (a meat mash/stew– usually made with lamb, but made with beef and chickpeas at our event), Shohleh Zard (saffron rice pudding), Chos-e-fil (otherwise known as popcorn) and Mahi-Cheh Polo (herbed rice with beef shanks).
The large number of attendees was a testament to the genuine and unprecedented support for the new generation of leaders of the Los Angeles Iranian-American Jewish community. The printed program for the event listed over 25 generous families and businesses that supported the Legacy Launch and congratulated 30 YA on celebrating their 10 year anniversary.
This event was magical because of the broad range of emotions experienced just by being shoulder to shoulder with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins born in Tehran. Sadness is one emotion that could have been felt while standing in the room, because of all of the untold stories that were not recorded, told or heard. How many stories have we “missed out” on because family members have passed away, younger generations have gone off to college, or simply because we took time for granted? At the Legacy Launch, time stood still for a few hours for the sake of a community recording the past, but very aware of time, embracing beloved memories on video, but also progressively moving toward the future.
Yebri explained, “Our history informs our present and powers our future. This is especially true when our families and community have such a rich legacy of inspiring memories and experiences in Iran and during our exodus to America. 30 Years After is thrilled to launch ‘The Legacy Project’ as part of the organization’s 10th anniversary celebration.”
Bobby Zolekhian, former President of Nessah Young Professionals expressed, “It was one of the most inspirational events I have been to. I am recruiting people to share their stories. This is something extraordinary!”
Featured guest speakers during the screening included Mrs. Susan Azizzadeh, President of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Dr. Saba Soomekh, Assistant Director of Interreligious and Intercommunity Affairs at AJC, Megan Nemandoust, Margalit Rosenthal, Liora Simozar and 30 YA President, Sam Yebri.
The dynamic presentation of the screening and its intimate interviews clearly validated that the second and third generations of Iranian Jews growing up in the United States are confidently embracing their unspoken responsibility to record the stories of generations before them for a purpose with a greater cause– maintaining their identity, culture, and traditions.
Learn more about preserving your legacy with 30 YA at https://legacy.30yearsafter.org/
The Honorable Mensch’n: Shanel Melamed
A true essence of Persian grace and humility, this issue’s honorable mensch is Shanel Melamed, Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, 30 Years After. When she’s not bridging the gap between subdivisions of our own community, Melamed travels and trains in Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) but always makes sure she is home in time for Kabob dinner with her grandparents on Thursday nights.
30 Years After promotes the participation and leadership of Iranian American Jews in American political, civic and Jewish life. In the last decade, they have become the doorway for anyone who wishes to reach out and build a relationship with Persian Jews, from political candidates, to universities or other nonprofit organizations. While the nonprofit often organizes socio-educational events for the community, its flagship program is their six-month long “Maher Fellowship”, which trains young Persian Jewish professionals in developing leadership skills and educates them on their cultural history and Jewish Los Angeles today. Shanel explains that the fellowship’s mission mirrors the Jewish concept of L’dor Vador, instilling a sense of pride upon first generation Iranian American Jews and subsequently creating a ripple effect on the rest of the community. Melamed intends for graduates of the fellowship to embrace their heritage, and as they enter their first stages of their professions and parenthood, feel entitled to pass on their legacy for generations to come. Shanel believes that,
“People of our generation should be knowledgeable and capable of cross-coding, of how to be American in the Persian Jewish world and how to be Persian Jewish in the American world. There’s no need to be only one of the three…it takes education on identity, culture, and history and our work doesn’t always have short-term return on investment. We’re in it for the long run, but that’s the spirit of what we do. My hope is that as our generation starts having kids, and as they educate them at home, it’ll be very similar to how we grew up- in terms of traditions and values, but maybe with an American mentality.”
Shanel works to make sure that the organization is “educating, empowering and connecting a community of like-minded people that can then be multipliers within their contemporaries of embodying what it means to be all three and how to leverage every aspect of that identity.” She advocates that Iranian American Jews cherish their roots as they serve well in the United States.
In the effort to maintain Jewish values in a modernized world, Melamed believes in letting go of certain outdated mentalities; such as not speaking about the things that plague us or seek guidance and support without fear of backlash from the community, deeming us as “unmarriageable” or tarnishing our family name. The Persian Jewish community is not immune to adversities of the human experience. Shanel explains, “It takes time for the community to evolve. It took the Jews 40 years in the desert. Our generation is in a very tough situation, but we need to embody the changes that we want to see. Since Jewish America has been on the decline for a variety of reasons and Persian Jews arrived here only about 40 years ago, we have a lot to give.” She hopes that the organization impacts the Persian Jewish community to eventually feel empowered enough to “open doors within existing institutions to allow those institutions to welcome our voice as well.” Shanel often noticed that Jewish events in Los Angeles are not very inclusive of Persian Jews, despite their large presence. She explains, “We need to be embraced…not to be forced to change in order to feel comfortable somewhere…it is very uncomfortable to go to a Jewish event and words are being thrown around in Yiddish, and you have to ask what they mean. You don’t feel like you fit in.” Melamed finds it unfortunate that Persian Jews have been underserved for so long and that consequently the greater Jewish community has not been able to benefit from the wealth of Jewish connection and “fierce Zionism” that Persian Jews have to offer. This is where her work with 30 Years After comes in, to “teach young Jews what the Jewish landscape is and how they fit in.”
On the topic of Saturday morning synagogue congregations dwindling, Shanel emphasizes the significance of keeping Friday nights holy: “Because the home has been the epicenter of Persian Jewry, I think we keep the community alive through Shabbat dinners.” Melamed reflects on a quote by Ahad Ha’Am, “‘More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.’ Persian Jews are the epitome of what that means in a modern society, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of that story.”
The Flawed Stereotype of Lawyers May Cause a Law School Epidemic
THE FLAWED STEREOTYPE
We’ve all seen it: the pounding on the desk, the shouting across the courtroom.
Nearly every legal drama in the past half-century has perpetrated the same cutthroat stereotype of lawyers.
This made me, a prospective law school student, worried about my future. When I told people I wanted to be a lawyer, they’d cringe.
“You would be miserable as a lawyer!” they’d say. Others asked, “Did your parents brainwash you into it?”
And frankly, for a short time, I began to worry that they were right. Was I about to take a turn into the dark side?
My story is not unique. Aspiring law students across America face a similar struggle—just because they aren’t loud and combative they have been discouraged from going to law school. It’s as if the soft-spoken, empathic types don’t have the chops to be lawyers.
But then, thankfully, my view changed. I met Daria Roithmayr, a professor of law at USC who told me something that I’ll never forget:
“Great lawyers come from all different backgrounds,” she said. “You can be a successful lawyer regardless of whether you are soft spoken or flamboyant.”
Professor Roithmayr explained that the empathic lawyer could have an edge over the others. She used the example of a character on the TV series, True Detective, who uses his ability to empathize with the suspect to break down his barriers and eventually get him to confess to the crime. This character uses empathy as his “superpower.”
Now, sadly, many law school hopefuls haven’t heard Professor Roithmayr’s rebuttal. It’s fair to assume that most college students still think you need to be the outspoken, aggressive type to succeed as an attorney.
Remember, we are the millennial generation. The TV set had a hand in raising most of us. We’ve seen shows like Suits and The Practice, along with movies like A Few Good Men. The impressions they’ve had on us cannot be downplayed.
This may seem like a non-issue at first glance. But in ten or twenty years from now, what will happen if all the soft-spoken, empathic potential lawyers are dissuaded from applying to law school because they don’t fit the perpetuated archetype?
Our whole legal system may lose out on the type of attorneys our society needs the most.
Being soft-spoken is not a liability, but could be an asset. Those who are soft-spoken or empathic get their point across by speaking thoughtfully instead of speaking loudly. A soft-spoken lawyer will observe, ask questions, and listen in order to advance their negotiation tactics.
A lawyer needs to be mindful and intuitive to understand the depths of our laws and the opponent’s perspective.
The stereotypical lawyer may thrive in courthouse dramas, but that’s not the only way to succeed in real life.
Imagine a lawyer who intuitively feels what the jury needs to hear. Now imagine the lawyer who can look at the case from his opponent’s perspective. This lawyer analyzes and develops his case in a language that persuades his opponent.
In a world of fist-pounding attorneys, the empathic lawyer has a secret weapon. Emotional intelligence isn’t only for psychologists.
There was a time when women were not believed to make good lawyers. That was proven wrong. It’s now time for the introverts to take center stage.
Lawyers and law schools alike will benefit by educating the public about the multiple faces of the legal profession.
It takes a certain analytical skill to be a good lawyer, but in the end, it takes all kinds to make a profession. So don’t succumb to the naysayers. You don’t have to be a bulldog to be a good attorney—your work ethic and passion determine your success.
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