Los Angeles: Galeet Dardashti, May 16

Tracing the Tribe is delighted to announce that our cousin Galeet Dardashti will receive a special award on Sunday, May 16, in Los Angeles.

The event, sponsored by the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization will be held at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

I wish it were a few weeks later so that I could attend this wonderful event.

The objective of this organization, in addition to its social, cultural and charitable activities has been to protect the dual identity of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, as well as to recognize the impact and role of Iranian Jewish women in society.

The Shamsi Hekmat Achievement Award will be given to three outstanding Iranian Jewish women: Azadeh Farin, MD, neurosurgeon; Mojgan Rahbar, journalist, editor and anchorwoman; and Galeet Dardashti, PhD, vocalist and composer.

Galeet Dardashti is the first woman to continue her family’s tradition of distinguished Persian and Jewish musicianship. She leads Divahn—a renowned all-female power-house ensemble that performs edgy interpretations of Middle Eastern Jewish music internationally. She received a Six Points Fellowship and a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Fellowship to pursue her independent project “The Naming”, a multi-disciplinary (original music, dance, video art, monologues) work performed in Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, and Aramaic that re-imagines some of the compelling women of the Bible.

Galeet holds a PhD in anthropology and completed her dissertation on the cultural politics of contemporary Middle Eastern music in Israel in 2009. Her work was supported by fellowships from Fulbright-Hays, The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, among others. She has published her academic work widely and offers lectures and artist/scholar-in-residencies throughout the country. She lives in New York with her husband and son.

Azadeh Farin is currently chief resident and clinical instructor of neurosurgery at the Department of Neurosurgery, Keck School of Medicine, LA County-USC Medical Center. She is one of fewer than 200 female neurosurgeons in the US, less than 4% of all US neurosurgeons.

Among her numerous accomplishments are dozens of publications, including first-author publications, several of which have been featured on the covers of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals in her field.

Azadeh has served as a consultant for the hit ABC television drama, Grey’s Anatomy.

Mojgan Moghadam Rahbar is a journalist, writer, translator and humanitarian who has worked in the Iranian and American media for the past 20 years. Currently editor-in-chief of Shofar Magazine, the quarterly publication of the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s quarterly publication, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.

Congratulations to the three honorees.

Ancestor Approved: 10 things about my ancestors

Tracing the Tribe has received the Ancestor Approved award from Pat and Judy, the GenealogyGals.

Their blog is a joint effort.

Award recipients are supposed to report on 10 things learned about our ancestors that have surprised, humbled, or enlightened us, and then pass along the award to 10 more genealogy bloggers who are doing their ancestors proud.

1. Surprised: At the life of my maternal great-grandmother Riva BANK TALALAY – born in a shtetl outside Kovno – who was ran away to the Gypsies – so the story goes – to avoid a disliked marriage. Along the way, she learned herbal healing, midwifery, reading tarot cards and palmistry. When she did marry Aron Peretz Talalay and moved to his agricultural colony Vorotinschtina, some 12 miles southwest of Mogilev, Belarus, she was known for creating the first closet in the shtetl. In Newark, New Jersey, she was also a midwife and healer and well-known for getting her way to make living better for her family.

2. Surprised: That the generation-to-generation one-liner – “This was our name in Spain” – has been corroborated by archival research in Spain and DNA genetic testing.

3. Enlightened: Our TALALAY family’s first immigrant ancestor met an English-speaker on the boat over in 1898 who advised him to change his name as no one would give a job to Mr. Tell-a-lie. Thus TOLLIN, TALLIN, TAYLOR, TOLL, TALL and – of course – those lost Philadelphia FEINSTEINs, came about.

4. Enlightened: My maternal FINK (Suchostaw, Galicia -> Ukraine) grandfather and his brothers had a large building maintenance company in New York City. Once, during a window-cleaners’ strike, a worker was quoted as calling his employers, “those rats, the FINKs.” According to family story, the term “rat-fink” was born.

5. Surprised: On hearing that my mother, as a teen, used to swim across Kauneonga Lake (Catskills, Sullivan County, about 10 miles from Monticello) frequently. It is a very large lake!

6. Humbled: To have found at least one lost branch of the Dardashti family, and thus fulfilling a request of my husband’s eldest aunt Nane-jan – made more than 35 years ago in Teheran – to find the lost branches (descendants of relatives who became Moslem) and tell them that they had cousins who thought about them all the time.

7. Humbled: To think about the difficulties Nane-jan underwent as the first Jewish girl to go to school in Teheran in 1902. The community stopped buying from her father, a butcher, and she endured taunts and attacks on her way to school. All her sisters also went to school, with some of them becoming French teachers. It wasn’t easy being a father with such advanced enlightened thinking in those days.

8. Frequently flabbergasted when thinking of our newly-connected TALALAY-KATSNELSON relatives (from Bobruisk, Belarus) in Melbourne, Australia. Their eldest daughter Nelly is a journalist and her daughter is Miliana. I’m Schelly, a journalist and our daughter is Liana. Do you also hear Twilight Zone music?

9. Surprised at how much cousin Leon in Melbourne and I resemble each other. His mother was a Talalay whose father (Gamshei) had moved (reasons still unknown) from Mogilev to Bobruisk.

10. Still shocked: My late cousin Victor Talalay (Toronto) and I both located information about the family branch in Israel at the same time, decades ago, when we separately visited Israel and found the data in the English phone book. We each dutifully copied the info and held onto the scraps of paper with name, address and phone number for decades. I finally wrote and located the granddaughter as her grandfather, who placed the entry every year, had died only a year or so prior. He had placed the info in the English phone book every year hoping that US relatives would find it and contact him. He had arrived from Berlin (after leaving Mogilev in 1902 and going to London and Germany) to Israel in 1933. Moral: Never procrastinate when it comes to following up on all clues to family history.

Since I am coming into this award late – procrastination still runs in our family – and I believe almost all bloggers have already been tagged, I am awarding this coveted prize to everyone who has not already been noted.

China: A visit to Kaifeng

The one thing I really wanted to do, on my recent visit to Hong Kong, was arrange a visit to Kaifeng. It was impossible this time, but will be number one on my next visit – whenever that will be.

Matthew Fishbane recently visited the city and recounted his experience in the New York Times Travel Section, “China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave.” He also provides details for making a successful trip, mentions two guides and offers an interesting look.

One guide mentioned in the story is Shi Lei, 31, who studied at Bar Ilan University in Israel. We met when he spoke to a Ra’anana branch meeting that attracted nearly 100 attendees.

Through a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits.

A mezuza at the doorway of Guo Yan’s house in Kaifeng, where traces of a thriving Jewish community remain.

The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.

Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: “ ‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’“

That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone.

Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.

Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane — an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece. “Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”

Fishbane says, as does my own research over nearly two decades, that for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, there was still a spirit:

Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.

Read the complete story, at the link above, which tells of the visit to Mrs. Zhao, Judaica, and the 50 or so descendants of this ancient Jewish community as they are relearning their heritage. Fishbane also provides a good capsule history of Kaifeng as well. Their synagogue, damaged by floods, was never rebuilt.

And, if this story inspires you, view the details, resource books and possibilities of arranging such a visit to Kaifeng. Most visit only for a day as there are few sites to see that exist, and a visit relies on how the visitor and guide explain what once was.

If you do plan a trip, you might want to do it sooner than later. The street where Shi’s grandfather lived – where Shi keeps a one-room mini-museum of photographs, documents and donated objects – is scheduled for re-development. We all know what that means and Shi doesn’t know where the museum will move. Read the story for details on a Kaifeng visit planned for October 2010 by a group that specializes in such trips.

Tel Aviv: Iranian film forum, Feb. 23-May 25

The Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University will present an Iranian Film Forum on Tuesdays, from February 23-May 25.

Screenings, followed by Q&A, will run from 6-8.30pm (Room 281, Gillman Building).

Attendees will have the opportunity to become acquainted with diverse aspects of the Iranian experience, within the country and abroad

Professor Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, an Iranian filmmaker and creative arts profession at Siena College of New York, will lead the discussions. He is a visiting Fulbright scholar at the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

— February 23: Introduction to Iranian Cinema
Dream Interrupted (2004); Mahmood Karimi-Hakak
A documentary film based on “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship”

— March 16: Women in Iran
The Day I Became a Woman (2000); Marzieh Meshkini

— April 13: Iranian Youth
The Girl in the Sneakers (1999); Rasul Sadrameli

— May 4: Minorities in Iran
The Blackboard (1999); Samirah Makhmalbaf

— May 25: Iranian Diaspora
To be announced

The program is tentative and subject to change

Holocaust: Iranian Jewish filmmaker, ‘The Desperate’

An Iranian Jewish filmmaker has produced a Holocaust story, “The Desperate.”

The recently released film focuses on a Jewish surgeon, a concentration camp inmate, forced to perform emergency surgery on a Nazi general’s son.

Ben Hur Sepher is interviewed by Karmel Melamed, who writes the Iranian American Jews blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

The story and interview is quite interesting.

When we talk about cultural traditions in the Persian Jewish community, Sepher’s career is unusual.

Careers in the arts or entertainment were frowned upon. This may be an outgrowth of the popularity of Persian Jewish musicians in Shiraz and other cities whose work took them late at night into non-Jewish homes to entertain at parties and where there would be non-kosher food.

Young people – in the old days – who professed interest in such occupations were advised to get a real job.

Sepher is one of the rare ones who succeeded both in Iran and in the US for writing, directing and producing films. He trained at the Swedish Film Institute and worked at the Stockholm State Theatre for Ingmar Bergman. Additionally, he was the personal filmmaker for the Shah of Iran in pre-Revolutionary times.

Part of the Iranian Jewish diaspora in Los Angeles, which arrived some 30 years ago, Sepher directs television programs and short films in Hollywood.

To read the story, see the interview and the film’s trailer, click here.

Los Angeles: Persians record "Our Legacy"

There’s another revolution in the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles – and hopefully in other pockets of the same diaspora.

I’ve been connected with this community for many decades, both in Teheran and Los Angeles. Normally, people do not focus on life in the old days, particularly if there were difficult times.

The community tends to focus on good times, positive achievements and the future. Only rarely do individuals talk about their past experiences that were less than positive, and even fewer speak about these experiences in public arenas.

Thus, this project, spearheaded by the 30 Years After group, is extremely important as it gives voice to the memories and experiences of this community. Thanks to this Iranian Jewish young leadership group first organized in Los Angeles (with a branch in New York, and which has also sponsored events in Tel Aviv), an oral history endeavor is now underway.

“Our Legacy” is a first-ever unique community project to commemorate and preserve Iranian Jewish history by connecting the future of the Jewish people with the legacy of their past.

Some have seen loved ones arrested and imprisoned as political prisoners. Others have fled across borders like nomads on the backs of camels. More escaped the Islamic Republic as political refugees in search of safety and opportunity. Yet, the stories of sacrifice and courage that sustained this community have never been fully told.

Headed by young Los Angeles attorney Sam Yebri, his organization is striving to document this history before it disappears from the community’s collective memory. It is an attempt to tell the history of a Jewish community through videotaped stories and interviews conducted and organized by the community’s youth and young leaders.

According to the website, people may upload videos shot with video cameras or even cellphones, making it very easy to capture the memories of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and help the younger – and future – generations understand what the immigrant generation experienced.

On December 13, some 100 people descended on Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and shared their memories of life, after being directed to one of four available cameras.

Nessah is headed by Rabbi David Shofet, who graduated from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. His late father, Hakham Yedidiah Shofet, was Iran’s chief rabbi for decades. I’ve known David since his JTS days, and knew the family when we lived in Teheran. When he returned to Iran, he even arranged for some high school students at Teheran’s Abrishami synagogue – where his father presided – to participate in USY Pilgrimages to Israel with their US counterparts.

Iranian Jewish journalist Karmel Melamed covered the session in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, who wrote, in part:

Recording oral history is not a new endeavor for the local Iranian Jewish community. In recent years the L.A.-based Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, with the help of volunteers, conducted more than 100 video and audio interviews with Iranian Jews who had influenced Iran’s history, literature and culture in some way since 1906.

In 2002, the group released “Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews,” a colorful book sharing the 2,700-year history of Iranian Jewry along with personal photos from community members.

Yet 30 Years After’s project is unique in that it encourages young Iranian American Jewish professionals to embrace their heritage by videotaping their own parents’ and grandparents’ often painful memories from life in Iran.

Yebri said the video testimonials recorded by 30 Years After will be available on the group’s Web site. Additional tapings will be scheduled during 2010 at local community synagogues and senior citizen centers, and the group plans to use the videos in collaboration with established institutions like the Library of Congress, the Jewish Museum in New York and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

The faces in the videos were familiar, and it was good to see people I knew back in the old days in Teheran and later in Los Angeles. Some videos are in English, some in Farsi, which brought back many of my own memories.

For more information, visit the Our Legacy Project. However, be patient as the website seems extremely slow to load (“clunky” comes to mind) and needs some tweaking.

Read Karmel’s complete story at the Jewish Journal link above.

Israel: Persian Gulf Jewish Communities

A conference held by the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies (University of Haifa) now features the presentations via video online.

The international colloquium, titled “The Jewish Communities of the Persian Gulf: New Themes in Their Modern History,” took place May 15, 2006.

Among the speakers:

Conference Welcome

–Dr. Meir Ezri, former Israeli Ambassador to Iran. (Watch, Listen)

— Prof. Amatzia Baram, Department of Middle Eastern History, University of Haifa (Watch, Listen)

Session 1: The Realm of Baghdadi Jewish Entrepreneurs
Chair: Prof. Amalia Levanoni

— Dr. Chiara Betta: Rethinking Baghdadi Jewish Networks in Shanghai Watch, Listen)

— Prof. Gad G. Gilbar: The Sassoons in Iran, Amin al-Zarb in Hong Kong: Some Lessons (Watch, Listen) (NOTE: Tracing the Tribe watched this very interesting presentation of the Sassoon family, whose empire stretched to Hong Kong).

— Questions from the Audience (Watch)

Session 2: Jewish-Muslim Socio-economic Relations in Late Qajar Iran
Chair: Prof. David Yeroushalmi, Tel Aviv University

— Dr. Heidi Walcher: Commercial Relations and Mercantile Networks in 19th Century Isfahan(Watch, Listen)

— Dr. Daniel Tsadik: Shi’i-Jewish Relations in the pre-Constitutional Years: The Shiraz Incident of 1905 (Watch, Listen)

Session 3: Cultural Aspects of Jewish Life: Iran and Iraq
Chair: Dr. Soli Shahvar, University of Haifa

— Prof. Goel Cohen: The Iranian Jewish Press during the Pahlavi Period. This was not recorded.

— Dr. Ronen Zeidel: Once City, Different Views: Baghdad in the Recent Writings of Sami Michael, Sasson Somekh and Salim Fatal (Watch, Listen)

Concluding Remarks

Prof. Amatzia Baram (Watch)

These are interesting topics and perspective not usually addressed elsewhere.