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Beverly Hills made history on March 6 when Jimmy Delshad, a 66-year-old Iranian Jewish immigrant, was elected mayor. It's certainly a coup for the man formerly known as Jamshid Delshad, who was born in Shiraz and moved to America when he was 19 to attend college. He settled in Beverly Hills in 1988 and has called the city home ever since.
"I'm unbelievably excited," Delshad says in a living room filled with glossy coffee table books, including several Haggadot and Jewish art books. "It's like a dream come true, and shows that the American dream is alive and well."
Jamshid Delshad was the youngest of three sons born into a middle class Jewish family. As far back as he can remember, his family was always treated as second-class citizens. "On my very first day of school, when I was six years old, I sat in the front row," Delshad recalls. "Someone whispered loudly behind me, 'He's a Jew,' at which point the teacher turned to me and said, 'Haven't you learned that Jews don't sit in the front row? Now I have to make an example of you.'"
The teacher then forced Delshad to stand in front of the class with his arms akimbo, and placed two heavy books on his upturned palms. Two other boys were made to stand alongside Delshad and hit his hand with a ruler any time his arms buckled under the weight of the books.
"I cried a lot that day," Delshad says. "And I remember thinking, 'There is something wrong with this,' and I vowed to do something about it one day."
In 1956, when he was 16, Delshad and his family moved to Israel, which was in the midst of the Sinai Campaign. He credits his first six months on Kibbutz Shuval with "turning me into a man." It was there he was taught to shoot a rifle and became a guard on the kibbutz, "because my aim was so good."
Eventually, at 18, Delshad returned to Iran with his brothers to finish high school, before leaving Iran for good. All three brothers were accepted into the University of Minnesota, and Jamshid officially changed his name to Jimmy when he became an American citizen in 1974.
During the lean years, Delshad and his brothers earned extra money by putting together a band - The Delshad Trio. Jimmy played the Persian santur, and his brothers played the accordion, violin and drums.
He graduated from California State University with a degree in computer science before going on to Cal State Northridge. It was there that he met his wife Lonnie, then president of the student Zionist organization. She was born in Kfar Vitkin and speaks fluent Hebrew. The couple married in 1968 and have two children - Debra Joy, 32, a law graduate who works in the music publishing industry, and Daniel Aaron, 30, who works in Delshad's hi-tech storage company.
As for the hoopla concerning his election, Delshad says, "I guess this is groundbreaking, but immigrants have been breaking ground for years. As for the Persian community, I feel I first broke ground when I became the president of Sinai Temple [a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles] in 1999. I was the first president of a synagogue that was not exclusively Persian."
The reason his victory quickly became a national and international phenomenon is obviously because Beverly Hills is such a high-profile city. President Moshe Katsav put in a congratulatory phone call to Delshad following his election. As a fellow Iranian who achieved high office, Delshad says it meant a lot that Katsav telephoned him.
And rumor has it that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to send a congratulatory note along to Delshad on inauguration day, March 27. Olmert sent Delshad a congratulatory letter following his election to the city council four years ago, when he was still mayor of Jerusalem.
Yet for all of Beverly Hills' international appeal and celebrity status, it is still a city that covers approximately 13 square kilometers and requires major decisions to be made every single day. Those decisions are made by the Beverly Hills City Council, a five-member governing body that is elected every two years by residents. That body is headed by a mayor and vice mayor whose tenure lasts only 12 months, and who are appointed from within the council itself on a rotating basis.
The council and the vice mayor and mayoral positions are all voluntary, with members receiving a token stipend of around $600 per month. A council member can remain in office for two consecutive four-year terms, but must seek reelection after his first term. And that's what Jimmy Delshad was forced to do.
IN THIS year's elections, two others among the six candidates running for the two vacant positions on the council, were Iranian Jews. Shahram Melamed is a businessman who had been serving as the vice chairman of the city's planning commission, and Maggie Soleimani is a young attorney who is heavily involved in the school board and educational issues and came in a very close fourth in the race.
This doesn't come as a surprise given that some 26 percent of the city's 33,000 residents are Iranian. And it's the Iranian part - not the Jewish part - of Delshad's heritage that makes his victory so interesting. Currently, four out of the five members of the city council are Jewish (with the fifth being married to a Jew), and all those who ran in this year's elections are Jewish.
Nevertheless, a nasty issue unfolded after the city clerk decided to translate absentee and sample ballots into Farsi. Suddenly the city hall switchboard was clogged with irate residents complaining that the ballots were offensive and designed to create a rift within the community. Hundreds of voters openly swore they would not vote for Delshad and would do everything in their power to ensure that only "white folks" would be elected.
The Farsi ballot controversy was a frightening experience for Delshad. "It took me right back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis," he says. "I had no idea how ugly the issue was going to become. It was an avalanche, and I was very, very worried."
He worked hard to win the community over and made a point of telling several national news outlets that "the Iranian community is one of the most educated minorities in America and reads English well. The ballots only caused confusion and were an insult to many Iranians."
Just about everyone in the city will agree that Delshad is a hard worker and an incredibly forthright man. He attributes his work ethic and his straight-shooter attitude to his parents. "My father was a highly ethical man," he says. "He taught me if you tell the truth you don't have to have a good memory."
Delshad says that while his job as mayor is first and foremost about doing the best job he possibly can for the residents of Beverly Hills, he also hopes that his election will shift perceptions.
"I hope people will see a better side of Persians and understand that we are here to stay and to contribute. We are not terrorists, We are scientists, politicians, artists, everyday people, and we are here to help America." n