The Lumi­nous Heart of Jon­ah S.

By – May 22, 2014

Raphael’s Son — so called by a deranged moth­er in order to estab­lish his legit­i­ma­cy in the Soley­man fam­i­ly — has many ene­mies, espe­cial­ly since the eco­nom­ic melt­down of 2008 revealed that his Ponzi schemes defraud­ed many in the Iran­ian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Los Ange­les. His dis­ap­pear­ance and sus­pect­ed mur­der opens the far-rang­ing nov­el of com­plex rela­tion­ships between sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of the Soley­mans, a Los Ange­les fam­i­ly of a long and hon­or­able sta­tus in Iran. Between the mys­tery of Raphael’s Son, The Lumi­nous Heart of Jon­ah S. recounts his family’s sto­ried exis­tence in Iran, their hasty escape from Iran dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion of the 1970s, and their even­tu­al reestab­lish­ment in the sun­ny clime of California.

Head­ed by Aaron, the broth­er of the late Raphael, the Soley­man fam­i­ly has to con­tend with the bit­ter anger of Raphael’s wid­ow, whose claims to the Soley­man for­tune for her­self and her son are the recur­ring fac­tors in the nar­ra­tive. Raphael and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers are endowed with cer­tain phys­i­cal pecu­liar­i­ties that fig­ure into the plot and bring an ele­ment of the sur­re­al, woven into the story’s structure.

Author Gina B. Nahai paints the recon­sti­tut­ed Iran­ian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Los Ange­les (and, by exten­sion, New York) as a refugee com­mu­ni­ty seek­ing to hold onto their mem­o­ries by asso­ci­at­ing exclu­sive­ly with one anoth­er and speak­ing in Far­si, the Per­sian lan­guage. Their con­ven­tions con­tin­ue to dom­i­nate their lives and the fear of fall­en aabehroo con­tin­ues to influ­ence their behav­ior. Only Angela Soley­man, the bril­liant, high­ly edu­cat­ed but unmar­ried and social­ly inept daugh­ter of Eliz­a­beth and Aaron, takes chal­lenges these con­ven­tions in her blog, The Pearl Cannon”.

Nahai, her­self an Iran­ian Jew, brings the many cus­toms and con­ven­tions that seem to rule behav­ior into the nov­el. The author’s satir­ic point of view is occa­sion­al­ly quite unkind to the Iran­ian com­mu­ni­ty that she obvi­ous­ly knows well: she con­sid­ers their empha­sis on appear­ances, mon­ey, and fam­i­ly con­nec­tions shal­low and out­dat­ed. Nahai defines aabehroo, with no Eng­lish equiv­a­lent, as a con­stant fea­ture of the Soley­mans’ lives: allud­ing to the impres­sion that oth­ers hold of an individual’s virtue and respectabil­i­ty.” The threat of loss of one’s aabehroo comes up repeat­ed­ly through­out the sto­ry as the impe­tus behind a character’s decisions.

By the end, though the iden­ti­ty of the epony­mous Jon­ah S. is revealed, solv­ing the mur­der doesn’t seem to mat­ter much. Nahai’s wit enter­tains through­out the nov­el, and The Lumi­nous Heart of Jon­ah S. is a fast-paced read, inter­est­ing for the his­to­ry of the peri­od of the rev­o­lu­tion and sub­se­quent relo­ca­tion of the Jews of Iran.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Akashic Books

  • The Lumi­nous Heart of Jon­ah S. por­tray a com­mu­ni­ty large­ly obsessed with wealth, beau­ty, and suc­cess. Is this a fair characterization?

  • The book describes Raphael’s Son and the Riff Raff as hav­ing adopt­ed Ortho­dox Judaism in order to gain cred­i­bil­i­ty with their future vic­tims. At the same time, it men­tions that Iran­ian Jews are increas­ing­ly becom­ing ortho­dox in LA and NY. What are the impli­ca­tions of these conversions?

  • A cor­rupt union boss, two sleazy under­lings, and a weak and inef­fec­tive city admin­is­tra­tion. How do these ele­ments from the book relate to the actu­al cur­rent state of affairs in LA?

  • So much of what hap­pens in the sto­ry revolves around the con­cept of ah-beh- roo — a word for which there is no direct trans­la­tion in Eng­lish. What role do you think it plays in your own life?

  • Mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar man­sions, out­ra­geous­ly expen­sive cars, maids who don’t like to clean and a law enforce­ment that is indif­fer­ent to the suf­fer­ing of thou­sands of Raphael’s Son’s vic­tims — is this a car­i­ca­ture of LA, or the real thing?

  • The issue of assim­i­la­tion is one that many an immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty has grap­pled with in this coun­try. Do you see Ira­ni­ans Jews assim­i­lat­ing in the near future, or will they (like, for exam­ple, the Armen­ian com­mu­ni­ty in dias­po­ra) retain their lan­guage, cul­ture, and dis­tinct identity?

  • What you we win, and lose, when we leave a coun­try behind?” This is a ques­tion that many of the char­ac­ters in the book face. How would you answer it?