The Journey of Yosef Nemanpour

ENERGY: Yosef says theres no contradiction between being religious and being cool.

Goldie Fields

ENERGY: Yosef says there’s no contradiction between being religious and being cool.

By Adam Rokah, Staff Writer

It is Taanit Esther, and many students are exhausted from dehydration. Every movement made by those fasting is slow and lethargic. Junior Yosef Nemanpour seems out of place on this drowsy day, striding exuberantly around the halls.

After fervently swaying back and forth throughout the tefila at the Sephardic Mincha, Yosef stands before the group and delivers a lengthy and enthusiastic lesson on how to improve their prayer. Without food for fuel, he seems propelled entirely by his legendary, and very public, love for Judaism.

“Although we are all tired today because of the fast, we cannot slack off during the Amidah,” Yosef admonished the group, without smiling.  “The Hebrew is as difficult a level of Hebrew as the English in Shakespeare’s literature, which why I advise you to all spend a little extra time on the Amidah, so you can understand it better.”

These days Yosef is known as one of the most religiously passionate students at Shalhevet – and also one of the most exuberant overall. He is SAC Vice Chair, an elected office which allows him to lead spirit activities throughout the year. He also follows the Shalhevet Choir along to its performances, giving everyone a good laugh as the group’s unofficial sideline dancer.

During a recent choir performance at the PATH Homeless Shelter in Hollywood, Yosef performed a solo beat-box, bringing lucid joy to the faces of the residents.  He ceaselessly encourages other students to get involved in whatever chesed (service) activity he has coming up. In davening, he constantly reminds others to concentrate on their prayers.

But he was not always this way. In fact, he wasn’t always Yosef – rather, he was Justin, and after two suspensions, he was generally seen as a troublemaker.

As a freshman, Yosef would joke around during prayer, pulling his friend’s seats back as they sat down and generally uninvolved with the siddur. After a while, whenever anything went wrong in school, Justin Nemanpour was immediately suspected.

“When I first moved to Shalhevet, Judaism seemed pointless and meaningless…” Yosef recalled in an interview recently.  “Davening seemed so long to me. It was impossible for me to sit there for so long.”
His behavior reached its lowest point when he was suspended several times.

“In 9th grade I photo-shopped pictures of girls in my grade, posted them on Facebook, and pretty much cyber-bullied them,” he said. “The girls took it to the administration, and I now believe they were right to do so. This resulted in my first suspension.”

At the beginning of 10th grade, he hit a freshman in the face and was suspended again. He had already decided to change and become religious, but it hadn’t quite solidified yet.

“Everyone has a yetzer harah [evil inclination], and although I attempted to circumscribe it, it broke out,” Yosef explained.

That was pretty much the end of the old Justin, however.  Over the course of his sophomore year, a spiritual awakening that had started in Rabbi Rodney Feinerman’s ninth grade Gemarah class the year before gradually deepened, helped along by NCSY and the Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu.

The combination of these influences changed his outlook on pretty much everything, though it didn’t change his personality.

“A lot of people don’t think religious people are cool,” said Yosef. “I am one of the cool kids, but I am also religious.”

He changed his name to Yosef – which was his middle name – ”in order to convey the message that there is no line dividing cool and religious,” he said.
His friends say that whatever has changed about him, Yosef is still a fun person to know.
“Yosef’s growth from a wild child to a religious Torah chacham [wise person] has been an amazing experience to be a part of,” said his close friend and fellow junior Josh Einalhori.

“There are aspects from the old Justin’s character that I do miss, and there are aspects from the new Yosef’s character that make me proud to be his friend,” said Josh. “But I feel Yosef has enhanced his personality.”

Yosef lives in Westwood and attended public schools until eighth grade, when he transferred from the LAUSD’s Paul Revere to Shalhevet’s middle school, then in its final year.

“So I had no idea what Jewish orthodoxy even meant,” Yosef said,  “and then when I came it was like, what is this kippah?  What is this tzitzit?  What is this davening? …It was only child’s davening, 30 minutes, but it felt like three hours to me.”

Rabbi Feinerman’s class, he said, opened his mind to a different view of what he’d been experiencing. Going from an unstructured environment into a religious one with so much structure made Judaism seem extreme. But Rabbi Feinerman made Judaism seem right down the middle.

“It was a funny class,” Yosef said. “A lot of topics were based around sex and it just catches your attention.

“Also, something that came up so many times was that Judaism is a religion that focuses on the middle, not the left extreme, not the right extreme but on the central path,” he continued.

“It showed me that there’s a lenient side and a strict side and Judaism is the perfect balance of both, and that really resonated with me, just because I went to school with the one extreme.”

Rabbi Feinerman, who currently works at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Pennsylvania, remembers Yosef as a happy student who was always full of excitement.

“Constantly smiling,Yosef brought a positive energy to the classroom,” Rabbi Feinerman told The Boiling Point by e-mail. “He seemed to always be enjoying the discussions and taking them to heart. He was always asking questions, trying to figure out how to apply Torah to his own life.”

At NCSY, which he joined to make friends, Yosef met hundreds of Jews his age. He says it allowed him to connect not only to the Jewish religion, but also to its people.

And then there was the famous Jewish reggae artist, Matisyahu.

“During my vulnerable state, God introduced me to Matisyahu,” Yosef said, explaining that he was inspired by the way Matisyahu confidently sang to the world while maintaining his Judaism.

More than that, when he was home from school because of his suspensions and struggling with who he was, Matisyahu offered him a positive way out.

“During all of my suspensions, everyone looking at me like a huge troublemaker made me feel uncomfortable,” Yosef said.  “His lyrics about olam haba [the world to come], not fearing anything if one believes in God, and how to better yourself, really resonated with me.

“Had I been listening to rap music and pop music about sex, drugs, and alcohol, I would have taken a totally different path. I know that it was min hashamayim [from heaven] that I was introduced to Matisyahu.”

Yosef’s home life has also been affected by his change, and his mom, Mrs. Maggie Nemanpour, said she’s had to change her kitchen and cooking practices to honor beliefs she doesn’t share.

“We have had to adopt our home to the newly religious Yosef,” Mrs. Nemanpour said in an interview. “Everything is now strictly kosher. We do not mix milk and meat, and everything has an OU.”

But she’s also very proud of her son.

“Most families in Shalhevet are structured in a way where parents and children all practice [Judaism],” she said. “Yosef is an original case, because he adopted Jewish values on his own. His religious change came from within himself.”

His friends have found it inspiring.  Junior Yan Kligerman said it was interesting to note what changed in Yosef and what has not.

“Yosef’s rapid and abrupt change has been personally moving,” said Yan. “In 9th grade, Yosef was a troublemaker who I recall teased someone excessively. He was, however, still a fun guy to be around.

“Now, Yosef is more open to people and is willing to befriend anyone. But on top of that, he is an extremely entertaining person to be around, and I feel that is why Yosef’s popularity has skyrocketed.”

Maybe it also has something to do with Yosef’s innate mood. On a recent day at school, students were walking along the halls, some seeming happy, some not.  But Yosef looked as though he’d just won a lottery.

Hopping every step and wearing a smile that formed nearly an acute angle, he answered a question from a reporter about his mood.

“Baruch Hashem that God has blessed us with this wonderful day”!” Yosef said, and strode merrily off down the hall.

This story won 2nd prize in the David Frank Award for Excellence in Personality Profiles of the 2014 Simon J. Rockower Awards, given by the American Jewish Press Association.