Fashions Tahari: My heads in N.Y., hearts in Israel

More than 40 years ago, 6-year-old Elie Tahari, clutching a shoe-box, was crowded into an airplane cargo compartment along with his family and dozens of other Persian Jews desperate to leave Iran, where Jews were no longer welcome.

The shoebox contained food for travel and the papers he would need to begin his life in Israel. "We were sneaking out," Tahari recalled.

Now a renowned clothing designer who has outfitted Hillary Rodham Clinton and Leah Rabin, Tahari still has vivid memories of the ordeal.

He discussed his experiences after showing his collection at the new Bloomingdale's at Stanford Shopping Center. Co-sponsored by the designer and the store, the event was a fund-raiser for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation organized by the North and South Peninsula Women's Alliance.

"We probably got out of Iran thanks to the generosity of people like you," said Tahari, commenting about the United Jewish Appeal-sponsored mission called Magic Carpet.

For Tahari's parents, the airlift was the second time they moved to Israel. Wealthy and successful in Iran, but with rumblings of the rise of militant Islam and projected troubles for Jews, they migrated to Israel.

But they weren't able adjust to a lower standard of living, "so they went back to Iran and opened a fabric store," Tahari said. They remained for several years, ignoring persecution until their store was burned down. Then the family decided it was time to leave.

In Israel, they lived in tents. Some 20 years later Tahari was working as an electrician, when on a whim and with a free ticket from his brother, who worked for El Al Airlines, he immigrated to the United States.

Doing odd jobs, sleeping in New York City's Central Park and learning English along the way, Tahari was finally able to get a job of sorts in the city's garment center.

"I went from showroom to showroom changing light bulbs. It was a boring job, and the girls wouldn't talk to me," he laughed.

Wanting a "more exciting life," he first became a salesman in a boutique and then opened his own tiny French boutique on Third Avenue, where he began creating special items for the shop. His career as a designer was born.

Tahari maintains a close connection with Israel, visiting his mother in Ramat Gan, and doing charitable word for Akim, a rehabilitation organization for mentally handicapped children, which he believes is "one of the best in the world."

A spiritual person, he prays every day for inner peace and understanding. Still, he's not sure his prayers can do anything to improve the political situation in Israel.

"I'm not particularly happy about the last year," he said. "If I read the paper every day, I go crazy."

Even so, Tahari plans to return to Israel permanently one day, he said.

"My head is in New York, but my heart is in Israel."