Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution made them exiles, the Persian Jews of Los Angeles are split in new ways by an old question: how much to hold on to religious and cultural traditions forged in a country that now hates them
Nessah Synagogue, the most prominent Persian synagogue in Beverly Hills, was founded in 1980 as a congregation in exile led by the son of Hakham Yedidia Shofet, the chief rabbi of Tehran and scion of a rabbinic dynasty that stretches back 12 generations. As the name Nessah—eternal in Hebrew—suggests, the congregation’s purpose was to pick up in California where Iran’s Jewish community had left off amid the chaos of the 1979 Islamic revolution, maintaining a clear, unbroken line to a set of traditions and practices that date back more than 2,500 years. “You can take the Jew out of Iran,” the synagogue’s website announces, “but you can’t take Iran out of the Jew!”
The Iranian Jews spent two decades as the Cubans of Los Angeles: a tight-knit community living in exile, in many cases fabulously wealthy or entrepreneurial or both, plopped down not in some far, unseen corner of the city but right at its commercial and cultural heart, resisting any move toward assimilation while they waited for the tide to turn back home. Jimmy Delshad, the former mayor of Beverly Hills and an unofficial spokesman of the Persian Jewish community, refers to it as “the suitcase mentality”—as in, ready to go at any time. But that fantasy of return is long gone. Now, within a few miles of Nessah, there is a Chabad Persian Youth center, an Orthodox synagogue and school called Ohr HaEmet, and the Iranian Jewish Senior Center, all featuring prominent multi-lingual signage. “Their kids have grown up here,” Delshad says. “They know the kids would never go back to Iran.”
Nessah today occupies a 60,000-square-foot neoclassical temple a few blocks east of Rodeo Drive, where Yedidia Shofet’s son and successor, David Shofet, conducts services in Hebrew and Farsi, from a bimah in the middle of a high-ceilinged thousand-seat main sanctuary. Aging men in charcoal gray suits with white shirts fill the east side of the room, while their wives sit to the west. That is the part of Nessah that its members describe as “traditional Persian.”
No one knows what to call the services in the event hall on the other end of the block-long campus, where on Saturdays a charismatic young Lubavitch rabbi from Miami Beach named Menachem Weiss leads prayers in English from a standard Modern Orthodox text. Here, the worshippers are Jews who identify as Persian but are also unequivocally American. His congregants are the children and grandchildren of Shofet’s original flock, people who grew up in the United States, who live their daily lives in English, and who don’t want to or simply can’t follow services in Farsi. Even in the ladies’ room, where mothers whisper to their toddlers, the lingua franca is English.
Now adults, they are the first generation of Persian Jews to come of age outside their country since the time of the Babylonian exile. More Persian Jews live in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world—an estimated 45,000, roughly twice the number remaining in Iran. They have homes in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and Encino; they have Ivy League degrees and work as doctors, lawyers, producers, and bankers. The names of the community’s most successful members, the brothers Parviz and Younes Nazarian, adorn the city’s major synagogues and centers at USC and UCLA; Younes’ youngest son, Sam, is a nightlife impresario who has been profiled in The New Yorker and who made the Los Angeles Times power list in 2006 at 31. There is even a Persian “Bernie Madoff”: Ezri Namvar, a real-estate investor who owned everything from a Marriott downtown to a resort in Lake Tahoe and was indicted last fall on charges he stole $23 million from investors in his collapsed fund.
Marked by their complicated surnames and close family ties, the Persian Jews are—willingly or not—responsible for determining how much of the old language and customs will survive after their transplantation to Southern California. Many of Nessah’s members, including its board officers, have what they jokingly refer to as “dual citizenship”: membership at Nessah as well as at one of the large, mainstream synagogues nearby, like the Conservative Sinai Temple or Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple, where their children attend day or Hebrew school and have their bar or bat mitzvahs.
The community’s arrival exerts a profound influence on the Jewish culture and politics of Los Angeles, even as the Persian Jews themselves reshape their traditions to fit the American mold. “Persian, Jewish, American,” says Zvi Dershowitz, a rabbi who was instrumental in welcoming Persian Jews to his synagogue, Sinai Temple, one of the largest Conservative congregations in West Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the revolution. “It’s the three-legged stool.”
It’s hard, these days, to remember that there was a time when Iran was cool, a place where Elizabeth Taylor went to recover from her split from Richard Burton and before embarking on her political life with Virginia Sen. John Warner. In an American context, the Persians remained foreign and exotic even after they began arriving in large numbers. Their American pop-culture debut was in the 1995 movie Clueless, the writer and director of which, Amy Heckerling, spent months sitting in on classes at Beverly Hills High School. “That’s the Persian mafia,” went one line in Heckerling’s screenplay. “You can’t hang with them unless you own a BMW.” To people in Beverly Hills, the joke was funny because it was true, and because it lampooned both Persians’ extravagant materialism and their American counterparts’ disdainful fascination. The joke still plays: A lavish feature in W magazine accompanied by a Larry Sultan photo essay depicted a bejeweled L.A. Persian old guard in faux-Versailles mansions—the Shah Reza Pahlavi crowd—giving way to a generation of rich, nubile proto-Kardashians posing in their clothes in the rooftop hotel pool.
When the Persians began emigrating from Iran in the late 1970s, they encountered an established American Jewish community that was prepared to assist penniless Soviet defectors but utterly confused by the sudden arrival of self-sufficient and self-directed Jews who were relatively wealthy—wealthy enough to inspire genuine jealousy, the kind of jealousy that led parents to say nasty things in front of their kids and their kids to distill that into playground rejection. In Tehran, the wealthiest Jews had lived in the same neighborhood as the Pahlavis, down the road from the Shah’s new international ski resort; arriving in Beverly Hills at the height of the hostage crisis, they were treated like they had cooties. Sam Nazarian has recounted being called a “camel jockey”; his older sister, Sharon Baradaran, says one of her earliest memories in California is of being rejected in her seventh-grade folk-dancing class because she was from Iran. “Kids would say they wouldn’t hold hands with me,” said Baradaran, who now oversees strategic investments as president of the $30 million family foundation created by her parents, from an office in Century City where the parking lot is filled with Rolls-Royces and Maybachs. “Kids can be really mean at that age.”
It was a time of anti-Iranian violence and boycotts directed at Iranian businesses, and Jews—many of whom had been as unobservant and monarchist as their Muslim neighbors—found that being seen publicly in established synagogues helped them establish anti-Islamist bona fides, like wearing oversized chai necklaces or Americanizing their first names. “We were treated like terrorists,” says Ron Mehrdad, a 1980 graduate of Iowa State’s engineering program, who stopped using his Farsi name, Mehran, after sending out more than a thousand job applications and not getting a single positive response. Going to American synagogues was a way to signal they were Jews first and unwilling to be associated with the Islamic Republic.
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